My game design process

Cross-posted at my RPGtalk blog.

Somebody’s always got to be late to the party. Oh well. In trying to catch up on the last few weeks in blog-land, I came across Troy Costisick posting about his design process on his Socratic Design blog. I’m thinking about my own design process a lot at the moment, since I stand at the beginning of a new project and can sense the path ahead of me.

One of the most striking things is how different my design process is from Troy’s. His looks like a true procedure. Step 1 flows into Step 2 flows into Step 3 … Very rational. My design process looks very little like that.

To begin with, for me, the process of creating a role-playing game is made up of two distinctly different activities: Designing the game (deciding what the rules & procedures will be) and writing the game (explaining those rules & procedures to other people through a game text). I find it best to keep those activities as separate as possible.

The first thing I do is start thinking in a broad way about the game’s genre. What makes it unique? What do I find engaging about it? What are some common themes? What sort of tension drives these types of stories? What shapes do the stories take? I’ll do a little bit of research, but this is mostly a mental review of the work I already know in the genre. I always carry a notebook with me. At this point, I jot things down like “The great superheroes are all trapped between two worlds” and “Origins include trauma and loss as well as power.”

As the genre thinking continues, I find myself making notes about what sort of behaviors to encourage in play and what sort of choices the players must face. Although game mechanics themselves don’t quite show up yet, the requirements for what the coming game mechanics must do appear here. These kind of notes say things like “Eventual victory must be caused by early defeat” and “Players must continually choose between saving what they love and saving the world.”

Having a pretty good idea of what I need the rules to do, I start looking for mechanics that will do it. I look at games on my shelf and study how they do what they do. I play with dice and cards. I tinker with some probabilities. I play out little skirmishes with myself, finding out the knobs and levers of a mechanic and what they do. Notes at this stage look like “Whenever a hero CHOOSES to lose, they check off one requirement that brings endgame closer” and “Putting your stats in danger gives you extra cards.”

Once I’ve learned all I can at the solo stage, I take it Kat and Michele, my devoted front-line playtesters. The rules are little more than reminders to myself at this point, and my post-game notes and corrections are often longer than the playtest document itself. Their patience and insight help hammer the game into something playable. My notes get very specific at this point, like “Nine rules changes to endgame is too many” and “Players don’t get enough cards in early conflicts–start with a base PLUS modifier??”

After going a few rounds with Kat & Michele, the game is ready for the convention circuit. I run it and run it and run it again. The convention format forces me to explain the game to new people over and over again. I jot down insightful questions I get from players. I pay attention to my own sense of fun, as well as the players’ excitement to tell me what parts of the game are working and which ones aren’t. I make notes like “Increasing suffering and drawing cards before a panel needs its own name.”

Of course, I’m still thinking about the genre and revising the design throughout all this activity, but the good stuff really starts to crystalize. Which is when the writing itself begins. By this point, I’ve explained the game verbally dozens of times. I know common points of misunderstanding and good ways of clearing them up. I do outlines of chapters, write a rough draft, sketching out sidebars as inspiration hits. It’s also time to contact artists.

I send the rough draft to Thor. It comes back better. Much better. Write-edit-rewrite continues until the deadline for layout arrives. Then the real craziness begins.