Different Strokes for Different Folks

Over on his RPGtalk blog, Ben Lehman wrote:

I wish I had words to express the pure joy that is writing Anima Hunters powers. There’s something of the pleasure of writing the Polaris aspects, without the pressure to be super-poetic, and the additional pleasure of choosing Feats in D&D. Watching the powers fit together in interesting ways as I am writing them is just great. It’s like writing a crossword puzzle or something.

I have a soft spot for expressions of honest enthusiasm like this. It’s cool that Ben is enjoying this aspect of writing his game. But it got me thinking about my own tastes and preferences.

Y’see, I hate this kind of thing. I don’t think it’s bad design–not at all. It’s just design that doesn’t appeal to me. I don’t have a good name for it, but there’s a whole massive strain of it in RPG design, and it always, always bugs me. To pin “it” down further, I’ll list examples:

  • Spells in D&D are the biggest offender. In AD&D2, at least, each one was its own separate ruleset, doing its little dance, and stepping on the toes of a million other parts of the system.
  • Pretty much any sort of “power list” is a child of D&D’s spells, with their pages and pages and pages of kewlness
  • D&D3’s Feats are all about this.
  • Two words: Weapon Lists
  • Burning Wheel is rife with this stuff–Traits, lifepaths, spells, skills–Luke loves it (and does it well, I might add).
  • tSoY’s Secrets and Keys work like this, too, although with more clarity and less complexity than the above examples

I sometimes think about it as a 2 x 2 grid with “simple” and “complex” on one side, and “pieces” and “interactions” across the top. So, checkers has simple pieces (each piece can do one thing, kings can do one extra thing), with moderately-complex interactions (when you can jump, when you must jump, etc.). Chess has more complex pieces (6 different types, each with their own moves) and much more complex interactions. Clicky-based minis games (although I’m not real familiar) seem to have very complex pieces (dozens of different figures, each with their own advantages & disads) with rather simple interactions (do damage to the other figure).

I like games where the pieces are simple, but the interactions are complex. My Life With Master excels at this. There’s only 5 scores in the whole game, and 2 of them are common for the group. But the interactions of those scores produces something truly beautiful. Sorcerer also has simple pieces, for the most part (adding in the demon powers does raise the complexity level, though), with highly complex interactions.

It seems to me that Ben is enjoying creating complex interactions of complex pieces. Which is great for people who can do that. I can’t. Considering that the FVLMINATA magic system, cool as it is, is 100% Jason Roberts’, you won’t see this in any game I’ve designed.

Simple pieces interacting in complex ways: That’s what I like, that’s what I do.

Do I get a poofy hat?

Well, I did it. I finished my entry for the 2006 Game Chef Contest. It’s a game called Play Right! (title is Kat’s ’cause I haven’t named any of my own games since Discernment). It’s a heavily-Universalis-inspired story manipulation game. Situation-first. Lots of bidding glass beads and rolling dice. And drama. Dear God, I hope, drama. As is par for the course for me, it’s got no Color or Setting. And I kinda really wanted to write Color and Setting for my Game Chef game.

BUT, I had over 55 hours of work this week, and a number of family commitments. The Revolutionary War game that I started needed too much research for the lack of time I had. And Color and Setting just don’t excite me {shrug}.

In any case. I did it. I finished a game in all of 27 hours from initial concept to submission, actually. Next stop: 2 weeks of reviewing other folks’ games.

EDIT: Here’s a link to the PDF. I feel like my rough draft is showing!


It’s Game Chef week. It’s also one of those weeks rife with overtime. I started a sketch of a game called Give Me Liberty… but the amount of research to do it right is prohibitive in a week when I have no time. And the more time that passes since Saturday morning (when I came up with the idea) the less thrilled I am with it. It’s frustrating.

On Monday night, Kat & Michele & I talked about what we want out of our gaming. I didn’t quite identify it then, but I realized this morning that my absolute favorite part of gaming is the act of making things up. Two of my favorite games of all-time are The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Once Upon a Time… I consider prep a bug rather than a feature because I come to the table to make stuff up. Even playing with something I made up last week is less fun than making stuff up RIGHT NOW.

It’s the same way with game design. Clinton and Vincent are talking about their high and low points of the design process. My high point is that span of time when ideas for the game are just jumping into my head. Sure, half of them will get thrown out, but just coming up with the ideas is the fun part.

But coming up with ideas doesn’t make a published game. Refining those ideas into something fun, playable, and understandable by others does. Maybe my Game Chef game should be about the act of making stuff up. Maybe I’ve only got four more days (minus lots of work and overtime) to start fresh.

It’s frustrating.

My Assumptions of Game Design

Maybe I’m floundering from idea to idea and need to re-affirm my focus. Maybe I’m trying to get myself psyched up for next week’s Game Chef Competition, which I just might enter. Maybe the winds of March are just blowing me some clarity.

Whatever the reason, I’ve been thinking about the assumptions I bring to the table when I design a game. This is not as sweeping as Jared’s I-System Manifesto, but more like a collection of Keith’s This I Believes, except less-Polish and less-Angry.

A well-designed game should promote more fun and cooler stories than unstructured play. Otherwise, why do we design? Call it my rephrasing of “System Does Matter.”

The more engaged the players are, the more fun the game will be. Gaming runs on enthusiasm, and a game must help (dare I say “force”) the players to become enthusiastic about their own play.

If you make it up, you will care. RPGs thrive on creativity. When the game invites, encourages, and celebrates the creativity of the players, they will become engaged–that’s why they sat down at the table.

Activity spawns engagement. The more ways for each player to contribute to the game, the more they will be engaged. Taking turns is a great organizational tool, but there should be opportunity for fun/play/creativity even when it isn’t your turn. If you’re sitting at the table, you should be doing something.

Decision spawns engagement. When a player is forced to make a decision, with clear understanding of his options and the consequences of them, he must engage with the game. Randomness has its place, but decisions are the important moments of the game that will be remembered.

Preparation for play is a bug, not a feature. My life is busy. So is everyone else’s. When I set aside time to game, I want to play, not be forced to set aside additional time to prepare to play. It adds to the time-cost of the game and makes it less likely that it will be played. Preparatory tasks should be brought into gameplay whenever possible.

This, I believe…

Some thoughts on why Chivalry is dead

I just finished reading Finding Serenity, a collection of essays about the TV show Firefly. The essays were a mixed bag–some were a waste of paper, and others were extremely thought-provoking. A guy named John C. Wright wrote an essay about what chivalry is, why chivalry is intrinsic to the Western genre, and how Firefly fails as a Western due to its lack of chivalry. I think he’s missing a big point.

Read more