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The Gun Belt Developer's Diary 1: Vacant Ideas

Ryan has been developing a tabletop role-playing game, The Gun Belt for over three years. The game features alien and robot cowboys riding dinosaurs in an interstellar Wild West on a world with no wheels. It is currently in the process of playtesting. This blog explores the process he and his design partner, Ashley, have experienced during that time.
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The Vacant and The Gun Belt

February marked the three-year anniversary of when I began developing my own tabletop role-playing game. If everything goes according to plans, The Gun Belt will see Kickstarter and publishing this year. It’s a game I’m incredibly proud of. It’s a game I believe is a lot of fun. It’s also completely not at all the game I set out to create.

My journey to The Gun Belt began in 2015, after I wrote On A Roll: Level Up Your RPG, a book focusing on helping gamers become better players and better storytellers. The process of writing that book had the side effect of making me fall in love with game theory. As I learned more and more about how and why games work, it quickly became clear that I wanted to make my own.

I realized early on that I needed a partner. Like most gamers, I have an ego that really made me want to make the game completely on my own, but unlike most gamers, I am aware of it and knew that having a partner created accountability. By having a partner, I was ensuring that my game would actually happen instead of being the thing I just always talk about at Denny’s after game each weekend.

My initial partner was my friend Rob. Rob and I have been creative collaborators on all kinds of projects for more than two decades. We work well together and our creative contributions compliment one another’s. Within just a few days, we had early concepts for a game called, The Vacant. It moved very quickly, inspiring concept sketches and outlines that really affirmed our ideas. The project had legs.

About three months in, we realized that we needed to slow down our creative momentum and focus instead on locking down initial mechanics. The core mechanic of a game should compliment the universe and feel of the game – FATE works wonderful for a collaborative experience but works less well for a tactical mass combat driven game, for example.

We began looking at open game license (OGL) systems because the story, genre and universe were more important to us creatively than developing our own dice system. Rob’s passion wasn’t in mechanics and, in fact, he even admitted he was out of his element. The more I researched and presented mechanics, the more he was overwhelmed and unable to help. Making matters worse, this was a decision I didn’t feel I was equipped to make on my own. Over the next few months, The Vacant slowed, stalled and then languished.

By the summer of 2016, I found myself mentioning to another friend, Ashley, about how I was struggling to get The Vacant off the ground. He laughed, and said he understood because he had always wanted to make a game as well, but never felt he had a partner to keep him going. I asked him what sort of game he wanted to make, and he answered that he always wanted to do a pulp space western with robot and alien cowboys. I laughed, and told him that I had been thinking a lot about figuring out how to do a game about cowboys riding dinosaurs instead of horses.

In that moment, The Gun Belt was born – alien and robot cowboys riding dinosaurs in the interstellar wild west. The Gun Belt is now mostly written, with mechanics and original art that I love. The Vacant is something I'll come back to one day, but for now, I'm making The Gun Belt.

It wasn’t the game I thought I was going to be making when I began. The very first step I took toward making my first game was to skip it and start make my second game. That’s the amazing thing about the creative journey – game development is often as frustrating as it is fascinating. If you’re flexible and open, you may discover wonderful new ideas and unexpected new collaborators.

I did.