There are many qualities that are advantageous when developing games. An understanding of mathematics. A background in drama and philosophy. Historical perspective. Innovative ideas on play. The list is as long as my arm. But one that I have become keenly aware of is unity of vision. It’s more of a concern when you have multiple designers all struggling to form ideas around the kernel of a game, as we tend to have. But concerns over unity and coherency are ever-present even for the single developer.
Do Not Go Gentle has been causing us fits to design primarily because not one of us has a clear idea of what we want to do with it. We know some things that will be true of the game when it’s done, but without some central shared vision to build on, we’ve been at a loss to make significant headway. It started off as a zombie panic game, but then transmuted into a game about the last days of one’s life, and then loosely to something inspired by Ghost. Without a firm idea of what we’re trying to write, we can’t construct mechanics or even really know if it’s worth building.
Which is not a problem we had with In a Dragon-Guarded Land.
When we decided to write up Dragon—which (if you believe it) was called Destiny in those days—we all had such passionate acceptance of what we wanted to make the game do that it was hard to even capture the ideas as they came out. The quintessential experience for Dragon was to be an epic hero, balancing on a crumbling cliff, opposing a villain whose mere aura of malice could cause open wounds to appear on lesser mortals, and refusing to allow evil to triumph because land, friends, and home hung in the balance. Once we had that vision we could refer back to this concept as we developed all the other pieces of our game.
I think all great games have some core experience that they’re built around. For example, in My Life with Master, I think that experience is to be ordered to cause some grievous harm to the same townsfolk one awkwardly tried to reach out to and to then plead with the GM in vain using one’s best Igor voice. (“But Master!”) The rest of the mechanics all flow from that core experience. Find the core, and you can find anything else out by comparison.
Lack of a core experience is, not coincidentally, why I think that most “bigger” games—Shadowrun, GURPS, D&D, Rifts, Exalted, and the like—suffer from a lack of coherency. Without a unity of vision that’s communicated and used to shape things around the core experience, you get a diffusion of ideas which ultimately hurts the final result. Some of these started out small enough that the design was easier to communicate. First edition D&D, for all its warts and craziness, was fairly cohesive if you played it as an episodic wargame-like dungeon crawl. Beyond the Supernatural was a lot tighter than Rifts (which frankly was probably dead on arrival.) Shadowrun was tight enough conceptually but its mechanics were not edited with that concept in mind.
I think one can develop a big system without suffering this loss of coherency if it’s done carefully and intentionally. Take Paranoia. Except for the fifth edition, which was pretty much disowned by the creators, the tone of this franchise and its play experience have been maintained despite over two decades of development. Paranoia isn’t what I’d call “crunch-light”—but the mechanics have always played into a sense of futility, desperate survival, and macabre humor, and the writing has strongly favored that feeling over any sense of trying to get the system right.
Recently, we’ve been working on a game that is, as Jason Morningstar would say, at the intersection of cyberpunk and noir existentialism. In one evening, we managed to get the core concept down, and then mechanics sort of just happened. We kept building on what we had, on what had to happen from a mechanical basis to make the game real. It’s still far from even a rough draft, but it’s way better developed than Gentle has ever been because we have something we’re building to.
It’s exciting to see it happening again.