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How'd That Happen?

Posted in Games

Some design thoughts on Old Mesilla, mostly about how I ended up writing a game about Billy the Kid:

The crazy part is, Old Mesilla started as a game about The Gunpowder Plot. Wikipedia featured on the frontpage an article about one of Guy Fawkes’ conspirators who was considered the greatest swordsman of Europe. That got me thinking about The Gunpowder plot as a heist movie style plot, and a game was born.

I guess this was the first lesson of the design: start with something that inspires you.

Ben (one of the Burrito Questers) of course called me on making a game that would borderline glorify terrorism, and for a while I tried to come up with a fantasy setting where I could pull off the same thing, but without any sticky real world issues. Swords and sorcery fantasy has never been my strong point, so that got trashed, and for a while the game went nowhere.

Here’s where the game starts to become recognizable: dropping the Gunpowder Plot as a reference and focusing on what I was really interested in about it (heist-style games in a non-modern setting), I struck upon the idea of making it a Western, a train-job. A little more time on Wikipedia and I realized I could capitalize on that middle school New Mexican History course all students in NM have to take, and make a game about things I know.

Second lesson: use stuff you know about.

Again, the game kind of stagnated: I had some ideas on how to make a heist work without too much table time wasted on planning, and a pretty strong idea of the setting, but the characters were going nowhere. Thankfully I ended up talking/arguing with Harper about Lady Blackbird and how he views the characters, and it got me thinking that maybe the characters would all reflect some theme.

Third lesson: have something you want to explore in play, but don’t shove it in the player’s face.

I’m hopelessly contrarian when it comes to designing things, so the game started as a kind of Lady Blackbird/Apocalypse World combo, with my own twist. I just kind of assumed that to do anything interesting, I needed to make something new. That system had some things that I really liked, but didn’t actually make too much sense, so I ended up just ditching my rules and using a (ever-so-slightly tweaked) version of Lady Blackbird’s rules.

Last lesson: if the game you want doesn’t need new rules, don’t write them

Sage LaTorra is a game designer and engineering manager at Google. You may know him from Dungeon World.

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