On A Roll

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The Gun Belt Developer's Diary 2: Creative Foundations

Ryan has been developing a tabletop roleplaying 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.

Short Story Sketches

I am a visual creative. My ideas are always lucid images in my mind that are born of feelings and instincts about what works and doesn’t, and those images always accompany threads of greater, larger pictures.

In the short form, without pulling any of those threads, I have a special skill for creating short, powerful bursts of phrases like headlines, slogans and postcard copy that imply there’s something more without actually “going” there.

In the long form, I have a knack for world building. I’m particularly gifted in connecting details and ideas from different thoughts and weaving them together to create a narrative that is sensical and compelling.

My imaginative process has a limitation, however. Maybe it’s better to think of it as a crutch? I have to have a foundation, some type of point of origin, to start with and construct all of these ideas upon. It might be a picture I see somewhere, a quick doodle I sketch on scrap paper or an incomplete idea from a team member.

For The Gun Belt, there were a lot of these pieces of ideas floating around. Our elevator pitch was a smorgasbord of them:

“Alien and robotic cowboys riding dinosaurs on an interstellar wild west world without wheels.”

Aliens, robots, cowboys, dinosaurs, science fiction, westerns, floating stagecoaches – it was a lot to connect in one initial concept. Where does one even begin with all of that?

I started with getting a notebook that I would use only for the project. It sounds ridiculous, but having a dedicated place to keep everything together gave the initial development a real world location to call home (and it would do wonders for keeping things organized down the road). I started to make a few quick sketches of basic technology in the notebook, and then did a drawing of a cowboy with a dinosaur I could look at to keep my head in the world.

The first major step into developing The Gun Belt, however, came in the form of a short story. In a short story, I can effectively capture the feel of the world. I can establish the tone of the environment, the attitudes of the people and a bit of surface-level insight into how the world works without being held back by things that my co-designer, Ashley, and I haven’t addressed yet, like mechanics, alien species, politics or even what technology looks like.

I wrote Miner Troubles in an evening. It’s a piece of short fiction about 2,000 words in length that details the final hour in a man’s life. It touches on many of the pieces from the elevator pitch in ways that begin placing those independent ideas into a cohesive narrative for Ashley and I to start building everything else from.

A human cowboy rides his dinosaur steed across a desolate plain of tallgrass to a one-street western town. There, he faces a robot gunslinger who intends to collect a debt owed to him from the man in money or in blood. There’s a classic high noon-style showdown in the street, ending with some wisdom of this hard world being imparted on a young observer of the event.

It’s filled with random threads waiting for us to pull to see where they might lead. It mentions a powerful mining company, which we would eventually pursue and turn into the primary antagonist of the game’s world. It established the cumbersome and proper way that the robots would talk. It dropped a mention of a pterodactyl tied to a post with a saddle covered in decorative beads that would eventually lead to the creation of the Birdies.

There were also ideas in it that didn’t go anywhere. Some of the ideas ended up having to change, such as the colloquial names of some of the dinosaurs. But the story was a fearless vomiting of an establishing glimpse into the world we were about to embark on creating, and it served as an invaluable reference point to leap from as we began our journey.

Miner Troubles is a piece of fiction about our world that we’ve continually edited and updated along the way that we can use as we develop The Gun Belt. It has been an effective tool for quickly sharing our vision with potential artists as we’ve scouted talent for the book. It has served as a quick, fun way to promote our game amongst friends and over social media.

Best of all, short stories make great chapter introductions in gaming books, quickly sharing with the readers a visual glimpse into the word that you’ve created. This means that foundation I built to layer ideas upon will even end up being used in the product – a visual thread to help everyone understand the greater, larger picture of our world.