RPG Design Curation – Likes for Wisdom

This was originally prepared using Storify. Six months later, that company announced that the Storify platform was being discontinued, so I salvaged it on my blog for future use. Sorry for any formatting bugs! 

RPG Design Curation – Likes for Wisdom

RPG designers share tweet-sized insights into game design and publishing.

Memes are relatively common on twitter, but this new twitter meme from @nekoewen has produced some brilliant insights into tabletop roleplaying game and design. Due the the ephemeral nature of twitter, I wanted to collect some of the best gems which I ran across over the past few days. I limited myself to only a few of my personal favourites per designer, but you can find all of the wisdom under the google document below, enabled by @slavetothehat.

nsights from Ewen Cluney           (Yaruki Zero Games)

  • One way to look at RPG rules is as a set of alterations you place on top of freeform RP to foster specific kinds of play.
  • You might be surprised how simple the math and how small the numbers can be in an RPG and still create compelling gameplay.
  • RPGs can work in any number of form factors besides books… but books are by far the most practical to do as small press.
  • RPG theory can be useful, as long as you treat it as a tool rather than an attempt at absolute truth.
  • The most successful games seem to be ones that let people tap into certain primal desires.
  • D&D is so successful in part because it presents a fantasy of power and freedom, and a subculture with a sense of belonging.
  • Social RPG mechanics are better when they create incentives rather than dictating outcomes.
  • A designer should be reading and playing a huge variety of games, including ones in other media.

Insights from Avery Alder            (Buried Without Ceremony)

  • Part of designing a game is understanding how it fits into the player’s life, and making choices that serve that context.
  • If you don’t put your politics into your games, you are inadvertently putting in someone else’s.
  • Almost every game is about action. Challenge yourself to write games about something else – interiority, perspective, process, else…
  • As you design, ask “in what ways is this game reproducing dominant or oppressive ideas about power & agency, and am I okay with that?”
  • Learn different frameworks of critique and then cross-apply them to yr work. “How can I queer this game? How can I decolonize it?”
  • Mentoring others is a way to extend yr own growth as a designer. Supporting others is a way of deepening yr own support network, too.
  • Making provocative art means considering who you want to provoke, why, and to what end.
  • Playtesting is good at revealing and unpacking certain types of problems, but it isn’t magic & it isn’t always what a design needs most.
  • Designing a game that’s serious/historical/gritty/realistic/dark doesn’t get you out of designing a game that’s rewarding to play.

Insights from Mark Richardson  (Green Hat Designs)

  • Go to Metatopia in Morristown NJ it’s the analogue game design conference and is the best place to go. Period.
  • Learn to finish, use cons as deadlines for new play tests. Your game needs to finish. Perfect is always the enemy of good.
  • If you have never finished a game, do Game Chef. Your game will be finished in 7 days because it has to be. This is the best lesson! END!
  • Budget for the lowest fund goal on KS. No frills print on demand. Then if you succeed you can do more. Ask for what you need, then want
  • Be transparent/honest with backers. Inform them regularly. People forgive for lots of reasons, but lying and omissions ain’t one of em.

Insights from Ben Lehmen           (TAO Games)

  • The best use of RPG theory is as a spur to design, not as any sort of truth or principle.
  • The best way to use RPG theory as a spur to design is “That’s utter bullshit, and here’s a game that proves it.”
  • Lateral thinking is consistently an extremely rewarding part of RPGs, and one of the hardest things to design for.
  • The conflation in role-playing between game (body of rules) and game (instance of playing a game) is detrimental and profound.
  • Every game I’ve designed changed me as a person. So, choose to design games that change you in ways you need to be changed.
  • Theology, read as a game designer, is an endless source of good design advice. It doesn’t matter which you choose.
  • Role playing games, in play, are built from faith, hope, and love.
  • When you have problems that you cannot solve, trust that your future self will be a better game designer than you.

Insights from Brie Sheldon          (Thoughty)

  • Ask questions. Always. Never stop asking questions. Ask them of your design, of your intent, of your players and GMs. Ask in your game, too.
  • Learn to say “no.” To yourself, to playtesters, to editors. Don’t always say it, but know how to deny other people’s influence on your game.
  • Be ruthless w changes but save your trash. Don’t toss out everything that doesn’t work for *this* game, & don’t be afraid to bring it back.
  • Talk to other designers. Share your struggles, but also your wins. Support them, too, because it’ll come back around. No designer is alone.
  • Hard mechanics aren’t everything. You can make some great games without using numbers at all. You can also use them in weird ways. Try it!
  • If you don’t think a mechanic or fiction works for you, share it. Let other people use it. You can always use it later, too. Design spreads.
  • If you’re working for hire & find you can’t do the work, immediately tell the people you’re working for. It’s better than bailing on them.
  • If there is a designer whose work you love, look at the why behind their work, not just the how. There’s often something deeper in design.

Insights from J. Walton                 (Corvid Sun)

  • The most innovative ideas in games most often come from newcomers, folks on the fringes, or those who’ve been excluded. Listen to them.
  • Games (esp. analog but digital too) rely on a massive volunteer-based social infrastructure that teaches and enables people to play them.
  • Build contradictions and multiple layers into how your game helps players think about people, history, culture, etc. Push them a bit.
  • Success is subjective. A sustainable practice is built around you meeting at least some of your own goals/desires. They can be anything.
  • Game design is often about taking an experience that works in one context & writing guidelines to replicate it in a different context.
  • So: building connections in games is still based on fraught meatspace interactions that lead to both great stuff & systemic inequities.

Insights from Jason Pitre              (Genesis of Legend Publishing)

  • Games are an artform which guides participants to make choices. Simple choices have their place, but difficult ones are revealing.
  • In order for a choice to be meaningful, you need to care about the consequences. Characters are anchors for personal investment.
  • Meaningful choices require that the player have at least some understanding of the nature of the consequences of their decisions.
  • Meaningful choices need to have lasting consequences, either in the character, their relationships, or their world.
  • In order to enable these choices, therefore, both the designer and the player needs to understand the fictional context.
  • Diverse perspectives give you an inherently broader selection of tools for making these choices and give unique experiences.
  • Games can be dangerous, because meaningful choices can cause stress and emotional impacts. Meaningful choices must always be concentual.
  • Learning, challenge, and fun are inexorably linked. Design the mechanical and narrative complexity curve of your game for your audience.
  • Reminder that all of you folks are bloody brilliant. Seriously.

Insights from Jim McClure           (Third Act Publishing)

  • Everyone has an idea for a game. Ideas have no value. Written, play-tested, edited, and completed games have value.
  • Our hobby is 43 years old, don’t let anyone say “everything has already been done” in game design. We have just scratched the surface.
  • The MDA is a 5-page game designer’s bible. Read it. Study it, Learn it.  http://www.aaai.org/Papers/Workshops/2004/WS-04-04/WS04-04-001.pdf …
  • Players experience games: Ascetics -> Dynamics -> Mechanics. Which is the exact opposite of how they are designed.
  • Do not compare yourself to designers of 20+ years. Compare yourself to yester-you. That is the only person you must be better than.
  • Be creative, be unique, be inclusive. be generous, be gracious, and be a good steward to the hobby. Be a game designer.

Insights from Joshua AC Newman            (xenoglyph)

  • Games are synthetic ethical systems. You agree to a) want a thing and b) the constraints on getting it. Refusing either is cheating.
  • Randomness is just one way of hiding information. You can alter how to get that info by constraining randomness or hiding it other ways.
  • You can treat human judgment and imagination like software treats a graphics coprocessor.
  • The stakes of play, as in fiction, are highest when they matter personally to more than one player, for different reasons.
  • Your game is about something. Make it about what you want it to be about or it’ll be about something you didn’t.
  • Play comes from a tension between interests. If you only want one thing, there’s no play, only optimization.

Insights from Josh T Jordan         (Ginger Goat)

  • The best game for you to make is the one that only YOU can make. If it’s just like D&D, someone else has already made it.
  • One of the best ways to inspire game design is to use your professional knowledge/skills, e.g. teachers make a game about school.
  • Famous game designers are lucky AND talented. Sales should not be your main criterion for a successful design. You might not be lucky.
  • If more than two people are involved in your game design process, make sure they don’t all look and think like you. I mean us, white dudes.
  • Publishing a game means different things to each game designer. What are YOUR goals? You get define your own victory conditions.
  • Diversity in game design is not the new gatekeeper. It’s enforcing wider markets. More kinds of game mean everyone wins. #weneeddiversegames

Insights from Kira Magrann         (kiramagrann.tumblr.com)

  • In art school I learned to copy masters. That’s not common in game design communities, but do it! I use a design I like to get started.
  • On that note, figure out what you like in different game designs. I’ve played lots of games to learn my style and preferences.
  • It’s really important for people who aren’t cis het white men to make games. Like really important. It makes a difference for us.
  • Iterate, iterate, iterate. Like seriously. Build on ideas and tear ideas down and destroy stuff and make new stuff. It’s the best.
  • Find three things you like and make games in tons of different systems about them. Mine are: queers, cars, and cyberpunk.
  • Try to join a design community + find women + poc + queer + disabled people in that community and talk to them or make your own community
  • Make games that you think people would never want to play! Absurd thought experiments. I’ve learned so much from these! And been wrong!

Insights from Dana Fried              (Souls of Steel RPG)

  • Decide what your game is about. This is the principle from which all others flow. What experience do you want players to have?
  • Trim mercilessly. If you have an awesome idea that doesn’t quite fit, save it for another game. You’ll have plenty of awesome ideas.
  • If you playtest a game and people are having fun engaging with a subset of the mechanics, consider focusing the game there.
  • Players are defensive about their characters. Mechanics should encourage risk-taking or even reward sub-optimal character outcomes.
  • If you’re doing classes, archetypes, etc. in an RPG, focus on the role they occupy in the fiction rather than what they do mechanically.
  • Don’t set players up to fail. Don’t give them mechanical choices now that will bite them later on if they choose “wrong”.
  • It’s okay to make a game that requires some experience with a genre for the player to fully appreciate. Still, strive for accessibility.

Insights from Lillian Cohen-Moore

  • Tons of design work you do is going to suck. My hard drive is littered with stuff that I couldn’t get past the sucking void stage.
  • Hitting a wall in the design process doesn’t make you a bad designer. It means you hit a wall. It’s normal.
  • If you don’t play any games you hold yourself back. The way they shape your taste & thinking brings nuance & thoughtfulness to your work.
  • Playtesting for *other designers* will show you so much about that stage of the process, positive & negative. Do your best by them.
  • Sometimes the work may have content that’s difficult or downright heart wrenching to deal with. Find people to talk to when it does.
  • You know the ‘be the best you’ advice some parents give? Write it on a mirror. Your voice in design can take you a long way.
  • Being the best you re:design means reading, playing games, building social relationships, being accountable, guarding your health.
  • Respect when you’re in pain, whether it is infrequent or constant. Respect yourself and the work enough to rest whenever possible.

Insights from Marshall Miller                    (Fine Mess Games)

  • Just because you don’t normally run games doesn’t mean you can’t design them.
  • GMs design games to teach people to play in their games. If you’re a player, write games to teach people how to GM games for you.
  • Games benefit from playtesting but the designer needn’t be the one conducting the playtests.
  • Games are held together by the invisible hands of community.
  • Contributing to others’ creative work builds your game design muscles.
  • Your enthusiasm, kindness, and professionalism, online and in-person, do not go unnoticed.
  • People will see you in your games and your games in you. Represent each other well.

Insights from Gareth Hanrahan                                

  • Everything in a game should go towards making the GM’s life easier.That may mean pushing work towards the players or taking decisions away
  • Generating player enthusiasm is “work” in this context, and it’s one of the best things a game can do. Easier to enthuse GMs than players
  • If your game premise relies on them being part of an organisation, highlight recruitment and training part of chargen.
  • Designing a game for one-shots, or short campaigns, or episodic play, or one-on-one play, or bluebooking – all equal valid options.
  • When describing a scene, start with basic parameters (it’s a big room), interesting features (with carvings) and dangers (and a troll!)
  • Don’t force the GM to know complex subsystems, like ship design. GM-side mechanics should always be much simpler than player-facing ones

Insights from Nathan Paoletta                   (ndpdesign)

  • Games fundamentally structure social interactions, (usually) in a way that the players wouldn’t normally interact.
  • Game design is an intervention, which means clear goals for the desired behavior are super important (and often hard to articulate!)
  • Most games start as multiple games jammed together and figuring out which one is the one you want is part of the process.
  • Design your play aids, then go back and see what didn’t make it into the play aid. Weed that extraneous stuff mercilessly.
  • Asymmetry is more dynamic than equality. Use multiple asymmetries to create “balance” instead of making everything equal to each other.
  • Your game is in conversation with the games that came before and the games that come after. You can use that to your advantage.
  • Design is making tradeoffs. Getting better at design includes becoming more aware of what you’re trading off for what and why.

Insights from James D’Amato                    (The One Shot Podcast)

  • We don’t learn to write by writing novels. Creating a 300 page comprehensive system is not the best way to learn game design.
  • An Elegant game will not try to account of all possibilities, it will channel players towards a few.
  • Women people of color, Gay, Trans, and other minorities exist. if you design with them in mind, they are more likely to buy your games.
  • As a designer with privilege you can make mistakes. The most unforgivable thing is not owning up to them and trying to improve.
  • Generic RPGs are not a good starting point. They are excessively hard to market. Successful modern generics, didn’t start as generic.
  • Assess and cultivate the environment that nurtures you as a designer.
  • Put yourself in positions that force you to action. Prepare a con game, make a game for free RPG day, participate in a contest.

Insights from Paul Stefko               (Nothing Ventured Games)

  • Make the simplest version of your game that you can. It’s much easier to add on options than to take away core elements.
  • Understand your design space — how much you can elaborate on a mechanic before it breaks, or worse, becomes dull.
  • Let different parts of your design interact in unexpected ways. Create hooks and tie them together. That’s how surprises emerge.
  • Unfortunately, it’s hard to have a successful game on theme alone. A solid mechanic can lead to an enjoyable abstract game, though.
  • Find at least one person who’s smarter than you who will look at your designs and give you honest feedback. Keep the around.
  • Games are defined by decisions. Choose the decisions your players must make deliberately.

Insights from Julia Ellingboe 

  • Don’t give advice. Your perspectives and lessons from your experiences are more valuable.
  • “I’m afraid to play your game” is a bullshit fake compliment. “I’m challenged by your game” can be high praise.
  • Concise, clear instructions lower the bar to entry into the hobby as a whole.
  • White people don’t own game design.
  • Game designer is sort of an empty title, but don’t let anyone tell you you’re not a game designer regardless of whether you’re published.
  • Being versed in the geek lexicon, culture, fandoms etc. is not a requirement to be a game designer. General literacy is.

 Insights from Quinn Murphy

  • Imagination is for everyone.
  • If your RPG excludes players from seeing themselves, you are limiting your reach & your design’s potential.
  • Design for Humans. Game don’t serve numbers, or balance, or anything else but humans. Optimize for human experiences.
  • An RPG is a strange animal that wants opposition & collaboration. When play sags, up opposition. When play gets chaotic, up collaboration
  • Worldbuilding is great, but creating investment by giving players inputs into worldbuilding is better.
  • There are more conflicts and tensions in the world than fighting and violence. Exploring those creates a richer palette to design with.
  • Games are art, and this means that ultimately games are systems we use to express ourselves through indirection and exchange.
  • RPGs rely on the power of expectation. Much of the emotional power of the form comes from creating/meeting/breaking expectation.
  • If a design element is particularly difficult to work with, query your assumptions about it. Sometimes the problem is where you started.

Insights from Rob Wieland 

  • A tabletop game is comprised of three parts: the game the designer wants, the game the GM wants and the game the players want.
  • Success with a cost is my favorite innovation of the past decade. PbtA and Fate handle it differently, but both do it interestingly.
  • People outside gaming have a skewed perception of the industry. Companies that produce licensed game are rarely bigger than a handful.
  • I prefer designing games aimed at new players. Combatting preconceptions is exhausting.
  • New editions are a balance between hooking new fans intimidated by the old edition and upsetting fans because you changed their favorite
  • Playtest notes: once can be written off as taste. Twice should be given minor considerarion. Three or more there is probably something.

Insights from Stras Acimovic

  • The game doesn’t live in your mind. Or on paper. It lives in play. The play’s the thing! The game’s just an instrument – not the show.
  • Play as soon as possible. Make some notes. Draw on a page. Play ASAP! Your design iterates/polishes the most in play.
  • Design is like a muscle. Excercise can make it stronger. Ergo: Your first few games won’t be as good as your latter games.
  • Designers are people! Not magic, not unicorns. They’ve probably struggled with the same problems/doubts you have.
  • The more mechanics you have, the more playtesting will take (each iteration) before you test all of them.
  • The designers first task is to listen, but always know what is most important for their game and choose what works for it.
  • The biggest compliment someone can give you is to hack your game. Don’t feel threatened if they borrow or remix your ideas.
  • Do your homework. Lots of your questions have been answered. Theory has been discussed and many common problems debated and solved.

Insights from Rowan Cota

  • If an edit changes your game, instead of polishing your game, it’s a bad edit. Editing is for sharpening, not morphing.
  • It doesn’t have to make people feel good, but it does have to make FEELS. Without feels games are just poor rules for social interaction.
  • Your first draft is all the post-its/scribbled notes in margins/napkin thoughts. You’ve already written it, everything else is refining.
  • Every prop (cards, dice, text) is a barrier to entry for someone. Align access with your desired audience.
  • No one will love your game as much as you, but if you get lucky some people will love it more.
  • Write every game as though you’re a fan of the players. Having to fight your mechanics to get the experience sucks for everyone.
  • Games are rituals. Be appropriately respectful of that fact, without venerating it. Don’t write boring, stilted rituals. Be interesting.

Insights from Tracy Barnett  (Exploding Rogue Productions)

  • Every game tells a story. The rules are how you access and govern that story. If the rules don’t provide access, you’re lost.
  • Everyone gets to the story in different ways, so y’know, design your rules for that.
  • Games are always a shared experience, even if it’s just the designer sharing with one player via the text.
  • Like any kind of creative work, game design asks you to read both deeply and broadly. You’ll be better for both.
  • Games is a small, smaaaaaaall industry. Be kind and don’t piss people off. You can burn bridges after than you think.
  • People are the heart of games, writing, playing, developing, selling. Find your path to interacting with them, however works for you.

Insights from Clay Gardner

  • Whatever you want to make, go out there and read/play/assimilate into your consciousness every example of its kind you can.
  • Textbook example, Dungeon World, a clear D&D homage that uses the newfangled “Apocalypse World” engine to drive its dungeon crawling.
  • Start with what you want the game to do and then think of the mechanics, not the other way around.
  • Anything worth doing is worth doing well. If you do not possess a skill, take the time to educate yourself enough to hire those who can.
  • There are no sacred cows. No single concept has to be in your RPG, whether it’s levels, combat, attributes, or even multiple players.
  • For all the countless games, it’s amazing how many themes haven’t been touched on. Pick something you love and make an RPG out of it.

Insights from Todd Crapper                        (Broken Ruler Games)

  • That idea in your head about a new game? The only way to see if it works is to try. Start from somewhere, build from there.
  • Make a game that’s fun for you FIRST. Then your friends. Then folks at a con. Then everyone else. Build on it step by step.
  • Try new things. If your game does the same thing as others, there’s no reason for people to play yours.
  • This one’s a personal preference. TRY A NEW DESIGN! Hacks are good but we’re all waiting for something new.
  • If your game has a GM, give them something to do other than “have fun” & all that crap. Remember, GMs are players too.
  • Make a game that doesn’t need art, maps, handouts & all that fluff. If people want to play without them, you’re onto something.

Insights from Caitlynn Belle

  • you probably don’t need about 3/4 of the rules you design, and they’re probably just there bc you find them clever. edit mercilessly.
  • people will applaud your weird experimental games, but they’ll only buy the conventional, grounded ones.
  • the people who don’t like/have trouble with your playtest drafts are the people you should pay most, if not all, attention to.
  • the more you restrict your vision and your players’ avenues of access, the more interesting your product will be (for good or bad!)
  • don’t pull your punches. ever. ever ever ever.
  • accept jobs on projects and do as many contests as you can. working on other’s stuff helps you approach yours fresh.
  • people will like your product a little bit more if the layout and art is nice. presentation matters.
  • a lot of us don’t have games that show us off or make us feel powerful. a lot of us don’t have representation. consider that w setting.

Insights from Brian Engard

  • There’s no such thing as “real game design.” If you’re fiddling with something that is a game, you are designing.
  • Game design is a super iterative process. Your finished product *will* be very different from where you started, if you’re doing it right.
  • Ideas are awesome, and will come quickly and often. Implementation is a lot harder. Translating from your brain to paper is work.
  • There are lots of folks who traditionally haven’t seen themselves in RPGs. Helping to correct that problem is actually a lot of fun.
  • Sometimes you have a great idea for a game with good representation, and sometimes it’s better if that game comes from someone else.
  • Playtests can be hard on your ego. They’re necessary though, so do what you need to do to get distance from the work and accept feedback.
  • The easiest way to learn game design is to break apart a game you love and see how it works. Reassemble, make new things. Hack it.

Insights from Jacqueline Bryk

  • When designing a LARP, include at least three factions with varied and clashing viewpoints. This ensures constant conflict.
  • Dice in a LARP are better for getting stepped on, lost, or disputed than they are for literally anything else — mechanics included.
  • All of the games I design are fun, consensual ways of exploring my own fears. Idk if that’s advice, but it makes for intense gameplay.
  • USE SAFETY MECHANICS. Even if the game odd Happy Puppy Gets Ice Cream, put in a damn x card or a cut/brake system. Normalize it.
  • There are people out there who think your idea is good. They might not necessarily be your closest friends. Write for those people.
  • LARP can be a business. LARP can also be three dudes fucking around in a classroom. If it’s live-action roleplaying, it’s LARP.
  • Queerness in a game is like garlic in a recipe. There is always room for more.

Insights from Thomas Deeny (Denagh Design)

  • Designing games from a layout perspective. Some of these are personal preference.
  • Think about how your work is going to look very early on in the design process. Involve layout early.
  • Layout isn’t there to make your words and pictures pretty. It’s there to help convey information.
  • Use a style guide, especially with multiple contributing writers. It makes work during layout so much easier.
  • Limit your headers down to a H3: Chapter Header, H1, H2, then inline headers, if possible. H3 is okay. Avoid H6s.
  • Walls of text are tiring, so you’ll want illustrations and other graphics in the work. Sidebars can help.
  • Depending on the size of the printed material, you want to establish an illustration:spread ratio.
Posted in Blog of Legend.

Leave a Reply