The Master’s Attention

Where do you focus your attention when you prepare for a game?  How do you cobble together a convincing and engaging story?  What does your game teach Game Masters to do in the lonely hours of the evening?  Thanks to the Bear Swarm Podcast, and I have noticed three distinct ways that game masters and designers focus their attention.

The first approach is to focus on the characters. The idea is that the GM should focus on creating compelling, dynamic and engaging non-player characters.  You can follow the NPC’s personalities and goals during play, reacting to the players efforts. As a result, the players pay attention to character relationships and motivations.  This is the method of design for the video game “Mass Effect 2” for example, with the richly detailed team members.

The second approach is to focus on the locations.  This is where the GM draws a detailed map of the setting, describing each place as a uniquely themed gem in a massive world.  You can encourage a sandbox style of gameplay, where the characters choose their own path and explore the game as they see fit. This seems to be the method of design use for “Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” for example, where exploration of the rich environment dominates the play experience.

The third approach is to focus on the narrative. This is where the GM spends their time on crafting rich plots, character-testing events and dramatic arcs.  This is where the group story is paramount, where matters of pacing and theme drive the action. An excellent example of this in the video game tradition would be “Dragon Age 2”.

Now, each of these methods clearly has their own place in game design.  You can’t have a character focused game without paying attention to their narrative arc.  Locations are defined by the characters they will interact with.  The story depends on exploring a rich world.  I think it’s worth _considering_ how much of each factor you include in your games.

What roleplaying games do you know which focus on one of those particular approaches?

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?

We must Organize!

I thought I knew what I was doing last year.   My plan had been to write up the text of the game, then simply make a _few_ revisions based on the playtesting.   I thought that my design _must_ have been advanced enough that I could commission art.  I expected that I could finish off playtesting in 6-9 months, max and have my book in public Beta by early 2012.

I have learned a great deal over the last year.   I tore out 50% of the system and abandoned the text which I _had_ been writing.  I changed my approach and decided that I really needed to get the core system solidified before I tried anything else.   This led to me creating and heavily revising of a 2-page rules summary, just so that I had something to work from.

This is almost all I had ready by the time the convention season began.  Each playtest taught me a different lesson.  CanGames taught me that the game itself had the potential to be fun and compelling.  The Grand Roludothon taught me to simplify the mechanics and adopt a more improvisational style.  GenCon gave me 2-3 pages worth of astounding feedback which I am only now starting to digest.

Now I am organizing all of the rules for the Spark RPG.   I have Google Docs open and I am populating it with a series of one-line statements.  Each statement corresponds to an individual rule, concept, explanation or piece of advice for the game.  When I finish that up, I will be able to organize the content and turn that into a solid outline for my next attempt at writing the rule.  My hope is that through outlining, I ought to be able to write the game in the most concise manner possible without losing clarity.

Are there any readers in the audience who outline this way?  If not, how do you organize your RPG content?

Not because they are easy…

The Spark RPG is a “generic” game, flexible of setting while still encouraging a certain style of play. The challenge is that generic games often come across as flavourless, dull and derivative. It’s hard to design a good generic and almost impossible to market them in my experience.  This made it the perfect challenge.

I chose to design generic games games like these not because they are easy, but because they are hard.  The only way to learn quality RPG design is through practice.  Rather than release a series of smaller titles, I wanted to throw myself into the deep end and tackle a large and difficult project.  For my first major commercially-published product, I needed to be exposed to every step in the development process. I needed to teach myself the design philosophies, writing tricks, editing skills, layout, production and marketing. I view this ambitious project as a self-funded undergraduate degree in roleplaying game design.

I have made almost every mistake in the textbook.  I have tried publishing a fan supplement for a White Wolf game without a license.  I have discovered the folly of commissioning art assets prematurely.   I have written a draft text for my game before bringing it to playtesting.  I have spent hours fiddling with formatting when I could have better spent that time cleaning up the writing.  Right now, the beginners mistake I am making is focusing on marketing.   It is so very tempting to market myself and network over social media instead of putting in the hard work of writing.  Paradoxically, the infrequent updates on my website are a sign that I am actually writing the game.
I am designing games to learn and I think that generics are the best teachers.  What are your thoughts?


GenCon 2011 Seminar Recordings

One of my guilty pleasures at GenCon is to attend a variety of interesting game design panels with digital recorder in hand.  I was quite successful this year with 5 distinct seminar recordings.  I have done some rudimentary audio clean-up on the recordings but I currently lack the skill to properly polish them.   They are definitely worth a listen though, in my opinion I present the seminars in chronological order as I attended them.  I will try to link to the presenters websites whenever possible.

Things You Think About Games

Event Number: SEM1122700

Presenters: Jeff Tidball and Will Hindmarch from Gameplaywright (

Things You Think About Games


The No-No’s of Game Design

Event Number: SEM1128758


Stan! (

Jeff Neil Bellinger (

Daniel Solis (

Matt Forbeck (

 The No-No’s of Game Design



Lessons from Indie Publishing

Event Number: SEM1122904

Presenters: David A Hill Jr. from Machine Age Productions (

Lessons from Indie Publishing


Design an RPG in an Hour

Event Number: SEM1122800

Presenters: David A Hill Jr. from Machine Age Productions (

Design an RPG in an Hour



Game Design is Mind Control

Event Number: SEM1120297


Luke Crane (

Jared A Sorenson (

Game Design is Mind Control


The Legal Rules of Gaming

Event Number: SEM1118576

Presenters:  Neil A. Wehneman (

The Legal Rules of Gaming



In addition to those excellent seminars, I also had the pleasure of running 2-3 playtests of the Spark RPG with some excellent gamers and/or designers.  I didn’t request permission to post those game sessions online from the participants, so I will not post those particular recordings.  I was told a couple of things by all of the different groups of playtesters.

  1.  I need to improve the presentation of the rules; teach them in a better fashion with more clear character sheets
  2. I should change the GM Fate tracking sheet into a variant of the normal player character sheet.
  3. It is counter-intuitive to have conditions which only help you or only impede you, regardless of circumstances.  I will consider changing this around, though I am uncertain how exactly that would affect the economy.

I hope the seminar recordings and I wish to thank all of the fine participants of GenCon who supported my playtesting endeavours.


GenCon 2010 Seminar Recordings can be found Here.