A Walk in the Dark A look in to the mind of an RPG designer



Why We Do What We Do

Over ten years ago (god, has it really been that long?!?) I was part of a team called the Redeemed Assassins, creating a "total conversion" for Half-Life called "The Opera". It wasn't an easy time for anyone involved in the group; there was a lot of personal turmoils that made the completion of the game an impossible goal. And yet we persevered, making an intense sacrifice to finish the game we loved creating and after two years it was finally released. And, when it was released, some would argue that it wasn't well received (we released at the same time that the 800lb gorilla that was CounterStrike was taking over all the servers) and the game died a quick death.

On or about the same time I attended a convention where another individual was showing his game to the world, a game that he created because he wanted to, a game that he created in the manner that he himself wanted and not caring about what others thought about it. A game that took him several years to develop, all the time dealing with his own personal ordeals and internal strife in the company he founded. And when he released it, everyone hated it... But at the time he didn't care. He created the game he wanted to create, damn all the critics. And he had the personal satisfaction that he accomplished his own personal goal; he didn't give a damn what people thought.

That person was John Romero, and the game was Daikatana. Even if you weren't born eleven years ago (Daikatana was released eleven years and two days ago, on May 23rd, 2000), you've probably heard the story.

Before and after the development of "The Opera" I got asked the same question a lot, sometimes even by my own family: "Why?" Why suffer such a hard time creating something that gives us no financial gain? Why create something that only a handful of people would play?

Every time I was asked that question I provided the same response: if, through all my efforts and painstaking work, I create a product that ONE person in the world really enjoys, that's all it took. One person, that's all. Granted, I didn't have a bright yellow Ferrari Testarossa and almost Playboy model Stevie "KillCreek" Case to fall back on... but that didn't matter. I wasn't in it for personal profit. If I could make one person out - just one - there like what I've created, that was enough to make the whole ordeal worthwhile. Sure, I got more bad press and user backlash than you can possibly imagine, and some of it was quite painful to hear (nothing's worse than hearing "your game sucks" over and over again, especially on your own forums or through hundreds of emails), but in that festering cloud of hate I managed to find a few people that liked it. To me, "The Opera" was a success and a memory I will never forget.

A lot of independent game designers have lost that mindset. They have dollar signs in their eyes, hoping to create the game that everyone wants even if it means selling their own soul. I've met some game designers that have created products played my millions, and some of them are downright miserable because they're doing something they don't like to do (few will admit it, but you can tell). Everyone's looking for revenue these days, and they end up struggling to create what the fans want even if they themselves hate it because it's not what they enjoy. Heck, I know a few game designers that don't even play their own games because they dislike them so much.

Why am I talking about all of this? First of all, I am about 90% complete with The Coming Dark's first chapter (tentatively titled Into the Light), and even though I'm not done it clocks in at a staggering 138 pages (including handouts). It's a behemoth, a virtual phone book of a campaign that takes the players from level 1 all the way to just shy of level 5. And that's just the first part of a three part series!

Looking at what I've created, I can't help but think "nobody's ever going to play this." It's simply too unwieldy, something that has such a broad scope that many would consider it impractical to run because of how long it will actually take to complete.

You know what? That's fine by me. I created the campaign I wanted to create, damn the critics, and I feel happy that I accomplished what I did. Even if I shelve it or bury it in my hard drive for all eternity, I'm still going to spend just as many months on the next chapter because I want to. Not because I have to in order to survive, not because I expect to make a living doing this, but because I want to. It makes me happy, and if I'm lucky maybe one person out there... just one... will be happy too, and that is all I need to know.

There's another reason why I write this... Recently the folks over at Save Versus Death released the Fourthcore Armory: A Compendium of Treasures Mythic and Deadly. In terms of what it represents and how it was intended to be used, it's a brilliant collection that captures the essence of that which is known as "fourthcore" (4C for short).

But the style of play that is 4C isn't for everyone, and I see the 4C creators getting their fair share of flak from would-be haters and people who think that 4C is a bastardization of the game that is D&D. I've been in that same boat... I've had people hate every fiber of my being for creating something that wasn't what they wanted, as if I was their own personal software engineer and game designer creating something that they alone will play. Getting yelled at for your creation is something I consider a rite of passage, a sign that you're doing something right, a sign that you are one of the elite few. I mean, after all, you've created something that's worth complaining about (nowadays everyone complains about everything on the Internet, but in 2001 the art of the Internet argument was just getting started)!

I have no doubt that the creators of the Fourthcore Armory poured their heart and soul in to a product that they really enjoyed making, probably not thinking at the time what the world will think about it. I admire the time and effort they have put in to creating something that a fraction of the massive D&D community may ever actually play because it's simply not their style. They didn't do it for the people that won't ever play it; they created the armory for the few people that do.

Rest assured... There are people out there who love what you've done and the efforts you are going through to make 4C a modern day reality. I'm only aiming for one person in what I do, but you have many more that are ecstatic and overjoyed for that which you have created. You're beating me already! 🙂

Be proud, enjoy the praise, and to hell with all the critics that bash that which you take so much personal pleasure in.

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  1. I am not a big fan of fourthcore but they are exciting allot of people with their design style. It is still 4E to me and I am glad they are making people want to play more 4E. It gives 4E players more options and I think that is good. Additionally, I think it is cool that an independent publisher is causing so much excitement. It could get people to look into much of the other 4E indi’ publishing.

    Not my style of play but it is all good what they do!

  2. I could not agree more. Well thought out and reasoned, fantastic post!!

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