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The Afterworld - General presentation of the project / Design idea number 1: finding inspiration

The big lines of my PnP RPG project: The Afterworld, along with a small design leeson I learnt while working on this game: how to find inspiration, and when is it justified to take ideas from what others have done before you.

Adam Rebika, Blogger

August 12, 2012

8 Min Read

So, it is time for me to give you a bit more details about this project I talked about in my introduction post: The Afterworld.

I came up with the concept of this game something like three years ago, but the first draft got basically destroyed by my players in the very first play test. At the time, I obviously lacked the skills and experience to make a system and a setting that really would have worked together. But I did not give up, and, after spending a lot of tim gaining experience on smaller scale projects, today I believe I finally am ready to get back to this project for once and for good.
Now, let me give you more details about this game. The idea here is that players incarnate (well "incarnate" might not be the right word but whatever) dead souls wandering in the Afterworld. More precisely, it starts with the hypothesis that human souls pass through thousands of reincarnations until they are freed from this cycle by achieving, during one of their lives, their ambition.
The ambition is the main motive that guides everybody through their lives,  the one thing they long for more than anything else. It can be power, pleasure, knowledge... Anything that is strong enough to guide one personn through her life. This is one of the central points of both the gameplay AND the universe. The players do not level up by killing monsters or gaining XP, but by achieving always bigger goals all related to their ambitions. This creates deep links between the evolution of the story and the evolution of the characters, since the goals quickly become so big and hard to reach that they will need strong dedication from the players. I believe it can also create interesting group mechanics, as the players will have to pick whose goal they will pursue (and of course, most GMs know that these goals can and will quickly contradict each other).
The consequence of this mechanic on the setting is that the players will navigate in a world in which everyone is trying to fulfill very accurate goals, and most social interactions will be centered around this idea. People will only help you if it helps them pursue their own ambitions.

As I said earlier, this setting is based on the idea that, before reching the Afterworld, every soul had to go thrugh countless reincarnations. And during the course of the game, they can switch reincarnation almost at will.
When they first start the game, they only have their latest reincarnation, the one during which they fulfilled their ambition. But every time they reach a new goal, they unlock another reincarnation. Basically, they can, at any moment, decide to reroll a new character. For example, imagine someone who's ambition was power. He achieved it during a life in which he managed to become a high ranking politician. Of course, his skills will be very useful for social situations, as he can easily negociate. Then he unlocks a new reincarnation, during which he was a viking warrior. So, if he gets in a situation where he needs to fight, he will switch from 20th century politician to viking warrior.
Of course, this quickly kills the idea of character specialization, but in a PnP RPG, I think this is not something fun. Indeed, imagin a group of 4 players: two of them specialize in social skills while 2 specialize in fighting skills. If the group has two fight, two characters will be acting, while the two other one will just stand aside and watch. And if the players have to negociate something, two of them will be talking while the two other ones will be waiting. Basically, you will always have a part of your table which is bored while the other part is having fun. Here, everyone can join the fun at any moment.
And the fact that, do to so, they have to change the appearance and personnality of their character (while not compeletly changing the character, since they still are the same personn, somehow) allows the game to avoid having a group of mary-sues who can do anything at the same time: the player can do anything, but the character still has limitations, if you can grasp the difference.

Well, I think I have said enough for today, I'll give more details about the game in a few weeks. For now, I would like to talk about a more generalist subject: the sources of inspiration when it comes to creating something new.
I do not believe that the human mind can actually create anything really new: we can only adapt things we saw somewhere else. Every idea you will ever get will actually come ffrom something you saw, heard, or experiencned.
Now, this is not an excuse to copy what others have done. We can only adapt things, but the upside is that we are not bound to adapting things inside the same domain. The secret to being really innovative is being able to find new sources of inspiration, that no one had thought of before.
To do so, you should always be open and curious. The world is teeming with ideas that only want to be used, and that can be found very easily. Do something you've never done before, look around you when walking in the street, go watch a movie that you would never have gone watching, pick a random book at the library. Of course, you may not appreciate it, but not being taken away by an experience is the best way to study it and study why some other people like it.

But taking ideas from what others have done before in your same domain, can, in some specific situations, be good, too. The idea here is that it is not because someone did it before that you mustn't do it. You only have to find the right balance.
What's the difference between things we should and things we shouldn't copy?

  • What you shouldn't copy is what makes the identity of your game: the setting, the story, the characters, or some specific game mechanic.

  • What you should copy is what supports the identity of your game: the control schemes, some basic gameplay mechanics etc.

If you want an example, take Darksiders. As pretty much everybody who has played this game found out, it does follow a very Zelda-like pattern. Get into a new area, find the dungeon, get the item, the map and the boss key, kill the boss, move on to the next area thanks to your new item. But I do not believe anyone ever thought, while playing this game, that he was playing Zelda: the game still has its own very strong identity.
In this case, I believe taking a Zelda-like pattern was a good idea, since it served the other gameplay elements right. The developers did not waste their time and resources trying to find something new because Zelda did it before.

Same goes with the control schemes. Have you noticed how, in pretty much every shooter, you move with the left stick, aim the right one, shot with the right trigger?
And you hsouldn't blame the developers for sticking to that control scheme:  since players have grown used to it now, making a game where you would change it just for the sake of changing it. When a player picks a new shooter game, he does not need to adapt, he can start playing right away.

In The Afterworld, I quickly found out what constitutes the identity of my game: the ambitions and the reincarnation system. So, for the other elements, I just looked around what other PnP RPG games did, and picked what works the best: players have some attributes, some skills, and every diceroll's outcome is determined by the related attribute and skill. Now, I did not copy-paste another system, but I allowed myself to copy the main lines that so many games use. And, like what happens with FPS games, this will drastically reduce the time the players spend learning the basic mechanics, allowing them to spend more time learning the more elaborate ones and getting familiar with the universe.

So, to conclude, you can allow yourself to pick ideas from other games if:

  • these ideas do not define the identity of your game;

  • these ideas do not define the identity of the game you're copying;

  • the time you saved doing so allows you to focus on the innovations that define the identity of your game.

Thanks for reading!

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