Friday, February 8, 2013

Defining the Work

First of all, we have some housekeeping to which I should attend. This site has added two more regular readers in the last few days. I'm not sure where you come from, but welcome. That means this site is up to 14 subscribers. If this keeps up, we'll have to move our annual meeting to something larger than an elevator.

Second, some of you may notice that I'm shilling for Torn Armor. I'm not doing it because I'm involved in the process (though I am), but because Alyssa Faden has been kind enough to agree to be used as a practical example for my advice to you, warts and all. That's pretty brave of her, considering my tendency to be brutally honest and swear a lot. Also, she's all about being used.

Wait, what?

Anyway, as I said in the previous blog, Alyssa sent me her product brief for Torn Armor. She wrote it to hand out to contributors, so everyone would be on the same page. She calls it a "production brief," but the rest of us call it a "production bible." Just like the real bible, this document tells you what's allowed and what's not. It defines every element, so that guy in Topeka doesn't send you the sexual habits of monkey-things for a miniatures game. You gotta watch those guys in Topeka. And yes, the game has monkey-things.

The production bible for Torn Armor was fifty pages long. Single spaced. There was all kinds of information in that thing. Months of the year. Lunar cycles. A bullet point list of every major event in the history of the world. There was a demon lord, and a lich king, and warring gods. It was really cool. I could've played that production bible as a roleplaying game. No joke.

And that's not a bad idea, either. It was clear that Alyssa and Jack Cull (Hi, Jack!) had put a lot of thought and work into their setting. Unfortunately, it's not what was needed.

You've got to remember the product's purpose. Alyssa fell down on that in three ways. First, this was an internal document for production people; it didn't need to be this detailed. Second, unless we're going to get to play with the lich king and his army, it didn't need to be in the document. He's not going to be in the box, so he doesn't need to be in the production bible. Don't get me wrong, it's good to know he's there, waiting, and that Alyssa and Jack put some thought into fitting him into the setting. We're not doing a roleplaying game, though. We're doing a miniatures game, with two forces in the box.

Let's put that last point differently. Unless the phases of the moon have some impact on game play, it doesn't belong in a miniatures game.

The third thing Alyssa fell down on was that she lost sight of what her setting was about. There was all this stuff, all competing for attention, but there wasn't a sense of the central conflict. Why are all these kingdoms fighting? What do they want? In other words, she was focusing on the trees, not the forest. it was like kudzu had grown up around the core idea (to continue the horticultural metaphor).

Buried deep in the document was the idea that her world had gone through several ages, from Golden Age to Iron Age. That the previous ages were more magically advanced, and they'd left ruins all over the place. Now that's a cool idea. A sort of post-apocalyptic fantasy world, where everyone was fighting over the rubble for cool magical stuff. It was shades of Empire of the Petal Throne or Gene Wolfe's New Sun series. Not, strictly speaking, an original idea, but one that hadn't really been done in this way.

Then again, I love pretty much all post-apocalyptic settings.

Getting back to the point. Her production bible had too much for the product she was making, too much information for creatives to absorb, and too much to let her core idea shine through. She didn't whine about it when I told her. She didn't try to justify her decisions. She didn't defend herself. She took it like a champ. And Alyssa is all about taking it like a champ.

Wait, what?

She rolled up her sleeves and started hacking. She cut that bad boy down to a tight 20-something pages.  She focused on what she was supposed to.

This is a good example of focus. What is this product supposed to be? What is it doing? How much is too much, and how much is enough? Alyssa had the good sense to know she was in over her head, and lost focus. So when it's time for you to start writing your game, I hope you start with a design bible. Define not only what the product is, but what the game is about. Those are really two separate things. This way, you'll know when you've gone far afield.

Next up, I'll discuss the next step in the Torn Armor process -- Alyssa sends me a rough draft of the rules, and has a small panic attack.

1 comment:

  1. LOL, I'm digging these articles and I'm not sure why. I think it's because I was - and am - there, I've seen the light and I understand the before and after.

    For those reading this - straight up now - I was opkay with my project brief, but I wasn't happy with it. Big difference. After Ross worked with me on paring it down, I was *proud* to hand it out to bloggers, interested parties and the rest of the team. I felt it had focus, a message, and was easy to understand. While I wanted - and still want to - share the rest of the world and characters, there will be a time and a place for that. HERE Ross' input enabled the important characters and the game to shine without the background noise.