How Hannah Shaffer Makes Games

 

(Hannah Shaffer's game 14 Days is on Kickstarter through July 28. Go back it now! –A) 

Tell us about yourself - Who are you? What do you do?

I’m Hannah Shaffer! I’m a game designer and web designer, and the co-founder of a game design coworking space in western Massachusetts (http://owlandraven.org/). These days, most of my time is dedicated to game design.

 

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If I’ve never played your games before, what’s the first one I should try?

I guess I’d have to say Questlandia, but that might be a cheap answer, seeing as it’s my only complete game! Even so, I think Questlandia showcases the types of games I enjoy making and the things I like thinking about (world-building, unstable political systems, fantasy & sci-fi as social commentary).

 

One fact that we probably don’t know about you:

I’m relatively new to roleplaying games. I’ve always loved games, but until just a few years ago my gaming experience was limited to board games and video games. Because tabletop RPGs are such a social experience, and because none of my friends roleplayed, I was just too shy to jump into tabletop RPGs! The RPG community can be a bit opaque from the outside. Now that I’m an active part of it, I’d like to help change that.

 

What games are you playing most right now?

I’m obsessed with The Yawhg, which is actually a video game! It’s a beautiful story game about the final 6 weeks in a fantasy kingdom leading up to a terrible disaster. The art is wonderful, the writing is funny, and it takes about 15 minutes to play from start to finish. I’ve been playing it over and over again, thinking about how I can translate the design into a tabletop RPG.

 

What are your all-time favorite games?

RPGs: Shooting the Moon by Emily Care Boss, Microscope by Ben Robbins, and Human Contact by Joshua A.C. Newman. I’m also a huge fan of early point-and-click adventure games, and I return to them often for inspiration: The original Secret of Monkey Island, Loom, King’s Quest VII.

 

What draws you to make games?

I love the visceral experience of roleplaying games, and I love watching procedural storytelling in action. It’s amazing to see a group of people working together to tell a never-before-told story. I think the emotional experience of a roleplaying game (the laughter, the tension, the feeling of disappointment when something goes wrong for your character) has a lot of therapeutic potential as well. That excites me!

 

Describe your process (or lack thereof) when making games. How do you reach your final product?

The first step is logging every idea for a game in an easy-to-find place. I keep a long list of game ideas in Todoist. Most of these games will never get made, and some of them *should* never get made, but it’s fun to return to the list when I’m thinking about my next game.

 

I try to focus on what I hope to accomplish with a game emotionally before thinking about the mechanics. It’s easy to fall into the trap of designing a dice system or conflict resolution mechanic before you know what the goal of your game is supposed to be.

 

After focusing in on the goal, I’ll draft up some mechanics to go with it. Then, I’ll do a rough playtest to see what’s working and what isn’t. Most things are broken in an early playtest, but I have to see the game in action to figure out how to fix them.

 

How often/early do you playtest? How do you find playtesters?

I playtest really early on. I’m fortunate enough to have a great community of designers around me, many of whom know what it’s like to playtest a game in a broken, unpleasant, unplayable state. I do some of my earliest playtesting with close friends (usually to hash out little mechanical bits), then a cleaner playtest at the game design coworking space, then I’ll share a draft of the rules online to see who’s willing to playtest without me looking over their shoulder.

 

How do you handle life/family/work balance?

Because I freelance, it can be really difficult to separate my working hours from my free hours. I try to schedule social stuff in advance so I don’t forget to take breaks. I’m also really firm with web clients about my work hours (no phone calls after a certain hour, no work on weekends), and I try to be pretty strict with myself about limiting social media. Staying connected online can be an important part of this work, but it’s important to know when to hit the off switch. I’m not very good at that part...

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What one piece of advice would you give aspiring game designers?

Seek mentors and don’t design in a vacuum. The best way to generate a community of fans is to talk about what you’re working on. Seek out game design events and conventions, especially those that are vocal about working toward inclusivity. An event that aspires to be welcoming and inclusive may not get it right, but aspiring designers are more likely to find support in these spaces.

 

Who would you like to see answer these questions?

Becky Slitt. Her work with Choice of Games is super inspiring. I don’t know how she finds the time to write LARPs and RPGs in addition to her other work!

 

What’s the best advice about life that you’ve ever received?

A few days ago, I was overanalzying something that had happened online. I received some really good advice from Ben Robbins, who said, “Don't focus on the unknowable internet, focus on the wonderful gamers who love your game.”

 

It’s an important reminder that extends well beyond games. Work in the service of the people who love and support you. You won’t be able to win the approval of everyone, so don’t put your energy into trying to solve that equation. :)

 

(Hannah Shaffer's game 14 Days is on Kickstarter through July 28. Go back it now! –A)