Expanding the Void – Contemplative Design

Roleplaying games are marvellous tools for fostering empathy. As a medium, our games demand that participants take on alternative perspectives and personalities. By playing in a game in the role of a refugee of a galactic war, you might reflect upon how you would react to the loss of your home or adaptation to a foreign culture. If you portray a character who leads a fantasy kingdom, you might instead be forced into the hard choices of leadership. Each of these experiences has something to teach us.

At their core, roleplaying games are driven by the decisions that the players make at the table. The strongest games are those who design that decision-space with intention and purpose. Apocalypse World is all about how you build and maintain relationships in a world in ruin. Monsterhearts concentrates instead on how teenagers learn to cope with challenges of identity and expectations. Each of these games leads the players to explore different avenues of thought.

The concept of the Fruitful Void, as coined by Vincent Baker back in Dogs in the Vineyard doesn’t have a Faith stat, or rule for determining if a course of action is moral. Monsterhearts doesn’t have a procedure for determining a character’s identity or sexuality.

In my personal design praxis, I combine the concept of intentional experience design with that of the fruitful void. Each of my games revolves around an attempt to foster specific, challenging problems that the players will have to try to examine during play. In Sig, it’s about the conflicting needs of family, faith, and politics. After the War is about how we can learn to support communities which have suffered trauma. Circles of Power asks you to think critically about complex issues of intersectionality and activism. Each of these games carves out conceptual space for players to explore within a safe context It helps us gain valuable skills and a deeper awareness of important issues.

I tend to refer to this approach as contemplative design, and I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter. Do you take a different approach? What kinds of challenging material do your games help us explore? Let’s start a conversation.

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Floating City by Tan Ho Sim

RPG Design Worksheets

Whenever I run workshops to teach new tabletop game designers, I produce a set of worksheets to help them explore their ideas. The latest iteration of these sheets are now ready for people to use and enjoy.

The PDF document presented below contains a total of 6 letter-sized worksheets which you can print on a home printer. Each of these pages addresses a different area of design and should be a useful aid in starting a conversation. Each of the sheets has a list of questions for the designer to answer.

  1. The Concept of the game, why it exists.
  2. The System, the rules and procedures of play.
  3. The Setting, or the fictional context of play.
  4. The Situation, or the reason that the characters are acting.
  5. The Subtext, or how the game relates to real world concerns.
  6. The Production, planning how the game can be manufactured and shared.

I would love to get feedback from folks, both experienced designers and new ones. Please feel free to contact me at genesisoflegend at gmail

Tabletop RPG Publishing Budget Survey

It’s difficult to make wise decisions without robust data, and our goal was to try to share some practical information about production costs for tabletop roleplaying games.

This survey is intended to get a comprehensive picture of the production costs for analogue tabletop RPGs to help inform publishers on how to budget for their games. We are soliciting as many responses as possible so that we can do some statistical analysis with a decent sample size and release the amalgamated survey data publicly.

By contributing to this survey, you are consenting to contribute to the public dataset and associated analysis. When the public analysis is released, all contributors will also receive the raw data set for their own use. We would like to request that only products published after January 1st, 2010. If you have multiple products, we would welcome several submissions from the same publisher so we have as robust a dataset as possible.

If you have any questions or concerns with regards to this survey, please contact Jason Pitre for Genesis of Legend Publishing at genesisoflegend@gmail.com

This survey will be open from March 10th until April 10th, 2019. After that point, Jason will analyse the data-set and produce a summary report for the public good. We would love your insight and input or the project!

Survey Here: https://goo.gl/forms/hs3WhNgYFhJMAjZE2

Links for Discussions – Circle of Power Google +

Christo Meid 7 May 2017 
Loss of language and assimilation?

I know this didn’t come up in the game I played of Circles of Power at Dreamation, but this piece by Alex Roberts got me thinking about assimilation of cultures by another and how that might play out in Circles of Power. It could be slow, poignant and nostalgic, brutal and harsh, or something else altogether.

To play out the longer types of assimilation and the resistance to, I would expect time would have to fast forward, with scenes jumping…and perhaps power dynamics changing and new Circles appearing.

Kind of scary, but what a powerful tale it could be.

Jason Pitre 30 Nov 2017


An interesting article which is relevant to the themes of Circles of Power. It presents one of many messy, hard problems that the game hopes to explore.

Jason Pitre

This post from +Curt Thompson does an amazing job of communicating the heart of circles of power, in my eyes. It’s a game about people who are left on the margins of an oppressive society, but whom receive magic as a form of activism and restorative justice. It’s power for those who need it, not for those who have it in plenty.  Good stuff.

Originally shared by Curt Thompson – 36 commentsI was working on something this evening that made me consider my default assumptions about fantasy and urban fantasy in particular and thought it was interesting enough to share.

I realized that I have the subconscious association of magic and magical empowerment with the ‘other’ in society. With women and people of color, queer people, trans people, people with variant neurochemistry and such. Not just because I identify with the outsiders, but because (and put on your flame-retardant shorts, this is where I’d get trolled if my comments were still open), magic is not, as Warren Ellis once suggested, the ‘cheat codes of the universe’. Magic is more akin to socialist revolutions.

Things like the Hermetic type of magic in World of Darkness games and D&D’s rote magic have never set my imagination on fire. Mind you, I don’t think they are bad, exactly. They just never rang ‘true’ for me. They never had that sense of verisimilitude that never has anything to do with reality, but rather how real something feels.

And magic in the hands of the already enfranchised never feels ‘real’ to me. Why would a guy like Harry Dresden need to search for another source of power, for instance? He’s a white, straight, good-looking dude. He’s 99 percent of the way there. Or Harry Potter for that matter? Or Dr. Strange? Yes, they have challenges. But in the context of the greater society, their challenges are ones that almost tailor-made for resolution within the existing power structure.

No, in my head, in my game settings, magic is in the hands of the bent-backed old washer women, the failed suicides, the gay uncles and aunts, the junkies and the drag queens, the choir leaders who have to schedule time for two funerals a week because of gun violence, the ones who hear the voices and see shadows out of the corner of their eyes, the AIDS activists and the transfolk.

Because those people, unlike the ‘White Council’ (indeed) are the ones who would be searching for and dedicated to looking outside the existing power structure for themselves and their communities. Like Russian and Chinese commoners, these are the people who would be willing to tear down everything, if it evened the scales a little.

For me, magic is rebellion. Magic is punk, a giant middle finger to a world where reality itself is stacked against some folks. Magic is power to and of the people. It’s gritty, it’s bloody, it’s sexy and scary and it might just do more harm than good. Like all revolutions.

And I am always surprised to see a metaphor that rich almost always co-opted to make a character who was already born on third base that much cooler as they slide home and claim the win.

Implied and Implicit Setting – Circle of Power Google +

+Mark Diaz Truman raised an excellent point with regards to the role of the setting for Circles of Power. The apprentice edition was very intentionally designed with a relatively bland, fill-in fantasy setting in the form of the Steel Throne. I wanted people to provide feedback on the broader structure (mechanical moves, communities, etc), rather than on how a specific setting is designed. That said, the role of setting is an important one and I want to figure out what approach is best for this specific game. There are two major approaches I have seen for settings for games powered by the apocalypse.

The Implied Setting: Many games, such as the Apocalypse World, Dungeon World, Monsterhearts, and The Warren, have a great deal of implied setting but very little hardcoded. Certain playbooks might identify particular NPCs which exist, or name certain factions, but these get interpreted at the table. Some of these have explicit settings which you can choose from, such as Polygon Wood for The Warren. These ones tend to avoid providing much in the way of history or proper nouns, assuming that people will come up with it at the table. The advantage of this approach is that you can have more buy-in at the table, and you get more of a sense of ownership of the explicit setting.

The Explicit Setting: There are a handful of new PBTA games which are more explicit about describing the settings for people. Masks has information about A.E.G.I.S., specific NPCs you can call on, and a fixed setting in Halcyon City. Epyllion describes specific events during the War of Shadows, and also introduces more of a fixed cast of NPCs. Sagas of the Icelanders is always set in Iceland, and you can never “plug in” an alternative setting option. The advantage of this approach is that you can be a lot more subtle with some of the metaphorical issues. By providing a robust fictional foundation, a lot of interesting stories can be provided in the book itself.

I would love to hear your respective thoughts on the two approaches, and which of these you personally believe would be more beneficial for this specific project. Shared publicly•View activity

Christo Meid

I’m for implied setting or even no implied setting, with seeds for settings being supplied but not fleshed out, perhaps in examples to the text. This game could be modern with psionics instead of magic, or Egyptian, or Atlantean. I worry if you define the setting too much, it could limit the game. Granted, if you Kickstart it, settings could also be stretch goals, which would be wickedly enticing.

Mark Diaz Truman

I think all of the games you’ve listed under “implied” settings are much more stringent with their actual play than you’re implying. 😉

Take AW, for example:

– there is a psychic maelstrom
– everyone has trouble finding food/water
– there are very few people in the world
– the name lists and weapon lists

It’s subtle, but the setting is there. And if you try to play against that setting (i.e. it’s AW, but it’s set in 1970s Baltimore!)… the game will fail.

I think of this like a spectrum: Cartel/Sagas/Masks have a really specific setting because each game benefits from that setting. Epyllion sketches out some big stuff… but then leaves all the details up to the players. Urban Shadows is set in cities, but leaves the actual generation of those cities entirely to the players.

I think Circles of Power needs a really sharp “dominant” community, one that is internally consistent and not a cartoon. It’s hard to take oppression seriously when it’s not serious.

At the same time, I think it’s really easy to leave blanks. If you say that the foreign people are all “X,” say Qunari, the players still get to say a ton about their own people and how they behave. But you need to give them some touchstones on which to base their fiction!