Series Info...#2: Development

by Travis S. Casey
February 23, 2001

Last time in this space, I wrote about how to get ideas (if you missed it, check out the archives). An idea is the first thing you need, but it really isn't the hard part – lots of people have ideas for games, but few of them ever really do anything with those ideas. It's doing something with ideas – development – that really separates the wannabees from the real thing.

To make an idea real, it's best to do it in two stages: first, take that idea and plan out what you need to do to fully realize it. This doesn't have to be a detailed, step-by-step plan, but you do have to have a picture of where you're going – otherwise, you're likely to head off in a direction, discover that it's not really what you want, and then have to backtrack. For a formal game design, you'd take the idea and create what's called a design document, which would specify what the game will do in enough detail for someone to program it.

You're not likely to need quite that level of detail to start with, but you do need to have a clear idea of where you want to go – of the big picture. So that's where we'll start.

Think Big

When you're first thinking of what you want your gameworld, adventure, or whatever to be like, you should try to think on a large scale; that is, covering lots of ground, but in very little detail. Think of this as an outline stage – you want to make sure that you have everything you need in there, but you'll fill in the details later. Right now, plan beyond what you think you'll need to start with.

Why think big? For three reasons: first, because projects almost always grow beyond what you initially think they'll be. Second, because having already thought about things beyond what you need right away allows you to foreshadow what's coming. Third, for consistency; by having an idea of what you might want to add later, you can make sure that the early parts of what you create will be consistent with what you create later.

Exactly what you're doing in the way of an outline at this point depends on what you're developing. If it's a gameworld, you're going to want to make maps; historical timelines; lists of important people, places, and things; capsule summaries of kingdoms and cultures; and other such "guidebook" info about the world. For an adventure, you'll want a general plot idea; fallback ideas for what happens if players derail that plot; maps; capsule summaries of important NPCs; and so on. At this point, you're keeping everything brief and loose – lists, sketches, a sentence or two about what an NPC is like. You'll fill in the details later.

Start Small

It's later. You can go on refining a general outline forever, and some people do that – but if you want to actually make something, at some point you're going to have to say, "Good enough," and move on, past the broad outline stage.

If you've done the first stage well, you've got a lot of stuff sketched out. Now you're going to need to choose which part of it to detail first. For a small project, like an adventure, you may wind up detailing most of what you sketched out; for a larger one, however, chances are that you're never going to detail everything. That's good – it means that your creation will always be able to grow, which will help to keep it interesting to players.

At this point, then, you need to stop and think about where you want to start. If you're introducing something big, like a world, you need to pick something that's going to be interesting to players, but not overwhelming – to them or to you. Remember that, at this point, you're deciding what you're actually going to build. You need to make sure that it's something that you can build in a reasonable amount of time.

Now you detail what you've chosen. A lot could be written about how to do that – and will be, in a future column. But for now, think about that design document I mentioned earlier – you want to detail things well enough that, a year or two from now, you or someone else can build this. You don't necessarily need to write it all down, especially if you're going to be doing the work by yourself – but you should know that you could write it down if you had to.


After you've detailed one area, what next? You go back to your notes, and do it again. And again, and again. As your game expands over time, you'll be able to follow those original notes, and expand the game while keeping things consistent with what's gone before.

For Example...

Years ago, when I was just starting college, second edition AD&D came out. There weren't any gameworlds published for it back then, and I didn't want to wait for one – so I decided to make my own. I started off by drawing a map of a continent about the size of Europe, with nothing but geographical features. Then, I went down to the library, ran off about twenty copies of the map I'd made, and started drawing on them – placing political boundaries on one, trade routes on another, spots where something interesting (battles, godly visitations, etc.) had happened on another, where different species lived on another, and so on. Then I made up names for the various countries, wrote a paragraph on each one, came up with a list of about forty famous people (both alive and dead), three pages of one-paragraph summaries of legends, a list of who the different gods and goddesses were and what they did, and a one-page timeline covering the last five hundred or so years of history.

I did all that in spare time I had, over the course of about two months. Then, I sat and looked at the maps, and decided where I was going to start the players in the campaign I wanted to run – a small village, about two days' travel from a medium-sized city. The village was near hills where goblins lived, and the city was in a country that had lost its king and reverted to warlordism.

I spent about a week filling in details for the village, and outlining the first few adventures for that world, and detailing what would be the first one of those. Then I found players, and got them to start creating characters. In the course of that, I had to fill in some more details – namely, details of a few gods that a player who wanted to play a cleric was interested in being a cleric of.

As I ran the players through those first few adventures, I was also working on the next step: detailing the city where the players would go next. Since this was a paper RPG and not a mud, I didn't need to create the whole thing from the start, but instead could repeat the whole process, just on a smaller scale – outline the city, detail enough of it for when the players go there, and leave more until later.

I kept that up for almost fifteen years, across half a dozen different groups of players, sometimes with two different groups in the world at once. In the process, the world grew from about ten maps and a dozen pages of description, to upwards of three hundred pages of information – most of it kept on the laptop I'd gotten in those years. I varied from the original outline a few times, but for the most part, stuck to it. At the end, I had a vastly detailed gameworld – but because I'd planned well, people were complimenting me on how detailed my world seemed in those first few weeks that I used it.

And then I gave it all away, and started on another world... but that's another story.

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