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The Creation and Mutation of the Role Playing Game “Escape”

Escape is the first game I will complete and publish. At the time of posting this article I am writing the final draft. As a fledgling game designer it’s a big step. For better or worse this is the first impression I will be leaving with the role playing community. I’m happy with it but it isn’t the type of game I thought I would have created. How does a game change from conception to completion? This is a question that has come out of creating this game and it also makes me wonder about the direction of the rest of my games to come.

Starting with a bit of back ground for my design goals. First, I found out that you should have design goals. I don’t know where the desire to create RPGs came from or exactly when the urge hit me but about a year ago I found myself doing a lot of research on RPG design. One of most common questions to new designers was, “what are your design goals?” So this is where I started with game design. I started writing design goals for various game ideas that I had. I took one of those games, the one that I thought was going to be great some day and started putting a lot of time into it.

Then I got stuck and overwhelmed. I had nothing playable and I wasn’t making any progress. I needed a change of pace and about this time the 200 word RPG contest was getting underway. I thought I would give it a shot.

I found the idea of designing a game with so much restriction very intriguing, “200 words! How could I not finish?” I started thinking of games I could write. I looked to media for Inspiration and something popped into my head, Mantracker. A TV show with a very simple concept of a chase through the wilderness. From this came my design goals:

1. A game about a chase. 2. An open setting. 3. Short play. Something people can play as part of their game session while waiting for others to arrive or after some have left.

I was off to the races and my first snag was 200 words. I soon realized that I couldn’t make this game in the 200 word format. Either the game wasn’t suited for the format or I wasn’t skilled enough to make it work, probably the latter. Regardless of my failure to make 200 words work, I liked how it was shaping up and I was happy making progress so I continued with it and didn’t bother with the competition.

At first I used a more traditional format. There was a GM and the rest of the players would be either the hunter or one of the prey. In the original iteration the actions, resources, steps, turns and resolution mechanics are quite similar to what they are now. The GM would narrate the setting and present obstacles for the players to overcome and the prey would either make it to their destination or they would be overcome by the hunter and captured. It fit the design goals and I was ready to see how my play groups would respond.

I brought it to some of my groups and gave it a try. The set up worked good and the players were into the game but once the play started it fell flat. I wasn’t able to create any tension and the narrative on the players side was almost nonexistent. As a relatively inexperienced GM I found myself in a trap where the tracker ended up going through the exact same challenges as the prey. I played with multiple groups and the outcomes were very similar. When I talked to my play testers the most common response was it felt like a board game. That response really got me down.

I was struggling as a GM and I realized the game wasn’t helping me as a GM. Design challenge! I had a problem, this is what game design is all about, now how do I make it work? I was happy that I had a problem to work on but soon found myself stuck. I couldn’t think of how to codify GM rules and advice to give the game tension and build narrative. I struggled thinking of ways to make the narrative jump out while keeping the prep for the game low.

By this time I had probably spent more than six months calling myself an amateur game designer and had not put out anything that I could even call a game. Designing RPGs is something that I want to be good at, I want my ideas to go from crazy in my head concepts to something I can share with others to enjoy. Having not gotten anywhere with any game was very hard on me because I really enjoy the design process and want to be successful (create something playable and enjoyable).

I was fortunate to have an opportunity to talk with Adam Koebel and I brought up the road block I was having with “Escape”. I described the game to him and what was happening when I played it with my groups. When I was done he said something like, “that sounds like a two player game.” This was not the extent of our conversation but it is what really stuck out for me. It got my mind rolling again. I sat down for a couple of hours and had a new draft of the game. That draft felt like the game that was going to work.

I played it with a friend, and we liked it. We had fun. I was a little surprised, I was expecting a flop but that didn’t happen. Of course there was tonnes of problems with it. The length was too long, the balance was bad and the writing was often confusing. Regardless of the shortfalls there was something I could build on and I did.

The next bit was a blur, in not too long of a period I had play-test documents and started to try and get them distributed. Of course I was play-testing as I was writing, both with friends and on my own but blind play-testing was difficult for me.

I have no online following, I started by posting on forums and for every forum I posted on I got 1-2 comments after people had read the game but I was getting no feedback from anyone who had played a game. I was fortunate to have Adam help me out again by posting the play-test documents on twitter and that got quit a few people reading the documents but even after more than 150 people grabbed the game only 2 people who played the game gave me feedback and about a dozen people who read it gave me feedback.

I don’t know if I was expecting more people to respond but I was definitely hoping to get more people playing the game before I published it. I will have to consider how I distribute play-test docs in the future.

What seemed to come back most from the play testers was confusing writing and imbalance. The writing I could deal with pretty easily I could make the changes I needed, without too much effort but the imbalance disappointed me.

Of course I didn’t expect that it would be perfectly balanced but I was hoping I would get enough play-testers to help me find all the imbalance. However with so few play-testers giving feedback it was up to me to try and figure it out.

I had to play a bunch of games. I would play 50 games and record the results then make the changes to the actions that I thought they needed. I did this three times before I got to a point that I was happy with. That took a lot of hours and was something I wasn’t expecting to do when I started the process. I dread the possibility of playing hundreds of rolls of RPGs on my own to try and balance each rollable action in my future games.

This brought me to my final draft. A two player, shared narrative, hunter/prey game of chase. Like I said in the beginning, I’m happy with the game I made but I’m still surprised at the outcome.

Something that I ask myself is, “am I surprised because I didn’t write my design goals very well?” If I had included goals such as, “there should be a traditional GM” and “play should include 3-5 players” I probably wouldn’t have created this game. Since those seemed like such a given to me I didn’t bother to include them. However without them there I could make the game what it needed to be.

In retrospect my design goals may have been too broad, not giving any real direction to the game. However since the outcome is something I feel works there may be some merit to the goals as they are. This is only looking at one game so I wouldn’t recommend taking any hard and fast rules about design goals from it but it will be an approach I will use again in some cases. If I have just a seed of an idea I can start with broad goals so as not to limit or constrain it before it even has a chance to grow. I can always revisit the design goals and if I don’t feel they are clear or specific enough I can add on to them.