Drawn With Courage…: Starting an Intro Game
Intro games are, far and away, the most common form of game we run at Wayfinder. Of our 14 unique games run in 2017, 9 of them were intro games, and 8 of them were held at day camps. If you want to get a game run, especially if you’ve never written a game before, the most surefire way statistically is to write an intro game for a day camp. They’re also the perfect way to get started writing games – they follow a comfortable formula and have a dedicated group of staff who spend an entire week, minimum, helping ensure your game runs well. So, knowing this, why is it that people don’t write more intro games?
There’s a stigma within the Wayfinder community, especially among older campers and some staff, that Intro Games are somehow “lesser” than advanced games. Because the audience is younger, there’s less time spent at camp, and people tend to get less invested, there’s an idea that Intro Games aren’t “good” unless they’re run at an overnight camp. When Jeremy Gleick and I ran The Horned King in 2016, many staff came up to us afterwards and told us they were excited to see it played in the future at an overnight camp. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that the game was written for Woodstock Day School, and that the work and preparation we put into the game was intended for the audience we had.
There’s also the popular misconception that, because the audience is younger, they won’t care as much. That’s absolutely not true. After every intro game I’ve ever run, the kids completely lose their minds. They can’t wait to tell you about all the amazing fun they had, playing in the world you’ve built and fighting the threats you’ve created. Putting work into Intro Games absolutely pays off, and you really can change participants’ lives.
Finally, there’s the idea that Intro Games have to have lower production expectations, or don’t get as much production work. As anyone who has played in a game Colin O’Brien has worked can attest, this is absolutely not the case. Having a full week to develop and work on scenes, props, costumes and weapons gives production the incredible ability to really build amazing things. I’ve seen a heart that exploded and covered a kid with fake blood, a tree with a radio built inside of it indoors, a giant alien space-shrimp with huge claws, stilts, and a massive head, and a full set of matching silver blades inscribed with powerful runes and with leather-wrapped grips. Intro games can really look amazing, and there’s a lot you can do with them.
Okay, I hope by now I’ve talked you into writing some fun intro games. But, you might ask, how do I do that? Where do I even begin?
The core of any Intro Game (well, really any game at all), at least in my perspective, is the Premise. This is the beating heart of the game, the source from which you draw your power. Whenever you’re in doubt, whenever you feel unsure about where to go next, consult your premise and remember your roots. A premise is composed of multiple parts, which I’ll break down. Not all of these parts need to be clearly articulated – I know many gamewriters who don’t really care about all aspects of the premise, and in fact wouldn’t dream of writing any of this down. But, if you’re just beginning, it’s a good exercise to familiarize yourself with what you should be thinking about. Plus, this gives you a good time to get your creative juices stirring! The Premise is made up of four pieces – the Thesis, the Aesthetic, the Mission, and the Elevator Pitch. As you’re working on your game, every time you’re not sure where to go, you can always check back in on your Premise, and have that guide your choices. These shouldn’t dominate how you write your game – if you decide halfway through that your Thesis should be totally different, that’s great! This is your dream-baby. I just want to give you the tools to help guide your dream-baby, when you’re lost and don’t know where to go.
This is such an important topic in talking about a Wayfinder game, that Dylan Scott has already written an article about it! If you haven’t read it already, I definitely would here, before you go any further. That’s a perfect breakdown of what your Theme and Thesis actually is, and how to apply it in a game.
The Thesis is the message of your game. What are you trying to communicate? Often in intro games this is something simple – “love defeats hate”, “magic is dying” or “we are strongest when united”. Just because a message is simple, doesn’t mean it’s not resonant. In my game Debts Collected, the thesis is “There must always be criticism of power”, and this manifests within the game in multiple ways. The Big Good is a force of revolution and change, but in turn must be overthrown and revolted against.
The best implementations of Theses are those that don’t have a clear cut answer, or ones that can be explored in multiple ways. If the Thesis of your game is a question, like “What does it mean to be a family?” You can approach that from multiple directions. Perhaps the Big Bad is a cruel and nasty parent-god to the people of this world. Maybe there’s a team made up of orphans, who have created their own family, or there’s another team made up of a genuine blood-related family who all love each other very much. There’s no solution to the question, but players are invited to meditate upon different meanings of family, and come to their own conclusions in the world.
Sometimes, you’ll find it hard to state your Thesis. That doesn’t mean it’s muddled or confused (which is something you should be careful about!) but it does mean you should look at what you’ve already got, and see what you can develop. I’m still not sure what the Thesis of The Horned King was. There’s themes about a last, desperate stand against evil, about hope against the darkness, and the way you must sacrifice everything in order to triumph. There’s no clear way to boil that down’ to a catchy phrase (and we certainly didn’t try while we were writing the game) but it permeated everything we did and worked on. Some could even argue that the Thesis of The Horned King isn’t a moral at all, but was instead a mechanical experiment in the nature of “boss fights” and escalating conflict within a game.
Don’t view the Thesis as a law you have to abide by. View it as an inspiration, or a starting point to grow off of.
In addition to establishing the Thesis of your game, you also want to develop a cohesive aesthetic. An aesthetic is “the set of principles underlying and guiding the work of a particular artist”. This refers to both the artistic vibes of your game, and the general mood of the adventure. When you talk about aesthetic in a movie like Mad Max: Fury Road, you’re talking about the color palette (oranges and blues), the appearance of the world (ramshackle cars, cobbled-together outfits, flamethrower guitars), and the landscape (bleak, inhospitable, without hope). In an adventure game, these things are reflected in the production lists and the world and group backgrounds
Often in Intro Games, people will say that the aesthetic is “High Fantasy”. This is a loaded and complicated term. It generally means Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer-style European cultures with bright colors and armor, and a culture based around a feudal society with a noble caste. This is all fine and good, but you’re going to get much deeper if you really poke at and specify what kind of fantasy you’re really talking about.
For example, The Horned King, while very traditionally fantasy, had a distinctly Northern European and Low Fantasy vibe. There were British sailors, German witches, and a Prussian military. The titular Big Bad, the Horned King, was inspired by the Chronicles of Prydain and Germanic Folklore, with a large man with horns and a demonic appearance. In general, there weren’t any wizards in magic robes or noble knights, favoring instead soldiers, witches, thieves, and sailors. Even though there wasn’t a distinct aesthetic, there was a cohesive visual language that was connected throughout the production expectations and the world background.
In Luminites of Uliark by Jack Warren, the aesthetic is wildly different. It’s all about one word – Superheroes – and on every level it seeks to emulate that, within a fantastical setting. There’s magic crystals giving powers to teams of heroes who each guard a particular part of the world, there’s villagers in game who exist only to be protected and saved, and the major antagonists are all classic superhero nemeses. Participants built their own masks before game, and also each team brainstormed an arch-enemy – who costuming quickly built and worked into game. While it made use of the bright colors we expect from an Intro Game, it did so on purpose – everyone’s brightly colored because they’re all superheroes.
Even if your game is set in Generic Fantasyland, think about what kind of fantasy you’re trying to weave. Is it a Conan the Barbarian sort of world, with ancient liches and covered in crumbling ruins? Is it like the Dark Suns setting in D&D, where powerful wizards rule empires of sand, and psychic spellcasters struggle to survive? Or is it like He-Man, full of dramatic heroes and skull-faced villains? You can also draw inspiration from real-life cultures (respectfully!) – maybe your world of artifice and invention draws about Indian culture and appearance, your tiny duchy is based on 1700s German kingdoms, or your game about warring empires draws mythology from traditional Japanese Shinto faith. If you do, remember to be respectful! It is inappropriate to use religious symbols (like bindis or war bonnets) from still-living religions, and including gross stereotypes is never okay.
The next part of your Premise is the Mission of your game. This isn’t really something I’ve discussed with others before, and I think many people wouldn’t consider this even a part of game creation. However, I’ve found this is an essential part of designing other nerd activities, like Tabletop RPGs and video games.
The Mission is what you want your players to be doing in your game. This is how you want your players to feel, what you want the stakes to be like, and what you want them to accomplish. It is easiest to express your Mission through your flow and your game conventions. A Mission can generally be laid out in terms of verbs, where people are doing things. Some aspects of the Mission in an Intro Game are pretty easily laid out in general terms – you want them to be fighting, and you want them to be roleplaying. However, you can (and should) get much more specific than that.
Mission statements should be fun, and what those are determines where the fun in game is. If you have the Mission statement “Summoning and Dealing with Genies”, that means you want to have flowed-in moments in game where participants get to do that, and you want to reward them for doing that. If you have the Mission statement “Casting Cool Spells”, that means you want to give the participants chances during Flow to cast cool spells, and you want to give them lots of cool spells to cast!
Almost all Intro games have the following Mission statements:
Engaging with Characters
These Mission statements are the core of what we try to do at Wayfinder. Players should be given ample opportunities to accomplish all of these objectives, and in an Intro Game, they should be rewarded for doing so.
In addition to the Mission statements listed above, The Horned King could also have been said to have the following:
Participating in the Ritual
Preparing Tactics and Executing Them
Feeling Unsure and Betrayed
Fearing the Horned King
Every single moment in the flow sought to accomplish one of these four Mission Statements, often with more than one at once. The appearance of more and more powerful monsters over the course of the game allows players to Prepare and Execute new tactics, and continue to Fear the Horned King as the danger ramps up. The Rat King throwing off his disguise and killing the target of the ritual forces the participants to Participate in the Ritual (because now they need a new ritual target), makes them Feel Betrayed, and helps them Fear the Horned King.
I know this is a lot to juggle! Fortunately for you, most of this should come naturally. When you figure out your Mission, all you have to think about is what you think is going to be fun in your game, and how those feed into the Aesthetic and the Thesis. There’s a hundred different things your players can be doing in an Adventure Game, and you can easily pick out the ones you think will be most fun. When you’re writing flow and you don’t know where to go, ask yourself, “how can I advance my Mission?” and I’m sure something will come to you.
The Elevator Pitch
An Elevator Pitch refers to a short paragraph that you can use to explain the crux of your game, theoretically in the time it takes to ride an elevator. The Story Board, in their infinite wisdom, has asked every single gamewriter to include a form of an Elevator Pitch in their story submission. This Elevator Pitch helps to get people excited about your game. It’s really hard for someone to care about a game when it’s just a big jumbled mess of ideas up in the air. Telling someone “I’m writing a game that’s like Mad Max in the Greek Underworld” (Marathon Wakes by Mike Phillips) immediately gets them so, so psyched. If you can’t sum up your game in an Elevator Pitch that’s shorter than four sentences, you either need to try harder or make your game simpler. Below I’ve included some Elevator Pitches from various games (both mine and other’s)
“Uliark is no ordinary fantasy land. Swords still clash, castles still crumbles, and the crowns of kings still glimmer in the sherbert sunset. But the heroes of this world are not knights or wizards. Uliark is a land of superheroes. Uliark is the land of the Luminites.”
Luminites of Uliark by Jack Warren
The Short Version: It’s high fantasy golden-age superheroes: the game!
“It has been 85 years since the last time the sun set over Orinas. The Horned King, who consumed the goddess of the night, has marched his armies across the world, destroying and devouring all in his path. Only a handful of cities have survived, defenders of light in a broken world. They have gathered together, to perform a ritual that can once and for all defeat the dark lord, and return the stars to the sky.”
The Horned King by Jay Dragon and Jeremy Gleick
The Short Version: Everyone has to work together to defeat the biggest, evilest, nastiest guy you’ll ever meet.
“In the Everlast, the Realms of the Gods, trouble is brewing. A great divide between the pantheons over whether tapping into the powers of the Heart of their realm is worthy and important, or foolish and dangerous, is coming to a breaking point. As the Gods come together to meet and discuss this issue, tensions are high, and it may take only one small push for heaven itself to descend into war.”
Paradise Marches to War by Jeremy Gleick
The Short Version: Everyone’s a god, and the gods are all gonna fight against each other.
“Stripped of its fertility, the once peaceful world of Edlria has become a sunburnt and scorched wasteland of chaos and death. An army of the last remaining heroic mortals must rise to the occasion and complete a quest given to them by their Gods: to save the God of Life. She was torn from their realm by The God of Death and brought to his dark and twisted kingdom, Marathon. They must descend into the darkness and into the Kingdom of the Dead to rescue the God of Life, before Edlria itself can not be saved.”
Marathon Wakes by Mike Phillips
The Short Version: Mad Max heroes go to the Underworld to save Persephone.
As you can see, everyone has their own style when it comes to writing story blurbs and elevator pitches. But all of them are exciting, and all of them convey the previous three portions of the Premise (the Thesis, the Aesthetic, and the Mission) perfectly.
Now that you’ve got the Premise of your game all sorted out, come back next week for an exciting discussion on Flow, which many people consider to be the hardest part of writing an intro game. We’re gonna make it easy!
Here’s a link to The Horned King, by myself and Jeremy Gleick.
Written by Jay Dragon