I love learning about the creative process. One of my favourite things to research is how people in different fields, from the arts to the sciences, are able to solve problems and develop new ways of thinking about the world. I appreciate it when a creator reveals the behind-the-scenes on their work, demystifies the process, and shares their tools and findings with the community.
Having just passed a major development milestone in the release of our new deck of lore prompts
, I thought I'd share a bit about my own process. Over the coming months I'll show you how the deck grew from a page in a notebook into a $600,000+ crowdfunding project, and I thought I'd start today by pulling back the curtain on our beta process for Lore Master's Deck
We launched The Story Engine: Lore Master's Deck
(our third core deck) on BackerKit last June, and we're finally entering the home stretch of development. Our open beta begins on February 8, and you can still get beta access if you pre-order Lore Master's Deck
One of the things I love about crowdfunding is being able to receive feedback from the people who are most invested in the project, and getting to share the nuts and bolts of the development process with them.
So I opened a form where backers could sign up for the closed beta: an early working PDF copy of the deck. I sent decks in November and provided a Google Form where participants could submit structured feedback on specific aspects of the deck, as well as general feedback and impressions.
Closed beta feedback was incorporated into Lore Master's Deck in early December. We made a lot of small changes to specific cards and bits of the guidebook that I won't get into, but I wanted to share some of the broader categories of changes we made and how they've improved the deck!
We overhauled primary cues to avoid repeated words
In the alpha and beta we'd selected a limited number of words to repeat within the primary cues for Factions, Locations, and Materials because we wanted certain essential cues (e.g., "guild," "school," and "stone") to appear more often than more niche words (e.g., "coterie," "farmhouse," and "foam").
There are two reasons I did this in the alpha and beta:
- I wanted the probability of a given cue being drawn to reflect the prevalence with which certain structures and concepts recur in life and fiction. Often the words I repeated were broad words that make for good blank canvases to fill in with secondary prompts, so they take on new meaning every time they appear.
- Repeating essential cues had been helpful for Regions and Landmark cards in Deck of Worlds, where one world map might need multiple towns, forests, and seas.
The guidebook includes this example lore cluster. Here, "school" features as a fighting school, but in a different context, you could have a primary school, a philosophical group, a culinary school, a college, a magical tradition, or a school of thought within a discipline.
There was helpful and consistent feedback in the beta that this repetition of words felt limiting and deck users wanted access to a wider variety of cues. It also helped me realize that Deck of Worlds was a very different kind of project; the Region and Landmark cards include artwork to differentiate repeated words and make each instance feel unique.
Desert mountains conjure different imagery than snow-capped ones.
The feedback helped me realize that Lore Master's Deck is a new format that would require new design solutions. We did some additional writing sessions to replace all repeated entries within a given card category with new material that felt equally strong. We also worked our thesauruses to look for ways of representing some of these prompts through additional synonyms.
I'm so, so happy with the new material and I can see how much value this variety adds to the deck! Thanks to everyone who sent in notes about this.
We overhauled primary cues to reduce the number of words that also appear in The Story Engine Deck and Deck of Worlds
A few noted that a small number of essential primary cues in Lore Master's Deck also appear on cards in previous deck systems we've published.
There's a delicate balance when you're developing a new standalone deck system that builds on existing decks: you want to present as much new material as possible, but also need to cover some of the same core concepts as the previous material. Because Figure cards are an intentional analogue to Agent cards from The Story Engine Deck, we needed to include essential character types and social roles, like "healer," "researcher," and "soldier." The same went for Locations (which parallel Landmarks/Regions from Deck of Worlds and Anchors from The Story Engine) and Objects (which also parallel Anchors from The Story Engine).
A new section from the guidebook showcasing possible card substitutions and parallel card types.
To make sure Lore Master's Deck offered as much new material as possible, we crosschecked every primary cue with every parallel card type we've released to date and replaced as many repeated cues as we could. We also tagged cues depending on whether or not they appeared in The Story Engine main deck, story expansions, Deck of Worlds, and worldbuilding expansions so we could ensure that no single card featured more than one repeated cue from a specific deck system.
Screenshot of some Figure cards from our card database. You'll notice "artisan" is tagged with [tse], indicating the word appears in The Story Engine main deck. "Adventurer" appears in a Story Engine expansion.
When we launched the Lore Master's Deck campaign and alpha, I estimated the deck had roughly 10% repeated cues.
After our closed beta revisions, doing some quick back-of-the-envelope math on the 2,400 cues in Lore Master's Deck, it looked like ~2% of cues appear in another main deck, and another ~2% appear somewhere in another deck system's suite of expansions. We managed to cut that number to less than half of what it was before.
Again, we replaced these cues through additional writing and brainstorming sessions, followed by more crosschecking sessions, followed by more writing and brainstorming sessions, until we were satisfied.
Cutting down overrepresented primary cue categories
Another behind-the-scenes development nugget: When I design cards, I usually develop conceptual categories to help structure my brainstorms and ensure that every card features a variety of cue types.
For example, during the alpha, the Factions deck was designed so that every card features a military faction, spiritual faction, political faction, and secular faction.
Screenshot of Factions from our card database, including the concept categories.
Object cards featured one weapon, one tool or piece of equipment, one wearable item, and one wildcard (which might include vehicles, oddballs, or overflow ideas from other categories).
Screenshot of Objects from our card database, including the concept categories.
The boundaries between these categories are permeable, but it's a helpful starting point for ensuring card balance and ensuring some structure for brainstorming. And for the finished deck, it ensures that every card draw covers a variety of creative needs.
There were two card types where we heard consistently that there were too many cues on a given category.
- For Factions, we heard that there were too many military-focused cues.
- For Creatures, there were too many plant/fungus-focused cues.
My philosophy is that when a tool or structure stops being useful, you should either adapt it or set it aside, so I adjusted how I was prioritizing categories for these card types. We kept the best material in each of these categories and cut the weakest material, then wrote new material to replace it that covered new conceptual ground.
I want to give a special shout-out to our community manager Eric Weiss, who really fleshed out some new community-focused categories for the Factions deck. His additions, like "neighborhood," "diaspora," and "borough," really touched on new ways of recognizing groups of people with a common interest or experience.
We're really excited for you to explore the new material we developed!
A Faction card featuring the new cue "neighborhood" and a Creature card featuring the new cue "mosquito."
That's all for now! I hope you enjoyed this peek behind the curtain, and stay tuned for more development journals in the weeks ahead!
If you'd like to participate in the closed beta, just pre-order Lore Master's Deck and you'll automatically receive it when we send it out on February 8.