Archive for the ‘design’ Category


Bananachan’s Video on Prototyping

June 2, 2022

This is a great overview of the early design/playtesting part in terms of shifting from the creative “anything goes” brainstorming part to the refining part of playtesting. I think this is a great way to organize your expectations and path of refinement.


Making the Real

May 13, 2022

Let’s say we’re playing a dungeon crawl game, and the protagonists come upon a closed door. What’s behind the door? There’s several ways we could go about deciding what’s behind the door:

  • There’s a written module and it already establishes what’s behind the door
  • The GM has written down (or basically memorized) what is there
  • The GM hasn’t decided but will make it up on the spot
  • One or more of the players at the table will decide (maybe they spend a point, maybe they have to roll a certain score, maybe there’s a negotiation process, whatever).

Now, because it’s “not in play” yet, that is, hasn’t been revealed to the group (per the Baker Care Principle), you could argue it doesn’t exist yet. Except, here’s the important part; all of those 4 possibilities set very different expectations and procedures for the group playing on what to expect from the game and how to approach it. (My mega link post about different theory stuff that might be useful to read now, or later, depending on how much you feel like digging into it.)

Consider; with the first two options, the GM might be making choices knowing what’s behind the door (“Ah, the adventurers were loud! The monster will hide, then try to ambush them!”). If the GM is making stuff up on the spot, the classic “Don’t say that out loud! You’re giving the GM ideas!” issue appears. If everyone knows what is behind the door might be made up by anyone (appropriate to the mechanics) maybe you don’t have to do a bunch of careful set up before opening the door, since it’s just as likely to not be useful.

This sort of thinking applies to a lot more than closed doors; character backstories, motivations, “Who is the killer?” in a mystery, “What does the magical gem do?” and so on. How do we establish the things we imagine as “solidified” in the game? How do we use them to shape play?

It’s not that any one of these is better, it’s just that they’re better at different things and very different expectations of play and likely have different stages during play… so let’s go through it.

Shared and Established

If something is shared – communicated amongst the group as true, then it is established in the game fiction as “real”. My usual statement that the easiest rule is “I say it and so that’s what it is” in the game applies here. Likewise, if the group agrees that we’re going to assume the setting in the game is true and everyone is reading the book, then that’s also “Shared & Established”. (Same thing too if you’re playing a game based on a TV show, book, comics, or movies or whatever – if we take that canon as our canon, it falls into shared & established).

All games must have SOME facts and events that are shared and established – it is the part that makes the game something we agree upon together. But not everything will start from here nor necessarily end here.

Personally Committed

Some things are hidden from the group but a player (including the GM as a player) are committed to making their choices and narration on the basis of facts or ideas that only they know. This could be:

  • The adventure module
  • A character’s backstory and motivations
  • An specific combat encounter & stats
  • Making a roll to yourself to see what a character would do
  • Knowing who the killer is in a murder mystery

The important part about personal commitment is that it allows the rest of the group to potentially suss out or deduce what is going on and allows for a consistency in action.

Uncreated – Singular Authority

“What’s behind the door?” “I haven’t decided yet!” Or, possibily “I was thinking X, but maybe I’ll change my mind.” Without the commitment, it’s not established. The important part here is that this is controlled by one player. Now obviously, this shows up a lot when you are forced to improvise things (“Wait, I gotta come up with a name and personality for the waiter?!? Uh, hold on.”), but some people like to run whole sessions like this.

I think it’s not too bad if it’s not being masqueraded as something where there is a commitment, otherwise you sort of pull a bait and switch on players who are invested in trying to draw the connections and connect the dots. (see everyone upset who got invested in the TV series Lost…)

There is also the point when you have abusive GMing where someone will constantly pull the switcheroo of facts in order to disempower or antagonize players (“haha, it turns out your shoes were cursed all along!”) but obviously the larger problem is a social one and not necessarily this particular method of establishing fiction. We can also see this goes back to the classic “We’re playing Let’s Pretend” and the “I shot you” “No you didn’t” argument issue.

Uncreated – Group Authority

For this to work, the group either has to know it’s part of the system, or it has to happen consistently enough in play for it to become “unwritten” system that the group engages in. For example, “My hunter wants to identify the tracks we found” “Well, you’re the expert, tell me what you find – that’s large, dangerous, and somewhat magical” “Oh.”

Some games make this abundantly obvious with narration trading mechanics – for example, drawing the highest card in Primetime Adventures, or spending coins in Universalis to establish facts. Other games do this a bit more sneakily; for example, if you roll a miss in Apocalypse World to Read A Situation, the GM might ask you “Where are YOU the most vulnerable to the enemy?” and in answering, you establish a truth of the game setting.

This sort of thing is great for collaborative groups (and drastically removes a lot of prep and creativity labor for a GM), but also makes it harder for anyone to plot/plan a larger picture backstory, without needing to be very flexible to changes.

Design and oops, design

Obviously, if you’re designing a game, it’s worth thinking about these things and how you expect the game to work and what parts should work like one way, another, or shift over time. However, it unfortunately falls into the hands of a lot of groups, when games have not thought about this very well and you are left with a nebulous “find your style” advice which means you’re actually having to navigate these things all the time but not knowing how it works and re-communicating or negotiating these with new people over and over (or… having bad mismatches in play expectations and the problems that creates…)

You can also see a lot of the issues around this goes into the poor discourse around “meta gaming” or railroading and more, but at least having a language can help you figure out what you’re trying to do or avoid in the games you play or make.

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The Pitfall of Overexplaining

February 25, 2022

I was talking with a friend today about a game I skimmed through recently that has fallen into the trap of overexplaining. It’s something I see in a few games, and it’s unfortunate because it’s also a trap that makes you do MORE work as a designer rather than less? So it’s like a double pitfall in a way.

Making the simple, hard, for no reason

When you overexplain an idea for your game, your potential players tend to do one of two things. One is they may imagine the thing you’re talking about is something completely different, or more difficult than what you are actually talking about. Two, they might imagine you are talking about something deeply theoretical, maybe not even real.

For example, a lot of gamers who play traditional RPGs believe that improvisation in play is some kind of expert or god-tier skill sometimes, and that’s mostly because a lot of traditional games spend a lot of time over explaining what a GM does, and mostly in vague, handwavey terms, which makes it seem SO HARD, when it’s not.

Funny enough, the -overexplaining- is often ther eason

Chasing lost causes

Now, part of the problem is trying to explain to people who effectively aren’t your audience. It’s another trap that’s easy to fall into; even assuming goodwill, there’s some portion of people who, for whatever reason, you will never be able to write something in a way they “get”. And chasing that small group and trying to over explain to them, will lose out everyone else you should be making the game for. (As someone who cut their teeth at the Forge Forums, I know this all too well. The Forge Theory posts bookmarked on the right are all my cutting away the cruft.)

Consider trying to teach CPR; there’s procedures and some advice to make it easy to memorize. Imagine some subgroup of people demanded to be educated on the full interaction of molecular science and blood chemistry before they would consider learning the basic steps. If you let them guide the course, what was a 2-3 hour workshop is now several years of college classes; and most people don’t learn CPR anymore (and, a lot of the people who made the demand, also still don’t.).

When you teach a game, if you can get it to where ENOUGH of your potential players get it, that’s fine. Perhaps several years down the line you might find better language to explain ideas and create another edition, maybe your audience puts together fan guides with advice, or blogs about how to best play your game. Hell, there’s plenty of Youtubers who make their living just giving people advice on how to play D&D.

Do this instead

  • Explain the basic idea before giving exceptions/side cases
  • Chunk up the information. If it looks like a huge block of text, it is.
  • Introduce a general concept, give details, then summarize in reference locations
  • If a side case takes several paragraphs to explain; consider just… not explaining it? Or an informal sentence? Maybe a side-bar so it can have it’s own space, if you must.
  • A somewhat vague instruction (often Directive based ideas) can be made clear with examples
  • Describing a hypothetical player or GM’s thought process in WHY they would choose one thing or another in your examples helps too
  • If two ideas are connected but can’t be covered in the same section, include a short bit on the other idea and something along the lines of “This system works with That system, which you can read about in the X Section further in the rules”.
  • Verbally explaining the game is a very useful tool for figuring out what people need to learn and in what level of depth.

Funny enough, there have been times when I’ve told my friends, “Here, just read the quicksheet I’ve made rather than read the rules” because I’ve seen games where the overexplaining has left them more confused rather than better set to start. And that’s assuming the size of the rules wasn’t an intimidation issue to start with.

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Extensibility vs. Completeness Design

February 4, 2022

I’ve been looking at a lot of games in the last year or two and one thing I realized is a key design choice is whether the mechanics and system are built around extensibility or completeness as the core philosophy.

Completeness Design

Some games are built with the idea that the core rules are flexible and can encompass pretty much any situation that is likely to appear. That might be because the theme/situation of the game is limited and the rules are extensively built around that (Poison’d is about pirates, and the rules around Cruel Fates and weapons etc. encompass that situation fairly well) or the rules are very broad and just about anything can fit into it (The Pool, Primetime Adventures, Universalis, FATE games, Cortex games, Heroquest/Hero Wars).

Completeness design systems have some advantages:

  • These games are usually quicker to learn, there’s less exception based rules.
  • There’s less to keep track of (in terms of rules)
  • Many of these games make improv easily – modeling anything or outcomes is usually pretty easy because the rules already encompass it.
  • This kind of design works well for games that include closed economy pacing mechanics; things that drive a story forward to a systemic outcome.

There are some disadvantages too:

  • You have less specific, unique mechanics for different things. Poorly done, everything feels the same.
  • Depending on the rules, fitting everything into the existing system may require fairly good skills at abstraction – some people find this very hard
  • Some systems have a tight economy in the game system; adjustments might result in imbalancing the game as a whole or breaking some pacing mechanic
  • From a business side – you don’t really need to sell anything past the core book

Extensibility Design

Many games are built with the idea that you will need specific rules for many things and that the system is built with the expectation more rules will be added or imported later (whether homebrew add-ons or sold supplements). This is pretty much the standard for D&D and most games out of the 80s and much of the 90s.

Extensibility design advantages:

  • Exception based rules makes it possible to model many “factors” in any situation, which can lead to some fun tactics and strategizing (it is the same thing that makes Magic the Gathering work, or hell, the different move sets in Chess)
  • You can reduce the amount of abstraction needed to run the game since rules can be specific to different situations directly
  • Player base can fiddle with lots of small modifications; encourages tinkering (which, in the modern internet era works as a form of promotion too -everyone cross promotes by talking about what little rules or ideas they’re thinking about).
  • From the business side – you can sell endless expansions with specific rulesets

Extensibility disadvantages:

  • There can be a LOT of different rules to learn, or at least skim past. It can be overwhelming for new players.
  • If one player like a GM is expected to interface with them all, that can be a high cognitive load as well
  • Cross coordinating rules from many books is also a challenge
  • It’s possible to create serious sets of imbalance – as much as the extensible rules work for CCGs like Magic the Gathering it is also why they end up rebooting the game every few years; the subsets start forming combinations that are highly unbalancing
  • Improv can be made harder if the system is expecting “specific interfacing rules” and you have to math/kludge together a lot to play.
  • Likewise, extensibility systems can hide core design logic; you can find people trying to hack or mod systems to do things they’re not cut out to do – but because it’s the result of layers of rules, it’s not immediately apparent. If you want people to mod and add more onto a system, it helps to make those issues clear to avoid pitfalls.

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Emotional Signalling

December 8, 2021

I wrote some ideas on Twitter about an idea in RPGS and figured I would just copy/paste and then expand here.

Had a thought about TTRPGs and mood/emotion mechanics. I think we need more games that differentiate between being placed in a mood/attitude vs. a depth where you start changing the direction of how you live your life. Because these two things are very different.

We all have up days, down days, frustration, etc. That shifts how we speak, and some decisions about what we do daily. That is not the same as stuff that has you doing career changes, breaking up relationships, etc.

Although I think there’s a pretty big field to explore mechanically, mostly, I think this difference is useful to highlight specifically in player to player communication.

When we roleplay, our dialogue and choices are distilled and not always best communicated. Other people in the group have to navigate that and try to read the difference. Is your character just angry and yelling or are you going to make serious choices? It’s not always clear.

And it’s important bc if the group is supposed to help with creating the appropriate dramatic situations, the proper reactions by the other characters? Knowing what level we’re talking is useful.

And if you want to talk about mechanics feeding drama, having your character catch a small penalty for being discouraged is not the same as “your character is about to throw out their own career” and provides a different level of threat/cost.

And this mirrors a lot in fiction; when a character is in a temporary mood, they either get over it or have something opposite come their way. It’s a turn but not a big deal. When characters are changing direction in life, or near to it, it’s a Big Deal and core conflict.

If we’re co-creating as a group, it’s really important to know what weight we’re throwing at this.

Emotional Centers

I think it’s also worth thinking about how characters in fiction and stories, have an emotional center – the personality, values and attitudes that make up who they are and are where they return to as a person. Now, yes, characters can and do change over time, which is part of what good storytelling does – the maturation and growth of a character is the journey of how they become a different person; for better or for worse.

When we’re talking about these ideas of characters expressing short term moods or being knocked completely off axis for life? That’s about how these things in play are affecting their emotional center; a mood or even a longer term arc that doesn’t threaten to change who they are, is one thing, while the sorts of experiences that might place their sense of self or values at risk, that warp or transform their emotional center, is another.

(My memory around 2013 is still pretty poor from the chemotherapy treatments at the time, but a worthwhile idea that is related to this is Emily Care Boss’ Story Capital which I briefly wrote about. As some fictional elements in play are loaded with meaning and importance to the play group, they gain “story capital” and this sort of fictional “weight” becomes strong enough to potentially change characters’ emotional centers.)

Sometimes Flags, Sometimes Not

Now, I’ve been one of the biggest proponents of Flag Mechanics, however they are not always the right tool for this, and when they are, they might work in different ways.

For one, some games use your characters’ values or beliefs as the Flags – in other words, their emotional center, but it may not be clear to the group whether you, as a player, are using those values as something that might change, or simply a target to draw conflict. To use a simple pop culture example – if you are playing a Jedi and you have a Flag “will never succumb to the Dark Side” is that designed because you MIGHT eventually toy with the Dark Side or is it just to make a lot of dramatic scenes around it? Both can be fun, but they’re actually different play goals.

The other issue is that some games do not allow you to change Flags in the moment; so if a scene or situation has occurred that you personally think is critical and might change your character forever, you might not be able to adjust a Flag to let everyone know how important it is. Or, perhaps the situation is just a subset of an existing Flag and there’s no “change” that says this is more or less important.

Tenative Labels

Unfortunately I don’t have an easy, quick tool in mind for play (I’m exhausted, it’s a pandemic) but I figured I’d share what I’ve got in mind so far. I basically see these things as having 3 levels of potential weight or importance to a character.

Mood – A mood is a short term expression or attitude for a character and they are not really in danger of changing their core values or personality. Roleplaying banter or expressions of affirmation/care are fine but it’s nothing to push hard about.

Jolt – A jolt is a situation that has knocked the character slightly off from their Emotional Center and may last an extended time, and eventually result in changes as to who they are. It’s not critical and life changing yet, but it is something that has dislodged their sense of certainty in their boundaries and views of themselves. It’s a pretty good space for character roleplaying over time.

Crash – A crash is a situation that has the character in existential crisis. They may act in extreme ways and other players should recognize this is very important and that lines have been crossed for the character.

Now, do I think everyone should be filling their RPG scenes with “Hold on, that’s a Jolt for my character”? No, that sounds awkward and weird. I’m sure something like hand signals or other mechanic procedure would probably better suit navigating these issues. I do think it’s useful to have conceptual framework first because it also helps you understand what’s happening in a game, especially when you are trying to create a story collaboratively without traditional fiction’s tools of planning and revision.

The tropes of action genres

Finally, mainstream RPG space is mostly built on genres of male-focused action adventure and often does an incredibly poor job of demonstrating protagonists actually wrestling with their emotionals and values. A lot of the stories are “emotionally safe” in the sense that the protagonists are never shown to be knocked off their emotional center; you might have the “screaming in the rain” scene but after that they are never out of control in a way that is detrimental to them. Because these stories don’t actually show character development or processing emotion, the narrative language around them can be under developed in both seeing them in play or communicating them.

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