The development blog of table-top role-playing game "Fight to Survive: Role-playing Martial Arts Meets Heart" by James Kerr
With Fight to Survive I set out to design a rules-tight, internally complete table-top role-playing game on a niche subject, contained within about 200 6" x 8.5" pages. The editorial was complete before the Kickstarter launched. The layout master pages were done. I even had a bit of art. It all looked good. Then, I foolishly promised my Kickstarter backers a set of Preview Rules, and the whole thing balked.
The Central Problem
The whole Kickstarter was, perhaps, too meticulously planned, such that one deviation—the Preview Rules not working—shoved my whole timeline back a month. A preview seemed like a good idea at the time. The problems come down to one simple point: it was already too tightly compacted. If a game has already cut everything unnecessary, extinguished orphaned rules, and jettisoned its self-indulgent extraneous lore, how to you cut it down farther? And, if you can achieve that, then what does that look like—a complete game with no examples? A quick bullet-point summary? That sounds like it would only be useful to someone who already knows the rules. I only want to include in the full game strictly what is necessary for the game in the first place, and if it's 200 pages it's because it was planned to need those pages. There's no way it is can squeeze down to 35 and still be the same game by any shade of its character.
As of yesterday the so-called Preview Rules comprised 150 of the book's 200 pages. I took out the section on character creation, and a bunch of GM resources, references, and sample adventures. I had originally planned to take out a number of other sections as well—revenge mechanics, fighting against an outnumbered group, weapons, special moves—but since the rules structure so depends on its own internal logic, they were slowly added back in. As a "preview", it utterly failed.
Designer Seeks Advice
This weekend I went to the lovely outdoor Hastings D&D Festival where I was pleased to be one of the two guests of honour for my minor accomplishments in the ttrpg industry. I shamelessly used the opportunity to gab with my artist (who I rarely ever get to see in person), iconographer (who wishes I wouldn't credit him, I think) and several other GMs about how to present content in a Preview that is too internally consistent to condense and too wholly approached to repackage.
The advice I got was of three standard natures:
It sounds like you just shouldn't have promised that in the first place. (Thanks. Yes. Thanks for that. Very helpful.)
Is anyone actually asking for that? Just ignore it and keep working on the book. (That would make me feel bad.)
Whatever. Just give them a rough version of the entire thing, you're almost done the whole thing anyway. (That seems like an ugly option.)
Except, one remark stood out, from someone who would probably prefer not to be credited. He said: "Just give people the fighting part. That's like 30 pages, right? That's a good preview."
My gut wrenched at the thought of presenting the fighting rules without the emotional context in which they exist. I know I put more thought into this book and its contents than any player ever will, but the thought of publishing a glimpse of violence without the context of violence, the relevance of that violence, even just to the limited pool of Kickstarter backers, seemed wrong. Still, it has been a month with no update I'm getting poked. Am I being too much of an artiste?
What To Learn From This
The quick lesson, as always, is to under-promise and over-preform. I'm now a month behind my schedule, but luckily so is my artist, and everything in ttrpg publishing goes at the pace of art.
In the end I resolved to put out a 36 page booklet as the Preview Rules which is entirely just the chapter on the rudiments of the fighting structure, some stock characters, and that's it. With it, players can fight basically one on one. What actually makes it a role-playing game, what couches it in meaning, is noticeably absent.
My hope is that the backers will be able to see the glimpses of grander structure, the hints of a larger mechanical body looming behind this tiny little fight preview, and understand what it is I'm trying to achieve.
Or, at least, my hope is that they don't take up their pitch-forks before the rest of the art comes in and I can get the complete book out the door.
Let's see what happens.
Radio James Games