Building the Machine

There is a simple joy in the act of creation.   It doesn’t matter if you optimized a deck of Magic Cards, created a D&D character from scratch or forged a robot with a murderous heart.  Preparing your tools before you play is rewarding because every choice is significant.   I think this is one facet of design that we in the Indie RPG design community tend to overlook.

This realization came to me after leveling up in a D&D 4E game that I am playing in. Each time I got to tinker with my character, I was presented with a puzzle of which new feat or power I was going to choose. I knew that I was stuck with whatever decision I made until I earned my level, always feeling like my choices were meaningful.  Looking back, it was the same thrill that I had gotten each time I started altering one of my decks of Magic cards.  The very act of altering and customizing something for a game was enormous fun.

If you look back at the changes to D&D, you can see that the fun of preparation was taken into account.  In classical D&D, the sum total of your creative input consisted of a few trivial decisions at character creation.  2nd edition introduced Kits, giving you more choice for differentiation at character creation. 3rd edition gave us Feats and Prestige Classes which allowed the players to alter their characters in significant ways whenever they earned certain levels.  When 4E came around, the advancement system was altered so that the players would be able to make small but important decisions every time they leveled up by changing feats, power selection and/or attributes.

Changing my character helps me feel as if I gain a little more agency.  In turn, I find myself more and more engaged with the game.  I know that many great story games include preparation, but I think that it’s still an aspect of design that is far too often overlooked.   I’m not saying that we should start including detailed encumbrance rules in every new game, but I think that _some_ level of preparation can improve a game and keep the players wanting more.


What do you think?

Posted in Blog of Legend, Home, The Process of Design and tagged .


  1. OK, I’m gonna try the long-delayed reply.

    I think that D&D is a game that you play between sessions, and sessions are when you get to see how many points you got in the inter-session play. And that can be fun, but that’s not the game for me. The choices are more like boardgame choices, where there’s a correct one for any given situation, and the fun consists in part in developing the ability to reliably and intuitively find that.

    As you point out, through the editions, D&D has become more and more of a character-building game. And personally, that’s not where I want my choices to be—I really want my choices to be in-game around the table, in the heat of the moment, and with no good choice—just different kinds of bad. And that’s my taste, not everyone’s. Playing Annalise recently was one of the most satisfying RPG experiences I’ve had, because everything in play was about deciding among a set of painful outcomes.

    But, you also bring up a very very good point: making your character is a way of engaging with the game. I personally disagree that anything in D&D helps me feel engaged when I’m at the table, but that’s only a small part of the game. D&D has a lot of structure that keeps you thinking about the game when you’re not at the table, regardless of whether you think about it when you are. And that’s really cool and worth thinking about and learning from. But I have yet to see an example that doesn’t, for me, sacrifice at-the-table engagement for away-from-the-table engagement.

  2. Thanks for your comment Kit!

    I would have to respectfully disagree with you in your statement that the character building game has an optimum solution. If the game is properly designed, there are trade-offs for every decision. In short, there is no bad choice, just different kinds of good. It builds a sense of confidence and excitement to the game which allows a longer term game to persist.

    In my experience, it also tends to bring the players back to the table with more energy which leads to a more intense game experience at the table. Like in a larp with written intentions during downtime, the homework lets the players continue to play the game outside of their limited game session. If you get an hour of enjoyable and meaningful choices as your homework for a 4 hour game session, I would argue that is a better design.

    I would argue that the aspect of preparation does not inherently subtract from the player engagement at the table. Any element of character development will lead to the player identification. That won’t rescue you if the core game-play experience is flat, but that is a different issue.

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