Some Unwritten RPG Developer’s Notes

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Gaming, Unwritten RPG

While I don’t have an official set of developer’s notes, I thought I would write up a few things that readers might find interesting about the development process for Unwritten, some of the things that happened during, and why I made some of the decisions I did when writing the book.

Missing the original deadline

During the kickstarter, we set a very aggressive publishing deadline, which we managed to miss by a year. In the annals of Kickstarter, this actually isn’t that bad, but it always bothered me quite a bit. I had a draft of Unwritten done by the end of kickstarter, and released it to the backers not long after the kickstarter ended. So what took so long?

I had the good luck to be able to hire Leonard Balsera, developer of FateCore and all around hoopy frood, to give me a development review. Lenny is a big Myst fan (one of my favorite quotes of the development is Lenny saying, “Kadish? Yeah, f**k that guy.”). So, he brought a love of the game to the review as well as his extensive expertise. To paraphrase his general comments, while my first draft was a serviceable example of using FateCore to run a D’ni game, it wasn’t a Myst game. He felt that Myst deserved something better, something that captured the essential nature of what Myst games are about. He felt I should double-down on that.

I realized that Lenny had really hit the nail on the head, and after a few brainstorming discussions and long evenings talking over ideas with my lovely wife, I had some ideas about how to put those themes front and center. And thus began a complete rewrite of the book. There are still some chunks of the old draft in the final product (as well as bits of the Fate SRD), but everything was reworked. Many chapters were rewritten, others were cut apart and rearranged, sometimes sentence by sentence.

Add in some life traumas (which seems to happen in a lot of Kickstarters for some reason; Kickstarter creators are very unlucky people it seems) and underestimating the amount of time layout would take… well, it added a year to it all. I was very worried that I’d become one of those Kickstarter horror stories and that I’d have backers tracking me down for legal action. Luckily, my backers were very generous in their understanding. And I┬áthink they got a much better product in exchange for their patience.

Differences from FateCore – Non-violence

I began writing the book before FateCore came out. Once FateCore was available, I quickly adapted what I had to it. And then, ultimately, I departed from it in major ways. I think that is the intent of FateCore in a way, to provide the grist for hacks and adaptations.

The biggest change from FateCore was both thematically and personally motivated. One of the reoccurring comments about Myst games is on their non-violent nature. You don’t solve things with violence, you solve them with cleverness. You rarely actually ‘die’ in Myst games (this was a big difference from adventure games of the time). So, I wanted to emphasize that aspect since it felt so fundamental to the experience.

Thus, I removed the Attack action. What better way was there to de-emphasize violence than to remove the mechanic that is all about it?

Suddenly, I found that a lot of other mechanics fell apart. Stress tracks were entirely dependent on the Attack action as it is the only real way to take stress. I didn’t like stress anyway (I have some fundamental issues with the stress track mechanic that are too complex to get into here), so I decided to remove it as well. The nature of conflicts (that is, the scene mechanic explicitly named ‘conflict’) in FateCore were based around the traditional RPG combat scene (turn by turn, initiative, etc.), as well. I can still see places where you might need that really structured blow-by-blow scene, but without the tactical nature of combat it really wasn’t necessary – it was no longer a central feature of the game. So I just yanked it out in favor of challenges, contests, and just free-form actions.

Without stress, being taken out no longer made sense either. But I felt that it was still a key mechanic – sometimes things simply remove you from the scene. But I needed a way to get there besides beating on each other. I still used consequences (though less as damage per se, rather emphasizing their nature as lingering effects), so being taken out by filling up your consequences made sense. I just needed ways to take consequences. One was the sacrifice, in which you exchange consequences for fate points (an idea cribbed from Fred Hicks). The other was give players a way to place consequences. Extending Create an Advantage so that you could place a consequence on excel/success with style seemed natural as well. If you really wanted to ‘do damage’ that way, it would work.

It felt like there wasn’t quite enough on the line, however. I picked up the Firefly RPG by MWP and they had the concept of dangerous actions, where if the situation just seemed dangerous inherently, you just made it so. I really liked this, so I stole the idea and adapted it (not that it took much). That rounded off what I feel is a rather neat little method of amputating the Attack from FateCore.

Difference from FateCore – Discovery

Whenever I asked a Myst fan what the point of a Myst game was, I got a consistent answer: exploration. Myst fans love to figure things out. Unwritten had to reflect that. Where a fight scene would be the fall back or even the center piece of a traditional RPG, discovery would have to be at the core of it. Non-Myst fans always said ‘puzzles’. But here is the thing: explicit puzzles in RPGs rarely work. Either people are annoyed by them, or they are engrossed in them. Either way, play slows down or even stops.

I remember spending a lot of my time in Myst games figuring out things worked, which reminded me of the scenes in CSI where everyone is doing overly-technical tests in a montage with a snappy song in the background. I imagined that doing things in Unwritten should feel like that – enjoying yourself by finding things out.

The first element to that I hit on randomly in an alpha test. Players were rifling through a library and I didn’t want them to spend the whole game doing it, so I said “Roll and I’ll give you as many questions as you get shifts.” This worked really well and became the Discover action. It shifted the mechanics from doing points of stress to earning ‘points’ of information. At my wife’s suggestion, I added in a hint mechanic for those people who do really well on their rolls.

The second element involved the Investigate skill. Besides, say, Notice, it seemed like Investigate would be used all the time. I mean, it’s about figuring things out and the game is about that. So I decided that ALL skills are Investigate skills. Any skill, when appropriate, could be used as a way to collect information. That made the Discover action universally applicable.

The third element is that we needed something to explicitly be that CSI scene I discussed above, one were characters were looking around, asking questions, poking at things to get more info, etc. So since I’d taken out one type of action sequence (conflict), I added one based around asking questions. It’s not all that different than a challenge, but I added the first look (inspired by GUMSHOE) and limited each person to one roll unless they actually did something to merit another discover action. My hope is that people will use that to simulate all those times in CSI when they bring in another device, set up another test, or look at the scene in a different way.

Finally, I wanted something where players could be creative, something that simulated the Sherlock ‘ah ha’ moment and exposition. I tried several different things here and none of them really worked. Ultimately, I asked the makers of Atomic Robo if I could steal their Brainstorm mechanic, because it seemed to embody the concept just as I wanted. It’s turned out to be a really powerful option.

Other Differences

There are a number of other little differences. For example, there is no explicit Trouble aspect for characters. This is pretty traditional in FateCore games. However, I felt it was unnecessary. Requiring that one of the character’s aspects be a trouble is really just a way to ensure that the characters generate drama. I feel that the game has an implicit way to do that: by presenting mysteries. If you want, you can think of all Unwritten games having a default universal trouble of I MUST KNOW.

There are a number of little changes, especially in terminology. Not anything major here; I just wanted to shift the feel a little bit. “Excel” sounded more Myst-like than “success with style”, and “overwhelmed” felt less violent than “take out”. That sort of thing.

What about lore?

Myst fans will notice that there is a lot of lore that is not in the book. This is intentional, for two reasons. The first is that the main book is more about getting started, getting into the feel of the game, both from a rules and a lore perspective. I tried to keep the lore to things that all modern explorers would know, and those things which would be most useful to someone building a game. This is why we have a chapter on D’ni civilization, as the nature of D’ni informs a lot of the choices about what modern explorers would discover. There’s a little detail about what happens in the Myst games, because I figured people who were not Myst fans would want to know where that fit with the default setting.

The second reason is that I wanted people to fill in their own details in many places. While the supplements will have more details, there really are a number of better places out there to get all the details of the games and history. Rather, the game is supposed to encourage people to be creative and take chances with the setting. Veteran gamemasters will do this anyway, but I wanted to get across the openness of the possibilities even to the hardcore canon-loving fans. Just like your Relto is your instance of Relto, so is Unwritten your instance of the D’niverse.