Right now I am sitting here, not wanting to write an article. Not that I don’t love writing to you all, but rather this article is between me and further game design work I am doing, and I have fallen into the design rabbit hole; a place where nothing matters other than designing—not eating, not sleep, not anyone else, just a burst of ideas on a page as you try to make a thing. Today’s article is not about the rabbit hole, rather it’s why I am in the hole. That starts last week at Origins . . .
When A Playtest Goes Bad
So I was at Origins, and I was running a playtest of Hydro Hacker Operatives for a group of close friends that I only see at conventions. I was very excited to show off the game to them, as I have run it a number of times now, and I am pretty proud of the Hydro Hacking mechanics. The mechanics are a push your luck card based (was token based) game that simulates the flow of water.
During the playtest, I began to notice something. The Hydro Hacking mechanic was working (it has its own way of building tension), but what I realized was that no one was role-playing—their tension was from the players engaging the mechanic, which is something you see more in boardgames. Truth be told, the Hydro Hacking mechanic is very boardgame-like, and it was something of a sticking point for me.
You see, as a boardgame mechanic it works great. People who get to the hack have this fantastic time of turning cards and seeing if they can get the water they need before the hack comes crashing down. But as part of a role-playing game, I was noticing that there was not a lot of role-playing happening at the table, and that upset me. This was a group of people who represented my test audience for the game—and the game was not doing what it needed to.
As the playtest wrapped, I realized that I was going to have to do the hardest thing a designer has to do . . . Kill My Darling.
Killing Your Darlings
The phrase originally comes from William Faulkner, who said:
“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”
Not to get too scholarly today, but what I got from Faulkner’s quote was: don’t hold onto anything in your writing; that the story is the most important thing. Do what the story demands. Holding onto a character, location—even an idea—can prevent you from making the best possible story.
That same thing holds true in game design. No matter how awesome you think a mechanic or a chunk of setting is, if it isn’t working it’s got to go.
And that was where I was. The Hydro Hack mechanic, by itself, works great; players love it. As part of a role-playing game, it was not working. In fact, it was not only not working, but it was impeding actual role-playing. There it was—my darling, the first mechanic I designed for the game. It was lying on the altar, helpless. I was standing over it, knowing there was only one thing I could do—so with a silent prayer to Faulkner, I raised the editorial blade and in one downward stroke, I cut the mechanic from the game.
There Is Always Another Solution
With the resignation to remove the Hydro Hack mechanic, it created a space to come at the idea fresh. With six different playtests under my belt, I had a much better feeling for what needed to take its space. So I got some paper and a pencil and went to work. I sat with my fellow designers and hashed out my ideas, got input, and kept iterating.
I got home from Origins with a sheaf of pencil scribbled paper. I wanted to start designing right away, but first—Con Drop. I spent three days exhausted and emotionally drained as my body acclimated back to the world.
Then I got in front of a keyboard and started to design. Using the notes as a guide and keeping an eye on the target of a more role-play-centric mechanic, I went to work. The initial design came quickly, in about 2000 words; I needed to pause and make the Hacking Sheet, in Illustrator, that would be the focus of play; I needed to update the six playbooks with Moves to work with the new system; I needed to finish the remainder of the rules, with another 2000 words; I found a problem with part of the rules and brainstormed some ideas on how to fix it. That was two days of work. In between, I watched some Steven Universe, watched some Young Justice, and read a bit of Blades in the Dark.
Honestly, the new system looks pretty good. It’s a much better fit for the game than the original system. I am going to be playtesting it soon so that we can start working out the kinks.
Not All That Is Killed Is Dead
So that board game mechanic that worked so well? It’s not dead. I took all the materials and put them on the side. With a little work, that is totally going to be a board game. I just need to remove a few of the role playing parts from it, and it will be set.
See, the thing about your Darlings is that you may need to kill them from your current project, but that does not mean they are bad or broken. Sometimes they are, but other times they are just not the right fit for the project you are working on. So you keep them, you put them in a folder, and you dig them out later to repurpose them.
That deck building, push your luck game of hacking water—that board game is coming. It’s coming after I finish the role-playing game. For now, that darling will sit in a folder until I have some time to get back to it.
Now, I need to climb back into the rabbit hole and get to work. This is the first time in months I have been truly inspired to work, and when you have momentum, you take it. So until next time, love your darlings, but never be afraid to kill them when you need to.