Game Design by Example: Making an Idea into More

Valkiyries Logo

Valkyries Logo by Brian F’n Patterson

“I have this great idea for a game.”

Have you ever seen or heard someone say that before? In creative circles, it’s a phrase that gets joked about because it’s often followed by some variation on “…and you should make it for me.” This tends to be more true when it comes to writing books than making games, but it points to something interesting:

Taking ideas and developing them into something more is hard.

Take it from the Top

The genesis of the idea for Valkyries was a project that I knew would never happen. To give you some background, the first thing you need to know is that I’ve put well over 1,000 hours into Borderlands 2. Even more if you add in the first game, the Pre-Sequel, and Tales from the Borderlands. I love those games. I love the world, the writing, the characters, and the gameplay. There are definitely problematic parts of it in terms of things like racial representation, which is a shame. The overall game is one that keeps me coming back.

And I wanted to develop a tabletop RPG set in the world of Borderlands.

I did some research and I found, unsurprisingly, that working with a licensed intellectual property like that can be a very difficult, tricky, and expensive proposition. I talked to people in the industry who had experience doing that and I came to realize, very quickly that a property like Borderlands was and is beyond what Exploding Rogue is capable of handling.

However, the idea of a game with some of the same elements wouldn’t leave me alone. I brought the idea to Brian, my partner at Exploding Rogue, and we talked through things. We brainstormed for a few hours that night, going through and discarding different ideas and elements.

The first idea was called Vault Hunters. All we really had after that first conversation was a set of archetypes, based on the character archetypes from Borderlands, and the idea that we wanted to use card-based elements.

You Need to Vet the Idea

This brings us to the first piece of actionable advice: If you’ve got an idea for a game, you need to test it, push it, and see if it’s a viable idea. Some people can do that on their own. They take the idea and they roll it around in their heads, looking at it from different angles. They take the idea and compare it to existing games and projects across a variety of mediums. They do all of that before they mention the idea to anyone.

I take the opposite approach because it works for me. I talk about my ideas early and often. If you could access my entire Twitter archive, you’d see a lot of discussion about games and ideas for games, most of which have been discarded. I propose ideas for settings or mechanics or a type of game, whatever I’m thinking about, and I see how people react to it. I’m a very externally motivated person, so seeing what people think of an initial idea is a good barometer for its viability, at least for me.

However you choose to do it, you need to push your initial idea, put some stress on it and see if it holds up. If it crumbles or doesn’t seem as perfect as you originally thought, that’s fine; move on to the next idea or take the parts of the original idea that did hold up, do something else with them. All of design is an iterative process. I’ve got the corpses of dozens of ideas littering notepads and documents in my computer. Sometimes I go back and harvest a useful bit, other times I know to avoid something because it’s not worked in the past.

After I’ve pushed on an idea some to see how resilient it is, I’ll let it sit for a while. I’ll try to work on something else, even for a day. If the new idea won’t let me go, in the face of deadlines, my day job, and life in general, then I know I’ve got something I want to work on.

From Basics to Something More

After Brian and I talked through this idea, and after I talked about it online, we were left with a couple of key elements. We had the Archetypes, a card-based core mechanic, and we wanted it to be easy to swap weapons, to make choices about gear or what to do in combat easier ones. We bounced around thoughts about using decks of cards for conflict resolution, having individual decks for each player, or a big combined deck that everyone would use.

I’m not going to go into detail about that early draft of the game now, but suffice it to say that I took an early version of it to both my playtest group, and to Games on Demand at Origins. It didn’t hold up, and I knew it was time to move on. There’s a lot more to say about that decision and where it took the game, but I’m going to save that for a future post about playtesting. The take-away is that I kept pushing the idea, and the card-based core mechanic didn’t have enough there to make me want to continue with it, for now.

Still, though, the idea wouldn’t leave me alone. It kept nibbling at me. Then two things happened: I got mad about something online, and (separately) I encountered Demon Hunters.

Take Inspiration Where You Can Get It

I’m not going to digress too far here, but games have a representation problem. Across tabletop and video games both, there’s a lot of white, straight, cisgendered guys, and a lot of content geared towards them. That’s what I got mad about. I was on Twitter, looking at whatever current wave of junk was being leveled at women, or people of color, or people of different genders, or people with disabilities, whomever it deemed to be “other,” by the dominant cultural forces in gaming, and I realized I could do something about it. I mentioned above that Borderlands has some problems when it comes to representation. So with Vault Hunters, why couldn’t I try to do better, to design a game with diversity at the core of its presentation?

Then there’s the system. I wasn’t discouraged after the Origins playtest showed the card-based core mechanic wasn’t working, but it gave me pause. I knew I wanted the game to be a combination of story and tactical elements. I wanted it to be easy to swap weapons, and to simplify the decision-making process when it came to conflicts. I wanted a bunch of item cards, to give that sense of discovery like Borderlands has when you open a loot chest. And I wanted that feeling of leveling up, that ding so to speak. I also knew that I was most comfortable with Fate, but that it wasn’t built to handle those kinds of things, necessarily.

But Demon Hunters might be able to. Demon Hunters is a drift of Fate called Faith Corps, and it uses regular dice. It also has Aspects, which I love. I looked at it and it seemed like there might be components that I could remix and repurpose to meet the desires I had for the game.

I took the idea to Brian and we bounced it around for a few hours that night. What came out of it was no longer Vault Hunters. It had become Valkyries.

After that meeting with Brian, I asked him to work up a logo, and I put together a working project document, something I could reference and use. Thanks to the magic of Google Drive, you can see the very first draft… right now!


Project Brief: Valkyries is a tabletop RPG about group of all-women/trans/NB/agender mercenaries who take jobs raiding planets left for dead by the Galactic Empire.

System: Hack of the Demon Hunters RPG, with heavy card-based elements for easy swapping of weapons, shields, class mods, etc.

Inspirations: Borderlands, Destiny, Dead Iron, Warhammer 40k

Necessities of Presentation: No white dudes in the art, strong cultural representation, possibly afro-futurism.

Practical Concerns: Representation vs appropriation, Norse themes with PoC representation and cultures (more research might be needed, because Norse largely  = white, and we want to be careful there).

Feel During Play: Quick decision-making, weapons/items as abilities to add to die pool, dark humor + hope, badass PCs, feelings of capability, even in the face of incredible odds, large-scale enemies (quantity and size), over-arching theme of fuck the establishment/patriarchy.

System

Demon Hunters uses a modified version of Fate. Approaches are the how of what you do, and they are Forceful, Careful, Clever, Sneaky, Flashy, and Quick.

Augmentations are the what of an action, and they are represented by Guns (combat and tactics), Shields (covert operations), Void Manipulators (mystic powers), Lucerne Tech (research & design), and Personality Hacks (social engineering).

Augmentations can be swapped out during downtime. That means if a character finds a new Personality Hack, they can use it almost immediately. However, some mods take time and effort to install, so if there’s not a professional around to do it, it might not work as well.

Every Archetype will have an Action Skill (rename?) that can be activated by spending a Destiny Point (Fate Point, different name?). That skill will do something special (like a stunt that involves spending a Fate Point).

As well every Archetype will have a Skill tree that evolves as the Valkyrie does. Each tree has three branches, all stemming from the Action Skill. Every augmentation coming from a skill tree will modify potentially any aspect of a character. (This is the most fiddly bit, and could even be optional. Give players dials, so if someone wants to get crunchy and optimized, they can, and if someone wants to stay vanilla, they can as well).

Archetypes

  • Sentinel – Defense, Protection, Improvised Resources
  • Apex – Crowd Control, Healing, Void Powers
  • Tank – Toughness, Explosions, Physical Destruction
  • Ranger – Tracking, Long-Range Kills, Environmental Defense
  • Assassin – Stealth, Infiltration, Misdirection
  • Salvager – Robots, Lucerne Tech, Hacking
  • Leadslinger – Cover, Rapid Attacks, Modifications

That text is still at the top of the working document for Valkyries. I take a look at it every now and again to make sure that I’m staying on track with the design work I’m doing. It’s been edited some at this point, but this is where Valkyries really started to take shape.

Work Your Ideas Over, Help Them Grow

The core takeaway from this post is that you need to put your ideas through the wringer. Every idea seems perfect when it first comes to mind. There’s a rush of new creative energy, and that can be really addictive. It makes it easy to move from idea to idea, never finishing anything.

Finishing is the hard work. Being willing to stomp on your idea, or let others stop, and see if it still holds its shape. You have to be willing to do that or, in my opinion, the core of your project won’t hold. Projects can work if you go from idea to writing to product, but I encourage you to give it time. If you’re looking to publish, then one day your creation isn’t going to be in your hands anymore. You might catch lightning in a bottle and make something perfect from the jump. More likely, you’ll end up with something that really could have used more work. Do that work.

Valkyries! Near You?

Incidentally, the Origins Game Fair is in a few weeks, and I’ll have the current iteration of the game at Indie Games on Demand. If you want to check out the playtesting process first-hand, come see what’s going on.

This post is supported by my Patreon! Also, check out the Exploding Rogue Store for more goodness from me and Brian.