The Three Act Exercise For Game Design

You’re going to want a piece of paper for this. I like legal pads, but you’ll definitely want to see the work outside of a monitor.

Divide the paper into thirds (horizontally).

Act 1
Act 2
Act 3

We’re going to chart the basic player’s experience (ideally) in-game. This isn’t a strict adventure outline, so we can be fast and loose with a plot, but there need to be key beats each Act has.

Act 1 – This is all things creation and introductory. Players should in theory develop themselves (conceptually, and mechanically) and learn about the basics of the world. Immersion here is critical, as no one wants to play a game where the rules are either too vague, too restrictive or too discouraging (i.e. railroading). In story context, this is where adventure/campaign plots are hatched and world-base concepts (“the feel of the world”) is born. Act 1 ends when the Players enter the most intense and forward-progressive drive in the plot.

Act 2 – Characters by this point are INTO a plot/campaign, and are developing forward according to their brought-in goals (things they brought to the table) as well as open-goals (things the game offers). Combat here is more common, and risk is also introduced. This is also the largest Act of play, generally being 1.5 or 2 times larger than Act 1. Should the game be episodic, serialized or weekly, it will be so because of a long Act 2 that offers either complexity (lots of small steps put together) or intensity (there’s so much to do and it takes time) or potential (lots to do, of mixed length). Act 2 ends when they feel prepared to finish the plot or wrap up significant material in the campaign.

Act 3 – This endgame is the shortest but is often the most mechanically driven of all the acts. It begins when the characters make that final push towards resolution, and ends when the conflict(s) introduced in Act 1 are resolved. They may not, and need not be resolved in a way satisfying to the character, (although the player will be satisfied in all but the most power-gamer circumstances). Act 3 is also the only Act that bears a formula:

The mechanics/world-building of Act 1 + the plot-building of Act 2 = Act 3

Now, return to your paper and do some simple bullet points.

Act 1 – What sort of things will the players discover, both in terms of the world/setting as well as the individual plot? What sort of things do you, game designer want to deliver to them at the start of this journey for them? Refer often to any Feel Documents you have, as well as any mechanics you want to show off.

Act 2 – How does the plot unfold? Are they key discoveries the players have to make? Are there contingencies for when they don’t? How much latitude is given to the GM to improvise? Are there clear boundaries for a GM to play within, that at the very least define the “feel” (There’s that word again) and themes of the game, even if they eschew the presented material? Note too that this is where many GMs will fracture or diverge from plot to tell their own stories – is that encouraged? Is a structure (mechanically and expositively) in place for the GM to move the characters towards resolution?

Act 3 – How can characters reach this point? Once they reach this point, can they go backwards to Act 2 without penalty or a change in experience (note: the experience of the badguy defeating the heroes and them trying again later is NOT endgame)? Do the mechanics developed in Act 1 and tested in Act 2 support resolving the plot in Act 3? Does the story (plot-wise) present enough reward to justify moving forward and resolving the character desires? What happens AFTER resolution?

Whatever you put on the paper is yours, and is subject to your change at any time, so there’s no danger of being wrong. Likewise, you don’t have to worry about missing material or “not thinking of something”, because that’s what playtest and homebrew rules are for. For now, focus on mapping out the experience, according to the ideas, theme and goals you want players to discover and worry about the finer points later. (Yes there are substantial finer points ahead, but that’s what other pieces of paper are for.)

Start there. Happy designing.

What Skyrim Has Taught Me About Writing, Game Design and Life

Everyone award yourself +50 Nerd points for reading this article.

So Skyrim happened. And is happening. And will happen until the mountains crumble into the sea.

If you haven’t heard, Skyrim is a huge open-world role-playing experience that many of you are having, and many more of you should be having.

More than just escapist game-playing, Skyrim has been instructive. Theodore the Barbarian Nord has been a wonderful opportunity to develop some imagination, some life lessons and some writing skills.

Here are a couple:

1. An Open-World is full of options that appeal to multiple interests simultaneously. Theodore is level 16, and I’ve only gone through the first parts of the main story quest. (Learned two shouts, haven’t gone see the Graybeards yet) Why? Because I just kitted out my house, and have been roaming the countryside as a lycanthrope, killing those who would oppose my hirsute bloodlust. The main story can wait. The experience here is all about Theodore developing into a potent, realized being. Who happens to swing a Skyforged Steel sword and breathe fire.

This afternoon for example, I plan on pushing myself towards level 20, by way of a few Miscellaneous quests and Smithing. Those are things that I like to do currently, but maybe in two levels, when Theodore crafts his umpteenth-billion iron dagger (I have forty pounds of leather strips….), I might decide to move back towards the main quest.

Skyrim offers that sense of openness without any of the nagging. I don’t have some blinking urgent giant arrow railroading me towards one specific story — the story is mine from the moment the game loads until I’ve lost five hours and gotten lost in the same mountain range…again.

2. Life Lesson: You’re never without tools and options. I’m running around with Lydia, my butler-ess with an elven warhammer, and she’s about as helpful as a hacking cough during a movie premiere. (I believe her thought process is “Is there a large and potentially lethal hazard ahead? I’ll bring it to Theodore!”) And when she lures those two giants and that troll to me, I need to be able to not die.

It doesn’t always work out. She was a peach for luring a pack of necromancers towards me just after I turned that corner, and when the mountain path went vertical, it was great of her to backtrack and get lost for ten minutes, but all I had was at hand – and that’s what I needed. When life/Skyrim gives you a mountain to scale en route to a bandit camp, head for the treeline, draw your sword and get to business. Your tools never leave you, even if you make your less-than-stellar companion carry all the dragon bones and the spare sword.

3. In the game world, the player wants to feel like they matter. I’m a werewolf now, and during my first canine moments, I may have torn through a few guards and pedestrians who didn’t realize that the howling death machine always has the right of way. The next day, it was the talk of the town. Guards and the widows spoke about the horror that came from the night to ruin their lives.

And that was the “hook” moment for me. I did something, something not affiliated with the main plot of the game or even dragons, and the world responded. The player of a game has needs (a need to feel like they matter, a need to make an impact, a need for encouragement and consequences), and Skyrim satisfies all of them with all the claw swipes, howls, Shouts and smelting of ores.

Game designers – do the characters matter? Does what they do affect anything? Ask yourself, and push yourself to find the answer.

4. Writing – Even if you’re a Swiss Army knife, there are a few tools you use often. Theodore doesn’t do a lot of magic. He’s got enough juice in him to transmute some iron to gold and occasionally light some dark rooms up, but on the whole, it’s sword and shield time. The character has the options, and the building blocks to be quite deep and broad, but time and again, my play style involves putting the pointy metal end into the soft bits of my opposition.

In my books, the characters can do a lot. They detect. They communicate. They act. They delve into mysteries great and small. But time and again there is a ‘comfort zone’ of actions they engage in, and those are the brighter facets of their character-gem. Kestrel the eccentric detective is a shiny diamond of problem solving while Charlie Commons is a rich emerald of supernatural sleaze.

The experience is shaped for and by my play style. I could easily decide to switch from swords to magic, and while it would be awkward at first, I think I could adjust. But with every subsequent sword-slash, I’m one motion deeper. I fall forward into a world and drown in the details.

So, in short, Skyrim rocks. Grow from it.

Pioneering

I read this on Chuck Wendig’s blog. And it made me….angry.

Not because I agree with one side over the other, but because I don’t think there are sides. I know people have taken sides, saying that their e-publication genitals are of superior size, girth and amazement because their path towards publication is on the yellow brick, orange brick or whatever-color-brick road.

None of this matters. Not to the consumers. Not to whatever fanbase you have (or want to build).

How someone produces their work is less important than the very binary condition of – Do I have a product available for others or not?

I’m not sure why this question doesn’t come up more – I suspect it’s because people find it too elementary, or too great a simplification, that somehow minimizes whatever they’ve done as hard work. It doesn’t actually minimize the work, but people think it does.

Here’s my thought, which doesn’t really count as a “side” in this argument.


Isn’t the point of publication (in any form) to get your story out to people who want to purchase and enjoy it?

Writers, regardless of their path towards publication, are pioneers, blazing an Oregon-esque Trail towards their own success conditions.

Don’t argue about how you got on the path, WALK THE PATH. BLAZE THE TRAIL.

Be your own writing pioneer.

How to Find Your Theme

Some people put “Setting” way up on the pedestal as the creamy nougat center of their manuscript candy bar. Some people do the same for “Dialogue” or “Characters”. But for me, whether it’s what I like to read or how I work, I look for, surround myself in, and propagate theme.

What is theme? Theme is all the core concepts of your story, distilled down to their best words and organized into a best sentence. And just like always I have a snazzy chart and system to explain this.


Step 1: Describe Your Manuscript/Creation/Baby/Whatever You Want To Call It
Compose as many sentences, phrases, words as possible to express to another human being what your writing is about. Don’t tell them about the plot, or the potential plot, I mean talk to them about the vibe, mood and feel. (Yes, this is where a “Feel” Document can do double-duty). Let’s put together a few examples:

1. The Dresden Files RPG

  • collaborative
  • often darker than intended
  • going H.A.M. (google it adults) is encouraged.
  • Magic, grit and not always a bright sunny conclusion

2. Moby Dick

  • There’s a whale
  • Revenge is a dish best served with a harpoon
  • When in doubt, carve your coffin
  • Get used to the rhythm of the sea

3. Checkers

  • Diagonals!
  • Don’t be a wuss, move your back row
  • Only 2 players

Step 2: Make a sentence or two out of them.

Go through your lists (or your Feel Document) and craft a sentence that either quotes those items you listed in Step 1 or paraphrases them. You don’t need to force yourself into a single sentence, but don’t take that to mean that you couldn’t go overboard – you want less than a paragraph here. To our examples!

1. The Dresden Files RPG – Magic is real, wizards and the supernatural are alive and kicking, and sometimes you have to suffer to succeed.

2. Moby Dick – Obsession will kill you.

3. Checkers – Forward progress is a good thing.

Step 3: Find the Power Word in the sentence(s) you just wrote
A ‘Power Word’ is the word or word-phrase that carries all the emotional or impactful weight of a sentence. It’s often the word that draws the eye and imagination and leads the reader to nod their head and “get it”. It sometimes takes practice to find the best word, or to narrow it down from a few potential words to one definite choice, so I advise you to try these three steps for a lot of writing, not just your own, until you get into the habit. Onto our examples:

1. The Dresden Files RPG – “Suffer to succeed”

2. Moby Dick – Obsession

3. Checkers – Progress is good

Step 4: Success!
That power word or phrase is your theme! Congratulate yourself.

Note: Theme isn’t ‘wrong’. If you would look at each of those items and draw together totally different words, sentences and themes, great! Theme is subjective, and it should be. However, should we compare our notes, our themes should be in somewhat of the same range (we’re both a litte pessimistic, or they’re both character-driven or they both relate to another particular idea or even that they’re polar opposites on the same spectrum) else we’re only going to conflict with each if asked. And maybe, that conflict is okay.

Note 2: If you can’t identify a ‘theme’ you’re missing out on a powerful selling point, and a powerful building block for your manuscript going forward. Theme is often a lighthouse that you can navigate by, and return to when you end up astray in the middle of Act 2 and you have move things forward towards climax. Or in game design, theme is one of the great “sinews” that ties mechanics to setting in a way that appeals to a player on a level beyond “Ooh I get to roll the blue dice!”

Because it’s so strong and so intense, I put theme at the top of the writing pyramid. And maybe you should too.

Metatopia, Part 2

I have some more thoughts on Metatopia.

Attending as a non-primary-gamer (that’s my term, it means that gaming isn’t my bread-and-butter career path, passion or money maker), really gave me the ability to see holes and opportunities, places where in non-gaming contexts the void is already full. Like what you ask? Like these:

  • Marketing – Yes, I was part of a totally amazing marketing panel (led by Josh Seideman, who totally knows what he’s talking about, and you really should be following him on Twitter if you’re not already. And while his presentation was good, it honestly wasn’t anything I haven’t already done or heard about — which is to be expected, part of my business involves marketing strategies.

    But in a gaming context, marketing seemed to be somewhat of a mythical activity, something shrouded in confusion and spoken about with a lot of “Uhhs” and “Ums”.

    And here lies the opportunity.

    I make marketing easy. I mean it is easy already, but how I teach authors to market is simple, effective and in the words of one guy “surprisingly fun”. So consider this my note to talk about marketing strategies across all my social networks.

  • Presentation Skills – How many great presentations did I see? At least a dozen. How many presentations could have been made great by simple tips? Bazillions. I know, it’s scary and tough to stand/sit in front of a room and hold court, especially if you’re talking about something that’s been your creative baby for a long time and this is the first time you’re bringing it out for humans to consume. Good for you for doing that. That’s step 1. Step 2 is, “Kick ass with it.”

    So consider this my note to the universe that I’m sneaking in some presentation tips into my next workshops.

  • Where were the ladies? Yes I met some fantastic women (Jenn, Terry and Shoshanna immediately spring to mind) And surprisingly women made up a decent percentage of the people attending, but this wasn’t really lady-friendly. Now maybe that’s the community, maybe that’s got something to do with either the perceived or real awkwardness some people have around lady-people (I know, they have cooties, right?), but I think if the community as a whole was a little more pro-fem (not like I’m-going-to-hack-off-your-dangling-oppressive-genitals pro-fem, I mean more like “Girls-are-welcome-in-our-clubhouse”), the number of potential consumers and contributors goes up, and everyone wins.

What blew my mind is that game designers are just like writers and I could/can/did slot myself in and among them the same ways. There is somewhat of a myth that gamers are mega-nerds and entirely insular, but on the whole, I found these people to be among the nicest humans I’ve ever spent time with, and certainly some of the smartest.

So, to the game people reading this, so many of you have my business card. Flip it over and take a look at the back.

Find this line: Creative and Professional Solutions for Any Situation

I mean it. Much like Vanilla Ice – if you have a problem, yo, I’ll solve it. (And yes, word to your mother.)

Another post shall later this afternoon…..and I’ll talk about the magic that is the conversation with a writer.

Metatopia was AWESOME!

My Metatopia experience was amazing beyond words, and it set a ridiculously high bar for all future conventions. The fact that I had less than a ten-minute commute to the hotel every day meant I could go home, and decompress and organize all the information I received over the weekend. It also meant I was able to shower and sleep in comfortable privacy, which is a double awesome bonus.

My presentation: Editing and Writing Workshop (For Game Designers) was EXACTLY the sort of presentation I’ve always wanted to give, and I could not have asked for a more attentive and receptive audience. My unabridged notes are available, (just email me) Granted, this workshop took place at midnight, and came after eight hours of other wonderful workshops by some real rpg powerhouses (Kenneth Hite, Fred Hicks, Rob Donoghue, Brennan Taylor among them), but my adrenalin was pumping and I was eager to do what I do (make writing and editing way less scary and impossible for people) to a whole new audience.

Things I will do differently going forward:

  • Pictures! Normally, I hate photos, because I feel like they rarely make me look good. The camera doesn’t add ten pounds, it adds ten metric tons. But photos of the seminar room, of my audience, of me overdressed for my crowd (gamers aren’t really shirt-tucked-in-people) I think would totally help portray the awesomeness.
  • Not carry around a heavy messenger bag full of things I don’t use. In my bag I had half a dozen legal pads, a bag of dice, a box of pens, a box of pencils, three mini steno pads, my Ipod and two thousand business cards. This weekend I used 1 legal pad, a pencil and my Ipod for about ten minutes. I don’t actually need to carry around an office supply store.
  • Relax sooner! On Friday I was nervous. This was my first convention, it was with people who I consider to be at the top of their game (nerd pun!), and I wanted to make sure I came across intelligently, accurately and passionately. Judging by the feedback I got and the amazing consequences of the weekend (more on that when I’m able to discuss them, but this would be a GREAT time to start following me on Twitter if you haven’t already), the people I talked to and with, I did all that, but there was ZERO reason to be nervous. Everyone was super nice and really intrigued about what I do and they made me feel very welcome in their typical insular and slightly xenophobic community. 

Will I do other conventions? YES. Absolutely.

This deserves more coverage. A second Metatopia (metatopic?) post will follow.

Metatopia!

Metatopia is this weekend. For those unaware, Metatopia is a convention (called a ‘con’) all about independent game playing and creating. And when I say “game” I mean it in the nerdiest of contexts — role-playing games.

I’ve played, written, edited and been around gaming in a professional context for years. And I’ve been around gaming in a personal context even longer (more than half my life ago…and still playing.)

But I’ve never been to this convention. I’ve always wanted to be at this convention, I’ve often said “One day I’ll be the kind of guy who goes to these things”…well, I’m working on becoming the kind of guy who actually *does* things rather than *saying* he’ll do things. Yay self-improvement!

While I cannot promise regular over-the-weekend updates (but if you follow me on Twitter, you never know), I will do my best to detail my experience on Monday, the day I shall rename “The Day I’m Going to Attempt to Catch Up On My Sleep”.

Enjoy your weekend.

The aftermath of the storm.

Consider this post an interlude:

For those that don’t know, there was a rather intense storm this past weekend that leveled a great number of trees, rendered roads dangerous and left millions of people powerless.

My whole town was without power until yesterday. And actually, my house was the last house in town to get power restored to it.

The culprit for the town was the electrical substation. The culprit for my house was an old tree in the front of the house that decided this weekend was a good time to lay down, and hey, since the power wires were just sitting there, they should come down too. Into my yard. Into my wet, water-logged yard.

The result was no damage to the house (although the tree briefly rested against the roof), but it tore the wires out rather violently and I’m sure had the power somehow stayed on, there would have been some rather epic 80s-style explosions.

Without power, I lose internet access.
Without power, I lose phones.
Without power, I lose refrigeration.
Without power, I lose heat.

I note each of those separately for a deliberate reason – each of them was a point of contention between me and another person.

The lack of heat led to me being very grumpy.
The lack of refrigeration wasn’t really a problem until the food started thawing and spoiling, and I’ve since filled my garbage cans to the brim with stinky bags. Sorry garbage guys.
The lack of phones led to quite a few angry emails between me and people who wanted to know why I wasn’t working.
The lack of internet access led to quite a few more angry emails about why I wasn’t working.

Oh, I did check my email, I did listen to the voicemail from my cable company saying they had emailed me directions on what to do about getting my cable restored – I just had to drive 30 minutes and inconvenience my grandfather to do it (his town was totally fine). But, you ask, why did you check your email and voicemail, but didn’t do the work you know I wanted done, you ask?

Because quite frankly, when there is no power in your house for a few days, and when you’re cold and in the dark and frustrated, the one thing I don’t want to do is write words on a website.

In fact the disconnect from my usual routine allowed me to see that I really don’t like writing words on websites that much anymore, and effective Jan 1, 2012, I won’t be doing it any longer – because what I really want to do is create fiction – books, television shows, RPGs, plays…all kinds of creative things like that. I don’t want to spend time having to worry about someone else’s Google Adwords, I don’t want to have to endure the client’s confusion that I’m somehow both tech support and web design (when I’m neither)…and so, I’m not going to focus on that.

The storm showed me that I’m not looking at the opportunities best for me. And then I read this blog post, and it was confirmed.

Universe, you’re awesome.

–The Writer Next Door