The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

From Point A to Z, with Detours along the Way

Jim Dietz

September, 2000

(This essay, in modified form, is part of a collection of essays titled Horsemen of the Apocalypse that concern gaming. The profits from the book are all being donated to a cancer foundation being established in Effingham, Illinois. More information can be found at http://jollyrogergames.hypermart.net/news.htm)

Although I really liked Star Trek VI when it came out, the final climax to the movie left me rolling my eyes (if you know the ending, you can skip ahead a paragraph or so). The Enterprise has defeated the cloaked Klingon Bird of Prey with help from the Excelsior and the command staff from the Enterprise has beamed down to the planet of Kitimer where ceremonies starting the peace talks between the Federation and Klingon Empires have begun. Captain Kirk leaps and saves the Federation Chancellor from assassination, moving faster than the speed of light. The rest of the crew rounds up the conspirators trying to begin a war from both sides. And then, the eyeball roll. The Klingon leader, daughter of their assassinated leader, says, "What is this all about?" And Captain James T. Kirk then begins to explain the movie's not-so-subtle plot for anyone who missed the theme in the first ninety minutes of the movie.

So the question here is the same—what is this all about. I don't have a perfect answer. Heck, I'm still trying to get a GM in any game system to let me try what Kirk did... apparently, the argument "Hey, I'm a PC!" doesn't hold too much weight. Perhaps as the line goes from The Quiet Man, "I'll begin at the beginning, a nice soft day of spring it was...."

I began as a gamer. That is important to realize. Some people come into the field of gaming as writers or artists, others as store owners, and still others by expertise in distribution and the professional services side of manufacturing and printing games. I didn't. I got into gaming for the pleasure of playing games—there was NO other motivation. The very first game came from Boys' Life magazine. It was Avalon Hill's War at Sea. What a nice, simple wargame. It got me hooked into wargames and from there it was an easy descent into the world of miniatures and role-playing. Of course, some people believe that each new type of gaming that comes along is the death knell for older forms of gaming. Personally, I am with Rick Loomis—I disagree. Without that War at Sea purchase, I never would have started playing miniatures or even role-playing games.

The buying habits of gamers have been analyzed to death now. When I hit the age of 16, my purchasing of game material was supposed to decrease, increasing again a few years later when I reached college. At adulthood, my purchases and gaming drops until I leave the hobby permanently. Hah! It sure didn't work out that way. I continued buying games and borrowing books to read, but there was one distinct change—no longer did I use the set-piece adventures provided for games such as D&D (although Tomb of Horrors and Keep on the Borderlands are forever in my mind). I began creating my own worlds, I started altering the timelines of games to fit what I thought was a better timeline. These worlds remained only in notecard and scribble form, but in hindsight, you can see a change in how I viewed gaming. Gaming had gone from being a snack food, munched for a cheap thrill to being a home-cooked meal—something that requires preparation, but is savored in its consumption.

With retrospect, I think this is completely natural. Every body has ideas how to make a product better. As a history teacher, I tend to see much of the industrial revolution and modern era not as an age of invention, but as an age of refinement. Constant, ruthless refinement. Gaming is the same way. But being honest with you—not all of our "refinements" improved the games we played.

So we have a whole decade of time where I tinkered with games, worked on improving them, and generally becoming curious about the mechanics involved with game design. Thinking about it, the focal point of all this was 1992, living in Ohio and playing American Civil War miniatures with a group of guys (Pat, Brian, Ken, Jason, Jim a la Jim, Mario, Stimpy) who also played Mustangs and Messerschmitts. Talk about guys who take tinkering seriously, especially with their M+M stats. That was the point I started edging towards becoming a game designer.

Then, fast-forwarding into the future, in 1995 I had the opportunity to purchase a game store. Raise your hand as a gamer if you've ever wanted to own a game store?? As I thought—your hand is up. It was an eye-opener to be a store owner because my personal gaming time dwindled—I threw myself into my work. To be a successful retailer, you HAVE to be familiar—at least in passing—with more than just your favorite games. If you aren't, you do a disservice to your customer base: "One man's junk is another man's treasure." I took the time to read Vampire and Werewolf, WEBS, Shadowrun, Earthdawn, Hong Kong Action Theatre, Star Wars, GURPS, etc... But I was no longer doing this with the eye of a gamer looking for a perfect product. I was now a store owner looking to make sure that I could help customers with their questions and listen to game stories without being completely clueless about the subject.

That is a big transition and it widened my eyes quite a bit—now I had a much better idea of innovations in gaming and what worked and didn't work. Given my personal background, I should've tried my hand writing game reviews at that point.

While I had been in Columbus during grad school, I created a set of Civil War miniatures rules designed to work in conjunction with Johnny Reb. We used Johnny Reb for tactical fights, but when we reached big battles (such as Antietam), we used my home-grown rules. This worked well until I was booted from my department (having the temerity of believing history belongs to non-historians, I found I was not welcome to be part of the Old Boys Network). At that point, those rules sat in a 5.25" diskette, gathering electronic dust. During 1997 though, in a moment of boredom I dusted them off and began planning a demo game at our store. Over the Fourth of July weekend, we used the rules to recreate the three days of Gettysburg (the good guys won by the way—good guys wear blue). This probably wouldn't have mattered, and would exist only as a memory of a really cool in-store event, except I was getting a bit frustrated as a retailer. While sitting over the computer reworking some rules, I started to think about publishing the rules. It was September 1997 that saw the beginning of the end for me as a retailer—I decided I wanted to try my hand as a designer.

As an author (or artist I am sure), there is a paradox: You can't get published without having experience, and without being published you can't get experience! Rejection is part of writing. If you cannot handle rejection, art of any sort is not for you. Unfortunately, I was met with rude comments such as "Ummm…every gamer thinks he can create a good game. You're no different. We're not interested." or "Sorry, we don't deal with novices." Fascinating since I've been gaming for 20+ years to be called a novice. Even more funny is being told that less than six hours before winning an Origins Award this year. That company rep didn't even look towards my booth when he walked past the next day! It seems funny now, but the manner of rejections like this when I was starting left me rather angry and it was that second comment about novices that led me to start my own company, Jolly Roger Games.

But while I now had the desire and intention of becoming a publisher, I was still clueless about important parts of the publishing world. After all, it IS easy to create rules for yourself, but to publish them requires finding artists, printers, and getting the game into the hands of stores and customers if you are going to do it right. Digressing for a second, this leads to the issue of free games available via the Net vs. ones you have to pay for in a store—is there necessarily a difference in quality? No, I don't think so. But I still wind up buying the games in the store; if someone thought enough of a game to sink $20,000 into it and back that product up with support and distributors and game stores, they will get my support as a gamer. Money talks in so many ways we don't always pay attention to.

And now, we return to the previously scheduled narrative:

The first person I spoke with was Ron Magin who currently handles imports for Eurogames (makers of cool games like Formula De), but was working for a distributor at the time. Ron asked me several questions I couldn't answer, but rather than become abrupt, said "You aren't ready to deal with me yet. Call this company and they'll give you the help you need. Then you'll be ready to talk to me again in a month or so." Yes, this was "rejection" but I wasn't ready to talk to a distributor yet. Ron referred me to a company that helps with pre-production work in creating games and books. And unlike past rejections, Ron provided constructive help that would allow him to make a fair evaluation of my product later on.

The company Ron referred me to was Heartland Publishing. I learned what info a distributor needed, I learned the basics and preferences of printers, I learned how to talk with artists—and continue to learn from the Jolly Roger art director, Steve—without appearing to be an idiot. I then went back to distributors AND now knew how to talk to them. This made a significant difference, and soon I had my product picked up by several distributors: Blackhawk, Berkeley, Chessex, and Greenfield. JRG was off and running!

(Of course, I should put JOL since that is my industry abbreviation. Only at my first Origins did I find out that JRG had already been assigned to Johnny Reb Games.)

Of course, historical miniatures systems aren't always huge runaway best-sellers, certainly nothing a person can make a living from. While A NATION ON TRIAL was at the printer's, I had to create a long-term vision for where JRG should go. Believe it or not, my rejections in the past affected that philosophy as well as how JRG still works.

I think people with ideas SHOULD have them examined, regardless of past publishing experience. I vowed to examine every game sent to me—there would be no cursory "Get out of our face" notes. It doesn't mean every game is accepted for publication though, and that is tough. It sounds corny, but I would rather receive a rejection slip than write one. If you decide to send "your baby" to a company, remember that a rejection does NOT mean you have a poor product. It may simply mean that the game can't be fit into a company's production schedule or it may not fit their corporate vision.

In that regard, I turned down one game because it involved demons and one player HAD to be a demon (the bad guy). Due to personal beliefs, I can't publish that. The game was well thought out, but certain themes are a "no". Of course, I publish games where carnage is okay ranging from zombies (Maul of America) to TV gladiators with chain cannons (Last Man Standing), but demons and eating people—that I can't do. The easy way around this of course is to ask questions regarding things like theme up front—Marc at Heartland will not do products that involve any nudity or R-rated cover material. Other companies have similar standards (or lack thereof).

Heck, if you believe in your game and receive a rejection, send it to another company right away. But never, ever, ever submit a product to more than one company at a time. It can lead to problems—what if both accept it? What then? Be patient and give a company 4-6 weeks to look a product, then move on to someone else.

Anyway, those rejections I received meant that if someone contacted me with a new idea or product, I was going to take a look at the idea, long and hard. Each boardgame Jolly Roger has produced to this point has been a first for that designer. The first RPG Swashbuckler! was built around a combat system created by someone who hasn't been published and the adventure book for Swashbuckler! that is out features a new manner of organizing an adventure created by Marc Miller (yes, the same guy who created Traveller).

This brings about the topic of inspiration. Where does it come from? For me, it comes from very odd places or almost "scientific" attempts to work with specific game mechanics. For every game I have published (or had accepted for publication), there are four that I have completed that will probably never see the light of day, as well as ANOTHER four that exist as notes and small bits that are probably not decipherable for any other human being.

I have found two types of inspiration—the practical and the brainstorm. Practical inspiration sounds like a contradiction of terms. What I mean by that is that a designer is approached by another person to make a specific game—the theme or the mechanics already exist and the designer has certain things he MUST have in the final product. The designer is therefore able to work within an existing framework, and this is always easier to do. For Orcs at the Gates, I was asked by Jolly Blackburn to create a game for Knights of the Dinner Table that was just like Maul of America. Easy, to the point. (While similar though, the games are different—Maul is simpler and more balanced, while Orcs is more perverse, unbalanced and it helps to get the in-jokes regarding the comic)

The other type is the brainstorm. One game that I created (mainly for amusement) is called "Crash, Burn, and Die." It came about as an attempt to merge Formula De with the old arcade game called SpyHunter. But along the way, mechanics became necessary for various weapons and types of cars. And this all went through my head as I walked past an arcade and saw an old SpyHunter machine. CBD exists on two sheets of scrap paper. Its failing is the same as other combat/racing games (like Circus Maximus): the optimal solution is to take a faster vehicle and get the heck away from the pack of heavy vehicles that can kill you.

Swashbuckler! came about over a dinner conversation about Cary Elwes and his role in Glory. Of course, it then evolved into a discussion of his duel with Mandy Patinkin in The Princess Bride, and we lamented that we couldn't think of many RPGs that were capable of simulating that swordfight and the repartee that went along with it. Yes indeed, Swashbuckler! the RPG is completely built around the combat system. I confess. No one minds though that a Corvette is uncomfortable—you know what it is there for. Swashbuckler! is the same way; heck, you should get it for the combat system and it is easily adapted to light saber duels or fantasy genres.

Where else is there inspiration? For a sci-fi RPG under construction, the initial premise for what exists/doesn't exist came about from an article on the ABC News website about the Earth's rotational speed. BLAMMO!!! A world was born. A boardgame being playtested came about because of a song on the radio one afternoon while sitting in a Chinese restaurant! The look on my wife's face as I started writing on the napkin was quite funny. So what is this about?? If an inspiration hits you, run with it. Run right away. Write it down with as much information as possible to jog your memory at some future date. Honestly, the idea may be hare-brained and not worth the napkin you wrote it on, but sometimes it is more than worth it. Also, as I get old and senile, I find that if I don't write the idea down immediately, sometimes it disappears.

But the best inspiration—and authors/artists will admit this if pressed—comes from looking at the work of others in that field. If you look at almost every aspect of society over the past 200 years, very little is brand-spanking-new. Much of what exists is the process of refinement and gradual improvement. I personally think that games work the same way. There are seminal points that you can talk about in gaming. Examples include the creation of hexsheets as a system for wargames—check out historical games and look at just how many use hexes for movement, etc.. What would have happened if a company like SPI patented the use of hexes for maps? It would have stunted the growth of gaming (any similarities to other companies patenting how to turn cards isn't intended…). The development of dice other than six-sided is important. In business circles, I guess the cheesy phrase-o-the-moment is "thinking outside the box."

But you don't need to "invent" to "create"—in fields such as writing, aspiring authors imitate their favorite authors. They go to schools to examine great literature, to study the masters. So when it comes down to the nuts and bolts of it—gaming is no different. Imitation is one form of flattery.

The best example I can use is Swashbuckler! (since I created it). The game is built around the combat system—which was created from the ground up with no outside influences beyond literature and movies. But I have been told that the old game Flashing Blades is extremely similar. The experience and improvement sections were influenced by the Star Wars RPG by West End Games—I liked the fact that improving skills becomes harder as a character becomes more advanced. The attributes were affected by Pendragon. Pendragon is a game about more than combat. In it, characters have passions. For Swashbuckler!, this shows in what the attributes are—Romance is an attribute! Heck, as I write this, I can see how Bushido's system of Budo and On affected the issue of character reputation. It wasn't a conscious influence, but you CAN see it if you look close enough. A designer's preferences are shaped by the games he has played and enjoyed—and if you look closely, that can be due to the friends you game with, not just the mechanical aspects of the game at hand.

So although Swashbuckler! is completely different and "new", it borrows from the work of other writers who have come before. Hopefully, it is a refinement that improves gaming, that sparks the players and helps them have fun. At the very worst, a reader can say "Hey, I'da done THAT differently" and like a man and his car, start tinkering with the system to tweak it into top performance.

I guess it goes back to a comment made by a teacher I had in junior high long ago: "Open your mind and say 'Ahhhh!'" The process of making games is a lot of work, and I never would have dreamed back when I graduated from school that I would wind up making games (God save me, I wanted—WANTED—to work for the government!) for a living. But I wouldn't stop doing this for the world, and I would bet that every essayist in this book feels the same way. They may not stick with RPGs, but may move to computer games or to boardgames—but how can you not love games?

- Jim Dietz

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