Yesterday came a big announcement over at my little imprint, Broken Ruler Games. After two years of development – which included more unwanted long pauses than I would have liked – the little-storytelling-RPG-that-could will release a playtest edition on October 20th. While there’s still work to go before the full version will be ready for its planned release in Summer 2016, ScreenPlay: The Rehearsal Edition has journeyed a long, winding road uphill to get to this point and it seemed only appropriate to reflect on that journey.
I also want to note this is my first original design and release since returning to work over a year-and-a-half ago. Suffice it to say this sucker probably would have come flying out of the gate much sooner if I didn’t have that pesky burden of financial responsibility, but you can’t change the past. Some may say if things were different, the end result would also shift and so who knows if this would ever have gone down at all. So let’s go with the assumption that ScreenPlay needed to take this long to hatch into its current – and future – form.
It All Started With A Six-Shooter And A Katana…
Despite their vast differences in… well, everything… ScreenPlay was conceived because of Killshot’s core, the Optional System, and a major failing I did not account for. After months of playtesting for my first original design, I wanted to reward my Development Team (Fraser Ronald, Kieron O’Gorman, and Nick Dumais) with something they wanted to play and so I pitched them the following: “Tell me what you want to play and we’ll do that.” While I expected a sugar-fuelled reaction akin to a kid in a candy store, the response was very quick and easily universal. Fraser had recently watched The Good, The Bad, and The Weird and that was his vote. After briefly explaining it to everyone, the vote was unanimous and I intended to take the Optional System and hack a campaign/setting out of it.
The problem was that the Optional System simply didn’t work for this style of play. Hardcore, wushu action and a dice pool system built around an opposing roll mechanic did not coalesce. Yet the setting, the characters, and the idea behind the game we dubbed High Plains Samurai stuck with us. While I gave up on trying to run HPS using the Optional System, the goal became to create something that would work perfectly with it. Something that would end up being the opposite of Killshot: a true rapid-fire, robust, and easy-to-master engine capable of allowing not only wushu style action, but supernatural powers and epic possibilities.
Even then, the original drafts of this Yet Unnamed System (yep, that was the original name for ScreenPlay) were nothing like the storytelling game that exists today. The emphasis on those early drafts involved mechanics more than style and focused almost exclusively on the dice mechanics and Stamina as both a health tracker and boost system. It was all about rolling one die and applying odd vs. even numbers to determine consequences to either the roller or the target. Complications existed from the very beginning of the Yet Unnamed System, but they proved to be the most challenging part of the design process. I always wanted them to be incredibly flexible without getting bogged down in specifics. They had to get the job done in any possible situation with every player the world over. It’s part of my design philosophy – everything has to work without exceptions. What works for combat has to involve the same mechanics for social situations, detection, fear, anything you can think of. It’s why the idea of rolling against a target number for one situation and opposed rolls for another have always felt like lazy design to me. It’s this reason that ScreenPlay (as it came to be called towards the end of 2014) took so long to reach this point.
From RPG To Story Game…
The original drafts of the Yet Unnamed System were truly a simple, open-ended RPG engine working off the principle of a GM (the Director) guiding the players through a story told from their vision with characters reacting to a variety of scenes. Yet there was a little room for players to go wild with their character descriptions and actions simply because High Plains Samurai can best be described as “wushu on acid.” As time went on and the Development Team continued to push the boundaries of their characters’ limits and powers, the rules began to change and I began to toy with the idea of the players taking on an active role in the storytelling process. It was a feasible option as games like Dungeon World and Fiasco have proven. The question was simply (ha!) a matter of reshaping this roleplaying game to create a collaborative storytelling experience that still allowed the Director ample room to create their own setting, NPCs, and many other standards you expect as a Gamemaster. In other words, how was I going to blend RPGs and story games together?
One of the sheer joys in game design is ending up with something you did not expect to create, yet was exactly what you’ve always wanted all along. In all my years of gamemastering RPGs, I’ve always wanted something that would push players to act, not just react. While it was never my intention, ScreenPlay ended up becoming exactly that as I began to treat the impact of player creativity the same way I looked at the world of High Plains Samurai… by saying, “fuck it!” And fuck it we did. Quite successfully, I might add. While there were still a few hurdles to master, the trick became crafting this open-ended style of creativity into a workable game that didn’t run dangerously amok. It was one thing to simply state that everyone should play nice and don’t be a dick about it (which is always the case, something I never feel should be stated in any rules), I needed to find a way to make it all work and have a dead set rule that would allow for player control of the story while still allowing the Director to maintain order and flex their own creative muscles at the same time.
The answer came to me in one of those unexpected spontaneous moments shortly after my son was born. And it became what I call the last nail in the coffin: the Rule of Initiatives. Not the same initiative you think of with every other tabletop game, mind you. This one states that once a player – be they a player (today called a Writer) or Director – introduces something to the story, they have final say on its role, impact, and any other facet as it relates to the story. What it does is simultaneously provide the Director with room to set the stage for players and establish boundaries (such as starting off a story as taking place during real history 1920s Prohibition era and avoid someone from suddenly bringing in giant mech warriors) and provide similar provisions for players to feel equally involved and invested in the story. This last link in the chain became the deal breaker that finally allowed me to hammer out the playtest draft scheduled to launch on October 20th.
The Story Is Not Yet Finished…
What exists today will not be the same version that will launch on October 20th, nor will it be the same to hit the virtual shelves when the full version releases next year. That’s where all of you will come into play and something we’re doing with ScreenPlay: The Rehearsal Edition is to build reward levels for playtesting, whether you simply read from cover to cover and provide a personal critique or gather a pack of Writers and build a story over the next four months, we’re working on creating Kickstarter-style levels to show our appreciation for your contributions and encourage others to take the plunge and try them some ScreenPlay.
It’s what will make these next few months a clone of the ScreenPlay experience itself: you never know what exciting experiences you’ll end up with, but you know they’re going to be fantastic. And I’m really looking forward to it. Shitty bricks, sure, but looking forward to every brick.