One of the things that’s been entering my mind recently as I work on Hammercalled and playtesting is how differently I approach the topics of writing for a game versus writing for a published product. With a handful of exceptions, I’ve never published a setting that I’ve been playing in at the time of publication. That’s not because I’m against sharing my work (like this, the campaign I’m going to start running Hammercalled in in a couple days), it’s just that I don’t think it works as well.
And I have a few reasons why I choose to work on settings devoid of running a game in them, since I know this goes against the prevailing industry wisdom.
One of the things that having a non-published setting does is it really allows you to be creative.
There’s no freedom like being able to test the waters.
And when you’re running a game at home, you can throw all sorts of stuff into the pot and see what comes out when you’re done cooking. If you’re playing with friends, you should see a fairly authentic reaction to your worlds, especially if you encourage openness.
At the same time, however, you’re working with a fairly small target audience. I write a lot about using archetypes in storytelling, and a lot of the games that I run riff on archetypes and references to literature and stories. Sometimes this pays off, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Compare this to a published setting, and you’ve got a few issues ahead of you. For starters, there’s a huge push not to experiment. Now, I’m not anti-experiment–if velotha’s flock says anything about me, it’s that I am very willing to experiment.
However, there are times when you want to experiment, and times you want to play it safe. Hammercalled’s core settings generally fit to what I consider “safe” choices. This is because I’m going to be pouring a lot of money into it, and I don’t want to have people say “interesting system, weird world, I don’t like it.”
That’s a bit cowardly, perhaps, but I’m in a situation where Hammercalled could be make-or-break for me. I’ve invested a fair amount of my personal savings into it, and while I’m not starving or anything it’s money that I could have used productively elsewhere.
Something like velotha’s flock is low budget and is as much an exercise in self-improvement as a moneymaker. It’s practice to hone my skills.
Compare this to Unsung Gods, the setting I’m making for my campaign.
It’s very fractured, because I’ve just focused on the things that interest me and the things I expect will interest my players. You can tell it’s a setting I made because my fingerprints are on a lot of the things.
It’s basically a masked invective on the immorality at the heart of humanity. I don’t know how well that would do at market (maybe it’ll be something people really want to see, and I’ll make it a formal setting for Hammercalled, but I think it might be too much of a downer–and I want to create games that give hope).
Clarity and Meaning
One of the things about writing for a smaller group is that you can really personalize it. You don’t have to worry about how your work is going to impact every person who sees it.
You can, however, inject meaningful situations.
Now, I’m not a huge fan of trying to preach and moralize in games; I see nothing wrong in making a point, but your goal isn’t to create a certain way of thinking in your player (or at least it shouldn’t be).
One of the great things that you can do when writing for your friends is reference shared experiences and use the game as a way to process them and break them down.
On the other hand, gaming is an increasingly global enterprise. With Hammercalled I don’t want to create a bunch of things that appeal to people who grew up in the same place I did, went to the same school I did, and so-on-and-forth.
I want to create something more universal.
The distinction between this universal and local design is important. You can have more profound answers when you answer smaller questions. When you scale up to universals, you run the risk of boiling everything down to dichotomies and dualism, which is not necessarily bad in and of itself but is not what I want to do every week for entertainment.
Experimenting with Systems
One of the things I’ve noticed in the majority of games I’ve run in my own homebrew campaigns is that I’ll tinker a lot with the system that we’re running on.
Sometimes this works well, but it really works wonders when you’re using your own systems or a system you have intimate familiarity with.
Creating a world and trying to bring it to life in mechanics can highlight deficiencies and shortcomings. Do this with a great system, and you’ll enjoy a lot of progress, however.
I’ve got a theory that the reason why we roleplay with games is because it helps us come to a peaceable agreement of what happens next (that isn’t particularly controversial) and that as a result it’s important to have systems that can directly integrate elements of a setting.
They don’t necessarily have to be custom-tailored, but they should be fairly full-fledged.
The other element of this is that when you try a new setting you break yourself out of old pathways, which is important. Having too much of a focus on one setting means that you can create inflexible systems, which then locks your players into doing just one thing.
Have a system that can accommodate variety, and you’ve made a good design.