Monday, December 26, 2011

Game Design Tool: The Note Card Trick

Note: The following technique for idea development is a variation on my Original Note Card Trick, available in its natural form when you start writing a novel. This version is modified heavily to reflect the complexities and scope of game design.

Go get some note cards. I prefer the standard size, but in a pinch you could use the larger recipe size, or even cut squares of paper. The idea here is that you basically have little boxes to write in (don't use Post-It notes, they stick together and that's actually another technique). As for the number of cards you need, start with at least 24. The most I've ever seen used in this technique was 150, but you should be okay with a few dozen.

They do not have to all be the same color, but if you're the sort of person who wants uniformity in their development, then try and make them all white. Or blue. Or whatever color makes the voices stop screaming in your head.

I'm assuming you have blank cards here or at least 1 side is blank. Please take the top three off the pile you have and label them:

"Players" "World" "GM"

Over the course of this lesson, you're going to fill these piles with the appropriate information. Yes, you're going to write up to 3 statements per note card (If this is your first time, do one to a card), so that it fits into one of these three big categories.

Now, I know what you're thinking - Isn't this just a recopy of the Feel Document? To which I answer - No, if the point was just to make a Feel Document, I wouldn't be teaching other techniques, would I? Do not 'crib' from the Feel Document whenever possible, as you need to start conceiving of those ideas in variable and multiple ways. Also, this is one of those times you get to expand on them.

Note: You don't have to do this all in one sitting, and in fact, if you can, then maybe you need to spend more time thinking and developing. This is as macro and/or as micro a style of creation as you're comfortable, and rushing through this is only going to produce shoddy work. Take your time, the care you put in here is critical to your finished product.

Let's start with the Players pile.

This pile will contain all the facts, data, instructions and chunky bits a player would need to sit down and play the game, from the moment they have it in front of them. You're going to want to be objective about this, as if you're answering the question, "And what can you tell me about players in your game?"

So, the Players pile will have things like:

  • character creation rules (or if your game doesn't really pick up until after the players do that, you can just call it "character creation" and move forward)
  • any opening gambits the players enter into upon introduction of the game (does everyone wake up on bus? Are we all on a crazy Grecian riverbank holding 2 coins? Or is this game pretty variable?)
  • The number, names and types of races/character-types available to the players (are they just tokens on a board? Are they all humans? Are they all mutant animals? Do you offer them 40 different species and 50 different classes/professions?)
  • What's the first thing the players will do when they start the game? Also consider what's the first thing YOU want them to do when they start playing?
There's no plot in the Players pile. There shouldn't be, anyway. And in advance of your next question, do the players NEED your plot desperately in order to act? Even in a board game where all they can do is roll a die and then proceed, they still have options. Plot isn't a player requirement. (It's actually a world requirement, which we'll talk about next)

This is the setting of the game, the created-world experience, and all the NPC details that exist concurrent to the players. Yes, the players may be noobs, but the rest of the world isn't, is it? It might be Tuesday, the Eight Day of Flooglefog, and the Eve of Saint Carlos' Day. The world still spins even if the players aren't there, I hope you realize. This pile is also objective, and addresses the question, "What's the world like and what's the plot like?"

Note: If you're developing a board game, your World Pile may just have 1 card called "Board Game" in it. 

The World Pile will contain things like:
  • The time-period of the setting
  • The technological complexity of the world
  • The name of the supervillain bent on conquering [insert city name here] by way of [insert name of insidious device here]
  • What sort of weather does the world have?
  • What sort of gods or belief system does the world have?
  • How literate is the average NPC?
  • What's the population breakdown like, by percentages? (40% Caucasian humans, 30% dragon cyborg hybrids 30% awesome living sound monsters, etc)
  • What's the badguy trying to do? Why? How?
Here's the trickier pile. This pile is a combination of mechanics, written out, as well as feelings and desires you want the GMs to have/convey/understand. Just like most games, this is the pile you don't really need the players to see, but this is more the "behind the screen" side of the game. It answers the question, "What does the GM know that the players don't?"

The GM pile will contain:
  • A breakdown of the basic rules for conflict resolution and skill-checks
  • A summation of sample combat
  • A sentence describing how the players should feel during or because of combat
  • The mood the GM should convey when describing the overarching world-plot.
  • The mood the GM should convey when the players throw a monkey wrench into the plot
  • A few alternate mechanics for resolving the player-instigated problems
  • A sentence describing the overall "difficulty" of the world for the player(s) (How forgiving is this world on its inhabitants?)

By now, I've lost some of you, because I've tried to convey in text what is for some people a visual progression. So here now, for the sake of the confused, are some sample cards. Just imagine boxes around the next paragraphs.

  1. Start on a boat, in messy rumpled tuxedo/party dress
  2. Stats: Strength, Smarts, Sass, all 2d10
  3. 1d4 personal items in a pocket/purse
  1. The sun hasn't shone in twenty years.
  2. Time measured in days/weeks/years
  3. Most people enjoy parties
  1. [Name of Game here] is roll-and-keep, d10s
  2. The plot advancement of the game is tied DIRECTLY to what the players discover
  3. Game "mystery" elements should feel like old 1930s films
Each of the nine items listed above could go on their own card, and likely should, if you're new at this or if you're trying to be more thorough. 

You could stop here, and use these piles to help your writing and development, and put together an excellent product with many layers. Or you can go one step further, deeper into the development and start tying these threads together. 

What I'm going to explain below you'll do to each pile, but I'll just explain it once, with the Players pile.

Group like-minded ideas together, usually by common idea or term and label the card.

So the Players card above I'd label "Starting Characters" (I'd label either the top or the reverse side if it was blank) because those are elements that come into play at the start of the game. Try to avoid numbering the cards or organizing them obtusely, as these cards are more for your constructed benefit rather than a run of numbers. Having them labelled like that allows for other techniques to be applied, but at the very least, this gives you a sort of loose confederation of ideas as to how the game operates. 

You'll find this time-consuming initially, but I promise you this won't distract from getting your material developed.

Hope this helps you, if you have questions, please ask.

Happy writing.