One of many “ashcans” we produced for Honour before getting anywhere near the final version.

So we started at a grand, elevated and strategic level where we came up with design goals, conceptual areas and the purpose of the game. Then we moved onto sharing those ideas with another person (in my case Mike is that person) and seeing what concrete practical ideas start to formulate.

Now it is the real work, the nose-to-the-grindstone stuff.

Once I have that solid idea of what it is I think I need to make, I begin to look at the various systems and mechanics that I can use to model the ideas.

I do this one of two ways.

The first way is the time-honoured tradition of “why design it when you can steal it” and the second is “let’s make a completely theoretical mechanic and then tear it down and build it again”.

The first is less immoral than it might first appear, the person I steal off tends to be myself, going back to an existing system and seeing if that can be adapted or developed or extended so as to bring the new game into a practical state. Of course it is always worth looking at other design solutions from other designers, just don’t run around telling everyone that you engineered a beautiful solution if you actually based it on someone else’s hard work; like any other piece of work, give credit to the originator. In Honour we built our combat system on the genius of Mark Pettigrew and his wonderful Flashing Blades RPG of the 1980s. We’ve tried to tell everyone that, and encouraged folk to look up the original game. We’ve even tried to find Mark, to thank him for the inspiration, but to no avail (if you know Mark, or know of his current existence, please, pass on our regards and point him towards us, we’d love to say “Hi!”)

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The second way is fun.  You basically try to come up with a simple way to model an element of the game.  In an RPG, the main areas are Character Creation/Development, Task Resolution, Conflict Resolution (Combat) and others (like magic, robotics, holding your breath, whatever – stuff specific to your game reality).

Again, for me, this involves other people.

And those other people are: local bloke-about-town, esteemed poet, social butterfly and gifted “I am into the details of the design!” person.  You see, I kind of like details, in so far as they pop into my head, but that’s about it, then I move on.  Vish is the guy who loves the details.  He wants to spend time ranking and calculating and differentiating and doing all of the stuff that, frankly, drives me crazy.

So this third part of the design/making process tends to go like this:

  1. Dom comes up with an idea.  He shares it with Vish.
  2. Vish ponders the idea for a while and then asks careful questions which achieve two things:
    1. To apply a necessary amount of scrutiny to the idea.
    2. To not make Dom feel like an idiot for the initial (and usually deeply flawed) idea.
  3. Dom answers the questions, has revelations, Vish bounces off those revelations and Dom scribbles notes in what might be described as “a disorganized manner”.
  4. Dom goes away and consolidates all the ideas, questions, answers and new inspiration from the session and attempts to write some rules/system from it all.
  5. Return to 1. Repeat as necessary.
Qalupalika in development

Okay, so that might be a little of an over-simplification, but not much of one.  The reality is, of course, that this is a long and not always perfectly smooth process, but it goes back to what I have always said about games design, it isn’t about dice, or stats, or systems or experience or imagination or genius or any of that.  It is about hard slog and the team you get together.

Anyway, Vish and I, and increasingly Mike, will go through this cycle over and over, sometimes regarding large game concepts such as combat or task resolution, sometimes on details, such as the names of various factions in the game.  Every now and then we will take part of the design out into the wild to see how it fends for itself without us to guide it.  This is the play-testing part and it is just about the most important thing you can do.

We “play-test” everything, from names of NPCs or organizations to the character creation system.  We play-test, we listen, we watch, we make notes and then we take a break.  For me it is important to have some space between the direct feedback of a play test and the consideration of that feedback.  I love constructive input, it’s great, but I also find that if I address it hot off the press, I can be a little on the defensive side, trying to justify my initial ideas and decisions rather than understanding the tester’s point of view.  After a break though, even just a few hours, the feedback can be design gold!  The other thing about play-test feedback is that it keeps you focused on your audience, the people you want to play with and pay for your game.

And that is what we do for the next few months, share and remodel ideas.  We test things out and make changes.  Then I try to write it all down.

Next, the endgame.  Editors, layout artists, 300 dpi and cover art.