Posts Tagged ‘design’


Designing the game to be learned vs. taught

August 7, 2022

Over on Twitter there’s a couple of nested conversations going on about the difference between people learning how to play from the text vs. learning from a GM explaing how the game works. As someone who was in elementary school and had to teach myself D&D from the Red Box, I have a lot of both experience and ideas about this.

Learning to play from the book

First, the only games where it can be a fair assumption most or all of your groups will read the rules to learn to play are those 1-4 page RPGs. A trifold brochure game, or something like Lady Blackbird. Every other game, you can assume there is a split between the group.

The first group will read the rules and try to know how the game works. This ranges from “I get the basic mechanics and am fluent” to the player who makes a chart for ideal builds based on math or whatever.

The second group is skimming the book mostly looking for cool ideas to inspire their characters, think about the type of cool things that happen in the game, etc. Functionally what happens in play is that this group is still taught the rules by the GM or players more fluent in the mechanics, anyway.

As a designer, it’s key to recognize you have both types, and often enough, it may just be the GM who read the rules and now has to teach them.

Teaching how to play

Teaching how to play is a different matter altogether. The rules as a text reference may have all the rules for say, magic, in one section. However when you teach the group how magic works, you probably don’t need to explain the WHOLE section – you probably only need a very basic introduction to start it off and to come back and get deeper with it as needed.

The questions in teaching how to play are:

  • What order to we introduce concepts?
  • How deep do we go into any set of rules vs. put to the side for later?
  • How much does anyone need to know about the structure of play and how to use the mechanics to generally TRY to get the outcomes they want? (fluency)

Examples to check out

There’s no one answer, but I think there’s several games that have great examples worth looking at. Probably the most recent, and strongest standout game that teaches the GM how to teach it, is The Green Knight, which I’ve written about recently. Thirsty Sword Lesbians has the hands-down best teaching/reference handout pages I’ve seen so far. It walks you through setting up the game, teaching the basic rules and running a session. These sheets for Primetime Adventures worked great as quicksheets for the rules and as teaching aids. I know they were designed to be cut up into cards but just using the sheets as is worked better for my games. Dogs in the Vineyard had a great idea of putting the relevant mechanics directly on the character sheets and we can see some of the mirrored with the Playbooks in Apocalypse World.

Nowhere near the Same Page

And all of this is before we get to the common issue of “I read part of the rules and assumed the rest of the game works like (other RPG)” which happens quite often. It’s frustrating to design your game having to explicitly communicate where it differs from D&D, but unfortunately it is a common experience that can avoid some of the problems for new groups.

Now mind you, I’m not saying the designer is god in all of this; however, as the designer, you’re charging money to give people your game… and frankly, the RPG space has been full of decades of “well the group (aka THE GM) will figure it out” lazy design which has led to a lot of problems. Being clear about the baseline assumptions for your game make it easier to teach, and, easier to houserule.

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Perceived complexity vs. familiarity

July 15, 2022

I was trying to write a whole different blog post but this RPG design side thought took over, so here you go:

Perceived rules complexity scales inversely to how often you have to use the specific rule in the game.

This started from me thinking about visual design and a few RPGs that tried to use icons to replace text for certain things like stat blocks and how it didn’t actually make things simpler. Now, in CCGs icons often work well, but the big difference is that in a CCG you have to use/interact with those icons every turn, so you become very familiar with them. In RPGs, many of those icons you look at a few times in a session, so they often become forgettable because you’re not using them enough.

This led me to thinking more broadly about RPG rules and complexity, and how basically many games have complex core systems that people consider “normal” but the only reason is because they’ve had to use them over and over in play, whereas a subsystem that is simple or at least not MORE complex seems difficult because they don’t remember it off hand, need to look in a book and then use it.

Now, this is of course why “unified conflict resolution” was such a big deal; if all of the rules and sub rules follow the same design logic (“Rolling higher is good”, “Any conflict is one stat rolled against another stat”, “A failure always costs Plot points” whatever), it means even if you’re using an unfamiliar sub rule, at least the CORE idea of it, you’ve practiced many many times.

Anyway, the biggest point I think in terms of design is that if you know some rules will come up rarely, it might make the most sense to figure out the simplest version of them, because they’re just going to automatically become “weird” or “complex seeming” compared to what they are.

(Of course, if it’s something special and ritual in a way, you might want to play UP the procedural fact to help cement the experience, but that should be pretty rare.)

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5 Games to Learn From

July 5, 2022

Over on Twitter Liber Ludorum tweeted: You’re teaching an RPG design course. What are the 5 “perfect” games you assign your students to study?

This is actually a pretty great question to work with. I think “perfect” sets a high bar, but for “open a discussion” theoretical conversations, it’s not a bad choice to go a bit too far to at least get people to stretch their thinking a bit.

Here’s the five games I think are worth studying, the order I would have people look at them, and what I think they demonstrate:

1001 Nights

1001 Nights you get several key things straight out the gate:

  • Improv
  • Roleplaying’s simplest rule “I say something and it happens”
  • Pacing mechanics
  • the inspiration value of setting
  • “Pull” mechanics design

The overall trends worth learning from 1001 Nights is that all roleplaying is just making stuff up with your friends, asking questions and adding to what’s been made, to make even more cool stuff. While 1001 Nights is lightly adversarial, the reality is as players it’s more fun to tell a fun story, whether that’s your characters working together or not.

Primetime Adventures

Primetime Adventures teaches:

  • Flag mechanics
  • Narration Trading
  • Direct Reward Mechanics
  • Another type of Pacing
  • Collaborative Setting creation

PTA is a game that pretty much is the perfect Narrativist game. It also shows how you can take a relatively traditional structure (1 GM, 1 character per player) and by focusing the pacing and reward mechanics around a Flag mechanic system, consistently get story and theme focused play. It serves as an excellent contrast to mainstream RPG design in that many gamers believe you either a) need to have mechanics for everything and/or b) need to have open ended campaigns, to “create a good story” and PTA serves very much as the opposite – sparse, but direct, constraints to focus and channel play into a fun, powerful experience.

The Drifter’s Escape

Drifter’s Escape teaches:

  • Productive adversarial design (the two GMs vs. the Drifter, the two GMs vs. each other…)
  • Mirroring mechanics to diagetic fiction (Being the person w/o power, scrambling to get by)
  • Prompt oracles/good random table design
  • Building completely to a theme
  • Meaningful corruption mechanics (mostly, actually, by way of fiction)
  • Players’ judgement and the weight of fictional positioning

While PTA is a perfect game with a broad fiction space (“create your own setting” etc.), Drifter’s Escape is about a specific set of themes and punches you with it pretty quick. The rules encouraging the GMs to lie to the Drifter Player is an intense power imbalance that is being deliberately used to reflect the power imbalance a Drifter has; they’re homeless, they have no friends here, and they’re going to have to figure out how to get by while everyone is going to use and abuse them. Mechanically it is an easy game; it is not even as complex as Poker, fictionally, and emotionally, it is a harrowing game, and often unsettling.

Mouse Guard

  • high structured scene economy
  • heavy setting/background use
  • structured & strategic conflict design
  • Short vs. long term resource management
  • Character advancement

In certain ways, Mouse Guard is very traditional; there is a GM, there is a party of adventurers facing danger. However, the deeply specific scene pacing and conflict system produces a much more tight, and clear experience of play than most of the traditional games. While it has the most heft in terms of pages and mechanics, how the mechanics interact and affect play are fairly straight forward and rarely go beyond a 2-3 step process.

Apocalypse World

  • Modular design
  • GM advice (“Directive Rules” vs. Procedural)
  • Error resistant mechanics (system doesn’t fail if you forget some rules)
  • Layered, non-correlated pacing mechanics
  • Designing PCs to “aim” at each other in interdependence
  • Fiction focal rules

Apocalypse World is also somewhat traditional with group structure, but extremely untraditional in terms of the advice and expectations which the GM and the group is expected to follow. While Mouse Guard’s multiple layers of mechanics are pretty clear in what they’re doing, Apocalypse World’s mechanics are often indirect, or somewhat hidden in the larger play effect and that makes it more difficult to figure out how they fit together and what they’re doing. You could say that most of the Moves in the game are designed to either aim you at another player, another NPC, a threat character, or have one of those folks come TO YOU. (And, when you look at some of the Powered by the Apocalypse games that spun off of it, where they fail to load up their games with this constant pinballing of conflict, they tend to fall flat.)

Why these five, why this order?

Well, the games go from less mechanically complex to more, with AW being “less” rules than Mouse Guard but the effects are more murky and often working off 3 or more steps in effect to see what the larger game outcome is.

Although all of these games are Narrativist in structure, it’s not hard to see how Mouse Guard could tempt a Gamist, and frankly, raw Gamist design theory is well served in so many places I doubt people would need to study specifics in TTRPGS. And as far as Simulationism, I think players would get a good dose of overlapping design toolsets from these games to get a good idea of how that might work in those games as well.

Now, were I actually teaching this hypothetical course, it would be AFTER we’ve looked at and played some of these games that we’d circle back and maybe look at and play a tiny amount of some of the mainstream games, particularly with an eye to contrast and compare on what of these 5 games do differently, does anything feel like it’s missing, and what kind of systems might better serve some of those goals.

Anyway, that was one of the few times I’ve seen a “random hypothetical” conversation question in RPGs actually be something more meaningful than “what’s your 5 favorite spells” etc.

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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.


The Green Knight RPG

May 28, 2022

I picked up The Green Knight game, which is based off the recent movie, which, in turn, is based off the Arthurian legend and appears to be part of the wider folk lore of “decapitation challenge” tales. Most of the time, I feel very few RPGs do a good job of capturing the source material (“Is this story really about 5 foot steps and attacks of opportunity? Hmmm.”)

In this case, I think The Green Knight is an excellent game and a good “teaching game” for people who haven’t done roleplaying or GM’d a game. It’s worth knowing that the game is basically designed to play out over 1, maybe 2 sessions, with a linear set of encounters, as each of the party members is seeking out the Green Knight to fulfill the vow to let him strike at them after a year. There’s 5 characters to choose from, and a little bit of customization to each of them.

It is very helpful to have some familiarity with the tale and/or the movie, but if someone can pick up on the old European folk tale + mysterious fae beings vibe, they could probably go without direclty knowing either.

Neat System Stuff

This is a simple, clean, and focused game system.

This is a game about honor. However, what we track on the character sheet is Dishonor. It goes from 1 to 20. Whenever you attempt something honorable, you have to roll over it. Whenever you attempt something dishonorable, you have to roll under it. The score fluctuates up and down but it’s clearly easier to gain Dishonor than to lose it. And when it hits 20, your character either dies or leaves the quest (there is no death mechanics or injury rules outside of this).

Every encounter and every round in the encounter, everyone gains 1 Dishonor (because it is delaying them from finding the Green Knight, per the vow. So, you realize that over the course of play, everyone is slowly being pushed towards further and further dishonorable actions as they become more likely to succeed.

Of course, there are some skills and stat choices that allow you to modify rolls, and many characters have a few abilities to negate Dishonor gain or remove Dishonor under the right conditions.

Also, another neat mechanic is the initiative system; every player is randomly rolling to see who goes first, but more importantly, the person who rolled the best is “the Leader” for this encounter. And what the Leader gets to do is after the first round, decide if the party is going to keep trying to resolve the situation or just leave. This neatly skips the problem that often shows up in D&D about party conflict, at least mechanically.

A Teaching Game

While the rules literally tell you how the game works, the actual written encounters give you step by step reminders of the process (“Give everyone 1 point of Dishonor to start this encounter. Here’s how to roll initiative”) and then goes into likely player actions and skills that apply to the situations and what outcomes make sense.

Now, I’m definitely the number one person to stand against railroading and Illusionism, I think this game makes it work by virtue of a) being open that the encounters/situations are linear, b) being designed for a very short game (1-2 sessions), and c) being a teaching game that can give people the most rudimentary ideas of how to run RPGs. It’s the same way I look at Candyland as a boardgame – it’s literally all chance and linear, HOWEVER, it teaches you how to take turns and basics of boardgames. (Also, it helped kids who were suffering polio, so… there’s that too.)


I think if you want a good teaching game or something you can break out and play without prep, The Green Knight is a solid game. If you design games, this is a pretty great example of a focused game that manages to do a lot without getting burdened the way most traditional games do. It does only give 5 character sheets, each of which IS the particular character class – so you’ll definitely want to photocopy these rather than use them up.