Friday, January 4, 2019

The First Step Down The (Game Designer's) Road

I assume that only GMs read my posts, but just in case … Spoilers for Changing Seasons! 
Inspiration to make a new game setting can come from anywhere, especially if you’re talking about mini-settings. Pint-sized PDFs that can inspire a whole campaign. 
This month, I created one pretty much by accident, but first a journalism history lesson. In newspapers, stories have an “inverted pyramid” format with important broad strokes up top and descending down to less important details last. Most people assume  this is so you can read the first paragraph it you are in a hurry. 
The truth, though, goes much deeper and is rooted in different bits of technology.
When the telegraph and early telephone were around, reception sucked and lines could go down unexpectedly. If you didn't send the important news first, you had half a story. 
Not only that, but in  the last decade of the 20th Century New a paper layout was literal. You laid out strips of news stories on a page that already had ads at the bottom. If a story can too long the designer could Trim it to fit, safe in the knowledge that The last paragraphs were a minimum loss.
The lesson being that technology and formats highly impact what writers  do. As you can see, I changed the header of the Changing Seasons adventure in just under a day.
We went from:
(Left header) Cypher Adventures, (Right header) Fantasy
(Left header) Emperox's Road,  (Right header) Changing Seasons.

In a lot of products, the left header is for the name of the game line or the current book if it's big enough to have several chapters. If you open your Cypher book, you’ll see that format. 
For keyword searches, Cypher Adventures maybe a great idea, but it’s not very exciting. I needed something that sounded cool, might inspire me for further adventures and be distinctive. I already had an adventure in mind that involved some sort of changeling and doppelganger, so that eventually inspired the title fo the adventure itself, Changing Season. 
That made me think, what could further enforce the theme. Cicadas were a random thought and suddenly, I had giant, body-snatching cicadas. After that, the adventure pretty much wrote itself. 
That still didn’t solve the “Left Header sucks” problem, though.
The weather in Florida is going from life-sucking humidity to pleasant-to-be-a-human cool right now, so I’ve been taking walks and doing some of my thinking. Walking by the road, I think about what it would have been like to walk down an ancient Roman road back in the Middle Ages and BAM! I now have the idea using a road network as a mini-setting. And a lot of others would have left it at that, as a slight nod to real history. 
Part of world building is asking, “What’s next? Why is this thing really important?”
In a world filled with supernatural danger and far from civilization, would a paved road really be that much of an asset? The road would have to be something special to make it worthy of being the centerpiece of the setting. 
Thus, the Emperox Road has each cobblestone inscribe with a glyph or a rune, warding the road not only from regular wear and tear, but also (allegedly) the supernatural. To a vampire, crossing the road would be like crossing running water. 
You notice that I threw in allegedly. If it’s one thing that gets RPGs and GMs in trouble, it’s absolutes. Once players think they have immutable law in the game world, they will try to use it to their advantage, which is great. But when such things go from clever thinking to routine crutch, the game experience can start to suffer, either from the silliness of the cliche to outright boredom for everyone at the table. (This bit is highly subjective. Perhaps the silly bit becomes the in-joke everyone loves.)
So there’s a short paragraph in the adventure that insuiates that while the Emperox’s Road can general protect you, or even a town from minor supernatural dangers, there’s no guarantees. Stronger entities can muscle their way in. Parts of the road are failing or that it’s all superstition anyway. 
Regardless, the glyphs do nothing for mundane bandits, murading armies or Bugbear chieftains.
The lonely Emperox Road also give a sense that most places are their own, bits of civilization just barely connected to other bits with long stretches of wilderness in-between. For GMs, this is a great set up for running adventures without sweating local politics. It’s also great for a game designer because it means that adventures can be pretty much stand alone, no need to set up a large scale map and also increases the odds of a GM’s impulse buy.
So at this point, you can sort guess that when a writer or game designer says that inspiration can come from pretty much anywhere it’s an understatement.
Changing Seasons hits DriveThru in December 2018.
Love what you’re reading? Not only can you get the Cypher goods early, but also discover exclusive
early 5e content, world building and related fiction on my Patreon! You can also check me out at


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