Ewen’s Game Design Advice

I finished my first draft of the aforementioned Yaruki Zero book and have been working on finishing up the second before I send it to an editor. I ended up writing quite a bit of new material for the book, and I thought I’d post a few selections. The one person who commented on my post about the book was M. Joukamaa, who expressed interest in stuff on how I approach GMing and game design. This is what I wrote about the latter. I got inspired to post it because on Saturday I tried to run a playtest of Peerless Food Fighters and it didn’t work at all, in large part because of a massive failure of the stuff I talk about under “Perspectives.” (I also started working on Magical Burst again by the way, though we’ll see how that turns out.)

I don’t think of myself as being an ace game designer or anything, but I do occasionally manage to put together something that people like. I believe that RPGs can be just about anything, and that pretty much nothing should be off limits. There are considerations for good taste and common decency, but that’s about it. As discussed in my “The Assumptions” post a while back, there are an awful lot of things that people needlessly (in my opinion) assume are necessary for a proper RPG, but then the “RPG” label isn’t the important part in the first place. If people tell you that through using cards and such you’ve made a board game instead of an RPG, your response should be, “But is it a good game?”

Game design, at least the way I do it, is such an idiosyncratic, unpredictable process that there can be no step-by-step guide. Instead I’m going to lay out some of the major ideas and principles that help me make games.

Your Game Is Not a Book
I can’t take credit for the pithy phrase in the heading above—it came from a post Tyler Tinsey made in a thread on Story Games—but it’s a point that bears repeating. These days the vast majority of RPGs come to you in the form of a book, but the book is not the game per se, just the means of conveying it to people. The book can be a vitally important artifact for the process of playing the game, but the game itself is first and foremost an activity that happens between people.

I have a habit of treating an RPG as something of a writing project. I’ll fritter away hours writing up setting details or general advice, sometimes while neglecting more important aspects of the game. This can be good when it lets me keep up some momentum on the overall project, but it can result in a game that’s over-written. And besides, if the design part isn’t there I’m going to end up obviating some of that text I wrote anyway.

A certain amount of reading can be reasonable or even desirable, and there are plenty of people who engage in a sub-hobby of RPG books as reading material. However, as the designer of a game your first allegiance has to be to creating a game that plays smoothly. That means that the game information that people need in order to play needs to be easy to learn and reference. That doesn’t mean an RPG has to be simple, but it should be simple for the human being at the table to find the information they need very quickly. The playbooks in Apocalypse World are one rather brilliant solution to this, as they present the player with virtually all of the player-oriented rules in the game, including everything specific to their chosen character type, in one little pamphlet.

On Collaboration and Feedback
One time a friend asked me, “Do you even like brainstorming?” At the time I didn’t even understand the question. My idea of brainstorming is the thing where I sit down by myself with a pen and notebook and think and write stuff down until I have enough ideas to go on. My friend’s idea of brainstorming is hanging out with some friends and letting the ideas fly, and I’ve never been as avid a participant as perhaps he’d like. This is because I’m an introvert, and for the most part I’m a solitary creator. When I have a vision, I sit down and do stuff until I get to where I either finish it, can’t proceed without help, or just give up. When I do get feedback from people, I find it needs a huge amount of filtering, a process of separating the rare nuggets of gold from the rest. Feedback is an important tool, especially feedback informed by direct experience with the game, but like all tools it only has certain uses.

Other people create differently, and ultimately you need to find what works for you. Once you figure out the right way for you to create things, do that without hesitation or remorse. If you’re like me, what you need to do is buckle down and just start writing something. If you’re more like my friend, you need to find people you can talk to, and share your ideas and difficulties freely.

Know Your Limits
Sometimes I come up with this amazing idea that I just can’t seem to get anywhere with. Experience has taught me that there are times when the best thing to do is to shelve a project, play lots of games, and come back to it once I’ve grown into the person who can make it work.

Open Design
I favor a very open approach to game design. I blather about whatever project I’m working on in blog posts and tweets, and the moment I have a workable draft I usually toss it up on my blog for the world to see. Somehow or other I’ve gotten to a point where some people actually pay attention when I post something, and a lot of that is a result of years of tossing stuff out there to see what happens. Some stuff flies under the radar, and other stuff just explodes. I can never tell which will be which, though stuff that fits some frantic need for a game in the vein of a popular anime certainly seems to do the trick.

For a long time there have been people who were totally paranoid about protecting their creations, who go to the trouble of filing patents and copyrights in case someone tries to steal their ideas. There may well be something somewhere where that happens, but if you’re making an RPG, you have a lot more to gain from sharing what you do. Chances are you’re not going to make much money from an RPG in the first place, and to the extent that you can, building up goodwill through open design, receptiveness to feedback, and so on can give you a huge boost. If you just have to put it in cynical terms, it’s advance marketing and market research for when you eventually turn the game into a product.

Just Plain Role-Playing
I try to avoid concerning myself with definitions of what is and isn’t a “role-playing game,” in part because it’s rare for people to propose definitions without having a game in mind that they want to exclude. That said, I think that if you’re trying to design an RPG, that essential act of taking on the role of a character and expressing their thoughts and actions is a vital part of what distinguishes an RPG from other kinds of games. Players don’t necessarily have to be climbing deep inside their characters’ heads to play an RPG, but the element of human interaction needs to be there. It’s also an incredibly powerful, fundamental tool for the game designer.

Whether you take an immersive approach or more of a collaborative storytelling approach, novice and veteran players alike tend to catch on pretty quickly.[1] Some RPGs are free-form role-playing with some important touches of rules (like Seasons), while others are more like board games with some role-playing elements (like Peerless Food Fighters). Whatever your approach, the role-playing part should be important and consequential.

I try to avoid rules that bypass role-playing and especially rules that dictate role-playing. Players usually have a better idea how their character should react than the GM, the game designer, or the clockwork of the game rules. On the other hand, I love RPG rules that react to role-playing and give players incentives. Compelling an aspect in FATE is a perfect example of this. If the GM feels an aspect should lead a character to something disadvantageous, the player has a choice between either going with it and getting a Fate Point, or overcoming it by paying a Fate Point. There’s a strong incentive to go with the compel, but the player nonetheless has a choice.

The Negative Space Principle
There’s a school of thought that whatever an RPG is fundamentally about, you should have a stat for it. If your post-apocalyptic game is about hope, there should be a space on the character sheet that says “Hope.” I would dial that back a couple steps and said that if the game is about hope, you should ask yourself why it is you don’t have a Hope stat. Your answer might simply be, “Oh yeah, I should try that,” but there is also what I call the “negative space principle” of game design. Sometimes what isn’t in the game is as important as what is. That’s especially true when you have some element that you don’t want to be in the game too much.

Ryo Kamiya’s game Golden Sky Stories is aimed at heartwarming, non-violent play. There are a lot of reasons why it works, but one of them is the nature of the combat system, or lack thereof. In earlier drafts of the game he’d tried out an approach intended to emulate fairy tales, where having the right preparation or MacGuffin could grant a massive advantage. In the final game however, there is no actual combat system. There’s a section on “quarrelling,” which warns that fighting is something you really mustn’t do, but reluctantly says that you can have a fight a contested check. Whoever gets the higher total wins, and the fight is over. Where most RPGs put a significant amount of the page count towards detailed combat rules, GSS presents a single rule that’s rather boring to engage and doesn’t have any lasting mechanical effects. “You won. He’s kind of bruised and crying. Now what? You big meanie.”

Another important aspect of RPGs to consider is that there is a large body of conventions that are vital to how the game functions, but that we usually don’t think of as rules per se. In a traditional RPG there’s a Game Master who has final authority over making rulings, controls NPCs, and so forth. Those things are actually more important to the game than whether you roll 1d20 or 3d6, so much so that people can and do role-play with nothing but guiding conventions. These things are not off-limits to a game designer, but the more you change the base formula, the more likely you are to have to explain things in detail.

Ben Lehman’s game Polaris is an ideal example of this. You have four players, and when your protagonist is active, the other players each take up a specific slice of what would normally be the GM’s role. The overall rules of the game are fairly simple, and the setting is unusual but does not take up an undue amount of space. What brings Polaris as a book up to the scale of a typical indie RPG is that it has to explain its unconventional procedures for apportioning roles, using key phrases, and resolving conflicts.

To me one of the biggest hurdles in design is the matter of perspective. A player and a GM can have very different perspectives on a game, and the game designer has a third perspective that differs even more. To a player a list of powers is a thing where they’ll get to look through, pick a handful for their character, and then try to put those to good use during the game. For a GM the same list is something three or more other people will be picking from and using against obstacles that the GM puts together. For the game designer, the same list can become a chore where you’ve got to, say, fill up a table of 20 powers, and can we please just finish this I want to go to sleep.

It’s not easy to flip your own perspective around, but it’s important. Players vary in what they want out of the game of course, but in my experience most people want their characters to be effective at what they want to do. People will make decisions accordingly, which usually means picking out abilities that strike whatever they consider the right balance between effectiveness and achieving the desired aesthetic, and carefully shepherding whatever resources the game gives them.

This is an area where the designers of D&D 4th Edition by and large knew what they were doing. By creating At-Will, Encounter, and Daily powers, they carefully channeled players’ tendencies towards the kind of combats they wanted the game to have. Encounter powers give you some tricks that you have generally no reason not to pull out during any given battle but can’t abuse the entire time, while Daily powers give you the big guns to pull out when you feel you need it. Where they fell short was with things like the ranger’s “Twin Strike” At-Will power (which is so overwhelmingly good that in the long run it outclasses a lot of Encounter powers), and rituals (for which the cost in gold pieces is often too much of a disincentive).

Where the F*** Do Ideas Come From?
It’s a cliché that writers hate it when people ask where they get their ideas. The only real answer to that question is “Everything.” Everything you experience, whether firsthand or vicariously through any number of forms of entertainment or socialization can potentially be the spark that sets off an amazing game idea. Try to pay attention to life in general, no matter how mundane.

I get a lot of ideas for games from other media, especially anime. While it’s important to not lose sight of the fact that you’re designing an RPG, I reject the notion that RPGs are so separate from other narrative forms that they have nothing to offer. I think a significant portion of the more interesting developments in RPGs of the past decade or came from a desire to figure out how to make an RPG out of a work in another medium.

Just Make Something
Don’t ask for permission before you start, don’t even ask for forgiveness after you’re done. Don’t think about where it will fit into the marketplace, or what competition you’ll have. Think about what moves you, and get to work already. A lot of people never create anything because they’re waiting for someone to give them permission. The people who get things done are the people who just make something and run with it. I didn’t ask anyone if this book would be a good idea. I just did it. And then kept doing it, in an obsessive plunge that filled up over 60,000 words in a matter of weeks.

[1]Although novice players sometimes need someone to teach them the difference between role-playing a character and helping tell a story, and veteran gamers are sometimes too set in their ways to get into games with more of a storytelling approach.

2 thoughts on “Ewen’s Game Design Advice

  1. Really well put. I wish I could say anything more, but everything in this post is equally important so it would be wrong of my to discuss anything in particular. :).

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