Category Archives: Tools for Dreaming

Tools for Dreaming: Structures of Play

This is probably the most important chapter of Tools for Dreaming, as it delves directly into the core structures of RPGs and role-play. Particularly in some of the later parts it still feels underdeveloped, but I feel like I’m definitely on the right track in terms of what ideas it is that I’m grappling with.

Role-playing is an activity that you can do without rules. A group of people can decide what characters they’re going to play and in what situation, and just start role-playing. There are a lot of areas where people do just that. In terms of the sizes of their followings, freeform fandom RP, therapeutic role-playing, educational role-playing, and improv each dwarf tabletop RPGs. Saying that these activities lack rules is misleading, but what “rules” they do have are structures and parameters rather than the kind that involve numbers or dice. We’re now seeing a flowering of a niche of RPGs that are closer to these other forms of RP, but these forms are also a useful tool for better understanding how things work even in traditional RPGs.

One non-definitive way to look at RPG rules is as a labor-saving device, a means to shape role-playing to achieve a specific type of play more easily. Freeform role-play forms a baseline, and an RPG is in a sense a set of modifications to that. From that point of view, the question of RPG design then becomes “What modifications do I need to make to help achieve the kind of experience I want?” You might be surprised just how minimal an RPG’s rules can be and still foster compelling and flavorful play, though of course more complex rules have their own merits, provided the complexity is purposeful. While the die rolls are important to how an RPG works, the broader structures of play are vital.

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Tools for Dreaming: Games for the Human Animal

This is kind of a weird chapter, directly inspired by a particular Adam Curtis documentary. If you’re not familiar with his work, I highly recommend checking out basically anything he’s done, though they’re one of those things (like Charlie Brooker’s various -Wipe shows) that the BBC doesn’t bother releasing outside the UK, so you may have to look for them on YouTube or whatever. I think the conclusion of this chapter is kind of weak, and it’s something I need to figure out how to develop better.

Games for the Human Animal

Adam Curtis is a brilliant British documentarian whose work is mainly about, as he puts it, “power and how it works in society.” A lot of his films are about things like the War on Terror and geopolitics, but in The Century of the Self he explores how Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays and others applied psychoanalysis to foster the consumer culture we have today and reshape modern politics, particularly in the US and UK. That’s some heady stuff. It’s well worth seeking out the documentary for purely educational reasons, but there are also ways in which it’s relevant to role-playing games.

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Tools for Dreaming: Conscious Design

This chapter of Tools for Dreaming is an attempt at pushing a philosophy I call “conscious design,” in contrast to what I see as the problem of unthinking repetition of RPG design cliches. This is so, so not me lording over other people. There are so many design cliches that I struggle with all the time. The influence of Apocalypse World has helped me get better at realizing my RPG ideas, but I’m well aware that that comes with a set of deign cliches too.

Conscious Design

“Engage in conscious design.” That’s my most important bit of design advice, not only for RPGs, but for anything. I put it on a T-shirt even.[1]

conscious design

When you design a game, you can do just about anything, but you need to do it consciously, and be aware of the effects things have on play. That’s a lot harder than it sounds, but it’s something that RPGs need to get better at. There are patterns that RPG design falls into, and while there’s merit in using methods you and your audience are familiar with, the unthinking repetition of well-worn conventions may have stunted the medium’s growth. That’s to be expected when such a large portion of this hobby is dedicated to relatively minor variations of D&D, but unless Wizards of the Coast or Paizo are seriously looking at your resume, you shouldn’t be beholden to Gary Gygax’s highly specific vision.

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Tools for Dreaming: What is an RPG?

The first proper chapter after the introduction to Tools for Dreaming delves into the question of what the heck an RPG actually is. There were a few unfinished sections I cut out of this blog post version, most notable a piece about how whatever the designers might try to sell their games as, RPG play is often silly and violent.

What is an RPG?

No, seriously, what exactly is a role-playing game? If you’re reading this, chances are you already have your own answer, but I guarantee there are people out there who disagree with you. Luckily (sort of), there’s no single right answer to that question.

Having a clear definition of something is generally useful. If I use the word “ostensibly” in a sentence, it’s better for you to know that it basically means “apparently” or “outwardly.” On the other hand, there are cases where trying to come up with a definition becomes counterproductive. That’s especially true when the thing we’re trying to define has a lot of fuzzy edge cases, and even more so when the people writing definitions have an agenda. People who argue over the definition of “RPG” tend to be pushing for one that emphasizes their preferred kinds, and sometimes one that excludes other kinds. Ultimately, “RPGs” are “the sorts of things that people call RPGs,” but whether a work is compelling is much more important than whether it technically fits into a box.

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Tools for Dreaming: Introduction

A couple years ago I started writing a book on RPG design called “Tools for Dreaming.” It’s wound up being kind of a massive project–the manuscript is already 73,000 words and feels incomplete–and I’m trying to figure out what exactly to do with it. Finishing it the way I started it will require kind of a lot of research and work. I’m considering taking the various parts and turning them into one or more smaller, more focused books, but that’ll also take some time and thought. In the meantime, I’ve decided to start posting the more developed parts of it as a series of blog posts, in the hopes that it will be of use to someone, help me figure out where I’m going with this, and perhaps provoke some discussion and feedback.


So let’s get this whole thing started with the introduction, which is kind of a long, flailing attempt to lay out a bunch of preliminaries and disclaimers.


Role-playing games are in an odd place today. There’s no denying that the entire medium isn’t nearly as popular as it once was. On a purely commercial level, the entire industry has shrunk since the heyday of the 80s and 90s, and game stores make more money from other types of tabletop games.[1] On the other hand, in terms of the variety and quality of games that are coming out, the medium is the best it’s ever been. It may not be a great time to start an RPG publishing business, but it’s a great time to be a fan of new and interesting games, and a fascinating time to be a game designer.

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