Building a better RPG and/or Setting

Cosmoverse_tinyImagine a game designer spending years putting together a world or two or ten – a mini campaign of sorts (I say mini, because you’d need way more than that for a full blown campaign setting with space travel, unless you are keeping it tiny—all about the Sol system, which has already been done many times.

A game designer who is very creative and has been designing for quite awhile, but has never really broken into the industry in a big way might benefit from taking a different track. There are plenty of reasons why it isn’t always wise to try and tackle an rpg design or campaign setting design all by yourself. Most designers aren’t good at everything, and both settings and rpgs are vast, multi-faceted monsters. There are so many things you can do right or screw up. And of course there are blind spots and lots of needs, including contracting artists, finding financing, tackling social media appropriately, just to name a few. Doing yourself will result in a product you totally control, but one that might totally fall on its face. Why not improve your odds?

Most game designers focus on designing a single world, but some would like to put out settings that span many worlds, systems or even sections of galaxies. Now, maybe you’re thinking, “You mean you, Bob?” Anyone who knows me, knows I’ve been working on the Cosmoverse Campaign Setting for more than a few years, and am open to collaboration, but no, I’m not really talking me per se. By that, I mean that this post isn’t just about me or what I’m doing, but I’m trying to present options for others as well. There are too many designers working on their own, when it’s only hurting them, regardless of their talent.

I’ll do my whole Cosmoverse and Cosmothea rpg on my own if I have to (and then hire pro editors and pro artists to assist with wrapping it up). But it is my intention to do what I’ve done in the past, which is bring on board a team of designers and artists, because I firmly believe (and have experienced) that teams can do amazing things when they are committed to a project, when a team of creatives come together. I will open the doors to collaborating again before too long.

The reason I’m writing this blog post is for the purpose of providing options to designers for their own sake, in case they haven’t thought of the benefits of working on a team, or how to even form a team, rather than continuing on their own. I want designers with talent to find other designers with talent so together they can produce something beautiful, rather than just something pretty good individually. I’m not doing this to advertise, since I’m not quite ready to team up again (I’m in the middle of something else right now anyway). I’m writing this hoping it will help someone get their own dream off the ground.

Campaign settings, like roleplaying games, are a huge amount of work with loads of things to do (designing the way space travel works, drive systems, space hazards, creating numerous worlds, cultures and galactic kingdoms, if and how communication works across vast distances, etc.

Brace yourselves: Frankly, I think that way too many game designers are creating settings, and/or rpgs for publication (if it’s good therapy for you, or just fun, you probably shouldn’t be doing it for publication, but for yourself, like a hobby—I’m just talking about those who are trying to go pro). Many designers working on their own—no, most, will never make it. And there aren’t enough gamers to support all those products anyway. We need to approach game design smarter. When I started in the industry, there were only a few games on the market, now there are too many to count, between free, out of print and new ones coming out all the time. How does a single designer make it when so many others fail? Well, have a great product for one, but sadly, that’s not usually enough.

To create a truly great setting or rpg, and have any chance of it making it even a little successful, takes more heads than one. There’s just too many blind spots and too many areas another designer could step in and help make your amazing thing even better! The best designers in the world have made plenty of mistakes (D&D anyone?) and we all could use a hand—there’s no shame in that.

What tends to happen is you get hundreds, if not thousands of designers all independently doing some original work and tons of work that everyone else is also designing (talk about duplication—everyone needs a write up of space hazards, fuel, being stranded in space, asteroid mining, star ship creation, space combat, etc. So thousands of hours are lost, because frankly there aren’t enough gamers out there to play in all those settings. So, if you want to strike off on your own, that means you are up against a pretty big wall. With a limited gamer base for all those games and settings, that means that gamers are very particular and discerning, and you have stiff competition—and lots of it.

Once you finally finish your first setting book (or your only setting book because you had to keep it small enough to make it doable and don’t have tons of money to pay editors, artists, etc.—yet another area of mass duplication) you still have to try and get people to discover it, like it, want it. And since you’re only one person, that makes the job even harder. Instead of a team sharing among friends on social media, you’ve got one guy killing himself trying to do everything. See what I mean?

Sure, some designers have done it, but usually bringing on board a bunch of people near the end or finding their setting vanishing into the slush pile. And then there are big name designers who have done it (and had a team help polish later) and have been very successful, but people gobble up their stuff regardless of quality, thinking it must be great because the designer is well known. And maybe their design is great, but you aren’t them, and neither am I, so we need to hedge our bets. Many great designs will never get discovered without approaching them a certain way, using strategies for success and creating a team to do it right.

This ongoing problem is being reproduced by countless designers world-wide. When we finally get it all done, we try to get it published and try to get people to like it and buy it. It’s a much bigger job than most people realize—designers included. Corners are often cut, people get burned out, the product never gets finished or languishes because parts of it were not done right as the designer pushed themselves to do parts they weren’t good at, or they messed up something or did a part shoddy or just get ignored because not enough money was spent on a good editor, great art, etc. There are a host of potential problems that are common when trying to do a big project. But what if 2-5 designers who know how to leave their egos at the door joined forces?

We can accomplish so much more together than we ever could on our own!

When mature, reasonable designers team up, they can do amazing things together and greatly increase their odds of success. And they would be able to offer a host of worlds, rather than just one world or a handful that likely have some issues. Two or more heads are better than one. It’s very easy to overlook holes in your own work and to get yourself into a position where you have to design something you aren’t good at. Why? There’s no reason for it, unless you are incapable of a)getting along with others, or b) have such an obscure concept that you can’t find any other designers whose worlds would work in the same universe as yours. And if your concept is that obscure, you might be making it harder for your own work to get published.

There’s a fine line between creating something familiar v. familiar, and obscure v. too obscure. Both extremes are dangerous. It isn’t difficult to come up with an original creature, but just being original doesn’t make it better. Making a great campaign setting requires loads of different skills, just like making a great rpg does. Most designers don’t have what it takes to do all parts of it on their own. But even those that do will be duplicating the efforts of numerous others—not to mention that it will take a lot longer and you’ll have a smaller setting as a result. That’s fine if you’re going for small. But even then, your game would be better if you ran it past a team of designers and they helped make parts of it or at the very least, added a few more worlds to it and gave their two cents for making it rock even more!

For a big setting like the Cosmoverse, where you want to travel the galaxy and do a lot of cool stuff, not just on one world, but dozens, that gets a lot harder and you have to tackle more concepts.

Worlds are big places and universes are even bigger, so chances are, most designers could, in fact, if they are reasonable, work together. While you have total control working alone, the odds of your project hitting the big times is far less than if you worked with others of like mind and put out something that really rocks!

With a team, each of you tackling the areas you are best at, sharing the work load and dumping all that duplication that comes from everyone working alone—wow, you have a chance at putting out something that might get somewhere! Sure, there’s going to be some compromises along the way, but what would you rather have, a campaign setting you designed all by yourself that never really makes it, or one that has a much greater chance of making it, because it’s had several pairs of eyes on it, each with their own specialties and the whole thing would be more polished!

Likely, there are parts of an rpg design that you just aren’t nearly as good at as other parts. On a team, everyone could do a portion of what they consider to be the funnest part (World design perhaps, or even more narrow —faction design, culture or creature design) and there could be some overlap (since plenty of worlds are needed for any sort of sci-fi or sci-fi and fantasy rpg) and then the designers who are better at other parts can do those parts.

Instead of so many designers feeling like they have to design an entire setting or rpg all by themselves, why not team up? Now, if you have a big ego, think you’re designers are better than everyone else’s, then fine, ignore me at your own peril. Have piles of money to spend and more time than God? If you feel so strongly, you probably wouldn’t work well on a team, unless you allow yourself to step down, get your hands dirty and listen to other creative and talented people like yourself.

Remember, I didn’t say you couldn’t be the boss. Every product needs a single vision and a single boss (with extremely rare exception, if any). But that doesn’t mean that everything is your way or the highway, or that the other designers on the team shouldn’t get plenty of respect or creative wiggle room to design their hearts out. It doesn’t mean that most of the decisions can’t be a team vote. Find common ground, stand together and be productive!

A team can work, and has—countless times for numerous companies. I did just that for Cosmothea 4.0, my roleplaying game, and I even put a team together to work on my Cosmoverse Campaign Setting. Mine. Yes, I used that word, but I gave them a lot of room to create (these sorts of projects are big enough that multiple people can work on their own thing without stepping on each other’s toes if they know what they’re doing), and frankly, with a universe as big as the Cosmoverse, I even gave them plenty of room to design their own planets if they wanted to (and that’s all most designers ever really want to do). Sure, you want the final product to feel unified and there are various factors to consider (this blog post isn’t meant to be exhaustive).

Want to know more about how to make that actually work, rather than fall on your face? There is a lot to doing it right and more than a few things to avoid, if you want to have a shot of making something bigger than you alone could accomplish (at least during a reasonable time period). This would work especially well if each designer is primarily responsible for 1 or more worlds, but if you sit down with your team (virtually or in person), get to know each other better, establish a bit of trust and respect, sort out what you are all good at and like to do, then make a battle plan and a commitment, you can get everything done, and done better than any single member of the team could have done!

I could write a series of posts on how to do it right and what to avoid and am still learning, but I don’t have a big ego. I want a great setting and a great game. While I have many answers, I know I don’t have all of them, and I’m not even talking about myself. You may already know a designer who you think you could work well with. Communication is one of the keys.

Me, I love working with talented, creative people and it pains me to so many designers working on projects that I can tell won’t make it, because they had some blind spots, lacked the finances to do things right, etc. If you don’t have a huge ego, consider finding another designer and talk and see if your visions can line up. If not, find another! If you would like to discuss the concept further or have had experiences on a team, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Post a comment and let’s discuss or shoot me an email (bob @ qtgames.com). I’m happy to offer some advice from my own experiences and would love to connect and discuss. Cheers!

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About Bob Whitely/QT Games

Welcome to QT Games! Mission Never publish junk or waste people's time. Publish only high-quality fiction and games. 'Nuff said. Company Overview QT Games LLC was created to publish blended-genre (fantasy blended with sci-fi, etc.) fiction, board, card and roleplaying games for a discerning gaming community. Unlike most small press, we have very strict standards: Only pro writing, pro editing and pro art. That means that if we can't get it right, we find someone who can. We pay well for what we don't do in-house. We don't cut corners on quality. This means we stand to make less money than other small publishers, but that's okay with us. We value your time and money, so we're willing to take the bullet. We've designed a large number of games and written a pile of stories. Now we're polishing some of them and getting them out the door. 'Bout time, we know. Good stuff ahead!
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