Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Guest Post: Inspiration 101

Today's guest blogger is Luke Bellmason:
Inspiration 101
Where it all began…
Sometimes people ask writers, "where do you get your ideas from?" Joyce Grenfell always used to reply with "If I knew, I'd go there more often." If you're a writer chances are you've had inspiration hit you from one of many millions of possible directions, but I'd be willing to bet that none of you has ever had an idea for a three volume collection of short stories from quite the same unlikely source as I did.
I remember very clearly where the first idea for what became 'Canterbury Tales' came from, and back then it wasn't even an idea for a book at all.
I was sitting in the canteen at work, which is a place drivers get sent to when there's no work, or no trucks, or when a load isn't ready, or when they just don't have anything for you to do. This is when you're supposed to wait, and by wait I'm talking about two, three, four or maybe even five hours. This was back in the day before I carried an iPad everywhere, or had a portable computer of any kind. I just had a bunch of blank forms and a pen. So I decided to make a board game.
I don't know why I picked a space trading and exploration game as an idea for a board game, but I think I wanted to make it something simple. Some of my favourite board games involvled 'resource management', like Settlers of Catan, and I had played a lot of video games which used this theme, all of them in the shadow of the greatest of them all: ELITE. So I knew all about the mechanics of the game right from the start; players would fly around discovering planets, fighting pirates and police (if they became criminals), buying commodities, shipping them somewhere and then selling them. Then they would spend the money they'd made upgrading their ship.
It sounded so simple, but Elite: The Board Game, as I started to call it, was incredibly complex and involved. Every tiny detail, such as how pirates got spawned, how they moved, how they attacked the player, took months of working out. Then there was the economic structure which meant that riskier commodities such as Narcotics and Firearms could make more money for the player than Food or Textiles. Just like the video game, players could end up with a criminal rating which would then mean the authorities could come after them if they entered Corporate or Democracy systems, but Feudal and Anarchy systems had no police. Then again, criminal players had a bounty placed on them so other players could track them down and kill them for their reward. Then there were the many, many combat systems I tried to make, each more complicated than the last.
It seemed like each new layer of functionality I added to the game made everything a lot more complicated. I had some pretty cool ideas in there, but the problem was that playing the game to completion, ie a player earning enough victory points to be declared 'ELITE', didn't just take hours it took days. Most games were never completed. I started to look around for a solution that would speed things up a bit.
Then I was at a board gaming convention and met some guys from Games Workshop. They had been updating the old classic 'Talisman', which was a game I used to play when I was a teenager. I sat down at their table and spent a couple of hours playing this new version. One of the mechanics I liked was the character cards. These gave each player different skills, starting stats and strengths. I started to think about how different characters in my Elite game could start out with different ships, equipment and objectives.
Instead of everyone chasing victory points, I thought about objectives for each character. The Bounty Hunter would get points for killing pirates and hunting down players with bounties on them. The Pirate would earn points for killing players and stealing their cargo. The Miner would earn points for finding asteroid fields and mining minerals. From there it was a simple step to coming up with six character 'classes' and having a 'good' and 'evil' version of each.
Another game which served as inspiration at this point was 'Chrononauts', which had a little story card handed out to the players at the start. What if the characters in my game had a 100 words of set-up related to what they did and then a mission card which they picked up during the game which told the next part of their story? I took a new notebook and wrote down some ideas. This notebook became the basis for what would eventually, years and years later, become Canterbury Tales.
I'm not quite sure when my project crossed over from being a board game into a book, but I think I became far more interested in the characters than in the game. The board game was so huge and unplayable that I pretty much abandoned it, with occassional prompts from my gaming group to dust it off to play test again, but the 'game' of playing it became 'let's make dozens of suggestions about how to fix this' rather than the game itself. It wasn't fun to play something so broken, which I understood, but which everyone else thought could be improved.
The notebook of those twelve characters on the other hand, became a well of inspiration which really had a lot of potential, and I was more adept at fixing the problems of plot and story than I was at fixing the mechanics of an interactive game.

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