5 things I learned working on The Witch is Dead

A short introduction for international friends and newcomers

As you can probably see, most of this website is in French and deals with tabletop RPGs. Both play and design. Every few weeks Whenever we have the opportunity, we try invite some guest designers to share 5 things they learned while working on one of their projects that might be helpful for other RPG designers and beginners alike. When these guests don’t speak French, we try to publish both the French translation and the original version of their article so it can be available to more people.

Our seventh international guest is Grant Howitt from Look, Robot. He’s sharing his experience about the design of “The Witch is Dead” and other one-page roleplaying games. We thought they might be useful examples for the competitors of the Game Chef who are now struggling to write everything they imagined in less than 4,000 words.

For more information about Grant and his games : Look, Robot
For Grant’s patreon : https://www.patreon.com/gshowitt
For its podcast, “Hearty Dice Friends” : https://soundcloud.com/hearty-dice-friends
For more information about the others « 5 things » : Click here.

O. Introduction

I decided, last year, that I needed to get focused on my games design. I was frittering away a lot of my time by half-tackling unfinishable projects, or trying to work on eight different games at once – perhaps out of fear of finishing them, because an unfinished, unreleased game is perfect in its potential and a released game is out there on its own in the cold, unforgiving world.

So: I narrowed down my goals into two fields. On one hand, I would make big, beautiful, high-budget games through Kickstarter – one a year, if I could. (In fact, our Kickstarter for Spire, a fantasy-punk RPG about rebellion, will be live in a little bit less than ten days from now!) On the other hand, I wanted to make small games that would stop my skills from getting rusty and let me stay present in the games community.

To that end, I dusted off my old patreon (that I hadn’t used in about two years) and changed the way I released games through it. Each month, I’d write a single one-page game – entirely self-contained, illustrated and laid out by myself to save money. The first one I wrote was The Witch is Dead, a game in which you play murderous (and adorable) animals on a quest for revenge. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way.

1. Combine an animal and a crime for maximum success

What if woodland animals, who can’t talk to humans or really understand their culture, had to embark on a mission into a human village and take revenge on the killer of the witch who raised them? That’s the tension at the core of The Witch is Dead – the struggle to understand human culture, and the juxtaposition of being a cute fox who’s ripping out some guy’s throat because you reckon he murdered your mistress.

Similarly, another (surprisingly) successful one-page game I wrote was Honey Heist, in which you are bears who are attempting to enact a complex plan to steal a load of honey. As humans, we can understand the plan; as our bear characters, we struggle to make things work without proper opposable thumbs.

There’s something automatically funny about an animal doing a crime; the mechanics have to reflect it, but it’s a very low barrier to entry for your players. The next one I’m working on is called Crash Pandas, which is about twenty raccoons trying to win an illegal street race as they all argue over steering the same car.

2. Make your games sound fun

There’s a saying: you don’t sell the sausage, you sell the sizzle. It doesn’t matter if your game is an absolute masterpiece in terms of mechanics – if it sounds boring, people aren’t going to play it. (Unless it’s a German eurogame about power grid authorisation or proper distribution of paperclips, apparently; but the rules for the good ones in that category tend to be very elegant.)

As an indie designer, and especially as an indie designer without much of a catalogue to my name, I’ve found that the best way to promote my products (and therefore earn some cash, eventually) is to make them sound fun. If a game sounds fun, people will tell their friends about it, because they want to be associated with the product; they want to be the person that introduces that game into their social circle, whether that’s face-to-face or on social media.

3. Make your systems smaller

You can pretty much always saw your system in half and not suffer too badly for it. For example: how many skills do you have? Do you need all of them to tell the stories you’re looking to tell? Can you boil them down into one or two uberskills? D&D 4th edition did this – it took Hide and Move Silent and combined them into Stealth; it took Spot and Listen and rolled them into Perception.

Try getting your system to be as small as you can, and then work upwards from there. How can you standardise systems and mechanics? If you change the keywords, can you use the same rules for sanity loss and bankruptcy as you use for damage in combat? Do you need to detail every available spell, or can you trust your players to create their own magicks?

There’s always something to cut out of a game, leaving you with something that’s leaner and (hopefully) better. Remember: your game is there to help other people tell stories, not to tell one yourself.

4. Don’t swear; And if you must swear, make it count !

I used to swear a lot in my writing, and I’ve a mouth like a sailor in real life, but I tend not to use profanity in my work now. It limits your audience, it puts people off, and it’s hard to read over it years from now, in the future, without it coming across as needlessly edgy. Swear words are hugely powerful things, magic words that carry with them tremendous social weight, and they shouldn’t be used lightly in a professional context.

That said, I did swear in The Witch is Dead – a couple of times in the opening paragraph – and I’m happy with it. It really sets up the tone of the game – that you’re animals, and you’re cute and cuddly and fluffy (or, you know, a toad) but you’re absolutely furious in a sort of 70’s exploitation-flick Tarantino-esque revenge-spree sort of way.

A lot of Americans complained about it, saying that they’d love to be able to play the game with their kids but the swearing meant they couldn’t. Which is impossibly weird to me, because while I’m okay with people not wanting to use the word “Motherfucker” in front of their kids, they’re apparently fine to get together with them and help them tell a story where they track down a witch hunter and rip his eyes out with improvised tools then use those same eyes in a black magic ritual to bring a witch back from the dead. But apparently it’s a cultural thing – you can be as violent as you like, but don’t use the bad words or show a nipple on telly, else everything will go wrong. As I depend on American markets for a lot of my work, and also because I rely on folk sharing it on social media, I’ve veered away from swearing. I don’t feel like my work has suffered greatly for it.

5. What’s happening NOW?

It doesn’t matter what happened in the past unless it affects the present. It doesn’t matter how a particular noble rose to power unless that somehow impacts the player characters and the story they’re telling with you, right now, around the table. The game isn’t what’s in the book; the game is what happens when you sit down and start rolling dice together.

That’s not to say that your game can’t have setting, but it’s too easy to get bogged down in writing the history of a made-up world from an omniscient third-person perspective and leave your players feeling like they need to perform a reading comprehension test before they’re allowed to take part in the game. Give them the room they need to live in your worlds and explore them at their own pace, inventing whatever they need to.

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