Thursday, 9 May 2013

World building and Kickstarters

After a day in London, and two train journeys with no room for a laptop, I am in thoughtful mood, so you get another of my ponderings.

I am struck by the number of Kickstarters around at present, which can all pretty much be summed up as 'here's an interesting new setting in some genre or other, with some rules and some figures'. To be more accurate, perhaps, "here's an interesting new setting which allows us to sell a set of rules and also lots and lots of figures." And these settings, for all they can range between all the genres under the sun, do have a number of things in common. So let's deconstruct them!

First off, you need conflict. This is, of course, pretty much a given, as we are, after all, talking about wargames. Design a setting which forces side A and side B to have a reason to fight. And make it a convincing one.

Next? Multiple factions. Not always the case - "All Quiet On The Martian Front" sort of technically only has two, Earth (lots of allies) and the Martians, but even so it has multiple Earth allies which allow folks to decide which faction they want. Particularly good for a Kickstarter, because it gives you stretch goals, multiple pledge levels, etc etc. Just ask Mantic, who really have got this whole thing absolutely nailed.

Next? An excuse for any faction to fight any other. This is one of the major tenets of 40K, that it should be possible for any two sides to go to war (and preferably, one side against itself!). Particularly useful for games with a tournament leaning, it does remove the awkwardness of 'blue on blue' battles which are, I gather, not uncommon in the likes of Flames of War or Napoleon at War tournaments.

Next? Fluff. Gotta have fluff, because fluff is what makes the difference between a nice wargame with some interesting factions, and a horde of raving fanboys and fangirls extolling the virtues of their respective in-game ideologies, writing blogs and more fluff of their own, and generating you more sales by word of mouth. Fluff is what makes the conflict believable. And yes, I know 'fluff' is a bit of a dismissive term, but I happen to like it. Heck, I write enough! It's one of the things that gives you immersion in the game, allows you to see it as more than figures on the table.

With fluff comes liberal use of recognisable tropes (look out, I'm going to link to TVTropes.org again!) - they're a lingua franca of fluff that your players can easily identify, and identify with. Look at Space Hulk, Sedition Wars, DeadZone - the Alien trope in full force. Everyone 'gets' it, everyone can see where it's coming from. Highly trained killers in Power Armour are a trope (and no, GW, whatever you call them, you don't have a monopoly on them!). The art, though, is in picking tropes that haven't become clichés: the Alien trope is getting perilously close in the SF gaming genre. Tropes are a shortcut to getting your players (or potential customers, depending on how you want to look at it) to buy into your backstory, but if you want to produce something really good, they're not a substitute for Actually Doing The Work. For that, you need to subvert the tropes a bit. Remember the opening to the very first episode of Buffy, which takes the girl preyed on by vampire trope and turns it on its head? Say... what if we make the aliens the good guys?

By the time you get to about here, you're done. Well... except for a couple of things, namely some rules and some figures. The interesting thing here, and maybe I'm being a bit cynical here, is that of these two, the figures are probably the most visible and yet the easiest. Yes, designing good-looking figures isn't easy, but there are a dickens of a lot of damn good designers out there: find one, feed him or her your setting, ideas and appropriate negotiated financial inducements, stand well back and wait. There's nothing hugely difficult past there - making figures once you've designed them is known, proven, readily available technology.

The funny thing is - the rules (with a few exceptions - oh look! Mantic again!) probably get the least love and attention from the punters out of any of the above when they're looking at that shiny new Kickstarter. And yet, the rules are the one, actually, you really have to get right. And it's hard. Why? Because in several years time, the reason people will keep coming back to this whole game won't be the setting, the fluff, the awesome looking figures... it'll be, purely and simply, do I still want to play the game? Which will be all about the rules, the instantly forgettable, not at all shiny, PDF and/or book that gets none of the publicity and needs most of the love.

I'll leave you with that thought.

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