Developer Notes

Dev Notes 23 - Is Steamscapes: Asia for You?

Last year I wrote several Developer Notes in response to concerns that people had regarding whether we even should make a book set in Asia. Since rather a lot of time has passed (and we've finished our book), I think it should now be okay to share a general reaction that I had kept to myself at the time. You see, a few people claimed that gamers WANT stereotypes, and that they won't buy a game that doesn't cater to existing assumptions - and those are the people I am specifically not writing for.

Sing it, Eddie


Dev Notes 22 - Small Joys

Among the teasers for Steamscapes: Asia, I included a brief discussion about a specific historical easter egg in the book that I wanted to call to everyone's attention. Now that the book is out, I thought I would go through some of the other little things we've managed to get into the book that make me happy.


Dev Notes 21 - Constraint and Choice in Roleplaying Games (Part 2)

In the last Dev Note, I talked at moderate length about four different kinds of constraint that can be experienced in roleplaying games in a variety of ways. I also discussed some of the implications for each of them in terms of play experience. In this note, I want to examine how designers can address each of these constraints with intentionality and conscious choice to make the game that most fits the play experience they want to craft. I am going to show this through the lens of a game I am currently designing.


Dev Notes 20 - Constraint and Choice in Roleplaying Games (Part 1)

Give me a genre, a location, and something you might do on a date...

As roleplayers, we often think of ourselves as improvisers. My friends at the One Shot Podcast Network (Patreon funding now!) are actually trained in this particular mode of performance, and they have excellent insights into how such training supports their gaming. Part of the fun of improvising, both on stage and in gaming, is the power of making choices in the moment. And because we enjoy this, sometimes we think that more choice is always good, that the freedom to make up whatever we want will let us explode in fountains of creativity. It turns out that this is not the case. And trained improvisers know this very well, which is why so many improv exercises and performances begin with the selection of constraints.

Whose line cast

Welcome to roleplaying, where the characters are made up and the dice don't matter.

Constraint is not the opposite of choice. It is merely the practice of having the available choices or parameters for choice presented to the chooser instead of created by the chooser. In the absence of external constraints, we all first narrow our own list of choices before making our final decision. No one considers all possible options equally and chooses from them. Whenever we come too close to doing that, we inevitably suffer analysis paralysis. There are just too many choices for us to consider, and we shut down rather than moving forward. One way or another, we need to make the list more manageable.


Dev Notes 19 - Escapism is a Dial, Not a Switch

As much as I enjoyed Birdman, I felt that it contained a certain amount of artistic insecurity even beyond that portrayed by its main character. The movie as a whole offers a straw-man depiction of how people in the theatre feel about film - this idea that stage looks down on screen because it views screen as less serious, more worried about popularity and money than art. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth, and in fact we are in something of a golden age regarding the love-affair between stage and screen. People and shows move between the two all the time, and no one is seriously arguing that one medium or the other is more inherently artistic. Had this movie been written in the late 80s, I might have bought it. But now? Not so much.

But this insecurity is not unusual. A similar thing happens in most art forms. A categorical distinction grows to define that which is serious from that which is not, and then we start arguing about what specific pieces go where and why. In the midst of this argument, one word almost always appears: escapism.



Dev Notes 18 - Roleplaying the Other

In my previous two Developer Notes, I have discussed assumptions that people have about both game settings and the writers of game settings. These are certainly among the barriers of entry that come up when players try to explain why they avoid “Asian-themed” settings, or indeed any fictional setting with real-world cultural elements that are not their own. But I think the biggest barrier lies in the assumptions of play. Yes, there are some pedants who believe it is their job to police what games are written, but we can easily ignore such folks. The people we really want to reach are the people who don’t think they can play realistic games as characters unlike themselves. So in this last installment, I want to address the idea of roleplaying the “other” - that is, playing as a character unlike yourself in a world unlike your own.


Dev Notes 17 - Writing For, Not Writing About

In my last Developer Note, I outlined some of the key issues and assumptions that people have with game settings that claim to be “Asian-themed.” In that note, I asserted several times that we are doing things differently with Steamscapes: Asia. I hope that my explanations of how we are doing so support that assertion, but it does bring up another question that one might ask - What gives me the authority to write this setting? Is this even a question worth considering?


Fair enough. All questions are valid.

Dev Notes 16 - Asia, not "Asian-Themed"

I recently completed a successful Kickstarter! I was obviously quite happy about that, but I always believe that learning is necessary regardless of success or failure, so after it was over I posted a survey in the Savage Worlds community asking for feedback from those who had chosen not to back the project. Aside from the expected (but still important) reasons - such as not hearing about it, not liking the rewards, or having backed too many Kickstarters recently - one idea that seemed to show up frequently was that players are automatically turned off by "Asian-themed" settings. I saw this in replies to the forum post as well as in the Facebook and G+ Savage Worlds communities.

When I followed up to find out the reasons why, it became clear to me that there is a very strong association that players of roleplaying games have with the word "Asia," and it has nothing to do with what we are trying to develop. However, this association is so pervasive that many people were unwilling to look closely enough to even consider the possibility that we might be doing something different. For this reason, I am going to be doing a series of Dev Notes explaining how our setting differs from what has come before (and what will likely come after), how we approach the writing and development so as to avoid appropriation or stereotype, and how to help players feel comfortable taking on characters in this setting.

But first, we have to talk about how the gaming industry got to this point.

Dev Notes 15 - The Importance of Fiction

Our Kickstarter for Steamscapes: Asia has been up for a week now, and we are continuing to make good progress on that front. But I wanted to take a moment with my Developer Notes to highlight a feature of this campaign you might not notice unless you're the sort who skips around a Kickstarter page or reads everything very thoroughly. For Steamscapes: Asia, we have already hired not just one but three people to write short stories for the book - Will Hindmarch, Kevin Andrew Murphy, and William F Wu. We consider good fiction writers as essential for our products as good artists are. Allow me to explain why.


Dev Notes 14 - The Rising Tide

"A rising tide lifts all boats." - Shane Hensley, frequently

The Nautilus

Okay, maybe not all, but you know what I mean.

Gen Con was very good this year. Having actual print books at the show makes quite a difference in exposure, and of course it means that people are much more willing to buy your product than if you try to point to a website and say "please go here later." This awareness may make me decide to do some exclusive show-only print copies of our otherwise PDF products, so next year look for information about a special-edition Gunslinger's Guide, and perhaps whatever else we do between now and then. (I think we'll probably manage at least one more profession guide by Gen Con 2015, but I don't know if we will be able to have it in print.) This is speculation, not confirmation, but I am thinking seriously about it.