Monday, July 10, 2006


RPG Design Handbook: Chapter 1 (part 2)

Table of contents here.
Chapter 1 introduction here.

Identifying Your Play Preferences

The core tenant of this book is that design is rooted in play. Quite simply, your play, and what you enjoy about roleplaying in general, will directly and fundamentally inform the games that you design. Thus, it is worth taking some time to work on identifying what, exactly, you enjoy about the games that you play, and what you don't. (Hell, it's worth doing this even if you're not formally thinking about designing your own game. But I digress.)

Now, there are a number of conceptual frameworks within which to think about your play. These theories vary in degrees of specificity and philosophy, and many are presented in the next chapter. But, before skipping ahead to figure out which pigeonhole you identify with, you should do some thinking on your own.

This is a two-part exercise designed to get you into the mode of thinking critically about your play.

First, sit down and reflect on the games you have played in the past, and those you are currently participating in. Simply write down what things, in general, you enjoy about these games, and which you don't. This could be genre of game ("I like fantasy-themed games"), social interactions with other players ("I don't like it when people don't speak in-character in dramatic scenes"), mechanical bits ("Dice-pool systems are awesome"), or character-related issues ("I don't like the 'flawed hero' archetype"). Don't be shy - write down everything that comes into your head.

Now, put that list away. At your next session of play, pay attention to the things that push your buttons, good and bad. Take notes if it helps (and isn't disruptive to the game). The goal is to note what really excites you, or really annoys you, and then to identify the cause of that excitement or annoyance. After the game, sit down and write out another list like the first, but only about that specific session of play.

So now you have two lists, one of general trends and one of a specific game. Look at them in conjunction - they are both valuable sets of data. Go through them, but after every entry, add the word "because," then finish the sentence.

"I like fantasy themed games because I love fantasy literature, and I want to explore those worlds on my own."

"I don't like the flawed-hero archetype because I find myself more engaged by straight good vs. evil kinds of stories."

These "because's" will probably align into some general trends, and you will see some patterns emerge, including using the same "because" for a number of your preferences.

The point of this exercise is not for you to take this list and hold it as your gaming gospel. The point is to get you critically thinking about your play. It's a total immersion treatment for shunting your brain into a critical pattern of thought, in order to make it easier to both set goals, and make choices that are meaningful in trying to reach those goals. The actual lists are only as important as you consider them to be for your own purposes.

Chances are that this process will also spark some ideas and connections that maybe you hadn't thought of before. This is good!

Another powerful exercise is something that I gleaned from Luke Crane, the designer of Burning Wheel. I call it the "Immolation Technique."

Think of your favorite game. Now, go through and purge out of it everything that makes you unhappy. If you want to be really hardcore, take a sharpie and exacto knife to your copy of the game; it will probably suffice to make notes, or just to do it in your head. But by everything, I mean everything: mechanics, GM advice, flavor text, character options - everything that does not make you ebulliently joyful about that game.

Now, chances are, you will be left with a smoking ruin full of holes. The next step is to fill those back in with things that make you happy. Again, making a physical or mental list is probably going to be helpful here. The process of connecting the charred framework to your shiny new ideas - thats the design process.

Again. The first step is critically thinking about what you enjoy and what you don't enjoy. Identification of preferance makes it easier to set goals, and makes those goals more applicable to what you really want; setting goals make it easier to design mechanics and interactions, and makes those design choices more powerful and meaningful.

Edit: Joshua BishopRoby (who's name I almost always end up misspelling) is giving the two-list thing a whirl on his blog. Rock.

The two-lists method is made of awesome.
Glad you like it. I'm looking forward to seeing how it works out for you!
This brings up an interesting an timely response. I'm currently playtesting my game, and in a session on Sunday I was brought to the point of saying "I hate this system!" At which point everyone laughed.

Of course, I'm biased, but I happen to think it was a well-planned and reasonably tight system, for a first-timer. So it just goes to show, that a designer can easily fall into the trap of following a design path to a product that isn't very close to the kind of game he wanted in the first place. With me, it was getting distracted with numbers games and the like.

Needless to say, I'm now in decontruction mode, trying to figure out just what I want to do. I'd already hit on the concepts in your article intuitively (okay, let's admit it, I was hit over the head by my own game), but I think your stuff will help me sort things out concretely.

Thanks, dude.
Hi there Quentin!

I certainly hope some of that helps.

I don't know what you're familiar with, but if you don't know it, check out Socratic Design, particularly The Power 19. It's a pretty helpful process for identifying not only what you want to do with your design, but which parts of it you haven't even thought about answering yet.
I'm not normally one to nitpick, but it sounds like you're actually using this as a draft for a book. So, in the spirit purely of helpfulness: it's "tenet" when you are talking about a guiding principle. "Tenant" exclusively means some person living in someone else's house.
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