Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Keepers in the Dark: Lessons Learned (so far)

A recent post detailed the 48 Hour Mega RPG Jam, which this author entered. Voting has now concluded (Keepers-in-the-Dark placed 16th!), allowing me to update my entry for the jam.

I am going to keep posting this horrid logo until I make a different one.
This post was begun about a week ago so has undergone some revisions, as a consequence of  the psychic fermentation process. It is now skewed much more towards analysis of general design principles, which I think makes it more interesting (ha! as if I have any idea what is interesting!)

For the uninitiated, it is time I confessed: I am actually a professionally trained designer! This will come as an incredible surprise to anyone who has ever laid eyes upon one of my drawings (just as the fact that I presently earn a living as an English teacher is likely to cause apoplexy in anyone who has ever read anything I've written), but believe it or not, I actually have a degree and postgraduate qualifications in a professional design discipline and have received a regular salary from a real company for designing things. I know! The world is truly inside-out.

I mention this because I am truly astounded by how little of my training and work experience came in to play during the creation of this game during the jam itself.

The previous paragraph was a major breakthrough for me: I realised that my approach to game design has been, up until this point, not been as a designer, it has been as a "writer". Quotation marks are here applied with extreme prejudice against a deep (false) assumption on my part: that writing and design are two mutually exclusive activities.

Consequently, I approached the jam the same way I typically approach writing: the blank pages were  approached with no plan other than faith in my own confidence and the passage of sufficient time to produce something interesting. Naturally, the result was an incomplete and confused mess, with a few good (although well-hidden) ideas.

Had I approached this with my landscape architect's hat on my head, the story would have been very different. My design methodology begins by identifying the problem, and appreciating that the deadline is also part of that problem: from the outset, structure and organisation are already established as integral elements of the design solution.

It is only now becoming apparent that a similar approach to creative writing could be extremely rewarding (and will be carried forward into the upcoming NaNoWriMo).

One thing that threw a spanner in the works was the need to codify the increasingly bloated game mechanics. I do not think crunchy rules are necessarily the enemy of the type of gameplay I enjoy (namely, old school, which generally errs on the rules-light end of the mechanics spectrum), but the rules bloat did form an obstacle in this instance because:

  1. Rules take time to write and, working on a strict deadline, lighter rules would have made more sense.
  2. Regardless of the level of complexity, rules should always add flavour to the game, and make sense within the context of the game's paracosm.
The latter point is what struck me as missing from the rules document: where additional layers of complexity were successful is where they added flavour to the game (death and dismemberment, for example). On the other hand, the unnecessarily complex encumbrance rules too a great deal of time without adding anything meaningful to the gameplay or the world in which the game is supposed to take place. Compare the latter example to Patrick Stuart's encumbrance rules in Veins in the Dark: not only does it make organising carrying capacity an essential part of the game, inventory slots are tied to all the ability scores (apart from charisma), emphasising that the character is really pushing themselves to squeeze as much as they can from their limited capacity. 

Additionally, the most successful rules were described in a style befitting dungeon-dwelling scum,  making it an almost in-world document and tying the mechanics (albeit tenuously) to the setting.

While I think the level of crunch in Keepers in the Dark is problematic for the reasons outlined above I am not of the opinion that a crunchy set of rules always curtails player agency. When I make a second pass at KitD there will be some bits chopped out but most of the mechanics will be moved.

The issue of rules and player agency seems to me to be a matter of how much is presented up front to the participants in the game, and how much knowledge of the game is necessary to play it. For KitD, a player with any experience of a dungeon-crawling RPG need only be granted a quick introduction to the premise and then shown how the D12 dice pool mechanic works. Additional rules can be explained on the fly.

Compare that to a game like 5th edition D&D: while the rules are superficially lacking in complexity, players undertake to invest time in learning their characters abilities in tactical situations. Despite supposedly shying away from the crazy character-builds of 3.5e and the tactical complexity of 4e, the game still maintains elements of both.

So my argument for complexity in play is just for a more robust set of DM facing rules: not to hide them from the players, but to provide a framework upon which the DM can base their rulings, with may rules being optional.

Two of the many great teachers from whom I have been fortunate to learn helped me to  comprehend the importance. The first teacher explained that without a deadline, nothing gets finished: everything can always be improved.

This fact was hammered home by the second teacher, a friend and former employer of mine who also performs poetry. While he was always pressuring me to meet deadlines in order for us to collect the client's money and spend it down the pub, he also left me with this quote which has been attributed to both Auden and Valery:

"Poems are never finished, they are only ever abandoned."

This is true of any creative endeavour: at some point, one just has to walk away.

I'm not quite ready to walk away yet...

In its present form, the raw ruleset needs to have dungeon generation rules outlined, a few spells and rituals added, and a few notes about monster creation, hazards and traps. Of course, the game will still suffer from all the faults already mentioned, but then its when phase 2 will be initiated.

Phase two will be the second pass over these rough notes: to reorganise and re-shuffle.. in other words, a hard edit. After that, layout and illustration.

Originally, phase one was scheduled to complete by the end of this month. That is no longer viable, and with NaNoWriMo looming, means that the beginning of Phase 2 will probably get postponed to mid December.

It's been an enjoyable journey, but that journey is far from over. Please stick around to see where the next leg will take us.



  1. I am interested to see where it is going.

    Speaking of deadlines, I agree they are very helpful but how to establish a deadline where you are your own boss, so to say?

    1. It's hard for me to reply to this without feeling disingenuous as there have been more occasions than I care to mention where I've allowed self-imposed deadlines to slide. Indeed, the above project failed to meet the a very public deadline, and I'e likewise been lackadaisical in my adherence to Inktober... Ultimately, any personal project involves some degree of bargaining between the you now, the you that started the project, and the you in the future, and only one of those people really matters. Collaborations and commissions motivate us because we're not he only person who's going to get let down by a missed deadline.

      While it does finally come down to self-discipline, there are a few tricks that can be useful. Something like the Game Jam mentioned above provided a deadline which, if missed, would have no real consequence, but it functions in a similar method to a low-stakes collaboration, there's an element of shame associated with failure that can be a strong motivator!

      Essentially, promises made to other people are harder to break than to yourself, so it becomes a matter of involving others in the creative process in a small way, and one way to achieve that is to do your creating in public (via a blog, for example. Incidentally, Blogger also has the very useful scheduling feature, meaning you lay down the structure for the post and set a time and date for it to be posted).

      Finally, setting an arbitrary date as a "first draft" or "0.1 edition" can also work, as it means you can focus on just getting the core ideas down and refine or extrapolate later.

      ...but as I said, I'm terrible with deadlines... I just appreciate their value.

    2. I was able to make Inktober on time last year but not this year. I think last year it was because I dared myself, to see if I can do 30-days-no-missed-days in principle; but this year, because I already know I can it doesn't seem to be as important to do everything and on time as it was last year.

      As for the date for '0.1 edition' did you have the situation where the self-imposed deadline approached and you couldn't release even this very first and visibly draft-like version because it still was too raw?

    3. I posted it, raw and unfinished. Yiu can see it on itch.io (actually the '0.3 edition')

    4. I am reading through it, actually.
      What I wanted to ask was rather 'Did some project (KitD or another one) made you not release it even if it was in a more-or-less ready-raw state, because it still wasn't good enough to be shown'?
      For example, the self-imposed deadline approaches, and you see that everything could be done so much better if only not to release now but give it a bit more time. And then this 'a bit more time' becomes 'a lot more time' and the thing is never released.

      Thank you for your answers (this and the initial one). What you said about bargaining between selves is a good thing to think about.

    5. Oh right, yes I have, many times. I've got about 5 fully playable RPG Maker (as in the Japanese CRPG creator) games in various states of completion. All of them were begun with quite solid, interim deadlines were pushed back further and further until they were abandoned.

      I wrote novella in competition with a friend: we set a six week deadline to each complete a gonzo literary erotica story of at least 20,00 words (we'd read Beautiful Losers, Story of the Eye and Enfants Terrible at the same time so it seemed like a fun idea). The deadline arrived and I panicked that mine was either tame or too on the nose, and breathed a sigh of relief when my friend requested an extension. I kept working on it until it became clear my friend had not done anything, and then I felt to ashamed to share it.

      My final postgraduate project was also a victim of this: I actually re-sat the entire module because I was so dissatisfied with it, at great monetary cost. The second attempt was only marginally better, but I stuck it out and passed (with merit, though mainly due to my performance in other modules). I still felt it would be able to say or mean something, and kept tinkering at it until I moved to Vietnam.

      So yeah, quite a few times. But it's a flaw I'm working towards eradicating.

  2. (I tried to make RPG Maker game once, but it required so many custom scripts I don't even know if they are possible to implement).

    If I may ask, how to you fight this kind of situations? I am finding that setting deadlines in the case of personal projects doesn't work because I just keep on pushing deadlines away; involving other people in personal projects (so there is a responsibility) doesn't work either.

    1. (I was so afraid of that happening that I tried to do everything with events and that created its own chaos)

      So at the risk of repeating myself a) I feel a little bit pompous dishing out any kind off advice and b) a hypocrite because I am renowned amongst those I work with for my horrible tardiness and c) this is a discussion about RPG design and I have a negligible record in this field and finally d) once you start bargaining with your past and future selves the game is already rigged, as I said above but...

      Bottom line is you are in control and you have to critically evaluate the reasons for you procrastinating. Three main ones are:

      1. Real life
      2. Boredom
      3. Perfectionism

      So 1) is unavoidable, but you have to be honest with yourself: are the events of your life genuinely preventing you from hitting a deadline? Still worth considering if 2) and 3) apply to you, in an entirely non-judgemental way.

      2) Are you bored with the project? Does the distance between what you have now and the desired end goal seem insurmountable? Or have you just lost interest in reaching that goal? If the latter, shift the work you've done in to your slush pile and start again with something new. You can (and will) recycle those ideas later. If the the former, just suck it up and do what you have to do. There's no easy way to say this:you either want to do it, or you do not.

      3) Perfectionism- I refer you again to my teacher, AJ Liversedge: without deadlines, there's no reason to finish anything. EVERYTHING CAN ALWAYS BE BETTER, but until you release your design into the wider world, it is almost worthless. So let your malformed, incomplete mutants run free, see what response they garner from the (un)friendly locals, and modify the next batch accordingly.

      Shit, this is why I preface such responses with verbose disclaimers: they inevitably start to assume the tone of hypocritical self-help spiel. I am the last person to lecture on deadlines, I just advise you to work on things that you really love, but don't guard them jealously.

    2. Oh yeah and have a look at http://goblinpunch.blogspot.com/2014/07/how-to-be-creative-also-blobbins.html

    3. Sofinho in the Labyrinth (Alone), I appreciate you giving me time and advice I asked about. I apologies if my questions were imposing upon you in any way.

    4. Absolutely no problem! I'm really sorry to leave you hanging,i was certain i'd already replied. It's been great to get a bit of conversation going here, the main reason I do this is to create some kind of dialogue (albeit about things if specific interest to me)