Thornwatch Preview - Talking Cards & RPGs With Penny Arcade's Gabe

Jonathan Bolding | 24 Apr 2014 09:00
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Theme & Process Are Key

Mike Krahulik didn't exactly have an easy time adapting his visual design process to making a tabletop game, though. "My sketchbook is all pictures. Whenever I thought of a cool power it came from the idea of a drawing on a card. I would have to draw it out. I would have to draw out entire decks, like for the Blade - swords and daggers and what would his deck look like." Visuals, then, drove his design process. "For two years it was just me by myself making cards and printing them out and playing with my friends at the office for fun." He described designing monsters to me, saying "If I'm thinking of the card I have to draw a pic of the skeleton - what the card looks like, whereas I think I knew a lot of other designers wrote out rules or text."

Then, veteran game designer Mike Selinker moved into an office in the Penny Arcade building. Selinker played the game and told Krahulik that he "had to make this game now." So Krahulik built a small team within Penny Arcade and set about trying to convert his idiosyncratic designs into a usable format. "Every card was an adobe Photoshop file with about 20 layers of rasterized text that you couldn't edit, and weird scribbles and sketches and drawings, and any time I wanted to print out a card I had to flatten the thing out and cut it and paste it onto an 8.5" x 11" page and cut that out." When they saw that, apparently, Mike Selinker walked out of the room, and project manager Jamie Dillion's reaction inspired this comic.

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You can tell the experience was humbling for him. It made him smile and laugh more than anything else we talked about, saying "I just don't work in a way that is conducive to designing a game. I work in photoshop. I'm all about let's all have fun, let's play in the spirit of the game." That attitude, though, clearly made rules text frustrating for him. Mike Fehlauer, the Vice President of Penny Arcade, is apparently a huge rules lawyer. "Fehlauer is like, I'm gonna read every word on this card and I'm going to make it do precisely what it says, not what you wanted it to do" said Krahulik. Those kinds of insights from other people, though, have made the game from hobby side project into a publishable product undergoing playtesting.

One of the first pieces of advice Mike Selinker gave Krahulik, after Krahulik ran the original Thornwatch demo for Selinker, was "This is amazing, I love this game: You are not gonna come in the box. You have to create a set of rules and guides so that anybody can pick up this game and do what you just did for me." That triggered what Krahulik called a "major whoa" moment - he'd been flying blind on tabletop game design, and realized the sheer amount of unfamiliar work required to turn a fun game into a fun game that other people could play. When it comes to the prototype he has, though, his years of instincts and experience with other roleplaying and board games seems to have paid off - he's got a suite of unique and interesting mechanics to work off of.

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