Archive for the ‘design’ Category


Lancer: Comp/Con character builder

January 12, 2020

This.  This is what I’ve been wanting TTRPGs to start doing more often:

Lancer RPG Comp/Con Character Builder

Even if you’re not interested in playing or buying the Lancer game, you should check out the free program for this.  It’s a great example of what we should have for more games that have character builds to track.

  • Easy and clean interface.  Short comments let you know what skills/powers do.
  • Free. Available for Apple, Windows and Linux.
  • Local data.  You don’t need to be online for the app to function.  You don’t need to hope the company will be still running servers 2 years from now, or that someone isn’t funneling malware through it later on.

Now, I also understand that building software isn’t a snap, but for the publishers with more money and resources, this sort of thing is basically the future for mid-to-high build complexity games.

I know a couple of years back people were really excited about D&D’s character builder, but it premium locks most of the options until you pay for that specific book, and whatever point WOTC decides to move on and shut down the servers – you basically have nothing for it.

This is such a contrasting difference in approach to Lancer’s putting the player base first – the people who buy your game and want to play your game need good design tools – money locking it just makes it harder to play your game.

(It’s a far lesser scale, but does remind me of the problem with the D20 attempt at open source design – the way in which it was set up encouraged everyone to only put their LEAST interesting stuff as free, and everything else was held behind a premium barrier – so you got a glut of material, but nothing to encourage increasing quality of design.)


Fiction Feeding

October 1, 2019

Between a couple of games I’ve been playing in and some game design I’ve been doing on my own, I’ve been thinking about something that I’m calling “Fiction Feeding Mechanics”.  These are formalized sorts of designs that come directly from Mo Turkington’s theories on Push and Pull in TTRPG play.

(Also for new readers, whenever I say “Fiction” in reference to tabletop RPGs, I mean the imaginary stuff that’s happening in your campaign and session that you are playing.  Not necessarily whether the game is tied to an existing property or book series, nor the setting stuff specifically.)

Fiction Feeding Mechanics

Game mechanics that take place in the course of regular play that specifically ask questions for people in the play group (players, GM, sometimes specified, sometimes not) to answer that feed into the fiction directly.

The most popular example these days is Apocalypse World Moves – stuff like “You get to ask the GM ‘What is the biggest threat I should be looking out for?'”.

Consider how much more directed this is, than “I rolled 3 successes on Perception. What happens?”.  The classic traditional game mechanic measures success but doesn’t direct narration, which means sometimes you get weak or empty answers, and not necessarily because the GM is trying to cut you out of something, but because it’s a non-directed mechanic and there’s a lot to track and do in play.

Also compare to narration trading games – in those games the key component is who gets the right to TELL something, but it’s not well directed.  The benefit is at least the creative work is spread around so the GM isn’t the only one stuck doing the work, but if the game also expects to limit the scope of outcomes, it simply moves the question of “What are 3 perception successes in the fiction?” to a different player.

As I have often said, the easiest game mechanic is “I say it and it happens.”  So, the second easiest game mechanic is “I ask about it and someone tells me.”  A set of directed questions allows play to move in meaningful directions and avoid things like the jokes about players poking at a normal chair for hours.

Fiction that shows up in play

An important point here, is that a lot of traditional games have a lot of questions during character generation, but much of them end up left behind once play starts.  Sometimes these are because the questions are… not good questions (“What’s your character’s favorite color?” etc.) but also it can be because the game doesn’t have good ways to bring the answers into play.

By putting the directed questions into regular use mechanics in play, you find that it builds a loop of “fiction drives mechanics, mechanics feed fiction”.

Anyway, if you’re designing games, consider what questions would regularly show up in the kind of story you’d want of your game.  The key to a good question is that it either leads to more questions or it leads to more choices/decisions/actions, but not resolving everything.

For example, in a murder mystery game, “Who is the killer?” resolves the situation and ends play, while “Who is hiding something? Who is afraid? Who is desperate? Who is resentful?” are more interesting questions, because while none directly solve the scenario, they bring you along towards it’s resolution (and often along the way show you dead ends, albeit interesting ones.)


Designing Random Event Tables

June 20, 2019

I’m hacking a fix to a game I play – one of the tools is a random event table that is helpful about 2/3rds of the time.  It’s enough it does add value, but the bad points stop play and make things harder – which is not what you want to have happen in play.  Between this, and thinking about a couple of other games I’ve played in the past with these things, I wanted to draw out some basic design principles, which I’ve seen a lot of games fail on.

The Bullseye of design

When you make a random event table, the first large field of ideas is “CAN this happen in the game?”  You’ll write down a lot of possibilities.   But maybe you’ve already jumped to the second step, the smaller subset within that – “SHOULD this happen in the game?”  Within that, “What makes this fun, and is it likely to occur in play?” etc.   It narrows down like a target board, with smaller and smaller areas of ideas, better suited for the game you are designing/playing.

Anyone can throw together a giant list and put it on a table – you can go on forum boards and see these lists, check out blogs, and even pay a few bucks from publishers who do nothing but make lists.   And – yes, these lists will often have some neat ideas in there.  But do all the neat ideas fit together in the game you want to run?  Are they disruptive to the scale of game you want to play?  Do they fit the theme and color of the game?  That’s where it gets harder.

You’ll note in old school D&D, people often joked about how often the magic item The Deck of Many Things could disrupt a whole campaign, because it’s been known to drop disasters, curses, super monsters as much as a mild, silly effect.  It’s the same sort of issue, and also why later editions keep curtailing how far it can go.

So whatever list you make, go back and look hard at whether the ideas fit together, whether they push the game too hard in a direction or if they rely on too many specific conditions to be fun.  (Fun doesn’t necessarily mean good for the player characters, challenge and conflict is also fun, but in both cases, it has to fit the game.)

Communication and Ease of Use

How well does the table immediately translate into use in play?  If you have to stop the game and think for 5 minutes and have a discussion about what it means or how it might work, the table didn’t actually make things easier.  (This is what is going on in the mechanic I’m hacking).

This can also happen because the entry is too vague or broad.  You don’t want to spend too much time trying to puzzle out what it actually means, and, it also means the real work of making it interesting is falling upon the GM or the players and instead of being a thing that helps play speed ahead, it’s a thing you drag along.

So make sure the chart entries are easy to grasp, don’t require too much explanation, and if they require secondary steps or actions, that it’s not too deep or involved.

Lock-in vs. Flexibility

One of the better design features in recent years has been making random tables either with multiple choices within them, or giving a mechanic to bounce the result a bit, to find something more fitting.

The former, we see a lot in the Apocalypse World family of design – “You rolled a 7, pick 2 things from this list of 5” “You can have X, Y, or Z.” etc.  This doesn’t always have to be a thing for an advantage or challenge – it can also be picking things that are just appropriate for the game situation.

The latter, we see in say, Tenra Bansho Zero’s Emotion Matrix – you roll an entry, but everyone can choose to spend some Aiki to bounce around the result to something that is more appropriate or exciting for everyone.

Flexibility gives you wiggle room in the design and helps mitigate the possibility of weird results or things not fitting in.  It is still best to have thought deeply about the entries, however.

When to use?

When should a random event table be used?  Sometimes this is a strictly mechanical thing – “X numbers of turns pass in the dungeon, roll for wandering monsters”, “If a character’s stat goes above X, roll for Corruption Effects”, “At the beginning of each session, roll to see what problems beset the Town”.   Sometimes it is a fictional trigger – “When an NPC is angry enough to take action, roll on this chart”, “When your character loses hope, roll to see what Scar affects them.” – which means it’s a judgment call from someone playing.

Either way, it’s good to be clear when and how often you expect a given random event chart to be used.

The Actual Odds

First, consider how often a chart is getting used.  Then consider how often something interesting should be happening from that chart roll.

If a chart is rarely used, you don’t want entries where minor or inconsequential things happen, because it basically is doing extra steps for little content.  If a chart is being used a lot, there’s a point after which you might see the same things happen a lot, in which case – would it be interesting if it happens repeatedly, or will it get old?  Will it be hard to rationalize why it happens repeatedly?

So just keep these things in mind, as I’ve seen both ways happen in charts that have turned them from a play aid into a detriment.  It’s not hard to make a chart, it’s hard to make a chart that aids play.

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The rules that do nothing

May 14, 2019

I ended up coming across The Law of the Conservation of Complexity which basically says, for a given situation, there’s a fundamental baseline level of complexity that you can’t simplify any further.  The interesting part is a second note:

One interesting element to this law is the suggestion that even by simplifying the entire system, the intrinsic complexity is not reduced, it is moved to the user, who must behave in a more complex way.

This points to an issue that is longstanding in tabletop RPGs – what the rules don’t cover by procedure, the play group must do.

In some cases, this is trivial (“name your character”) or well covered by established genre expectations and group expectations.

But in many cases, you can find a number of games which were designed with rules minimalism only because the designers couldn’t figure out what TO push and promote, which then ends up either giving very bland play and/or a lot of creative fatigue on the play group to make up the difference.

While the design maxim is true “emphasize everything and you emphasize nothing”, we seem to have a lot of people who also need to hear “emphasize nothing and you emphasize nothing” as a point as well.

I noted years ago that “the easiest system is ‘I say a thing and it happens'” however, rules should provide you something more interesting as an outcome than that to have a reason to exist.


Commitment Design

January 17, 2019

When you create a game, you’re creating an experience.  Like any kind of art, it need not always be fun or enjoyable in the immediate sense of the word, but it should be something people are generally glad they experienced.

It’s also true that sometimes, unexpected experiences* are part of what you are crafting.

That said, the more time, energy, effort, cost, someone has to commit for the experience?  The more you should be giving them in the way of information about expected experience so they can decide if they want to put the commitment in, or not.

This is critically true of games, if only because games usually require more investment for someone to play them (learning rules, possibly mastering some level of skill) and, unlike most other media – there’s no standard for how long a game is (especially when we talk about games played over multiple sessions).

This is why, media that keys off an unexpected experience, usually works best if it is short.  If I play a fun little puzzle videogame, that turns out in the end to be really dark and heavy, but it was only maybe 30 minutes long – if I didn’t like the experience, I also didn’t invest too much time and effort into it.   If I play a game that demands 90 hours of my time, then turns around and changes the expectations drastically, I might be actively pissed, since I put a lot of energy into getting whatever I was getting from the majority of the game.

(Longtime readers might remember my analogy of people wanting to play Hearts and getting Poker suddenly thrust into their face – this same logic applies to a game design as well, especially where the game dictates specific experiences.)

A well designed game makes the experience of playing it part of the reward – it’s fun to play.  And, of course, if you pull that out from people to something they don’t enjoy, you have effectively “punished” them for the effort of playing your game.

*Obviously, I mean the overall experience – such as a genre or type of story or gameplay, not, say, “Wow everyone should know the entire plot of a story before experiencing it”.  If I watch a comedy, I don’t expect heavy tragedy.


Game design: Siloing Resources

February 24, 2018

It’s a generally understood that you should design your game to reward the players to do the thing you want to see happen in play.  The important, but sometimes missed part, is that is that what you should want to see in play is the thing the players would also find fun, but maybe not realize on their own.

So part of that is “siloing” – some resources or rewards, are isolated in terms of how you can get them.  When you fail to silo things correctly, there may be glaring loopholes that make it easy, and even encouraging, for players to completely avoid the fun things that should be core to the game.

Monster Hunter World

I’ve been playing a lot of the Monster Hunter World videogame, and I’ve been a fan of the series for a long time.  Like many games, it has potions which you need to heal.  However, there’s no way to buy potions.   You have to go into the field and collect the materials.

This sets up a particular cycle: you need to heal, so you need to get materials.  If you want to gather a bunch at one go, you have to run to several points on a given map – which means you have to explore and know the map.  While you’re doing this, other monsters might attack you, so it’s a bit of turnaround from you hunting the monsters.  Bonus: knowing an area, gives you an advantage in the core gameplay loop of hunting, so that feeds right back in.

D&D and magic items for sale

Compare this to an often recurring issue for D&D games – the breakdown of magic item economy.   The core gameplay loop for D&D is dungeon crawling – either for treasure heists or as a tactical combat.   In both cases, however, the fastest way a single character gains ability is acquiring a magic item, which makes it a powerful resource in terms of game design.

In some forms of play, the only way to get magic items is to go on dungeon crawls and find them – so this means this feeds into the core game loop.  In others, though, you start ending up with options for magic items to be bought – in which case, it is far easier to find ways to get gold to buy the items, rather than try to deal fully with a dungeon crawl or have to figure out how to best use a random item you gained instead of buying 3 things that perfectly match your character’s role.  Once that happens, the reward no longer is tied to the core play activity.

Siloing – one path or a choice?

When you design a requirement for a resource or a reward, you can basically go about it in two ways.

First, give only one option to get the resource/reward.  This is a good choice for making core gameplay elements a requirement and unavoidable in play.  How much/how long/how often are parts to balance out to make sure it’s fun and not annoying, a chore, or so easy as to be meaningless.

Second, give two or more options to get the resource/reward.  Each one lays out a separate path, and, done correctly, might allow for a very meaningful choice, or at least, an expression of play.

In many games that use Flag mechanics, like Burning Wheel, you can choose which of your Beliefs you pursue, you don’t have to do all 3 equally, or even at all.  As long as you’re pursuing at least one of them, you get rewards.  In contrast, the earlier Riddle of Steel makes it so that early one, you can pursue just one or two of your flags, but if you want to improve high level abilities, you need to have nearly maxed out all of them.  Notice, however, that what this is, is that it’s several choices within the same category – “pursue this Flag” is still the underlying mechanic.

The danger in this second approach, however, is that many games have done things where the potential paths to reward/resources create contradictory styles of game.  If these contradictory things don’t fit well together, and different players in the group are playing along these paths, you get problems.   In this case, it’s important for the game designer to make clear that these things are exclusive options the group or the GM will have to pick BEFORE the game begins, and not find out after you start.

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Pandemic Legacy Design

March 25, 2017


Aside from the Pandemic games being pretty awesome, it’s really fascinating to watch folks develop campaign play from a very different mindset.  It also highlights some really useful things we can backport to tabletop rpg design as well.

Campaign Commitment Time

This was one of the major concerns in the design discussions and a focus for a lot of the indie rpgs that came out of the Forge – that the longer the campaign commitment, by nature, the smaller your target audience is who can/will commit that time in.  I think it’s really interesting that they talk about 12-15 play sessions being their top expected amount of content in a Legacy game, and the value of having a specific number laid out to players from the beginning.  (This was one of the big points I’ve written about for years, as simply making games more functional).

Linear Story for a Linear Metric

One of the biggest differences in a boardgame and tabletop RPG is the fact that while you can drench the boardgame with fictional elements to encourage roleplaying and enjoyment of the theme, the fiction doesn’t feed back into changing the outcomes of play as it does with a roleplaying game.  No one is under the illusion that they can “do anything the character can do” as a viable option in a boardgame, so it also means the directions a story can go is highly limited, and makes things like the linear story set up they’ve created work.

It’s funny that they mention Robin’s Laws, since Robin Laws’ version of HeroQuest 2 attempts to create the up and down beats, except without the additional considerations of players gaming the system (“incentivizing failure”) or engaging the mechanical aspects beyond turning a difficulty dial up and down.  I suspect Jason Morningstar’s Juggernaut might be a better parallel, but having not played it yet, and not trying to spoil myself before doing so, I could be wrong.

The Power of Unlockables and Physical Artifacts

Although sometimes people have given their players a document or a puzzle box to open, it’s not the same as fully integrating unlockable, physical cues/objects as a key part of play.  In the video, they mention that people KNOWING there would be a box to open incentivized action to either open it or avoid opening it, depending on whether the assumption was that it was good or bad.

In tabletop RPGs, either mechanical rewards are well known ahead of time (“If I get X number of points, I can buy Y power”) or exist solely as a verbal description (“The sword glows with magic power…”) but not as a physical object to taunt, tease, threaten you.  Adding uncertainty into advancement hits Pavlov’s intermittent reward cycle, but also because these rewards are thematic/plot based, and not just “get +X to ability Y”, they tend to be more interesting and emotionally fulfilling to the group.


I think this is some of the best information on tabletop playtesting out there.  They’re looking for: a) when the group has confusion, questions or forgets rules, b) emotional responses to play, c) why a group is making certain choices in the game.  (Notably, this was effectively what the Forge folks pushed for from actual play accounts in regards to playtesting).

You’ll also note that they’re talking about hundreds of hours of playtesting from several groups, including strangers.  While the indie RPGs pioneered the idea, it was Paizo’s Pathfinder playtest that really made it popular for tabletop games – however, having video or recordings where you can see the actual play rather than depend on memory, filters, or bias in self reporting is vastly superior.