Developing tabletop games like software

I’ve been working on The Long Con in my free time, and when I haven’t been working on it, I’ve been musing over the development philosophy.  I don’t know if what I’m doing is that much different than other open source role playing games.  I haven’t really explored the open source RPG community, I just know that it exists.  So, at the very least, I can say that I haven’t been influenced by any of those ideas.  I’ve probably said it before, but I’ll deign to repeat myself: I’m modelling the development of the game after software development, particularly open source software projects.  What does that mean exactly?  Well, I’ve had quite a bit of time to think about it.

Get the 1.0 out as quickly as possible

Despite the wave of betas and user-previews that we’ve grown accustomed to, from our email software to our Twitter clients to our online timesucks, a beta version is what it is: incomplete.  It’s beta because it hasn’t yet fulfilled the requirements of an official release.  And while we’ve settled with Good Enough for years, particularly with Gmail, in other cases, a pre-release version of the software can be damaging to the inevitable release of the final version.

Let’s take Wine as an example.  Wine is a Windows emulator for Linux, able to run Windows binaries as Linux-native applications.  The goal for 1.0 was to make Wine a workable environment for most major Windows desktop applications like Microsoft Office, Adobe Creative Suite and other apps that people use most frequently.  The theory was that when those apps could install without any problems, they’ve reached their 1.0 landmark.

This would have been great when we were looking for a viable Windows alternative operating system.  It would have thrown Linux right out there for its inherent cost-effectiveness, frequent, integrated updates, and ability to get things done right.  However, the world that needed Wine 1.0 was not the world that finally greeted Wine 1.0 when it was completed.  We needed Wine 1.0 when we were trudging through Windows ME or hanging onto the buggy Windows 98.  When Windows XP came around, it was a minor improvement, but still we had no other revolutionary options — Mac OSX wouldn’t be released for another year.  By the time Wine 1.0 was complete, we had two actually really good operating systems to choose from with an OSX well into its development cycle and Windows Vista and then 7 a year later.  The time when Wine could have turned Linux into a powerful alternative for the masses in the operating system market was passed — we already had pretty good options.

Matt Mullenweg, founder of Automattic and one of the major forces behind WordPress said in a presentation a few years ago

Get out of version 1.0 of your product as soon as possible.  Even if it sucks.

The idea is that you want people using the software, breaking it, trying it in new ways that you didn’t think of when you were writing it.  Get the 1.0 out so real people, not just coders, developers, and nerds are the ones actually using it.

One of the core ideas of development for The Long Con is to build a simple, solid, usable system as quickly as possible.  Much like the structure of WordPress itself, the core Long Con system will contain only as much as is absolutely necessary or beneficial for the enjoyment of the game.  New features, rules, add-ons can be added and expanded later.  What I have now — I think — is a solid beta.  It’s rough around the edges.  It’s untested.  But I believe it’s a usable system and even has some flourishes for advanced and (what I deem to be) unique rules and features.  After we run our seminal test game and clean up some of the documentation, it should be ready for a 1.0 release.

Does this mean it’s done?  Absolutely not.  There are several major components that are missing, including GM-less play, that I have planned and still want to include.  However, I’ve decided that those can and should be added at a later upgrade.  Plugins weren’t added to WordPress until 1.2, and themes weren’t added until 1.5.  Now entire businesses are built on custom plugins and themes, and the official WordPress plugin repository stores over 10,000 unique plugins.  Which leads into the next point:

Never stop developing

What the hell happened between Dungeons and Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons?  There was, like, an epic gap, and AD&D only marginally resembled the original D&D.  Times, trends and ideas change.  I co-wrote a system called Goth: the Corruption — a sort of goth-centric take on Vampire: the Masquerade — somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 years ago.   It hasn’t been touched since.  Is that system topical and relevant?  Probably not.  Could it be?  Absolutely.  Even Vampire, which it was inspired by, has gone through some pretty revolutionary changes since the time GtheC was written, including two major revisions and a rebranding.  The difficulty of tabletop game systems is that once the game is printed, that’s it, it’s set in stone.  The current edition of Dungeons and Dragons sort of gets around this by releasing updated rules for .5 releases, but there’s still a lot of time in between a 3.0 and a 3.5 and when the 3.5 or the 4.0 is released, that means your players and storytellers need to go out and buy a whole new stack of books.

Software doesn’t have to work that way.  Sure, when the new version is released you need to — in some form or another — download the updated copy.  By making your software free-as-in-beer, you make it easier for your user by taking out the cost concern of getting the upgrade.  Keeping frequent updates and keeping your users informed of them — and why they should care about the updates — encourages users to grab the most recent version even if there’s a minor inconvenience.  If we applied this to gaming, it’s the equivalent of Wizards of the Coast coming up with an awesome new system for the next version of D&D but it would otherwise need to wait for the next official release.  You could wait, or you could download a “patch” that you could keep as an e-book (or in some other form) and print out or email around to your players and start using this Saturday.  Who wouldn’t want to be using the most updated version of the rules if they added cool new things you could do and you could get it delivered to your inbox automatically for free?

One of the key elements of getting the 1.0 out as quickly as possible and delaying important features or milestones to later releases when you can focus more attention to them is that it keeps you focussed.  Complete this task right here and don’t worry about feature x over there, that’s scheduled for 1.3.  It doesn’t matter when 1.1 and 1.2 come out, and it doesn’t matter if they come out in short succession if that’s the way it works out.  What matters, as a game (and software) developer is that you remain focussed on only what’s in front of you and that what’s in front of you is the most important thing you need to be working on for the project right now.

Along with that is to set a goal to have tangible results in a set period of time.  WordPress’ goal is to release 3 major version updates each year.  This holds you accountable to continuing development and making sure your project doesn’t stagnate.

Allow for modding

One of the most transformative features added into the Dungeons & Dragons system after Wizards of the Coast took over from TSR was making the D20 system open source.  AD&D was great, and the plethora of expansion sets and storytelling resources were far-reaching.  Sets like RavenloftPlanescapeForgotten Realms and Dark Sun changed the whole landscape of the type of story you could tell.  But even so, you were still confined to those systems, those worlds.  And some of us like to tinker.  Others of us wonder what it would be like to play a game set in an obscure TV show for which a standalone game hasn’t been built.  Enter D20.

My first exposure to the D20 system was through the Babylon 5 game.  I knew of the major changes in D&D 3rd ed. after Wizards of the Coast took it, but I didn’t realize the D20 system had become open property.  The idea that you could take the core gaming system and overlay any scenario or world you could think of on top of it was brilliant, and allowed independent publishing houses and armchair game developers the opportunity to build a game without having to worry about the system.  It enabled players to enter into a brand new game without having to re-learn core rules and systems (since it’s fairly likely that you would have played at least one D20 game in your lifetime).  In short, it made tabletop RPGs more like what PC games had been doing for years, since the very first Doom mods put you in Homer Simpson’s shoes as you ate donuts and beer through Doom’s maze-like levels.

In The Long Con, there are three major ways the game can be modded and further developed without touching the core rules; Plugins, Modules and Extensions.  Each takes a page from open source software developing.  Plugins are add-ons that add new features or rules to the core system.  Developing a LARP system around The Long Con might be a plugin (albeit a really big plugin), as would adding or replacing Skills to make the game more action-packed.  Modules are sourcebooks that contain NPCs and bad guys.  Modules are crucial to GM-less play, since to play without a GM you would be relying solely on material from modules.  Extensions are full scenarios or worlds.  Extensions can contain plugins and modules (in fact, they probably should), and might also have unique world information and data.  One of the things that appealed to me about The Long Con as a game concept was that it’s not time period-centric.  I think it’s fairly safe to say that since the dawn of man, there have been con artists.  So you can run the game in any time period or world scenario you can think of, from steampunk to space opera to gritty war dramady.  I envision extensions expanding the game system almost indefinitely.

Engage the community

The reason I wanted The Long Con to be open source was to encourage community involvement.  (And once the 1.0 is done, I’ll start fencing it around the greater gaming community to see if there’s any interest.)  The last thing I want is to be the only one playing or writing for The Long Con, but I see it as being appealing to an audience far greater than just me.  Not just in the playing aspect, but in the building and developing aspect.  I had no idea, going into this, that open source gaming even existed, I was just going off of being really passionate about the GPL and what we were doing over on Museum Themes under the GPL.  The idea struck me — hey, this doesn’t have to apply to software.  Building a community of fellow passionate users reinforces all the other points and keeps you going when you otherwise might throw the project along the wayside.

Again, I have no idea if applying an open source software philosophy and approach to building a role playing game is an original idea.  But it feels right.  More than that, it feels like it might benefit the development of the game in a way that a traditional, linear approach wouldn’t.  It’s easy to find yourself overwhelmed by the amount of work or to just put a project like this on hold and then forget about it.  I believe that applying this kind of approach can seriously combat that, put your idea into a framework, and potentially transform it from an idea to an actual completed and viable work.

Applying open source to gaming

I had an idea the other night that has stuck and won’t go away.  It’s a concept for a role playing game called The Long Con. It’s based, in part, on the BBC TV series Hustle, which is about a team of grifters who practice “the long con.”  Unlike short cons, your standard street cons, or African Prince email cons, or other internet cons, long cons are elaborate, tailored to the mark’s weaknesses, and generally involve multiple parts and players.

So the basic premise of the role playing game is that you’ll be a con artist and the skills you pick will sort of determine your specialty.  But because we don’t often have the opportunity to play stuff like this for other people, I had the thought that we could throw in a twist, and make it possible to play without a GM.  In that case, you’d need to use modules, which are essentially add-on packs filled with characters and stats.  You would roll for finding your mark, and your roll would determine which mark in the module you wound up with.  Based on the information you can gather about the mark, you would need to come up with an appropriate con and your success or failure would depend on how well you were able to read the mark.  So, it would be a little bit like choose-your-own-adventure, and a little bit like Clue, and a little bit like those old Dungeons & Dragons adventure packs.

The other thing that’s cool about the game concept, I think, is that cons aren’t specific to a particular time or place, so there’d be room for expansion packs which could add specific environments, say the Western United States in the 1800s (before the states were established), or Nazi Germany, or the future.  Whatever.  Expansion packs would have information on the setting and include modules with marks specific to that environment.

Expansion packs and modules wouldn’t be exclusive to solo- or GM-less play, either — a GM could use the supplemental material in their ongoing campaign, or solo players could play solitaire with the prefabricated characters and settings.  Obviously it would be more fun the more players you had involved, but my idea is that you could do it with as few as two players or even by yourself.  I want the system to have as much in common with a CCG as with a standard RPG.

Since I’ve been thinking a lot about the GPL for Museum Themes and, most recently, about that Thesis thing, and since this project has a scope that is much larger than I could conceivably build by myself in my limited free time, I had the idea of making the game open source — building a website (probably a Wiki) that allowed for collaborative contributions in the areas that need developing.  My thought was that rather than playtesting like: “here’s my game, now I’m going to run it,” I wanted to be able to say “here’s my game, now you run it” and be able to remain somewhat outside and let the problems arise organically and addressed based on other players’ experience rather than cobbled together on the fly.

I figured that I probably wasn’t the first person to think of this, but I wasn’t aware that there was an Open Gaming License, nor that Wizards of the Coast adopted it for 3.0 of Dungeons and Dragons (though it makes a lot of sense — I wondered how the d20 system derivatives could exist without copyright infringement: answer, they’re based on D&D 3.0 (or later), which was released under the OGL).  I’m not sure that I will end up releasing the game under the OGL as opposed to a Creative Commons or GPL license, but it’s good to know that there’s already an existing community of open games that I could dive into and potentially get some contributors.  I’ll be looking at the terms of different licenses and see which fits best.  I’m tentatively leaning toward just GPL’ing everything I do, including music, from now on as a sort of statement, but I want to consider all the options individually to see what the best option really is.

Anyway, that’s my new project.  So far I have approximately none of the above completed, just some very rudimentary rules (it’s d10-based) and skills.  And if you care to know, this all came out of e trying to play a con artist in another RPG and then both of us subsequently realizing that to really play a con in an RPG it would require a whole lot more finesse and a range of skills that wasn’t really allowed for in the rules.  You’d sort of have to have the GM be in on it, or at least meet you halfway, and if that’s not the case, then the only other option would be actually conning your friends which may or may not go over so well.