Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Category Archives: Game Design

Maxims of Adventure Design

Here are a few maxims of adventure design:

  • Design your adventure to be played.
  • Write your adventure to be executed.
  • Gamemaster to engage.
  • Expect gamemasters to alter the details, but do not depend on them to do so!
  • Plan on being surprised by what happens when it’s actually run.
  • It should still be fun even if it’s played badly, run poorly, or otherwise messed up.

I guess they are all so self evident that they go without saying. Just as obvious should be the fact that this is not how role playing games are done. Rpg books are written to be bought, of course! And any decent game master can look at any pile of gaming stuff and frame up an adventure out of it on the spot. And he can do it all again once the players have thrown a monkey wrench into all of his well laid plans. In this environment, designing an adventure is a largely futile gesture.

It really is that bad. You just don’t need all that much to have an adventure. Marc Miller wrote Space Gamer #40 about running a Leviathan session in Classic Traveller just on two paragraphs. Two paragraphs. His near encyclopedic command of science fiction stories no doubt played a large part in his ability to keep up with his players’ demands for details and verisimilitude. Even so, he still didn’t have time to use all of the material. I used to be really impressed by this feat until I managed to run a complete D&D session on a similar amount of information.

That sort of thing ought to give one pause. Why would I fret so much about adventure design, then? Why do I get into an abject state of panic whenever I have to run a session? And why do other GM’s seem to want to burn through one adventure product after another…?

Well, that last one… some of it is due to the fact that they just play more than me. But if you have adopted a gaming style in which there is no death, no chance of failure, and no restocking, reuse, or development of established adventure locations, then you will need an almost constant stream of products to keep you going. You can always spot the people that game that way because they talk about “cleaning” dungeons. They can expect to go into these things and systematically obliterate everything than stands in their way.

I don’t know about you, but that whole approach to gaming seems pretty strange to me. It ought to sound strange no matter which angle you come at it from a GNS standpoint. If you’re a “gamist,” you should be asking where the challenge is in all of this. There’s nothing to master! If you’re a “narrativist,” you should be asking what the heck kind of narrative is this supposed to be. I get that you railroad people along into an epic story when the outcome of each scenario is assured, but here… each component of the narrative is just pure nonsense! And as for the “simulationist,” that guy should be flipping the table over because this just doesn’t model anything. But it’s how people play. Even before the role playing game rule sets were re-engineered to be optimized for this type of strangeness, it was how a lot of people came at it.

Role playing is a weird thing, though. Sometimes I wonder if there’s anything to it beyond smoke, mirrors, and sleight of hand. If the occasional session didn’t just work in spite of everything, I’d probably have quit by now. Still, if you’re actually going to design an adventure for this scene… then you might as well do it right.

  • Do not assume that the gamemaster can effectively improvise material for the session. Marc Miller can pull some crazy things off, but not all of us are as well read as Gary Gygax and James Ward.
  • Provide the gamemaster with enough specifics that he can give the impression of realness verbally to the players on the fly. This does not mean data or box text– it means just enough detail that a sense of place comes across.
  • Do not force the gamemaster to be completely fluent in the adventure’s details in order to run it. Set it up so that he can reference things easily and explore the nooks and crannies alongside the players.
  • All adventure situations have the potential for reuse and development. Do not assume that this is obvious or that it will actually happen, but at least make note of how this can be done in the afterward.
  • If your situation is robust enough to allow for failure, degrees of success, or multiple attempts, then spell that out. Help the gamemaster visualize everything that could go wrong and how the scenario can be adapted in response to actual play. If you don’t do this at all, you can assume he will try to shepherd the players towards the most obvious “you win” outcome even if he is relatively impartial.
  • If your adventure is being used by a novice, then you have to make him feel like running this thing isn’t an impossible chore. Do not require him to interpolate a whole lot to get things off the ground. If you can just get him playing, he’ll have enough to deal with that the game can take on a life of its own. Until that happens, though… your objective is to bolster his confidence.
  • If your adventure is being used by a seasoned gamer, then he doesn’t need you. He’s probably run more games than you anyway. Do not insult him by leaving the important parts of the adventure as an exercise for him to work out on his own. He should be able to run your adventure with almost no prep!
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Adventuring on Momo Island

My son has completed a fairly ambitious hex map for a ten year old. I thought it was a continent scaled map at first, but he tells me it is the same scale as the Isle of Dread, so these must be six mile hexes. He is really excited create adventures for it now, but he’s sort of at a loss for how to go about it. Lately he’s been drawing aliens and figuring out their attributes according to the rules of the last rpg he played: Heroes & Other Worlds. He does not have a lot of ideas for names or regions or locations– “Momo” is pretty much the only term he’s coined. He think’s it’s the coolest idea ever– he’s always begging to work on “Momo Island.” He really wants to play in this setting and I need an adventure that fits all of his ideas while he’s still into this…!

Here are the basic parameters that I’ve slowly picked from his brain:

  • The players are on an expedition to the Isle of Dread, but they’ve blown off course and have shipwrecked on this strange island.
  • It is populated by the Momos. They are a superdense beings with extraordinary strength and endurance, but they cannot sail or fly. (This is key to the adventure plot.)
  • Goblins equipped with high tech weaponry (supplied by evil elves) are raiding the island. The Momos will repair the players’ ship and resupply them for their voyage if they agree to deal with the goblins.

Talking his setting over with him, I am surprised that he has pretty well come up with a mashup of the basic plot of G1-3 Against the Giants with either S3 or Gamma World. I have no idea where he would get this stuff– he’s not exactly a scholar of old school gaming lore. He has no idea that he’s just dropped a campaign into the Mystara setting….

I’ve worked up a set of characters for him in order to help him get things off the ground. Of course, I have not developed “pregens” for an adventure scenario since Origins 2011. It really broke me on that one point. Fortunately, it takes less than a quarter of the time to create them with this ruleset. Here they are:

Wizard — ST 9, IQ 14, DX 9, EN 10, Light, Webbing, Fireball, Summon Gargoyle, Dispel Magic. Wizards staff (1d6+2), Dagger (1d6+3), ink & quill, soft leather boots, travelling clothes, 45 gold. Encumbrance: 1.5.

Dwarf — ST 10, IQ 10, DX 11, EN 11, Ax/Club/Mace, Craftsman (smith), Recognize Value, Pick Lock/Trap, Literacy: Dwarvish. Axe (1d6+4), canvas backpack, pick, 12 iron spikes, 50′ hemp rope, small hammer, 3 gold. Encumbrance 6.5.

Ballbearian —  ST 14, IQ 9, DX 10, EN 9, Ax/Club/Mace, Climbing, Track, Hunting/Trapping, Stealth. War axe (2d6+2), 2 daggers (1d6+3),  waterskin. Encumbrance 4.5.

Giant — ST 18, IQ 8, DX 8, EN 8, Pole arms, Ax/Club/Mace, Shield, Throw, Unarmed Combat. Battle Axe (3d6+3), spear (1d6+5). Encumbrance 3.

Guinea Pig — ST 8, IQ 13, DX 13, EN 8, Flight, Alertness, Detect Hidden/Hide, Thief. Dagger (1d6+3), 9 candles, flint & steel, waterskin, leather backpack, hatchet, small hammer, 95 gold.

Here are a few notes on the system that will impact the overall flavor of play:

  • Armor is expensive! Oddly enough, though, it does not add to encumbrance. The devastating DX penalties are evidently enough of a problem I guess…? (I’m more used GURPS, of course, armor will cost you move… but it doesn’t impact your combat skill. This “change” makes me have to roll on system shock tables it’s so funky.)
  • New skills cost a mere 100 experience points, but you can only get a number of skills and spells equal to your IQ. This can actually end up mattering, though it’s going to be more of a problem for wizards. (They pay 200 XP for new spells, but referees may require additional expenditures and/or adventuring on top of that.)
  • You can raise existing skills buy paying the new level times 100. I can’t see people buying “real” armor until they get at least up to skill level three or so. Fresh characters are mostly going to be looking to score some bucklers somehow– unless they have stupidly high DX.
  • Wizard characters can actually learn and cast spells that are rated as being higher than their IQ. The main penalty is that it may take them longer to cast than usual– they have to roll four dice less than or equal to their IQ instead of the usual three dice. This is a nice twist that gives a bit of nuance.
  • Having to roll for availability for the equipment is a nice touch. It adds back some of the charm of random character generation without losing the benefits of the point buy system. It also has use beyond the character generation sequence because it will save me from having to figure which towns have what for sale.
  • The strength requirement of 1 for daggers seems off. If you’re using the optional damage bonuses for higher strength, then weaker characters will use daggers instead of the biggest weapon they can carry. (Daggers are automatically at +3 damage for all characters.)
  • I like how the thief class disappears in this system and how the its skill set gets parceled out to a more colorful range of character types.
  • Oh, my son picked out the equipment for the guinea pig character. Looks like he picked all of his favorite things for his alter ego! He carefully made sure everything fit in the backpack.

Okay, plenty to think about for a game here. I’ll pin down just a few key factors to focus on as I craft an adventure out of all of this:

  1. The goblins are overconfident… but they have low morale. They’re also not above pulling a nasty trick!
  2. They will have superscience weapons as the primary loot… but these will of course be used against the player characters.
  3. Lack of ammunition and/or charges will put a cap on how long the new toys imbalance the campaign. It’s probably a good idea to at least threaten the players with something that will require them to use up these resources. (“Don’t open the mutagen canisters– you’ll regret it!”)
  4. There really needs to be something in the game to teach the essential lesson of when to run away.
  5. Going straight in might work… but there needs to be hints about the need for planning and so forth.
  6. There needs to be an optional puzzle that has nothing to do with the primary objective… and there also needs to be a puzzle that would provide a major shortcut to dealing with the primary objective. But the adventure still needs to be more or less workable without these two things.

These are so many constraints that the adventure practically writes itself. There’s only just so many ways to implement these points that could be reasonably communicated in an actual game session.

Good and Bad in Adventure Design

In my last post, I was reaching for a something that would hopefully be a universally agreed upon example of the bad in adventure design… and I fell on my face. Peter V. Dell’Orto had to go and point out that even though many of the adventures might look lame to modern reviewers, he had a heck of a time playing them with his friends back in the day. Now who can argue with that…? Ah, but it takes the steam out of my gaming rant and it stings….

A similar thing has happened within the text adventure scene. You see… there are people that are so into text adventures, that they play them all. And they make up new ones. And they hash them out and criticize them. And they have nailed down a bunch of do’s and don’ts that you have to follow… and they generally seem to think that they are light years ahead of Infocom in terms of design. Maybe they are… but (and I hate to say it) none of the new games have had near the impact on me that Enchanter had.

Now, this is not entirely the same thing as the Dungeon magazine adventures, but let’s break this out:

  • Infocom did groundbreaking work, they made several masterpieces, and they deserve a great deal of respect for what they accomplished.
  • But the good old days weren’t always good: there are many things in the “don’t” list that Infocom did routinely. There is an ongoing food and drink problem in Enchanter that would never fly with today’s text adventure audiences, for example.
  • But the overall structure of the game is sound: there is a variety of difficulty to the puzzles, there is a lot to do at any given time even if you’re stuck on one of the puzzles, there are hints that are integrated into the setting in a very clever way, and the game is paced such that everything doesn’t hit you at once.
  • And the tone and the style is exactly what I like. This isn’t really nostalgia because I didn’t play this particular game as a kid. But this game was engineered to target kids of my generation. Like Car Wars, it has a fairly straight-ahead setting that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Almost every fantasy setting made since then strikes me as strangely earnest and over the top. Meanwhile the text adventure scene has been trending towards more “serious” attempts at art or making a statement– and I just can’t get into most of it in spite of their supposed technical achievements in the form.
  • And then there is greatness. Enchanter has puzzles in it that are simply astounding. The designers have anticipated almost every wrong way to go about solving them… and have coded in hilarious fail-sequences that demonstrate why what you’re doing is incorrect or dumb. They are pitch perfect. Modern text adventure authors would criticize these because you have to “die” in order to figure out how to solve these things, but I don’t care. Infocom nailed this one. The puzzles are like nothing I’ve seen in any other game, there a layers to them, and they are just frustrating enough to keep a player challenged, but not so hard that you give up. When you finally solve them, the answer looks obvious in retrospect– there is a rightness to the problems that you are posed that fits in with the overall theme. This is what makes it a masterpiece!

Of course, as a game master, I know to not even try to do what Enchanter does at the table. Oh, there are things in it that I might borrow and repurpose. Sort of like how I might borrow a general sense of form and balance from the Parthenon. I am honestly in awe of that game.

You know… I was intending to get back to making a point about Dungeon magazine… but those adventures in there are just silly in comparison to Infocom’s best work. Still….

  • Dungeon magazine authors all got paid by the word. It freaking shows, too.
  • A good measure of the “badness” of the adventures in it are due to presentation and format alone. They are not engineered to be useful in the heat of a game to a harried dungeon master. (There has been a lot of innovation in this particular area since the time of the magazine’s heyday.)
  • Another chunk of the “awfulness” of the adventures is in the tone. The first adventure in the first issue of the magazine features an entire dungeon in which the monsters are magically charmed and supplied so that they stay in their rooms. This sort of thing is an unforgivable sin in many circles.
  • A chunk of the “good” is when something in the adventure can easily be lifted out and dropped into other campaigns. “Oh look… a town! I can use that!”
  • Another chunk of the “good” is due to the alterations that a dungeon master makes when he runs these sorts of things for a real group of people. An example of that would be in module G1 where I tuned up the intro in order to be both understandable and acceptable to my particular group of players. All dungeon masters have an instinct for this sort of thing and few are even going to be capable of running the magazine adventures without making more invasive changes.
  • Now… Peter has said that some of these adventures in fact worked out really well at the table… but what are the chances of anyone finding that out today…? Does anyone actually look at these things and think, “I gotta play that!” If not… then that is a huge problem that B2, X1, Stonehell, and Barrowmaze don’t have.

Well, having said all of that… are we any further along than when we started? I don’t know. We sure have muddied the waters here. But I guess… as we continue to delve into this… I’d like to focus just on the design and actual play factors. Presentation and tone can certainly make or break an adventure product. Of course, a game master just has to make things work at the table for his own players– those guys really can get away with just focusing the play of the thing. But I’m certainly not focused on writing adventures for people that just plan on reading them or even just plundering them…. No, the play really is the thing as far as I’m concerned.

Some Notes on Adventure Design

I have just worked my way through Lewis Pulsipher’s latest online course, How to Design Levels/Adventures for Video and Tabletop Games. It was a very enjoyable set of videos, but I could barely listen to them without thinking of all the things I wanted to respond with. I admit, I am biased more towards “real” role playing– I am pretty well at the opposite extreme of the “vidiots” that refuse to even consider anything about the tabletop side of gaming. However, many of my favorite design techniques were developed in the dark ages of computing when 8 bits and 16K were still a big deal. So, with the caveat that I am necessarily coming from deep in left field, here is my initial reaction to the course.

One of the most powerful things in the Learning Game Design course was the moments when Dr. Pulsipher would step out from “behind the curtain,” look you in the eyes, and ask you how your game design was coming along. That by itself got me off my duff and diving into game design with every ounce of effort I could muster. Adventure design, however, is just so bad in general… you need to have the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket step in and scream at anyone that is thinking about making one. You don’t need to encourage anyone to make more adventures. It’s a habit that anyone who gamemasters will pick up in short order. We need public service campaigns set up to tell people to not to even bother.

No, really. They are almost all just so horribly bad.  You want to design an adventure? Put down the pencil and shut up. Step away from the graph paper and pay attention. Here’s the guy from tenfootpole.org to walk you through several years of Dungeon Magazine just so that you can see every possible way that you can screw this up. Now… that horrible sickening feeling you feel…? That’s what the average player feels like coming out of a game. Sergeant Hartman…?

Private Pyle has dishonored himself and dishonored the platoon! I have tried to help him, but I have failed! I have failed because you have not helped me! You people have not given Private Pyle the proper motivation!

Yeah, exactly. I’ve said this before, but all the blog posts, magazine articles, and adventure modules… they’re pretty well all written by game masters for other game masters. And somehow every single game master in the bunch knows more about adventure design than every other game master. You cannot get a fair picture of what is going on in adventure design just by listening to these guys. You need to get someone with a video camera to go to Origins or something and interview the players as they come out the role playing sessions. Nobody cares what these people have to say, but they aren’t stupid. And if they are stupid, it’s because our adventure designs have allowed them to be stupid and get away with it!

Exhibit A is all of those “always go left” people. How is it that there is anyone that can possibly say that about any adventure with a straight face?! I just had a guy at my kitchen table say that some players wrecked an entire campaign by doing that. The party avoided some key encounters, short circuited some important challenges, and generally made a mess of this guy’s painstakingly crafted adventure all just by going left at every turn. I don’t know how this guy screwed up this badly, but let me tell you… you try to “always go left” in my game, I will total party kill you so fast you won’t know what hit you. And when the last player character falls unconscious, his last glimpse of the world will be that of the monsters feeding on the entrails of his comrades– and he will know that it was his own incipience which had ultimately doomed them.

Entire game lines run aground on similar shoals. I hear that at conventions, there is a certain very popular game that will cause dozens of tables to cry out in need of one more player to fill out a party. “Cleric! We need a cleric!” Is that for real? Does that really happen?! What’s up with that? Why is that a problem? Why is it so freaking hard to run a game without a cleric? Like this is the most vexing adventure design problem of our time…. Ugh! I’m telling you, the cleric was the first thing to go when guys like Ken St. Andre and Steve Jackson sat down to develop their own role playing games… and yet we have no freaking idea.

I’m a smart alec, myself. I’d flip it around. No, y’all. At this table… everyone plays a cleric. [Cue screams of horror and torment.] No, come on! Your group is a special order dedicated to exorcism and the eradication of unnatural creatures. The other classes you’re used to, they’re all still in the game, but they only show up as lower level henchmen and hirelings. (News flash, y’all: Ars Magica actually happened and you can do the same thing with other character classes besides magic-users.)

I tell ya…. Adventuring these days. It’s like we’re all getting dumber every year or something.

Okay, maybe bringing on the drill sergeant guy isn’t the most constructive thing I could do here. Maybe a montage sequence highlighting four decades of adventure failure would have been better, but hey… we’re on a budget. Ah well…. Let’s just review the basic styles of adventure structure and kibitz about them.

  • Episodic design — Tracy Hickman gets the blame for this, but it’s arguably right there in the original “adventure path” starting with Gygax’s Giants module series. You can pull the same thing at different levels of resolution, of course: a strict series of encounters that make up a convention scenario. A series of plotted out scenarios that make up a campaign. Whatever. The bottom line here is that players can do whatever they want within a given unit of adventure as long as everything ends in the required manner. This will drive some role players to distraction, but text adventure designers will simply put a puzzle in front of the players and then not move the story along until they solve it. The graphical adventure Syberia is rigged that way as is the real time strategy game Starcraft.
  • Choose Your Own Adventure — This is about the crudest form of interactivity. Every role playing game has this as an implicit part of its arsenal. Indeed, game masters that don’t even understand their rule set can ad lib this sort of thing no matter how broken or incomprehensible their game is. The problem for the designer that tries to nail down every conceivable path is that you end up developing all of this stuff that no one ever sees. Also, the number of branches grows exponentially if none of them end in arbitrary death. However, if this is done right it can give your adventure something that more episodic structures tend to lack: replayability. Battle for Wesnoth uses this approach to link up a series of battle scenarios. When you finish, you can find yourself immediately restarting not just to try out new tactics, but also to explore the paths you didn’t take before.
  • Text Adventures — These are stories that are told in the form of a set of puzzles. You unwind them like someone solving a Rubick’s cube. At their worst, playing them can be like debugging a computer program. At their best… they can put you literally inside a story. These are now relatively obscure, but I think it is instructive to look at some of the great examples of the form: Zork, Enchanter, Wishbringer, Adventureland, Pirate Adventure, Strange Odyssey, Jigsaw, and The Meteor, the Stone and a Long Glass of Sherbet. From a design standpoint, it is interesting to see that in some cases, the greatest treasure in an adventure is often a doorway to a crucial unexplored area or an object that solves a known problem that was previously impossible. Text adventure puzzles always stop the narrative. The default state is “stuck.” At the tabletop, this does not tend to go over too well. I tend to apply these sorts of things such that they are optional unless I am specifically corralling the players in order to control the pace.
  • Hybridized Sandbox — The older computerized role playing games  provide you with a very large world to explore. Although you can go wherever you want and play it your own way, you do not have the option to develop your own victory conditions the way real life role players would. The usual pattern was to encourage the player to “grind” the game until he was powerful enough to find and kill the game’s boss monster. The “quests” that are in Ultima I basically amount to finding a king, asking him what he wants, going into a dungeon to find the monster that he dislikes, killing it, and then returning to him for your attribute bonuses. These “microadventures” are far more simplistic than even a Scott Adams text adventure! Still, they illustrate how basic text adventure forms can be grafted onto a sandbox type setting in order to give the players something to do. The complexity of the world simulation and the variety in the characters tends to just obfuscate the simplified challenges that are incorporated into the game, but even at the tabletop there are very strict limits on the complexity of the adventure plots that you can throw at the players. A lot of people don’t want to be able to do anything. They want to know what they are supposed to do so they can get on with it!
  • True Sandbox — Traveller is the quintessential tabletop example of this. “Megadungeon” style play accomplishes about the same ideal without a gazillion worlds and stars. Elite managed to translate the former to  even 8-bit computers while NetHack pretty successfully captures the spirit of the latter. This type of gaming is not about collecting the eight pieces of the Coconut of Quendor in order to reverse the spell and defeat the evil wizard. It’s about immersing yourself in a fabricated reality and then doing whatever strikes your fancy. If getting there is half the fun, then this type of adventure poses the question, “why should we ever stop?” There is no end game state. You do not “beat” this sort of game. At some point, you might retire and bore people with your war stories, but that’s your business. The game space here is often so large, it has to be generated on the fly. (Elite does just that by doing a few tricks with pseudo-random number generators.) Player autonomy is sacrosanct in these games, and railroading is the most egregious sin conceivable.

This is the part of the post where I’m supposed to get all ecumenical and pretend like none of these particular design approaches is superior to any of the others. That’s crazy. I like awesome stuff and if you don’t like what I like that must be due to a deficiency on your part! And everyone is like that. Most people aren’t as nice about it as I am, either. If you want to design adventures for other people, then you need to be aware of this and cater to the prejudices of your audience.

I will say this, though. In role playing games, we tend to use all of the above approaches in tandem. When I ran Keep on the Borderlands, I explained the general campaign state in the first five minutes. They could go to the Caves of Chaos, track down a dragon that was stealing sheep from area farmers, look into some bandit attacks that were messing up the local mercantile groups, and so on…. I was using “Choose Your Own Adventure” in order to make it completely clear that the players were in control. Of course, when they went to the caves, things shifted to more of a sandbox type of situation. The players were confronted with an elaborate place that they could tackle in any order that they chose. Between sorties, I would hint that they really did have complete autonomy and that they really could go anywhere and do anything– the module was part of a larger world whether they went out and engaged with it or not.

You see the same thing in something like Starcraft. This is an example of episodic design taken to an extreme. And yet, within each stop on the railroad, you can run into all kinds of stuff. The archetypal Starcraft scenario is basically a 4X driven stand-up fight. But there’s so much going on when all the technology and factions are in play that the episode sequence allows you to learn it one chunk at a time. And more than just these glorified tutorials, you can even see actual dungeon type scenarios implemented here with the level maker!

Probably the key thing I would tell would-be adventure designers is that you need to be able to communicate what type of adventure you’re dealing in rapidly. Each time you shift styles, you will also be dropping hints about the overall situation and giving the players something else to interact with. I think novices have a tendency to just brain dump on the players at times like this, but really… it’s much more important to communicate what type of game you’re setting up than it is to pile on more and more extraneous details. Game masters  will often take a page from novelists and try to “show not tell” this crucial piece of information, but that’s a surefire way create frustration at the tabletop. You have barely two minutes to explain everything anyway, so it’s usually best to just come right out with it.

How Game Designers Actually Think

January 6, 2014: My daughter’s new game. She had cards with either squares or rectangles on them. In playtest, she started by having us move to the next available space that matched the card. By the end, she switched it to having to draw the next square’s exact type to move one space forward.

This is an attempt to describe exactly how I am thinking as I engage in the design process. I expect to have revisions, footnotes, and addenda as I go on through the end game stage, but maybe this will be of use to other people that are getting started or are thinking about getting started. (I have at this point spent so many hours watching presentations by Dr. Lewis Pulsipher that I actually think in terms of bullet points instead of some sort of short essay form.)

  • The first big hurdle is getting enough of an idea or a good enough collection of ideas that things “gel” when you sit down to thrash out a first pass at a prototype.
  • It seems easier to start with a central mechanic and work up and out than it does to compose something intricate and with many parts up front.
  • What seems really neat in your head can turn out to be completely unworkable.
  • Even if you have something that sorta kinda works, there can still be enough “unknown unknowns” that your game is effectively crippled.
  • The only way to work towards a solution is to play the game, reflect on what’s happened, make some changes, and repeat. Again and again and again and again….
  • Playtesting an unfinished game is like having your face shoved into dog poo… but it’s miles and miles of dog poo on a boiling hot freeway… and your face is being shoved into it at sixty miles an hour and it doesn’t seem like it will ever stop.
  • There are ups and downs. At one point, you have created the coolest thing ever. You will change the world. You feel so powerfully creative. Waves of elation wash over you. Then you playtest and there are flaws so big that everything you’re doing is a waste of time.
  • This is why you need to stay disciplined and focused on the end goal: a series of completed game designs. Both extremes of emotion slow your progress, so stay focused on doing things that keep you developing and testing and learning things about your design.
  • And of course, anybody can start a game design. Or a novel. Or anything. Never forget that your reason for existence is to actually, finally finish something for once. FINISH SOMETHING!!!
  • If in doubt, play what you’ve got. It will suck. It will be almost impossible not to come up with ideas for things that you can change.
  • When Dr. Lewis Pulsipher talks about game design, he idealizes subtraction over everything else. “You’re done when there’s nothing left to take away….”
  • But the iterative design process is both additive and subtractive. You will add things that break things that you like. A set of changes will create new problems.
  • You will come to decision points where you look at two alternate ways to continue. Some you will play, some you will imagine playing, some you will be able to reject just on the basis of your goals and constraints.
  • This iterative process will create a trash heap of ideas that have been tried and found wanting. Sometimes you will return to the trash heap because something there will actually be useful for dealing with some other problem that emerged from something else that was completely unrelated to what you were originally doing.
  • So a large heap of trashed ideas related to your design is effectively a sort of palette. Trashing an idea shouldn’t be seen as failure, but as what it takes to make progress.

    December, 2013: At one point, my daughter’s game included non-competitive “challenges” where you had to make things out of silly putty with no time limit involved. Strangely… this idea did not survive into subsequent iterations….

  • And you’re adding, trashing, subtracting, repurposing a dozen things with each iteration….
  • What seems like a good thing to tinker with and what you actually roll with in your playtest time are usually two different things! You won’t always do what you say you’re going to do because another sane part of your brain will overrule your “creativity” when hand made components and real-life play time is at stake. Maybe you’re a wimp or maybe you’re lazy… but your “gut” can only participate in the design process if you’re actually doing things.
  • Coming to a dead end is actually a productive thing. This is what “fail fast” feels like in practice: an all consuming frustration that turns into agony. If you were smart, you’d want this to have happened. But to do anything you have to believe in it. So you fool yourself into doing a completely stupid iteration because you actually don’t know what the heck you’re dealing with, yet. It’s painful… but shedding your illusions is the most productive thing that can happen.
  • There is nothing like declaring something to be “impossible” if you want to turn your brain into overdrive trying to find a way anyway!
  • In fact… if you are completely stuck… write an essay about why your game design is a complete unworkable failure. Find a friend and explain it all to him. Usually… in the process of doing this, you will suddenly see things in a new light. An innovative solution can come to you seemingly from nowhere.
  • Your friend doesn’t even have to answer you– he just has to be listening. For some reason… taking up someone else’s time with your problem does something different to your brain. (In software development this is called being someone’s “rubber duck.” You can even have a rubber duck toy be the thing you tell your problem to and it will usually work just as good.)
  • So the design process is both additive and subtractive…. This is because your iterative process is honing in on something, like Newton’s algorithm. The idea pendulum swings back and forth until it settles on things that actually work at the table. You’ll overcompensate in multiple directions as you steadily train your intuition to help you move towards your goals.
  • Of course, you also adjust your goals as you learn more in the process.
  • What kinds of ideas actually survive playtesting…? Lean ones. Deft ones. Efficient ones. There will be a healthy tension between the various components of the design, and each element will address multiple aspects of the constraints while simultaneously balancing out problems created by the other parts. There is a cogency and a coherence to good design.
  • Your raw intuition simply does not produce this sort of thing out of whole cloth. There is a reason why this process is iterative. You can’t fake this or pull an allnighter or pussyfoot around: the piper must be paid!
  • And just like in math class, everything must balance. You are actually creating a sort of machine… with software for peoples’ minds! Everything must work together… and everything must mesh with the human element… and the social element on top of that!
  • There are times when I think, “oh this will work if I just add a deck of cards.” Man there is no problem in game design that I don’t think can be solved with a deck of cards!
  • Another thing I do: I tell myself, “this isn’t working as a board game… but if I had a computer program to run it all, then people would play it.” FAIL!!!
  • Also: “Well… this is an educational game. It’s not really supposed to be enjoyable. I have a captive audience… and I’m really designing for the parent/teacher.” NOPE!!!
  • There are so many white lies you tell yourself when your design is not working. They can sound so reasonable. The great thing about playtesting is that it will break you out of this– it will ram your face into your crappy game at sixty miles an hour!!! That’s what you need!!!
  • The actual process of design… it is necessarily algorithmic. The series of iterations will give you information far beyond the reach of your intuition. The deeper down you go, the more variables you’ll have to play with… the more dials you’ll have to turn… the more real combinations of ideas you’ll begin to frame and test and review and reject.

    January 9, 2014: “Daddy, I don’t think I like to play games anymore. I think I’d rather design them.” — Okay, iteration #3 of my daughter’s roll-and-move studies. Start with one die. Landing on “chicken pox” causes you to go back two. Landing on shapes lets you go forward an extra two. If you’re in a loop, keep doing it until the dice hit the table. (??) If you land on colored shapes, you DIE! If all players “die”, they all go back to start and the number of dice being rolled increases by one. If you can’t land on END exactly and need to go past it, you go back five from wherever you were moving from. In our (single) playtest, it took six dice before we got a winner.

  • The iterative process is necessarily explorative. You aren’t inventing so much as discovering. And this process is guided not so much by an artistic or mathematical type of thinking… but by something so much more practical and unassuming.
  • Your discernment is what guides you through the branching paths of combinations and choices. Your discernment is trained by the whole of all of your life experiences and skills, but what actually happens at the table is the ultimate standard for any given idea or combination of ideas.
  • How do you know when you’re done…? When you can play your game or watch your game being played and you no longer see a half dozen things that absolutely have to change when it’s over.
  • You are not an artiste. You’re an accountant. You review every aspect of your game like someone going over a company’s books looking for fraud and for the potential for fraud. Is this company making money? Can this company stay in business? For your game, the questions are almost exactly along those lines. Will people buy my game? If they play it… will they play it again? And again?
  • You are an auditor… checking that everything that is supposed to be there is actually there. And that everything that is there is supposed to be there! That is the standard for good form, economy, and verve.

Apply yourself, but trust the iterative process to flush out the problems you actually need to be working on, extend the depth and breadth of your palette, and refine and inform what your objectives should really be based on feedback from your intended audience. An eight year old can design games if they are willing to create, test, and revise repeatedly. Imagine what you can make if you stay at it! Worry about making a good game later– you need to be able to design a game in the first place before you can fret about that. You will not even know what is in you and what you can do for people until you have put completed game designs on the table. So get cracking… and finish a game!!!