Game Creation Tips: Managing the Conversation
by Leonard Balsera
Fate Core describes a process of collaborative game creation, where everyone participating in the game sits down and, from the vast reaches of empty nothingness, produces an awesome world with dramatic tension to play in.
The hard truth is, doing this isn’t always easy. The game creation chapter is a set of tools for you to use, but it’s not a magic spell. The hard part—the work of joining creative minds in a collaborative atmosphere—still falls to you and your group.
Here’s some advice on how to manage it.
Bringing Your Best You
For as much as we claim to value the experience, it’s kind of amazing how little we (myself included) pay attention to what state we’re in when we show up to game. We’re all busy, burdened by the thousand tiny (and not so tiny) stresses of work and life. We all throw ourselves into various forms of recreation, and we all need to recharge.
Yes, gaming is fun and a great way to blow off steam. Game creation is a little different, though—it requires an effort similar to team sports and it expends energy, albeit mental rather than physical. Active, spontaneous imagining is taxing, and it pays dividends to make sure that, if you’re going to do it, you’re in the best shape you can be.
Obviously, you can’t control when stressors are going to show up and then magically plan your game around them. But you can control some things. Have you rested before the game? Have you eaten? Where’s your energy level? What kind of mood are you in?
It sounds silly, but checking in with yourself before you get to the game can make a huge difference for game creation. The other players are relying on your input as much as you’re relying on theirs. If you feel like the session is something you have to endure or “tough out,” all your energy will go to maintaining instead of participating, or worse, your resentment will bleed into what you create.
Don’t be afraid to be really honest with yourself about how much you’re able to engage with the group, and do what you need to do to get into a good headspace. Take a nap. Get some grub. Blow off steam before you start with a rant session and a couple of beers. Play a board game or watch a movie. Be kind to yourself. It’ll pay off.
And if you’re really, really not feeling it, don’t be afraid to reschedule.
The Collaborative Frame of Mind
If there’s one dirty secret to Fate game creation, it’s this: to do it, you have to want to do it.
Every time I’ve talked to people in depth about game creation gone wrong, as well as every time it’s gone belly up on me, there’s always someone in the group I can point to who didn’t really want to collaborate. I don’t mean that there was an obvious troll out to undermine other players or do anything malicious, but there was someone who, push come to shove, wasn’t open to the ideas of others. They were set in what they wanted to see or not see.
If you come to the table like that, your session will stall. The tools in Fate Core will help you if you use them in good faith, but they can’t stand as a substitute for that good faith. This doesn’t mean that not wanting to collaborate is bad, per se. It just is what it is. If you’re having this problem and you’re open and upfront about it, you can reach a middle ground, which I’ll get into later.
Here are some of my favorite ways to stay on the collaborative track.
Confirm and Build (or “Yes, and…”)
This is an old chestnut from improv theater.
Don’t deny, undermine, or reject anyone’s suggestions about anything, regardless of your initial, visceral reaction. (There are exceptions! If you’re really going to ruin someone’s fun, like with triggering or controversial content, or the group vetoes it as a whole, don’t go there.)
Instead, look at the things your friends say as opportunities, and help them out by offering more detail or greater justification for what they suggest.
So, if you’re making a fantasy setting, and someone is like, “...and there should be robots,” you might be tempted to say no.
Instead, take a breath. Think about how you might make that cool. Maybe they’re magical constructs. Say that. Someone asks if they’re common. Say they’re not common. Someone adds that there’s an elite cabal of wizard-craftsmen who make these things. Someone else says that it’s an ultra rare thing to have even one in your army. Then say, “So what if there was one feared military power that had five of them?”
Now you’re going in a direction that’s way cooler than if you stopped and said, “How do you have robots in medieval fantasy? Forget that.”
Be Simple; Be Obvious
Here’s another one from improv training. It’s almost axiomatic that the harder you try to be anything on the fly—whether it’s dramatic, or funny, or thrilling—the worse you’re going to do. You’re already a fertile ground of imaginative and interesting ideas, but you don’t think of them as imaginative and interesting because they’re yours. Maybe your ideas are rough around the edges, but you have excellent pattern-matching machines to help you refine them, aka the minds of your fellow players.
Though it may seem paradoxical, don’t work too hard to come up with an idea that’s going to be impressive or interesting. Don’t try to be fascinating. Say the first thing that comes to mind. Let the other people at the table be the judge, and give them the freedom to build on what you’ve got. You never know what they’ll consider brilliant.
Hearts of Steel, from the Fate Core book, is a good example of this. The initial pitch grew from a phrase I read on Rob Donoghue’s blog: “Two Guys With Swords.” So I brought that to the table, in all its fantasy cliché goodness. The response I got back immediately was: “Why two?” and someone said, “Maybe it’s an odd man out thing…two guys with swords, and one weirdo.” Then, “Guy without sword!” And we had a laugh, and thus Zird the Arcane was born.
Abandon Your Preconceptions
The game you make in Fate Core will not be the game(s) you have in your mind when you show up. It will not resemble that game at all, or anything you’d have thought of on your own.
Not only is that okay, it’s kind of the point. You have to leave your preconceptions at the door.
Holding onto an idea too tight will impair your ability to collaborate. Of course, you should advocate for what interests you. Whatever you’re fired up about should be the first stuff out of your mouth. But what you suggest to the group is just that—a suggestion, and no more. The other players will add to and develop those suggestions, and you should let them, because they’re showing you what fires them up, what’ll make them eager to game with you.
If we’d held onto preconceptions, we would never had developed “a supers setting” into “super kung fu” into “a super kung fu monkey” into “a super cyber-enhanced kung fu monkey” into “a whole sect of super cyber-enhanced kung fu monkeys” into “a whole sect of super cyber-enhanced kung fu monkeys who have meditative chats over wine,” which is perhaps the best illustration in the Fate Core book. You are welcome.
Leave Blanks On Purpose
If you’re at a roadblock on some element of your game’s premise, simply leave it blank.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of wanting make your world perfectly consistent and rival the worlds your favorite authors have made.
You don’t need to do that. Many of the coolest twists and developments in the settings you love (especially in television) happened because the author left blanks on purpose and then figured out what they meant later, drawing on the strength of creative pattern-matching to make it seem like they’d planned everything in advance.
You can do this too. If you’re at a roadblock on some element of your game’s premise, simply leave it blank—decide that whatever question you’re trying to answer is one of the things you’re going to deal with in play. Allow it to take on the power of mystery.
In Fate Core’s Extras chapter, we tease a setting called Ancestral Affairs, where the PCs draw power from ancestral spirits and use them to (what else?) fight crime. If you’re building that setting and you ask, “What is the precise nature of the guardian spirits?,” you might wander through hours of tangent as people explore different answers to that question.
If you leave it blank on purpose, then “uncovering the nature of the guardian spirits” could become what the campaign’s about, or something you use to reflect character diversity by having different people believe different things about them.
The biggest obstacle to making a Fate Core game is decision paralysis. Even with the constraints we give in the book (drama, competence, proactivity), there’s an infinity of games you could make. You want to narrow that down.
“Want” and “Do Not Want” Lists
You remember where I said above that if you have an idea and you don’t want to collaborate on it, you should just be honest about it upfront?
Here’s why: your “must haves” and “must avoids” make an excellent starting point for talking about what game you’re going to make.
Before you start out, grab an index card and make two columns on it (or use two index cards, as long as you can see the results side by side). One column is for things you really want to see, and the other for things you really do not want to see.
Everyone should write down one of each. It can be just about any trope you recognize from media—a genre, a character type, a setting element, or a plot device—as long as you can state it concisely and clearly (if you can’t, converse about it instead until you can).
Once you have that list, look at it as a whole, and think about what game ideas could incorporate as many of those wants as possible. Some ideas are probably going to jump into your head immediately when you see the “want” list elements together. Voice them! Start the conversation! And don’t worry if you don’t get them all right off the bat—you can always use them as goalposts for later in the campaign.
If one person has a “want” that’s similar to or exactly what someone else has as a “do not want,” put an asterisk or other mark by it before passing on the card. That’s a signal to invite the other person to talk about their objection and see if there’s a way to modify your “want” into something they’ll be okay with.
You might discover that you run into a strong “want” or a fun-spoiling “do not want” in the middle of conversation, also. That’s okay! Add them to the list and use that to refine your constraints.
Break Down Common Media
You and your friends probably have at least some shared experiences watching the same television shows or movies, or reading the same books.
If you can settle on a broad genre, try picking a few examples you all have in common, then break down their elements and tropes. Do this like the “want” and “do not want” lists above, but pick things specific to those media properties. If you only use one property, then that list should be enough; if you do two or three, you’ll want to narrow it down further into a single list that grabs “do” and “do not” elements from all of them.
Then, see if those elements give you any ideas, as above. Don’t try to make a copycat of the properties you just analyzed, but think about how else those same ideas might apply.
(A more detailed treatment of this process is part of Jason Pitre’s Spark RPG, and I’ll admit that I’m a little jealous he found a way to implement it before I did.)
Another way to do this is to name a cliché or trope that everyone understands and is familiar with from other fiction, and then give it one unusual twist, whatever comes to mind. You’d be surprised at how just that one bit of added complexity can stir interest and ideas. (If you need proof of this, you need not look any further than the BBC’s Sherlock, which milks “Sherlock Holmes but in the modern day” for everything it’s worth.)
The TV Guide Summary
The techniques above are all about putting constraints on the front end of the process, but it’s also helpful to put constraints on the back end of the process, giving you a goal to reach.
One such goal could be like the summaries you see in TV listings such as TV Guide. They look like this:
“In (name of game), a group of (main character tie) do (main show action), in a (genre) world where (major setting detail(s)). Rated (rating).”
Being able to articulate what your game’s about in these terms is a good way of making sure that everyone’s on the same page and on board with the idea, so you can get to creating issues and drilling down from there. The main character tie is whatever important commonality binds the characters together, and the main show action is whatever general thing the characters are doing week to week on a reliable basis. In Star Trek, it’s Starfleet officers exploring the planet of the week, and in Fringe, it’s scientists solving what seems to be a supernatural crime. Of course, you’ll deviate from the main action, but it should work as a rough overview of your game.
For the example game in Fate Core, Hearts of Steel, it might look something like this:
“In Hearts of Steel, a trio of troubleshooters (more like troublemakers) for hire do odd jobs for various fief lords and other moneyed interests, in a fantasy world where petty kings squabble over the remnants of a once-unified empire. Rated M.”
Solo Fun, Together
You’re doing it right if everyone’s having fun.
As I said, if you’re having trouble getting into the collaborative mindset and you’re more used to the GM presenting a strong idea that the rest of the group goes along with, you can meet the Fate Core rules in the middle. They’re flexible; you won’t break them.
GMs, if you have a game idea you really want to run, and no one minds, come to the table with your current and impending setting issues already written down. Then, invite the players to develop that foundation further, by discussing the idea, naming organizations or locations, and coming up with issues for those together.
If you have one or two players really interested in a setting element, go ahead and delegate them as the “boss” of that particular element, leading the conversation about it. If no one else has input, just let them make up whatever they want. Everyone doesn’t always have to participate in every part of the collaborative process, as long as there’s an overall sense of people checking in with and listening to each other.
Character creation is also a foundation for worldbuilding, and it’s okay to flit back and forth between them. If you need to have a piece of the game you “own,” start character creation earlier on, and if you end up naming any setting bits you’re tied to, go back into chatting as a group until you’ve fleshed that out, and then return to making your character.
Don’t Worry About Getting It Wrong
Fate Core uses collaboration as a tool to get you invested in each other’s ideas and inject some surprises along the way. It’s simple, but again, it’s not necessarily easy. You’re doing it right if everyone’s having fun. Hopefully, these tools and suggestions will help you get the ball rolling and keep your sessions lively, as they have for me.