Game Dev

Writing for tabletop RPGs

For Gen Con 2018, I was tasked with writing a guided mode for our game Apocrypha. Guided mode is very similar to any tabletop role playing game, just with the cards, and a guide leads the saints through the story by giving them omens when they take a turn (turn order is by player choice, not clockwise or counterclockwise order). Typically saints will be at the same nexus or two.

You can read the whole thing here. In this post, I’m going to talk more about my personal design and narrative challenges with this piece, and just some other general thoughts.

When it comes to creative writing for games, I question myself a lot more. This is probably because there are people around me way more capable and qualified and I consider narrative design to be a weaker spot in my designer skill set. And yet, I was tasked with writing this and part of me really wanted to jump for joy because I really like working on Apocrypha and if I had to pick any of my games with Lone Shark Games to write for, it’d be that one. I think because of that, I was afraid of disappointing players with a sucky storyline and I felt a lot of pressure because Gen Con.

Regardless, I’m really glad I work with a team that I feel comfortable asking for help. Liz and Skylar are my idols when it comes to role play (I have gone to LARPs with them in the past and like I can’t even, they’re so good). After my first draft, Liz’s feedback to me to lay off the mechanics so much and just tell a story. “Snakenado!” wasn’t a story I came up with, but I did want to do it justice.

The original “Snakenado!” is from the upcoming Apocrypha Hybrid Mission Pack, so it combines the narratives of the Fae and Serpent chapters. I struggled with how to combine those two things in a way that was interesting, compelling, and something I’d enjoy writing. My next draft involved barely any mechanics, but I still picked out the cards that I wanted to have included. This was a good step, but I was using some cards just because they were there to show off cool Serpent of Fae mechanics and not because that card added to the story.

Next draft, scrubbed the useless cards, added a few mechanics, then conducted a playtest with the rest of the team. This is always my favorite part of the game design process because I come away with new problems and new solutions that I wouldn’t have found by myself. So even though it was long and there was a lot to fix, I felt the most confident in the whole process as I wrote yet another draft.

I learned a lot about information that is necessary to provide to the Game Master. In a module where you are not the GM, it’s important to let them know which information is for them only and which is for the players. When the players do something that may lead them out of bounds, you need to tell the GM that that is an indeed an out of bounds situation and what they can do to lead the player back to the story, because some players are going to be outrageous and challenge the GM that they can do whatever they want in the world. So, I learned to provide some tools that the GM can lean on when that happens. Ultimately, the play experience is up to the GM and most of them are pretty awesome at filling in the holes that I missed or didn’t think about. Unlike in digital games, tabletop role playing can function pretty organically and I don’t need to control as much as if I were creating a mod to a video game.

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