Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Rules Process -- Torn Armor

Enough about point sizes and Natalie Portman. I promised you guys that I'd talk about the next step in the Torn Armor process. One of the things Alyssa Faden promised was that I could talk about her process, warts and all. There are enough glowing articles out there that are really all about marketing. Monte Cook does a great job blogging about his process on Numenera, but that's from a creative point of view; he's also a pro, so I recommend you go over to his site if you want to see how one of the very best does this (it's here:

Alyssa Faden and Jack Cull, the people behind Torn Armor, are inexperienced newcomers feeling their way through the process of publishing a game. And it's not an easy kind of game either. They're making a board game. That means boxes, components, fulfillment, warehousing. It's an order of magnitude different from typing up a roleplaying game. This makes them a perfect example for other newcomers who have dreams of half-million dollar Kickstarters in their heads. So it's kind of the them to allow me to discuss their process, and perhaps help others out.

Alyssa works a day job, doing something software related for some computer thing. Which is to say I really didn't pay attention to what she said, because she'd said "computers" and "software" and I tune out when I hear those words. I just want the magical typing machine to work when I turn it on. I don't care how it manages to funnel pirated movies to my screen. (Wait, what?) The key thing here is that she's also a manager, so she knows about profit and loss statements, budgeting, and employing rats as HR directors. You don't necessarily need to know this stuff, but one of the key skill sets Alyssa brings to the table is that she knows the importance of scheduling and managing a process.

Her partner, Jack Cull? I don't know what he does, aside from eat her food and drink her drink. I think works for a hospital, or something. I paid no attention. (Oh, and when I say "partner" I mean it. Miss Faden is taken, so you can stop fantasizing about dating a geeky woman who draws game maps professionally and likes Godzilla movies. Also, she has a gun.)

So they cheerfully send me what is supposed to be a work-in-progress on the rules for Torn Armor. They want me to look at it with an eye toward three things: 1) organization and information; 2) grammar and style; and 3) focus. In layman's terms, they want me to make sure all the rules are there, and that they're clear. They want me to read over the language and fix it (and dress it up). And they want me to make sure the product does what it's supposed to do. In short, they want me to keep an eye on the process, both as a game and a product. They want me to do what I typically do as a line editor and production manager.

I opened the document and read. It quickly became apparent that they'd done a few things wrong.

First, Jack wrote the rules while looking at another miniatures game. Now first, before I get 20 messages on Facebook telling me how important this could be, how useful it is to know what other miniature games had done, and how they'd done it -- and you know who you are -- I agree with all of that. I'm not talking about that. I don't know a game designer out there who doesn't have a firm grasp of what other games do and how they do it. I keep a friend, Mark Carroll (Hi, Mark!) close at hand because he's like a walking encyclopedia of games. He's like Rain Man. "1d6. 1d6. Definitely falling damage is 1d6." Nor am I talking about plagiarism. Jack organized his thoughts while looking at another game. In short, that means there were key pieces missing from his rules, and the organization was wonky.

What may work for another game may not work for yours. Don't assume. Maybe discussing turn order is just the trick for one game, but makes no sense in your game. Sure, the other game started with turn order. However, your game uses a lot of hinky rules that have to be defined first. Next, you may forget to include something, because if the other game doesn't use armor, for example, you might a) forget to include your armor rules or b) have no idea where you should put your armor rules (because you're mimicking someone else's organization).

Second, the document had over a dozen special abilities detailed. I knew how to handle a phalanx in the game. I read about pouncing attacks for the monkey-thing army. I understood how barrage attacks worked. Only problem was, I had no idea how the game worked. There was no central mechanic. I knew there were dice, because the text mentioned dice. I knew I had to take armor into account, because the Phalanx special ability told me so. But I had no idea how one mini attacks another mini, and how to resolve that attack. I had no idea how I purchased my army in the game. I didn't even know what stats the armies used. That's kind of a problem.

I knew those rules existed, because they'd told me they'd been working on this for 18 months. Whatever information, whatever rules, were in their heads hadn't made it to the page. This is a danger all of us face -- we just sort of assume that people know about which we speak. I see it all the time. Writers assume that gamers are gamers and know what a saving throw is. But if you don't tell them there are saving throws in the game, and how they work, they'll never know it.

And now we get to Alyssa's freak out.

See, having managerial experience, she had a sense that something wasn't quite right. And even if everything was peachy-keen, she knows enough to double-check and provide a backstop. We exchange a few messages (through Facebook messaging, have you heard of Facebook?) and it becomes clear something is wrong. She wants to know what I'm doing, and why I'm not working. Why am I pushing Jack to write? What's up with the urgency in my tone? We end up talking past each other. The tone of the conversation became.... tense. Like the smart woman she is, she called to clear things up.

I told her I'd start working when I get a game on which to work. I can't work with just cover rules and special abilities. "You have no game here" is what I said. What do you want me to do? I can't write the game for you. Trooper that she is, she said she thought that's what the problem was. She took a look herself. Saw what I was talking about. A solution was found.

That solution turned out to be pretty easy. Create an outline for the game. I talked to Jack for two hours, and explained the importance of having an outline, and how to create one. Great guy that he is, I had an outline in my inbox the next day. Since then, I've had another version of the outline. The rules look great. Once he had a blueprint for the game, he could easily see what he'd written and what needed to be written.

And that's what I'm going to write about next. The outline.


  1. Warts and all or not, I love reading these things and I am perfectly happy with how we are being portrayed. Not only is it honest, but I am not reading "Laurel & Hardy." Yet. =D

  2. I could make it more "Laurel & Hardy" but I am at least trying to be informational here. I could tell them that most of your decisions are made over a bottle of wine, and that you shout across the room at Jack to refill your glass. Yes, I heard that in the background of our last phone call. =P