My Secret Game Design Agenda

Sometimes I wonder whether I really am, or should be, a game designer. Mostly this is because its difficult as hell writing a game from scratch while also going to graduate school and working multiple jobs (even though they’re easy jobs for the most part). But there is also something behind that.

I don’t really have many even semi-original ideas. Most of what I’m writing and doing is in response to things I don’t like about other games. If there was an audience for hacks of existing games, I would do that in many cases.

For example, there are some “new” things about Parsec – that is, a few things that aren’t just lifted from other systems, as so many elements of any given game are. But some of what is in Parsec is driven by what I don’t like about Burning Wheel, or about Shadowrun. In some cases, I have systems in a game that are, in my mind, almost comments on other games, saying “this is how I would do it”.

I’m working on Horror! because I’ve only had one horror RPG session actually scare me, and that was mostly due to the skill of the person running it and the very high buy-in the players had. Ostensibly, we were playing Kult, but we were using modified World of Darkness rules from Vampire 3rd edition and adding a lot of elements of Mind’s Eye Theater, as well as a lot of excellent set-up by the storyteller. So what we’re trying to do with Horror! is to make a game that actually scares us, rather than, say, Call of Cthulhu, which generally grosses me out at most.

I love running Mage games (Ascension, not Awakening as much), but when I do I have pages of house rules. I essentially re-worked the entire ‘magick’ system to get rid of the many, many loopholes and exploits that are in it, to give some of the Spheres a more defined identity and function, to make Paradox and Quiet and Resonance and Marauders more interesting and coherent, and so on. When you get down to it, its a different game. But not different enough to actually be another game. Its a Mage hack, and that’s all.

To a lesser or greater degree, I’ve been working on Epic Dawn for years. The original impetus behind it was two friends of mine and I realizing that the magic systems in epic fantasy games out there sucked. They didn’t make any sense – and they weren’t anywhere near as interesting or well-developed as real-world occult beliefs. They were absurd and arbitrary in most cases, with the possible exception of Ars Magica, and in that case the game has a lot of setting specificity that is limiting. So we started creating an epic fantasy game from the magic system outward, with a few little nuances like making it a game set in a fantastic Bronze Age Egypt/Mesopotamia rather than the massively overdone European Middle Ages. This began in 2002, and I still haven’t found a fantasy RPG that has a satisfactory magic system. For the most part, they’re still pretty atrocious. Of course, I can’t talk, because Epic Dawn isn’t done, and may never be done, so I’ll have nothing to back up my claims.

I have to keep in mind that I can’t just take other ideas and tweak them. That isn’t enough. On the other hand, every game system steals rampantly from other systems, meaning they’re all derivative of something else. Turtles all the way down. So I can still design games, and have my little commentaries hidden in there too, I hope. The idea, I suppose, is to make it so they’re not so obvious.

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