Tools for Dreaming: Walking the Path

This chapter isn’t really done, but I’m pretty happy with the parts that are finished. It’s sort of a catch-all for different things about what being a game designer entails.

Walking the Path

Playing RPGs is already a niche hobby that requires effort and creativity, and while making them doesn’t have to be as daunting as it might sound, it’s a strange and wonderful niche within a niche. I’ve tried my hand at several other creative pursuits, and while RPG design has some distinct quirks, it’s still fundamentally a creative outlet. That means that there are distinct parallels between the emotional life of an RPG designer and a novelist or graphic artist. It requires constant striving, always working to improve your craft. This chapter has some thoughts on the creative life of an RPG designer.

Just Make Something

Like a lot of things in life, one of the most important requirements for designing an RPG is just sitting down and doing it. Open a word processor, start scribbling in a notebook, or however you do it. I won’t say that you have to write every day—that old chestnut doesn’t take into account the fact that not everyone works the same—but showing up is the first step, regardless of what kind of schedule you do it on. There are all kinds of other things that go into designing an RPG, but not trying is the surest way to fail.

It’s easy to get mired in worrying about what place your game could assume in the industry, whether someone’s working on something similar, whether you can come up with a killer idea that will turn heads. In my experience, the best ideas come from earnestly pursuing what moves you. Not everything is going to find much of an audience, but that just means you need to learn to scale how much money you spend if you ever get around to publishing. At the very worst you’ll have spent some time learning stuff that’ll help you with the next one. Don’t worry too much about the bigger stuff before you even have a playable game.

If you really need creative motivation, I recommend reading Steven Pressfield’s book The War of Art. In it, Pressfield refers to everything that gets in the way of doing your creative work as the “Resistance,” and lays out strategies to defeat it. It’s not a struggle that ever ends, but if you can name the enemy, it’s easier to fight.

What Inspires You?

There’s a cliché that people ask a writer “Where do you get your ideas?” and the writer throws up their hands because the question is a cocktail of strange, banal, obvious, and pointless that makes a creative person’s brain start to shut down. In ancient times people attributed creativity to muses and other supernatural forces, but personally I get my ideas from practically everything that goes into my brain in any fashion. A lot of what goes into my games is Japanese pop culture, but I’ve also incorporated bits of fiction and non-fiction books, great works of literature, video games, classical art, and real-life experiences into them. I’ve seen impressive games inspired by things like painful history, queer identities, or a religious upbringing. There are some things that require great care, but nothing is truly off-limits. Creating an interactive experience is different from a lot of other creative pursuits, but one major point of similarity is that you bring your own unique set of inspirations.

Ideas are simultaneously precious and worthless. A good idea gives you a much-needed starting point, but until you put the work in, it won’t mean much to anyone else. It’s good to jot down ideas as they come to you, but remember that you have to sit down and do the work. The essential paradox of being a creative person is putting your heart and soul into each project while constantly having new ideas percolating. My experience is that it never stops, but after a while you get better at efficiently realizing your ideas, so that less of them get a chance to build up.

Tools of the Trade

Different people create differently. There’s a program called Scrivener that a lot of writers like for its numerous features that make it easier to outline and rearrange things. It doesn’t really work for me; I work with a combination of a single Word doc and handwritten notes. That shouldn’t deter you from using Scrivener if it works for you, but there are lots of different tools out there. Here are some things that you might find useful:

  • For me the most basic thing is a notebook. I’ve gone through numerous notebooks over the years. Sometimes getting away from my computer and putting pen to paper helps you think more clearly or at least differently. Some people like to use a fancy leather-bound journal and a fountain pen[1] to help them get into the right frame of mind, but a basic composition notebook and any random ballpoint pen will do the job.
  • Index cards and sticky notes can be a good way to note down discrete things, with the option to rearrange, discard, or replace individual ones as needed.
  • A whiteboard can be helpful for how it lets you sketch out things on a larger scale. Among other things it’s helpful to be able to do up nice big flowcharts. There’s also a thing called a “Noteboard,” which consists of foldable laminated cardstock in a cloth bag, effectively giving you a whiteboard that you can fold up and stick in a pocket.
  • A minimalist writing app. The idea is to have a word processing program that takes up the whole screen and doesn’t have too much in the way of bells and whistles so you can get down to actually writing without thinking about e-mail or chat windows. There are several out there like OmmWriter, FocusWriter, and WriteMonkey, and the macOS version of Microsoft Word has a “Focus View” feature built in.
  • There are several note-taking apps available, like EverNote and OneNote. These let you make notes in various pages and folders, and include things like links and images. They also have the advantage of syncing online, so you can view and edit your notes on your various devices.
  • There are any number of reference materials that can be useful to a game designer. It’s good to have a link to Wikipedia handy, as well as things like a book of names and various books and such related to the subject matter of your games.
  • It’s good to have your game library available when you work on games, whether that’s a physical bookshelf or access to PDFs. Other games can provide all kinds of inspiration, especially when you’re working with a particular existing framework. Don’t limit yourself to RPGs either; there’s a lot you can glean from other kinds of games.
  • The majority of RPGs don’t really use any physical components beyond dice and paper, but having some on hand may help you think things through and visualize what you want your game to do. If you play RPGs there’s a good chance you have a dice collection, and if you have it handy you can get a better idea of the tactile experience of picking up the dice that you want your game to use. Other components are probably less useful to an RPG designer than a board game designer, but if they help you with your process it doesn’t hurt to have some on hand.

While you shouldn’t let it become a distraction from actually getting stuff done, you should also figure out what kind of environment helps you work. It’s a cliché, but I find that sometimes taking my laptop to a coffee shop is a good way to get some stuff done, especially if I’m feeling cooped up at home. Listening to music can help too, especially thematically appropriate music that helps you get into the right groove, though I find that anything that really requires concentration (podcasts, movies, etc.) tends to be counterproductive.

Take Care of Yourself

This may sound kind of obvious, but your health is a higher priority than making elfgames. Unless you’re depending on freelance work to pay the rent, chances are if you have the flu or some other ailment, you should get as much rest as you need to be healthy.

That applies to mental health too of course. If you’re feeling too depressed or anxious to get anything done, don’t beat yourself up over it. If you really don’t feel like you can handle having your playtest group over, it’s okay to cancel. The games will still be there when you get back.

It also applies to taking care of other things in your life in general. Don’t neglect to do your taxes or take care of your kids or spouse.

Always Growing

As with any creative pursuit, being a game designer is a process of growth. Generally speaking, the more you do it, the better you’ll get. It never stops presenting challenges, but I’ve found that at a certain point I was able to realize my ideas much more consistently.

Some of your ideas won’t work out. Always keep your notes and drafts, and look through them once in a while. Sometimes you’ll realize that you’ve come far enough that you’re now ready to bring an old idea to fruition, and sometimes it’ll give you the inspiration you need for something else. Raspberry Heaven was a concept I adored (a game for heartwarming slice of life stories about schoolgirls in the vein of Azumanga Daioh), but I struggled with it off and on for around a decade until added experience, a willingness to let go of some bad ideas, and the influence of Jonathan Walton’s game Restless helped me figure out how to pull it off.

The Designer’s Role

There is the idea that once the game is out into the world, the designer is totally irrelevant. There’s also the idea of the designer as an auteur whose directives should be respected. In the early days of D&D, despite the amount of effort he put into shaping the game in very particular ways, Gygax largely disclaimed authority over the game in favor of DMs modifying it to their heart’s content, in part because that was very much how the miniatures wargame hobby scene operated in general. For AD&D he struck a more authoritarian tone, stating that the rules in the book were the true AD&D, and you could no more alter those rules for tournaments than you could change the rules of chess. Under Wizards of the Coast, D&D’s organized play also tended to be highly bent in favor of rules-as-written. The discourse around independent RPGs has at times veered towards the notion of the designer as an authority figure too, for better or for worse.

“The Death of the Author” is a concept from literary criticism[2] that advocates engaging the text without any regard for the intentions or context of the author. Roland Barthes, the critic who first proposed the concept in an essay in 1967, framed in more in terms of expanding the range of interpretation beyond the dictates of the author, and I think when we allow Death of the Author type criticism to be an alternative rather than an absolute, it can be incredibly useful. You can gain all kinds of useful insights from learning about an author and the context in which they wrote something, but you can also find your own insights and interpretations, which are also valid in their own way. I encountered this personally when I was studying modern Japanese literature, where I would have my own 21st Century American interpretation of a story, and then in learning more about the author, I’d find out that Ryūnosuke Akutagawa wrote a particular story while contemplating suicide, giving it a whole new context.

Obviously, the designer has no actual authority over what people do with a game, and if a designer tries to issue ironclad commandments I’ll be among those telling them to get bent. That said, I have a hard time imagining a game I’d actually want to play where I’d categorically dismiss the designer’s advice. My advice is to be helpful but not domineering. Let people know your underlying intent and best practices, but also let them do their own thing and discover their own ways of using what you created. That way you both have a chance to learn something.

Social Media

Social media is ubiquitous in our lives and obnoxiously mainstream all over the world. While it absolutely has legitimate uses, it’s hard to fault anyone who prefers to not have the attendant bullshit in their lives. Being on social media isn’t a requirement for being a game designer, but it’s incredibly helpful for networking and reaching people in general. Twitter is massive in general, and tabletop RPGs are one of the odd niches where Google+ caught on. Facebook is so ridiculously mainstream that there are a lot of RPG people on there just by virtue of the site having nearly 2 billion users. Other social media sites have their uses, especially if your games tap into specific niches where those sites are relevant.

Don’t get into social media solely to have a Twitter account and do marketing. You don’t have to be a prolific tweeter, but if you do it, it should be something you do in part for its own sake. There are all kinds of people doing neat stuff on social media, and you can keep up with your favorite creative people from every medium, experience weird comedy 140 characters at a time, and interact with all sorts of people from all over the world. If you’re just posting about stuff you’re selling, your account with lack the authenticity that creates actual engagement.

Support Other Designers

Good game designers are also avid gamers, and you absolutely should support other people in the field where you can. Buy stuff (within the sane limits of your disposable income), but also share your experiences and enthusiasm with the world at large. That’s especially true when it comes to games that not many people have heard about.

Aside from just generally being an awesome thing to do, supporting other designers will expose you to new ideas and game designs. People new to game design especially can come up with really fascinating new ideas.

Wheaton’s Law

Wil Wheaton came up with a thing he calls “Wheaton’s Law,” which is simply “Don’t be a dick.” Reality is too complicated to sum up in a mere four words of course, but it’s good advice, even if it’s more a starting point than a destination. Some people have objected to Mr. Wheaton’s behavior at times, but he seems to be a well-meaning guy who screws up occasionally, which is to say he’s a person. I’m not saying you have to be a perfect saint, but I am saying that the RPG scene already has its share of jerks, so I’d rather we tried to not join their ranks. Being a decent person isn’t hard, but it requires making choices to be that way. Evolution resulted in a human brain set up for social groupings of 100 to 200, and here we are in a postindustrial society, with the internet, sharing the planet with billions of other people. That doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless, but it does mean that our instincts are sometimes wrong.

A lot of people smarter and more significant than myself have said a lot about how to be a good person, so I just want to talk about some specific things about being a good person while designing and publishing RPGs. The biggest thing I’ve learned is simply to be willing to not engage. If someone says something about you that you don’t like, a diplomatic interaction may help, but unless they’re a vindictive weirdo, chances are if you leave them be it’ll simply fade away. There’s a place for reasonable debate—and you might even learn something—but if you let them draw you into an argument, you’re not likely to come out of it looking better for it.

If you haven’t made stuff for the public before, you might not be used to having fans. Having people who like your work, who you’ve made happy through your creative efforts, is fantastic. Show them gratitude for their patronage and enthusiasm! But, fans are also a kind of people, which means they also sometimes misbehave. If you’re a decent person you probably won’t attract too many fans who are jerks, but I think you have a certain degree of culpability when they misbehave over stuff related to you. If you see people being terrible to “help” you, at a minimum tell them to knock it off.


Playtesting is one of the most important and difficult parts of game design. Once in a while you’ll have a fluke where a game more or less works out of the gate, but by and large you’re going to have to go through a playtesting process to make sure that the game actually works the way you want it to. A game that you haven’t playtested is not ready to sell. I don’t think anyone reading this doesn’t know that, but I think it bears repeating all the same. A published game doesn’t have to be sublimely perfect—I can think of any number of well-loved classics that have glaring flaws from a pure game design perspective—but it does need to be a functional game not prone to sudden explosions.

Playtesting is brutal, because it’s the first point where you really get concrete feedback. People can offer hypothetical advice based on reading the text, but it doesn’t compare to feedback from someone who’s just played the game.

Playtest Early

Game design is necessarily an iterative process. Although you should strive to engage in conscious design and anticipate what you can, you can’t anticipate everything. While it’s easy to wind up writing a complete draft before you start playtesting (especially if you’re doing a shorter game), you should playtest about as early in the process as you can manage, beginning with the smallest coherent version of your game and building up from there.


To me one of the biggest hurdles in design is a 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 their 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).


In board game design, “prototyping” refers to making a functional but barebones set of physical components for a game to use in the testing process. When I work on card games I have a whole thing where I do up the card text in Excel, use Data Merge in InDesign to spit out a set of printable cards, print those on cardstock, and then cut the cardstock into cards with a business card cutter.[3] The results aren’t anywhere near as pretty as a final card game would be, but they make it possible to try out the game before committing a bunch of effort to making stuff I’ll have to change anyway. A lot of people approach things in a less elaborate way than I do, cutting their cards with simple scissors or just writing them on index cards in the first place.

RPGs typically don’t have nearly as much need for components as board games, but I think it’s a useful concept nonetheless.

Creative Prompts

These are some creative prompts for RPG designers. You could take one and turn it into a full RPG if your muse takes you that way, but my main goal here is just to give us some exercises to help draw out new ideas. Even if you don’t fully realize what one of these prompts leads you to, it’s good to try out the thought experiment and see where it takes you.

  1. Think of an RPG that you played in the past but don’t want to play anymore. How would you fix it now?
  2. Go to a bookstore and look for narrative works that aren’t represented in RPGs.
  3. Pick an activity you do in your daily life. How would you make it into a game?
  4. What’s your favorite video game? Think of how you would make it into an RPG, even if you have to change the game or come at it from a radically different perspective.
  5. Think of a board game component (spinners, wooden cubes, pawns, sand timers, play money, etc.), and sketch out an RPG that uses that in one of its central mechanics.
  6. Look at the physical components used in an RPG (pencils, paper, dice, etc.), and think about a game that explicitly excludes one of them.
  7. Take an existing RPG that you like, and think about how you might go about changing it to be non-violent.
  8. Pick a song, and think of a game that embodies its themes, lyrical content, and general feel.
  9. Look at an RPG that has a GM, and think about how you would go about changing it to be GM-less, even if it means radically reworking the game.
  10. Pick an RPG, and think about how you would reduce the amount of numbers it uses as much as possible.
  11. How would you go about making a one-player RPG? What about a two-player game? How about a 12-player one?
  12. Try making a role-playing poem, a simple RPG that you can play in 15 minutes.
  13. Go to Wikipedia and click the “Random article” link in the sidebar until you find something that gives you an idea for a game.
  14. Try automatic writing. Put pen to paper and write whatever comes to mind just fast enough that you don’t have time to really think about what you’re writing.
  15. Get out your phone, type “I want to make an RPG that,” and then tap the middle autocomplete button until you have a sentence.
  16. Make three percentile rolls on the table below, and think of a game that uses the keywords you rolled as its core themes.
d% Keyword d% Keyword d% Keyword d% Keyword
01 Affection 26 Door 51 Honor 76 Robots
02 Air 27 Dragon 52 Ice 77 Samurai
03 Black 28 Dreams 53 Knight 78 Shadow
04 Blue 29 Drive 54 Law 79 Sickness
05 Box 30 Earth 55 Light 80 Space
06 Boy 31 Economy 56 Loss 81 Speed
07 Bridge 32 Explorers 57 Lottery 82 Spider
08 Cape 33 Fairies 58 Love 83 Stars
09 Cards 34 Fate 59 Memory 84 Steam
10 Caring 35 Fear 60 Money 85 Steel
11 Castle 36 Fire 61 Music 86 Strong
12 Cat 37 Flower 62 New 87 Sword
13 Circuit 38 Food 63 Night 88 Symbols
14 Comet 39 Galaxy 64 Origin 89 Tangent
15 Computer 40 Girl 65 Pain 90 Technology
16 Cooking 41 Glass 66 Peace 91 Threads
17 Cryptozoology 42 Gold 67 Police 92 Time
18 Curse 43 Green 68 Politics 93 Touch
19 Cyborgs 44 Grid 69 Portal 94 Tower
20 Dawn 45 Gun 70 Pyramid 95 Tree
21 Death 46 Heat 71 Radio 96 War
22 Desert 47 Helping 72 Red 97 Water
23 Disparity 48 Hide 73 Riddle 98 Weak
24 Doctor 49 History 74 Ring 99 World
25 Dog 50 Home 75 Ritual 100 Writing

[1] Fountain pens can be a bit messy at times, but writing with one feels amazing. If you’re thinking of trying one, get a Pilot Metropolitan. They’re inexpensive ($10-15), easy to use, write smoothly, and can use both ink cartridges and bottled ink.

[2] I looked it up while writing this to make sure I had it right, and FYI in French it’s La mort de l’auteur, which is a pun on Le Morte d’Arthur.

[3] Specifically, a CardMate manual business card cutter. There’s a similar thing for actual poker-sized (3½” x 2½”) cards called a KardKutter, but it costs $250. Still, if you have that kind of money to throw around it’s a really nice piece of hardware.

1 thought on “Tools for Dreaming: Walking the Path

  1. As someone who likes to write as a part-time hobby, I’ve come up with an honest, if somewhat sarcastic, reply to the ever-popular question of “where do you get your ideas?” My reply: “I steal them. Part ’em out, file off the serial numbers, strip them down to their components, and use the components as my own…” The humor comes from the fact that ideas can’t be copyrighted, only the execution of ideas.

    The honest answer to where writers get ideas, and I’m sure that you and pretty much every “real” writer, whether game designer, novelist, or whatever, will agree with me, is that ideas are pretty much everywhere, free for the taking. Keep yourself open, and almost anything will inspire you.

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