I Ran So Far Away returns with the second part of his series about the development of his role playing add-on, The Savage World of My Little Pony. Last month, his first installment discussed the genesis of his RPG total conversion. The second installment discusses his breakthroughs in redesigning the game to be a little more pony.
Upon arriving at the point that I was ready to write The Savage World of My Little Pony, I flew to my trusty computing machine and opened a word processor, ready to fill the blank page before me with all of the ideas bouncing around my head. Unfortunately, it is never so simple. Find out more after the cut.
The Lowdown on Game Design
For those of you who have never designed your own roleplaying game materials (which, I would daresay is most people), the process is a rather curious mix of disciplines: you must have the exacting command of legalese of the lawyer, the elegance of a writer, the knowledge of balance and mechanics of the exacting gamer, and overall the ability to write simply and efficiently that few possess. Even in my case, where the game’s basic mechanics were already laid out in a core rulebook, the process is daunting. Every new rule, every character feature, every stipulation and option has the potential of running rampantly out of control and spoiling the game’s balance in one fell swoop. You must have variety, but not so much as to defocus the game. You must have options for players to build up their characters, but not so much that it becomes confusing or narrow. You must have flavor text, but not so much that it drowns out or muddles the mechanics. And of course, it all needs to look good. All of these things constantly weigh on your mind as you write, and it makes for a lot of work and worry.
Balance is another issue which constantly moderates your decisions, and the most apt way to describe it would be the classic trope of the tiny angel and devil sitting across from each other on your shoulders. You must be able to imagine the extremes that any rule or ability can be taken to and account for them, because if there is a loophole or exploit in the rules, someone will abuse it. Wording must be precise and easy to understand: in this way, you must constantly check what you are about to write against what you have already written to make sure you have not left the back door open. It is quite easy to write some exciting new set of character options and the rules for them, only to later find out how much of a headache getting them to work will be. At last, you must do math: even in a simple game like Savage Worlds, there are mathematical considerations to be taken into account all the time. With dice added into the equation you must have an intuitive understanding of the probabilities involved, which is further complicated by the different types of dice used in roleplaying games, from the lowly four-sided die (abbreviated as ‘d4′) to the ubiquitous twenty-sided d20. Going back to the extremes, you have to crunch the numbers with various possible options to make sure you aren’t creating a new monster or way to gain an unfair advantage over other characters or the game itself. A character could have a small bonus here and a tiny modifier there, but if these add up they can really pile up and throw all of your carefully planned numbers off-balance like an overloaded washing machine.
At the same time that you are designing the mechanics of a game, you must make sure that the game ultimately fits the source material. In this way, the way the game works should reflect the game’s setting and that setting’s special needs; the mechanics of playing the ‘game’ aspect of the roleplaying game should feel as if they and the game’s setting interact smoothly and seamlessly. Needlessly clunky mechanics, mechanics that are too vague or too specific, or ones that have no place in the setting are what to avoid. For example, the popular roleplaying game Call of Cthulhu features the players investigating strange and terrifying mysteries of H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘Cthulhu Mythos’, routinely coming into contact with horrors that gradually or dramatically tear away at their sanity. Each character has a statistic that tracks how relatively sane they are, and coming into contact with the various supernatural horrors will gradually reduce this more and more until the character reaches a zero-point, when they are finally, irreversibly, and poetically driven insane by their experiences. The Savage World of My Little Pony may have opportunities for some scary situations, but as the majority of the game would be nowhere similar to Call of Cthulhu, it would be a needless burden to include the kind of detailed rules for charting sanity found in that game when the simple ‘Fear roll’ mechanic included in the Savage Worlds rules would suffice.
Finally, the game must have ways to build the characters that the players want to play, while at the same time forcing them to work within the limits of the game. There is a fine line between writing a character as part of a story and making a character for a roleplaying game: characters in these games are limited by the game’s story and moderated by the expectations of the other people playing the game, and must create characters within the boundaries of what can be represented mechanically. While someone might want to play an all-powerful alicorn or a dragon, it would certainly be an unfair situation for someone whose character is a mere earth pony or pegasus. In my experience and in most games, having wildly disproportionate characters makes the game no longer fun, as it builds resentment and leads to situations in which players find their characters somewhat redundant. Part of the fun of a roleplaying game is being part of a group in which everyone has something to contribute to the overall effort, bringing their own unique talents and skills to the table, rather than having one character clearly dominate.
All of these elements were on my mind as I set about designing the game, but ultimately creating a game like this is a collaborative process. A single writer can only do so much from inside their own little bubble, and other people with experience in playing games are necessary to help one see past their own biases and assumptions. Certain rules that you write may seem perfectly logical to you, but to others they may be incomprehensible or have glaring loopholes. In this way, your biggest fans should be your biggest critics, as they are ultimately the ones who (figuratively) live or die by the rules you create. When designing a game, you must ask your players to try to break your game in any way they can: by fixing the problems that come up when players are purposely trying to exploit the game, you can identify the flaws in your own work and find what needs to be fixed. The result of passing such a crucible is generally a more airtight and streamlined game, which works to everyone’s benefit.
Ultimately, the most important part of game design is to remember that it is a game meant to be played by other people, and as such you need to listen to your players (current or potential) if you want it to be successful.
The Savage Editions of My Little Pony
The evolution of The Savage World of My Little Pony started in February of 2011, when I first put out what I have termed the ‘Alpha’ version of the game. It had no artwork, looked like a 4.25″x11″ booklet in .pdf form, and had very crude art design, but in it I established many elements of the game that have carried over to the most recent ‘3rd Edition’. A ‘Beta’ version was released shortly afterwards, which mostly addressed a few errors in the rules and added a little bit of content. It was not until the tail end of March of that year that I released what I called the ‘1st Edition’ of the game, which was far more complete and was formatted to a standard 8.5″x11″. The next edition, alternately called the 2nd/Provisional Edition, was a vast improvement over the previous editions, but did not significantly break from it. Currently, the 3rd Edition represents almost a year and a half’s worth of work, revision, and input from dozens and dozens of players from all over the world: specialty materials have been translated into Polish and French, with a full French translation of the 3rd Edition rulebook in the works.
The process has been a long and difficult process, but thanks to the hard work of many people in the fan community, it continues to improve and change with time and with the show itself. Through it, I have learned volumes about the obscure art of game design, and through it I hope to have created a work that will inspire and entertain other fans of the show for many times to come. ■