World-Building: What Not To Tell Them

Today I’ve got a couple of things to talk about.

The first is a change in the two projects I’m focussing on at the moment. I’m putting Project Shuriken to one side for a little while. This is simply a practical function of what art is needed for each project, and the fact that I’m not yet happy with the stuff I’ve been doing for it. I have a specific idea for what it should look like, and I just need more practice to get it right. So, for the moment, I’ll put that down and go back to another idea that needs a simpler and sketchier style of art to illustrate it.

The other thing that I wanted to talk about today relates to how you approach your world-building.

When you describe your world to someone, you’re not going to be able to cover every last detail. This is actually a really good thing. And, with that in mind, I’d like to suggest that if you’re wanting to make finished products for a wide audience, you should consider the following.

There are three strands to this approach. Note that it is not a step-by-step process as you’ll be bouncing back and forth between these stages as you work. But I think that it helps to see these as distinct tasks within the whole:

  • Build the parts of your world that your story/game/whatever needs.
  • Hint at what is just over the horizon of the bit you’ve just defined.
  • Stop yourself from defining the rest of the universe.


1 Build stuff

This is the most straightforward: you have to define the parts of the world that your game or story will be set in. Only you knows what that is.


2 Hint at More

This is possibly the most entertaining bit. You’re going to tease your audience with intentionally incomplete information about what’s lurking just out of sight. Drop hints of battles or locations, people or events; but only hints.

The aim here is to mimic reality. In the real world, the road goes ever on, and there is always something just out of sight. Your audience is used to this. A world in which things are defined close up with nothing beyond is unreal and harder to believe in. Incomplete information is also more interesting and adds to the mystery. For example, you drop in a casual mention in passing of the Final Protocols of the Eminent Seers. What are they? Who has them (assuming they are written anywhere)? Who are the Eminent Seers anyway? And how are they involved in the disappearance of the 3rd legion (assuming they really did disappear).

A few careful hints can imply a much larger and much more credibly vague world than spending the same time on properly defining a few more pieces will.

Importantly, even you don’t need to know the answers to these questions yet, or maybe ever. You’re adding questions that don’t need answers.

If you have the time or need later, perhaps another story will explore the Seers in detail, or plot the route of the 3rd legion and reveal their fate. Or not. The function of these details at this point is simply to add a wider context to what you’ve done in (1) and to intrigue your audience. Worry about how everything links up later. Or never. See how things go.


3 Stop

This might seem like a non-task to you, but for me it’s possibly the hardest of the three.

Building worlds is fun. Finishing products and dealing with logistics and marketing is much less fun. It’s very tempting to hang out in the former while leaving the latter to another day, and this isn’t good if you want to get stuff out into the world and also get better at doing it.

Unless you’re making this all for your own amusement and nothing more, you’ll want to try and move forward with your project as a product and leave the extra world building for another day. It’s hard, I know, but necessary.

Stay strong.

Posted in World-Building | 2 Comments

World Pangolin Day

It’s today.

The reason this is relevant on will take a long time to wriggle out from under other projects, but trust me when I say that pangolins make sense.

Plus, they’re really weird and intriguing beasties anyway, so why not?.

Posted in Random Thoughts

Game Design: Where Do Ideas Come From Anyway?

Over the years I’ve often been asked where I get my ideas from. It’s a standard question that is often posed to any writer or designer. There are several ways to reply.

The most honest answer is to admit that I’m not 100% sure 100% of the time, but that I can perhaps get you in the right ballpark so you can discover the rest for yourself.

I don’t usually say that.

My usual two answers are either the simple and short, or long and complex, depending on the circumstances. I’ll cover these standard replies later. I want to start today by giving you an alternative answer because it’s probably the most important one, and the one less often heard:

“You’re asking the wrong question.”

Now for this to be true, I’ve got to have jumped to some correct conclusions about what’s behind the question in the title, so I’ll cover that first.

This reply assumes that you really want to know more about the game design process because you want to design games yourself. You’ve probably had a go already. Not knowing a lot about the process, you perhaps think that getting the initial idea right will make the whole thing run smoothly. If only you had the right idea then it would be easy. As I’ve had  the question and discussed it with the questioner several times, it seems to be a common fallacy. Well let’s stomp on that notion right now.

The initial idea is a tiny part of the whole process. Sure, there are better and worse ideas, and easier and harder ones to make into your chosen format of end product. However, in all cases, having the right idea won’t make the rest of the job trivial, and it often won’t even be a large part of the task. The truth of this is easily demonstrated by the many unfinished ideas for a project that every practising creative has: ideas are the easy bit. It’s the rest of the process you’ve got to worry about

So, like I said, the questioner has probably made this wrong assumption about the pre-eminence of ideas. Still, if you can’t come up with them then you’re going to struggle. So how do you?

Don’t get me wrong here; working off a rubbish idea isn’t a good thing. But every creative person I’ve ever spoken to about their work has always got way more cool things they want to do than time to do them. And they think of another half dozen during each one they complete. This is true of musicians, knitters, and sculptors as well as game designers and writers. Once you get into the right mindset you’ll be flooded with ideas.

So where do all these ideas come from? We’re back to my two standards answers.

The short answer is “anywhere and everywhere”. The long answer is the same as the short one with a bit more structured explanation added.

The short version is admittedly a bit glib, though it’s still probably a reasonable summary. Many creatives don’t really know where a lot of their ideas come from. At least, not so they could explain it in a coherent and step-by-step sort of process. In my view, this is because it’s largely to do with the subconscious, which is a closed room to your conscious brain. How it comes up with things is a bit of a mystery, so when asked for an explanation you’re left with trying to piece together a trail from the few breadcrumbs you can find. You can usually describe some of the genesis, but all of it? That’s uncommon. And the pieces that the idea is built from could genuinely come from anywhere. Could be something you watched (film, YouTube rant, discussion at a bus stop, cat falling off a table, snow falling) or read (book, instant noodle packet, side of a bus, tea leaves, divorce papers), or a taste, smell, or texture. Really could be anything. Keep your eyes open: there is potential inspiration everywhere.

Of course, you can always try to force ideas mechanistically, if you want. I don’t tend to find this necessary, though it can help on occasion. It is also a good way to get someone thinking in the right sort of way, and can help as a sort of training method. Maybe it will help you. Let’s look at some options.

The simplest way of having an idea for something is looking at what’s around and copying one you like. I’ll design a game about adventurers in a dungeon fighting monsters. Seen lots, played some, think I can do better. Copying the idea of a thing is easy, and not a terrible (or uncommon) starting point. By the time it’s gone through all the iterations it needs for a finished piece it won’t be the same anyway. At least, it won’t be if you let your own style come through.

The next level is to take the copy and deliberately add your own twist. You probably came to this idea one of two ways: either fed by your subconscious when it joins a couple of previously unrelated pieces, or by doing this by hand. For example, you watch The Abyss one night, and play Heroquest the next. The day after you’re putting something in the kitchen cupboard and you think “what if I had an adventuring game where the dungeon was underwater?

Alternatively, you can take things you like and mash them together: I like dungeon games and deck building so how about I combine them?

More involved mechanical approaches can be achieved by simply writing tables of each step and rolling dice. When you come up with a combination that sparks your creative juices you can build on that. Take odd combos and run with them: Gregorian Chant + Rap + Mountaineering…

However you approach it, at some point you’re going to have to enlist the aid of your subconscious. It’s way faster to make connections than your conscious brain, and it doesn’t work in series, which is what often causes dull and repetitive projects. The series process is usually obvious and many other folk will have trod that same path. Incidentally, this is also related to why two unconnected people can simultaneously have the same idea and the notion of an idea whose time has come. It’s to do with the cultural information which is fed into the random engine of the subconscious.

Anyway, I digress.

Where do ideas come from? If you’re not just copying, then ideas come from a making connections between previously unconnected possibilities.

What’s great about this is that it’s a learnable skill. I know some people who tell me that they can’t do it. However, I believe that it’s that conviction which is mostly responsible for holding them back. They can really. Same as drawing (anyone who can hold a pencil can learn); it’s culturally taught as some mystical ability. In reality it’s entirely learnable.

If you want to get better at coming up with interesting ideas, get a coin or a dice and try this as a starting point:

  • First, relax. There’s no pressure, and no being wrong: you’re learning a process. You can do this as many times as you like. The more you do it, the less you’ll need the structure as a prompt and the more you’ll be able to do it freeform.
  • Choose the sort of thing you’re going to do (board game, short story, or whatever you like. This process works with anything).
  • Pick a broad theme or genre that you like and know about.
  • Now, ask which of two options is going to be true. One should be very common, and the other rare. This question can be about any aspect of your project.
  • Bearing in mind the answer to (4), ask another question with a common and rare answer to build on the previous answer.
  • Ask another.
  • Keep doing this till you either find a good idea or find yourself too far down the rabbit hole. Change tack as often as you like. Stop whenever you like. You can choose answers, or ignore them. It’s a very fluid process and you’re in charge. However, don’t shy away from difficult answers. That’s often where the really interesting ideas come from.

At each stage try to give yourself options quickly without overthinking. Remember that you’re doing this for your own amusement and nobody’s telling you it’s right or wrong. Relax. See what happens.

When you need to choose between a common and rare option, toss a coin or roll a dice. Give yourself a 50/50 chance of either happening.

Also, at any stage you may find yourself full of more ideas. This process is just here to jump-start stuff, so if you’ve got your own motor running take it from there. You can come back to the formality of this process if you want, or not. Up to you.

You could combine two or three simple choices to get a very strong idea from which you build later. Combining two or three apparently unconnected things is often gibberish, but occasionally genius. My favourite example of this working well is The Great Escape movie + Claymation + Chickens = Chicken Run. It’s a strong initial idea which is inherently original because it is so odd.

Before I go I’ll give you an example. This digs down through a lot more than 3 steps, which you can choose to do or not. I’ll also keep to the same topic for a few questions instead of flitting between them as one would have needed to do to get to the Chicken Run example. Both approaches are valid.

  • Relax.
  • I decide that I’ll search for a board game idea.
  • My theme is a fantasy dungeon bash. D&D sort of thing.
  • First question: are the players going take the role of the adventurers (common) or the monsters (rare)? I flip a coin and get tails: the rare answer. Monsters. So, a dungeon bash board game where the players are the monsters.
  • Is it cooperative (seems the natural option for this), or competitive (less likely)? I get competitive. Yes, I really am flipping a coin for each step as I write this. I’ve no idea where it’s going. But each time I have to ponder where it could go, and the randomness is taking me where I might not have gone otherwise.
  • Are the adventurers abstract (common because it would be easier) or played out in detail (tricky)? Naturally I flip and get detail. This could be an AI card deck, for example. I should ask. But first, let me check. Yup, this coin really does have a heads as well.
  • Are the adventurers controlled by an AI (the obvious option) or something else (dunno what)? You’ve guessed it. I flipped tails the fourth time in a row. It’s the non-AI approach. Now I’ve got to think about what that means. How it can be done. My first thought is that it’s got to be the other players if it’s not an AI. It’s a little scary to flip on that topic, but let’s do it for that reason.
  • Are the adventurers controlled by the other players (my first idea for this) or something else? Yet another tails, which means it’s not my first thought. Oh how we laughed. This is giving the old grey cells a workout. To recap: the adventurers are not abstract, they are controlled and their actions are detailed. This is neither done by an AI nor the other players. My first five ideas are all really just variant AI systems, so they’re out. I think the only thing left is scripted. This is still sort of an AI, but I can’t immediately think of how else it could work. Maybe asking questions on a new tack will shake something loose. Hmmm… wait a second. I know how to do it! The player controls the adventurers too. That’s interesting. I wonder how that works…

And so it goes.

Why not give it a try yourself and see what you come up with?

Posted in Game Design Theory | 2 Comments

World-Building: It’s the Little Things

One of the things that varies between the Primary and Secondary World-Building (PWB/SWB) tasks I described earlier is the importance of details. This is due to the way in which we experience reality ourselves: in those details.

It's the Little Things

You absolutely do need to paint in the big picture of continents and kings, militaries and mega-corps, especially so that you’ve got your own head round the main themes and how everything fits together. However, when it comes to someone experiencing your fictional world, one of the primary goals is to make them believe in it. Never mind the scope or theme of your creation, the period or genre; if your audience don’t believe in it then you’re in trouble.

But that’s not all. Believing isn’t enough. You also want them to feel empathy and to be emotionally engaged. Ideally you want to create something so powerful that your audience misses meals as they can’t tear themselves away from what you’ve built. First things first though.

This level of engagement is very hard to do with the large-scale stuff as that’s not what most people engage with in their own reality. This is most obvious when you look at the characters who inhabit your world.

The people who your audience can most easily identify with are the ones most like themselves: probably not dragon-wrestling demi-gods. Assuming that most of us live relatively ordinary lives for our cultures, then the more dramatic, wealthy, heroic and amazing you make your heroes and heroines, the harder they are for your audience to empathise with, and the less suspension of disbelief and emotional engagement you’re likely to get from them. You need to bring these high-flying characters down to Earth. One way is to ensure that even your most heroic heroes have some mundane traits that anyone can understand: they sing in the shower, can’t resist a cake, or never miss an episode of their favourite cheesy soap. Or perhaps they are arrogant, take advantage of their friends, or are dangerously impulsive. You’ll know real people who show some or all of these behaviours and so will your audience. By including these facets and flaws in your fictional people you’ll give your real readers a solid reference to relate to, and make it much easier for them to believe in the rest of your tale too.

But it’s not just the characters in your world who have this issue: the world does too. Even the real world suffers from this problem of scale. Unless you’ve had personal experience of mountains or the sea, the scale is just too big to readily grasp, but everyone can understand a village pond, a hill, or a tavern, which is perhaps one of the reasons many fantasy games (especially RPGs) and novels include alehouses so prominently. They offer a ready location in which to give the reader a place to start their adventures. It’s somewhere they can empathise with, and feel at home in. It’s cosy. Familiar. Then, once you have your audience’s attention, you can branch out. Take it steadily though. Guide them through increasingly odd elements a step at a time. Allow them to learn your world in easily digestible pieces that won’t jar and break the immersion. Soon enough you will be able to retain their attention with flaming dragons and multi-dimensional alien worlds that would have been very hard to engage with from page 1.

By all means build yourself a vast and sweeping world to play in. Remember though, it’s the small details that sell the big picture.

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Slings and Arrows

Outrageous fortune has been plaguing me of late.

This is the reason I’ve been quiet for a week and transmitting only patchily before. The same plan is still in place; it’s just that I’ve been dealing with a greater than usual amount of farcical unpleasantness and it eats up time. It’s also required me to set up a duplicate office, which is wasting yet more time. That’s been most of this week, and it’s still not finished providing headaches. After I wrote one line of this post the mouse died (permanently, as far as I can tell). The rest is being written on my iPad.

So yeah, fun times.

I’m going to spend the rest of this week trying to get back to workspaces in which I can actually work. That means no post tomorrow. I’ve not had a chance to do much drawing this week anyway. Once I’ve put lids on all the foolishness I can this weekend, I aim to be back to my intended schedule of posts next week.

Apologies for the gap.

Posted in Random Thoughts | 2 Comments

Game Design: No Mercy

I’ve been working on Project Fishsticks lately.

Originally, it was a dice game. For the first playable version it was quite happy being a dice game, though it wasn’t yet good enough for my tastes. More work needed. So I added a couple of cards to make it easier to track things and offer some extra choices.

As the testing went on I added some more cards because the game clearly wanted them. Some tiles also became cards.

Before long the cards had taken over and the dice were looking decidedly unnecessary. They just stood in a corner, trying not to get in the way. I gave them an ultimatum: get useful, or get out…

Gold dice

Very bling, but they need to be useful as well as shiny. 

One thing that I’ve developed over the years is a willingness to let go of design elements that have outlived their usefulness. This is not how I started out. I used to be much more prone to keeping things in at all costs, and I will still fight hard to retain something if I think that it’s performing an important function. However, if it’s not tier 1 I can be sanguine about its loss.

Overall, the ability to stand back and see the bigger picture is a healthy and useful one for a creative person to cultivate. It’s well worth learning to ask yourself why you’re keen on keeping a feature that isn’t working when you notice yourself arguing for such a thing. There may be a good reason, but there’s often no more than nostalgia.

In my case, I put the game aside for a couple of days and then sat down again with a clear head and looked at what I had. Where would the dice could fit in what it was now? What it had been no longer mattered.

In the end, I came up with a much better way to use the dice, and they fit in very nicely now. Definitely worth keeping as a tool, even though the original mechanic they supported is nowhere to be seen (except in my notebooks).

No element of any creative project should be held above the whole. If it’s not working, either make it work or show it the door. Mercy is not a trait for creatives.

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Game Design: Double Vision

Been working on a new thing this week. Surprisingly, this isn’t me getting distracted and butterflying off; it’s actually a core part of my plan.

Working on a single project at a time, from start to finish, without a break, is not an efficient way for me to work. Many other creative folk I’ve talked to have said something similar, though this is not a universal approach. Incidentally, I slightly envy the people who are able to focus on a single project from start to finish without interruption, month after month without loss of enthusiasm, but only slightly. This is because I think that this monoculture approach is a suboptimal strategy for creatives, as I’ll explain.

There are several reasons you might want to have more than one project on the go at once.

The first is that any creative endeavour benefits from being put in your desk drawer and ignored periodically. Once you’ve got your first flush of ideas down and have battered it into a functioning draft, you’ll have a stage of testing and improving. That gradually loses steam, and this is when you can shelve it for a while. Not that this break needs to be very long – a day will do at a pinch. Longer is more effective though.

When you return you’ll be refreshed, invigorated, and enthused with new ideas to fix old issues. You’ll be better able to see the odd gaps, the rough edges, and the darlings that need murdering. If your work includes any text then your ability to edit it improves immensely for the fresh eyes you see it with after a break.

I’m a firm believer in recruiting my subconscious to help with work in a somewhat structured way. To me, my subconscious is like another person I can give awkward puzzles to and move on while they fix them. They may be unpredictable and scatty, but they usually come up with the answer I need in the end. The trick is to give it time to work in its own way, and preferably time when I’m not trying the same thing consciously. This makes swapping between projects very effective. When you get stuck on one you pose the problem to your subconscious and move on to the other project while your back brain gets to work. After a few days you return, and you are likely to find yourself with a slew of fresh ideas to tackle what had stymied you before. At least, it works like that for me.

Note that it’s better if this pair of projects is planned rather than accidental. This allows you to consider synergies and efficiencies of resources beyond your time. It also allows you to choose projects that complement each other in terms of time of type to make the most of the change from one to the other. I find it best if you pick two quite different projects to emphasise the change. It’s also better if you focus on a single project each day. Sleeping is a great reset.

So, the idea is to have two different projects on the go at once, and work on one of them each day. You already know the working title of Project Shuriken. My second project is currently rejoicing under the codename Project Fishsticks. More of that soon.

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