Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Setting Design: Post-Mortem and Lessons Learned

It took nearly two years to take Saga of the Goblin Horde from initial concept to finished product, and I've documented my learning experiences in a series of 20 blog posts about Designing your Own Savage Worlds Setting.

Now that the setting has been finished and released, I thought it would be a good time to take a look back over the project while it's still fresh in my mind, to see how far I deviated from my original goals, to consider what worked well and what didn't, and to think about what I would do differently next time.

Chapter Structure

The general structure of the book remained pretty much unchanged throughout the process, but the size of the chapters changed quite a bit. You can see my original guidelines here, an overview of the status after the first eight months here, and another overview after a further six months here.

In particular, I think it's interesting to look at the chapters I initially considered complete, but which I later revisited as other parts of the setting evolved.

Introduction

The original goal for the first chapter was 1500-4000 words, I initially considered this complete at 1619 words, but eventually expanded it to 2730 words. Although I wanted the introduction to be fairly concise, I felt the initial version just didn't provide enough detail to really delve into the setting.

Characters

The original goal was 4000-6000 words, I initially considered this chapter to be complete at 5468 words, but I eventually expanded it to 7827 words. With the initial version I deliberately limited the number of new Edges and Hindrances, but that meant leaving out a lot of cool abilities that I felt added flavor to the setting, so in the end I changed my mind - my guidelines weren't supposed to be a straightjacket, after all!

Equipment

The original goal was 1000-4000 words, and I ended up with 2750 words. At one point I dropped the knick-knack table, planning to move it into the Campaign Deck - but I eventually lost interest in creating a Campaign Deck, and restored the knick-knack table.

Setting Rules

The original goal was 1000-4000 words, but I initially kept this chapter very small, and actually considered it complete at 480 words. I later expanded it to 1066 words, and eventually to 2299 words, as playtesting revealed the need for additional setting rules.

Gods and Magic

The original goal was anything from 0 to 10000 words, although I initially expected it to be around 1000-1500 words. I ended up with just 879 words, as I didn't need any new powers or Arcane Backgrounds.

Gazetteer

The original goal for this chapter was 15000-25000 words of setting information, but I decided to turn it into a short gazetteer (like in 50 Fathoms) instead, and aimed for 2000-2500 words. The chapter ended up at 2158 words, and covered everything I wanted.

Game Master's Secrets

My original guidelines didn't specify a word count for this chapter, but I initially estimated there would be around 1500 words. This was eventually expanded to 2308 words, in order to explain the various mysteries I'd hinted at throughout the setting.

Adventures

My original guidelines specified 3000-6000 words, but that didn't include a Plot Point Campaign (which is something I wanted to have), and so my initial goal was around 15000-25000 words. I eventually decided to drop the Savage Tales, but this chapter still ended up reaching 17827 words (including the adventure generator, which I restored after deciding to scrap the Campaign Deck, and 16 adventure seeds).

Bestiary

The original goal was around 5000-10000 words, although I initially expected to be at the lower end of that range. The bestiary grew quite large though, reaching 13973 words.

Summary

My original guidelines for a setting book suggested 45000-50000 words (90-100 pages). The initial concept for Saga of the Goblin Horde was a mini setting of around 60 pages, but I soon revised that figure to 70-100 pages, and later to 95-100 pages.

In fact the final document ended up reaching 118 pages, however if you ignore the cover, credits and ambush/forest cards, the total number comes down to 107 pages, or 52751 words (which is about the same size as most of Pinnacle's newer setting books).

It's also worth noting that I added two pages of artwork as well as the surname and knick-knack generators in order to balance out the chapters, so that each chapter starts on the right hand page. So overall I'd say I came pretty close to my original guidelines.

Lessons Learned

Designing my own setting was a very much a learning experience, and came with its own barriers and pitfalls. Here are some of the lessons that I learned along the way.

Consider your Page Size

I started using US letter size for my PDFs years ago, as most Savages seem to be based in the US, and I figured it would be more convenient for them to print. I stuck with it because there didn't seem any reason to change, because it allowed me to use the same template I'd created for my One Sheets (which are intended for home printing), and because most of the full-page stock art I'd purchased was that size. It's not as convenient for me (Europe uses A4), but I rarely print things anyway.

However now that I've started looking into print-on-demand services, I've found myself running into some issues. Very few printing companies over this side of the pond offer US letter size, and if I'm going to use a physical book I'd actually prefer something smaller. If I'd gone with A4 I could have easily printed it as an A5 book, but I don't have that option with US letter. I did try resizing the PDF to A4, but the text ended up too close to the edges, and there was a big ugly margin at the top and bottom. Redoing the layout properly would be a massive undertaking though.

Consider your Image Sizes

I made the mistake of commissioning my cover and map at US letter size, and they don't look good if the proportions are changed (this was a major oversight for the map, as I later discovered that DTRPG offer 12x18" print-on-demand poster maps). I also didn't think to ask for bleed, and the cover has some nice details right up to the edges.

In future I would certainly ask for the cover to be a little larger than necessary, and would order maps large enough to be printed at DTRPG poster size, but without important detail around the edges, so that it could also be cropped for different page sizes.

I might even consider going with a 6x9" book size next time, as it's a nice size in the hand, and would have the same proportions as the 12x18" poster map (so the book could contain a smaller version of the map).

Covers are Cool

Despite my issues with the size, I'm really pleased with the cover. I've mentioned in the past that I consider the cover the most important piece of artwork, and I think the cover for Saga of the Goblin Horde really captures the feel of the setting, it was definitely a worthwhile investment.

I'm particularly pleased that I ordered the goblin as a separate image, as that allowed me to use the goblin for custom chapter headers, and also use the cover with different illustrations for other books (such as the archetypes).

I wish I'd ordered a custom spine as well though, that would have been awesome for print-on-demand! Or better still, a wraparound cover instead of a separate front and back.

Start Small and Drip-Feed

Creating an entire setting is a pretty big task, particularly if you're working alone, and it can be overwhelming when you first get started. There's also the risk that nobody else will be interested in the setting - and if that's the case, it's better to find out sooner rather than later.

I found the best way to test the waters is to start with something small, like a One Sheet adventure. If it's well received, release a few more adventures, along with some character archetypes. This allows you to incorporate feedback into the setting while you're still designing it, and also helps build up interest by keeping the setting in the public eye. And of course, once the setting is finished, you'll already have a selection of adventures and characters for people to use in their games.

The approach I used for Saga of the Goblin Horde was to release one character archetype per month, until I'd finished all 15. I also released 9 One Sheet adventures, some of them seasonal (Christmas, Halloween and Easter), and others more generic.

Retroactive World Building

Saga of the Goblin Horde started with a One Sheet, and I expanded it from there with more One Sheets and a growing selection of archetypes. It was an effective approach, allowing me to start out small and gradually flesh out the world and setting - but I ran into trouble when I started creating the map of the goblin territory, because I had to retroactively fit all the adventures and archetypes into it. I actually needed to go back and revise some of my older adventures and archetypes, after I created the map.

I think next time I'll create at least a rough outline of the map in advance, and make sure that I update it as I'm writing the adventures, to ensure they remain consistent with each other.

Playtesting is Essential

I've played and run Savage Worlds for a long time, I've reversed engineered and analyzed the mechanics, I've done a lot of number-crunching, and I've written numerous posts, tools and PDFs to help other game designers better understand the system. But I still needed to playtest (and so do you)!

Even though I was confident about the mechanics of my Edges, Hindrances and setting rules, I still needed to playtest to get a feel for how well they worked together. The playtesting also revealed the need for certain setting rules, such as Meat Shield (needed due to the large number of combatants), Quick Skirmish, and Shenanigans.

Layout Comes Last

I normally finish my documents before I start doing the layout work, otherwise even a small change can add a lot of additional effort. However the submission process for Savage Worlds licensee applicants requires the use of representative art, trade dress, and layout, so I transferred my document to Scribus at a fairly early phase, and continued to update it directly in Scribus while I waited for an response. That took ten weeks. By that point I couldn't be bothered to transfer everything back, so I just carried on working in Scribus.

Working in Scribus was a pain in the neck, and I definitely won't do that again. In future I will stick with Open Office until the document is finished and has been through proofreading, and only then will I transfer it to Scribus for the layout.

Networking is Vital

I didn't really start networking with Savage Worlds licensees until I got into freelancing, but over the last year or so I've starting making connections with a lot more game designers, and it's proven extremely beneficial - not just for getting advice and bouncing ideas around, but also for promotion and marketing (something I'm not very good at myself).

Read Books

One of the reasons Saga of the Goblin Horde took so long was that I was learning design skills at the same time (often using side projects to experiment). I spent months blundering through the layout work on my own before Eric Simon recommended reading the Non-Designer's Design Book, and I wish I'd known about it earlier, as it would have saved me a lot of time and effort.

Know your Limits

Most people are better at some things that others, and very few people can do everything. My specialty is game mechanics, but I've also written quite a few adventures, and of course I taught myself how to do layout work. But when it comes to artwork, I'm a lost cause. I wasted a lot of time trying to draw my own maps, instead of hiring a professional (which I eventually did). I'm all in favor of learning new skills, but at some point you have to cut your losses and move on.

Artwork is Addictive

I got a bit carried away with all the stock art when I was working on Saga of the Goblin Horde, I bought a lot more than I needed, often purchasing on a whim. Eventually I learned to discipline myself, adding things to my wishlist for future reference if they took my fancy, and only buying art if I was sure I needed it.

Although I only had three private commissions, they gave me the same addictive feeling, and I've seen other setting designers fall into the same trap - ordering more and more artwork, before they've even got a product for it! This is a dangerous trap to fall into, particularly if you can't afford to write off the cost of the artwork. You might never finish your setting book, or you might not be able to license it. Even if you do manage to commercialize your setting, you might not make enough sales to recoup your costs. I suspect this risk is one of the big reasons why so many people use Kickstarter to fund their artwork, as it ensures they will at least break even.

Summary

Saga of the Goblin Horde has been an interesting project, and it's had its ups and downs, but I feel I've learned a lot, and it's certainly given me a much greater appreciation for the amount of effort that goes into designing a setting. I also feel more confident in my design skills now, and I already have several new projects planned.

Of course there's always more to learn. I'm currently experimenting with print-on-demand services, as I'd like a physical copy of my book! I'll leave that subject for a future post though.