About Game Design: Opening Shots

This is a column about game design and the thinking about game design. This is not a how to column, though there will be some “How To” columns. It is more about the philosophy of game design and the pitfalls that await. So without further ado, let’s dive in and get started.

Every so often I get the RPG game design urge. Last time I got the urge, I came up with a system with enough loopholes and basic design problems that when I did my first alpha playtest the game crashed and burned. There were some serious design flaws in the rules set that let a boy scout fight a giant mutant duck and win barehanded against it. So that one went into the circular file. Well, mostly.

One of the cardinal rules I’ve discovered over the years about designing games, be they role playing games, board games, or card games, is the following:

  • Steal rules from other games, and steal often.

The other cardinal rule is:

  • When you steal a rule from another game, change it and adapt it.

Every role playing game out there is built off of the originals: Cowboys and Indians/Cops and Robbers.

Yes, those games kids play, or used to play, when I was a kid mumble years ago. We came up with rules to know who got shot or captured, and we took on roles of sheriff, Indian chief, or whatever role came to hand. Most games ended up with the argument “I hit you!” “Nu-uh! You missed me!” “Did not!” “Did so!”, etcetera, etcetera. (Of course when you use snowballs, that argument ends rather quickly.)

Look at every game out there and you’ll only find a handful of “Originals”, games that broke ground and paved the way for subsequent games. Games today are built on the shoulders… well not giants, but those game designers that came before them, or even on their own shoulders.

A prime example of that is Steve Jackson. From Monsters! Monsters!, a Tunnels and Trolls supplement, tothe Fantasy Trip, to GURPS 4th edition, you can see how he progressed and built upon his own work to design his later RPGs.

As a game designer, you’ll find yourself taking elements from different games and melding them into a new rule set that may be what you’ve always wanted. Or a horrible mess that’s unplayable. My very first attempt at making a RPG ended up with a character defined by nearly 25 different attributes and statistics. It went so far as to break dexterity into four different kinds, three kinds of strength… well, you can figure out the rest. To be honest, it was fairly accurate and totally unplayable. How did I figure this one out? I ran a playtest.

This brings out another set of cardinal rules:

  • Don’t become so enamored of your own rules that you’re blind to its faults.
  • Don’t be afraid to throw out a set of rules.

I did a playtest for a game company, who I won’t name, and me and my fellow playtesters thought we found a problem with the damage rules. It seemed that you’d want a character built like Woody Allen and not like Arnold Schwarchenegger. The rules read as though the stronger and tougher you were, you’d take more damage from weapons.

Turns out that wasn’t the case, we just misinterpreted the rule, but when we told the game designer this, he jumped down our throats, telling us that we weren’t supposed to playtest the rules, They Were Perfect, we were supposed to playtest the world setting. We said “OK”, made some comments, and then we dropped out of the playtest because we had problems with how the rules were written. (As side note, I’ve perused one of his games recently, and he’s still using the same ruleset, but he’s clarified and simplified many of his rules. Seems that someone finally got him to listen.)

This leads to one of the most important cardinal rules:

  • Always run a blind playtest of your game. And remember that nothing in your game is set in stone, everything is open for evaluation and criticism.

A blind playtest is where you, the game designer, hand your pride and joy over to a group of playtesters and tell them, “Beat the living snot out of the game.” and then go off and leave them to their own devices. Many first time game designers fail to run a blind playtest of their games, and it shows. You can’t put a Mini-Me version of yourself into each game you sell to explain all the places where your game is ambiguous or lacking in detail. You need to hand it over to folks and not interfere with them as they play your game, right or wrong. It’s best if they live in another city or state far away from you as well. These days, thanks to the Internet, you can find a place to announce a blind playtest and solicit playtesters. There’s more, but that’s another column.

I had the privilege of running a blind playtest with some of the toughest and most honest playtesters I’ve ever encountered. Their review of a new RPG rule system from Tri Tac Games had the designer and owner of the company change how he produces his products forever. He chose to listen to them, and found new freedom to create new game worlds, something he does very well. When I release my own next great game design for blind playtesting, I know who’s going to be at the top of my list of testers.

Finally, the most important of all the cardinal rules for game designers:

  • Don’t quit your day job.

To be brutally honest, it is highly unlikely that you’ll be the next Gygax or Jackson. You’ll be just another PDF game designer, earning beer and pizza money on your game. Don’t mortgage your house to pay for a print run of a thousand games, because then you’ll be looking for a U-Store-It to store them in after they foreclose on your home. There is only room for a three or four major game companies and then there is everyone else. I’m going to be an “everyone else” as you will be. About the only benefit of being a game designer is to finagle a free entry into a local game or SciFi convention, as long you attend a few panels. It got me on a panel with Jack Horner the paleontologist and David Brin the science fiction writer.

That’s all for now! Till next time, keep your dice hot, and your design hotter!


3 Responses

  1. Good article. I like your points. Specifically the “steal” and the “blind playtest” ideas.

    Alot of people scoff at the idea of using what’s out there as example for your own builds… but really CAN you ever create something completely new? There’s no way to create a vacuum and ignore all the good (and bad) design ideas you’ve experienced. Stealing is essentially a quick-shortcut way to note you’re utilizing that experience. Some can’t humble themselves to acknowledge that. I like that you note that as a rule.

    I also love and appreciate the note on blind playtesting. Again this comes back to being humble enough to take and utilize criticism (no matter how harsh/honest) constructively. So many people that fancy themselves creators or “designers” have such huge egos about their creations that they’re unable to accept that criticism without being defensive. By including yourself in the playtests, most won’t be able to NOT be defensive about their baby…

    Good notes.
    I’ll look forward to more.


  2. Great article with some really good points made. Kev really hit the nail on the head on the two key points. 🙂

  3. Excellent article. I only have one minor point to add – under your cardinal rules I would add: “cite your sources of inspiration! ”

    The gaming community isn’t all that large, and citing sources is an excellent way to a) make connections (“I liked your game so much that I took ideas from it” is something every game designer wants to hear) and b) helps promote the community (“If you liked my game, you may also want to try game X, that was one of the sources of my ideas” is also something that every game designer wants to hear).

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