There’s just no getting around it – if we didn’t have folks like TSR and Gary Gygax inventing good old Dungeons and Dragons back in the day, we just wouldn’t have modern video gaming as we know it now. There is a direct causal line from the original Tactical Studies Rules from 1973 (and many wargaming rulesets before that) through to modern titles like Mass Effect and even World of Warcraft. Roleplaying, with its pens and paper and character sheets and all that crazy make believe, has given the world a hell of a lot.
And I’m a huge fan of it.
There’s currently some interesting campaigns being run on the forums, and the topic of great game systems always comes up with impressive regularity. In fact, in a recent thread on DnD, I suggested that I should start blogging a campaign I was starting up. Sadly, that campaign died; but if there’s one thing that my mind is always inflicting upon me, it’s a near un-ending set of inspirations for gaming. And given I’m lucky enough to have an outlet for such nerdy ponderings *gestures at Atomic* it seems as good a reason as any to devote a few virtual column inches to the process of creating and running my next big RPG project.
Like real game design... but smaller!
I’ve always thought that there must be a lot of parallels between designing and then running a campaign and pitching and then developing a video game. Having spoken to quite a few developers over the last few years, I think it’s a pretty good comparison. Sure, there’s a massive difference in scale; it’s generally a task that one person can tackle, and if it fails all you lose are a handful of afternoons that were likely fun enough anyway, as opposed to needing a team of hundreds and the loss of failure equating to some small countries’ gross domestic product. Otherwise, the process is essentially the same.
First there’s inspiration, then there’s research, then you talk to other gamers to float the idea, then you get down to actual design work, which hopefully translates, eventually, into an ongoing game that makes a lot of people happy. And by a ‘lot’ I mean anywhere from two to a 102, depending on the kind of game you’re writing. Hell, if you’re doing for an actual publishing house, then it could be making many thousands of people happy!
Me? Well, this time around, it’s pretty modest. I’m only looking to entertain six of my friends with the campaign I’m currently working on. It’s gone through the inspiration and research stage, into the talking bit, and I’m now in full on design mode.
Oh, and it’s pretty damn nerdy, even for me. It’s a Star Trek game, one that’s going to be fully propped. Yeah, I’m going there – but what’s inspired this particular setting?
In the beginning
I’ve actually run two Star Trek games before, and I’ve written a few well-received roleplaying convention modules in the setting as well. I’m a fan of Trek (as some of you have probably guessed), and it’s always lent itself to a good roleplaying structure, and is a very good setting for both new gamers and for telling very involved, very emotional stories. Plus, it has giant space battles and some pretty neat SF tech; it’s really quite perfect.
This time around I got the bug after stumbling on a CG artist’s blog during some random web surfing. He’s a big Trek nerd, too, and he’s lovingly rendering a couple of starships and an entire space station of his own design, and then posting about each new render and shot. It is stunningly detailed stuff, and given he’s a big fan of one my favourite classes of Trek starship (the non-canon Akyazi class perimeter action ships), it got me thinking about Trek as a gaming setting again.
One of the things that any campaign needs is both a coherent setting, and a good structure. Take your average DnD world, for example; you’ve got all your standard Tolkien tropes, a standard good/evil cosmology, a Feudal society, and – most importantly – an over abundance of monsters for players to kill. Sure, there are many games that eschew that kind of setting, just because it is so clichéd, but clichés in games are powerful. I could sit someone down who’s never played DnD before, tell him or her that they’re going to pretend to be a knight for a moment, and then ask them what they do when their Lord asks them to go save a village from a band of Orcs... and they’ll know exactly what’s expected, they’ll know what an Orc is and why it’s bad, and they’ll know that, chances are, there’ll be a reward at the end of the day. It’s very important to play with and even abandon that structure from time to time, but you’d be surprised how many DnD players keep coming back to just that style of game.
This where I think the parallels to video game design come in, because the question a good games master (or dungeon master, or storyteller, or whatever) should always be asking themselves is ‘how will the players react to this world?’ In the same way a developer must always think of the player first, so must the GM. Both can be as clever as they want, but if no one’s playing... then the game, of either kind, just isn’t working.
Star Trek, love it or hate it, has a LOT of structure. It’s a setting that’s evolved over five decades to become one of the richest in science fiction, and that’s a huge advantage. Like the example of the marauding Orcs, I can say to even a neophyte gamer that the Borg are attacking a Federation outpost, and that gamer will have a good idea of not only what I’m on about, but also why it’s bad, and what should be done about it.
With this structure also comes a ready short-hand for all kinds of stuff. It’s great to get creative and come up with your own setting, complete with unique and new monsters and places, but it can be a real chore to teach your players. There’s a famous joke about a GM telling the player that there’s a gazebo in front of them, and the resulting confusion, and it pretty much explains the pain I’m talking about.
You see, with Orcs or Borg, you don’t get that. You can skip describing the badguys, or starships, or whatever, and get straight to the meat of the story *around* those things.
Finally, there’s a great framework for where the players fit in, and how they interact – it’s called a bridge crew. It might sound as though having ranks and such defined positions could hurt the free flow of the game, but trust me, it adds so much more drama and conflict. There’s a lot of reasons that the show ran so long, and in so many formats, but one of those is the inherent combinations of the simplicity of having everyone one in a command hierarchy, and the complexity of how those people deal with the hierarchy.
Plus, the uniforms look good.
So that’s why I’m going with Star Trek. Next time, I’ll take a look at just what kind of campaign I’ll be running, the system I'll be using, and why I’ve chosen the period and particular location, and how I'm going to bring it to life. Later blogs will look at the creation of characters, how to work with your players, and then, finally, get into some of the actual story-telling of the first few sessions.
It’s a big galaxy out there...