Game Design Revelations

edited December 2006 in Story Games
Occasionally, when working on your design, something will become clear to you. Something that you never realized before. Maybe nobody else has either, but more likely it's just something you haven't properly assimilated.

For me, it was a shock to realize that I didn't have to treat every character in the game the same way. NPCs don't have to have the same stats as PCs. I'm not talking about the difference between a 1st level Commoner and a 1st level Fighter here. They don't even have to have character sheets at all, if I don't want them to.

A lot of great games have already put this into place, but I didn't really get it until a few nights ago. The light bulb went on, and I said "Hey, this game isn't about these people, the mechanics don't need to apply to them!" And I was off.

How about you? If you design, have design, want to design, or even just think about designing a game, this question is directed at you. Have you had a revelation? Was there one realization that made it possible for you to go forward?


  • I recently realized that I have no control over how people use and play my games, and that this isn't actually problematic. It sounds funny in the clear light of reason but I really needed to internalize this and stop worrying about it.
  • My biggest revelation wasn't my own, and it had to be beaten into my head, but it absolutely shattered the way I looked at my own game design.

    Revelation: I could have a conclusion to a conflict without knowing the step by step details of how it happened.

    Quickly following revelation? Time doesn't have to be linear.

    It's absolutely enchanting how drastically it change your point of view while writing.
  • Yeah Marhault, In the 23rd Letter, I figured out that I could get away with 3 levels of statted NPCs and one level of unstatted. These were Major Characters, Minor Characters, supporting roles and background. In SpaceNinja, I was a little more lax.

    In my current game, I won't be statting anything except for major characters, NPCs which will have the same level of story interaction as player characters. All said - the number of numbers on my character sheet designs has decreased drastically!
  • A big revelation for me was: you don't need rules for stuff that people can already do on their own. And the side revelation: people can do a LOT, especially if you make it clear what you expect of them. I think these led to me really thinking about the audience for my designs. And led to me not designing the game so that lame players couldn't break it, which is a waste of time. It gets me to assume a basic level of competence and experience among people who are likely to pick up my games. For example, I generally try to assume that players are capable of telling an entertaining story with no help (you can usually tell after watching people play Baron Munchausen), which makes a whole swatch of mechanics unnecessary.

    A more recent revelation was: a rather large percentage of roleplaying rules involve pacing, determining when certain things can happen, in which order, so that it feels appropriate and makes sense to the overall development of character and narrative. This is especially true in recent indie designs, when you look at things like: trust mechanics, Keys, endgame conditions, escalation in conflicts, scene framing guidelines, traits that progress in one direction or another (MLwM, Polaris, Breaking the Ice), and the like. I find this fascinating and very helpful when approaching design.
  • It gets me to assume a basic level of competence and experience among people who are likely to pick up my games.

    This was a big thing for me too. I find it fascinating to construct texts that assume different competence patterns and see how people treat them. It's absolutely mind-blowing to see the reactions that inappropriate readers have to things.

  • You want me to write down the list of revelations that occured to me and Ralph when writing Universalis? Things like "huh, we don't have to have a GM, then." We could be here a while? What, you think we had any of that stuff figured out before we started designing the game? Nuh-uh.

  • Mike:

    Uni is certainly unique in that it busted a lot of molds. Were there any revelations that stick out to you? That meant anything special to you as a designer? What about your other projects?
  • The most important thing, after spending WAY too much at the Forge booth at GenCon SoCal 2004, that led almost directly to the development of a piece of manga insanity I call Mascot-tan, was simply:

    "A game can be short and still be really awesome."

    And when I think about it, most of my favorite RPGs before then were actually short games put into long books through lots of options, GM advice, etc.
  • I thought that a game set in the modern day wouldn't need descriptions of mundane things (you know, things other than guns) but it came up in every review of the 23rd Letter. People wanted their cars and tin-openers statted up...
  • Game design revelation (which actually came from two fields external to game design, but I applied it anyway):

    If people complain about something, it's usually the symptom, not the problem. The problem is usually two steps behind in the process.
  • Jamie,

    Not needing the GM was the biggest for Universalis, but another was that the rules no longer at some point had anything to do with simulating the in-game environment, and were completely about player power to tell a story. Another big one was that you don't have to have GM secrets to have suspense - just other people making stuff up besides yourself (this one obviously came in playtesting well after the revelation about not needing a GM). Another was that Tenets, Facts, Traits, and Events were really all more or less different names for the same thing.

    It was revelation after revelation until we felt like Mohammed...we weren't writing this RPG, we were just the conduit for a game writing itself. That was a revelation itself, that the process could be like that.

    In getting playtest feedback, at some point (far later than we should have), we realized that we were blocking what the testers were saying and defensively trying to show why it was supposed to work. The revelation is that, if the playtester is using the rules you wrote, and he says there's a problem, there's a problem.

    As for other systems, whe writing Synthesis, I realized that there's a limit to the value of recursion in the resolution system. That is, it's a very cool theoretical idea to allow one to drill down infinitely into minutia in resolution...but practically speaking it won't get used, and going out of your way to get this simply isn't important. Technical point, I know.

    Ralph talks about killing your sacred cows - killing your darlings. A lot of "Revelation" in RPG design is that some cool idea you have on paper simply doesn't add a lot in actual play, and that the game might be better off without it.

  • My most recent revelation is that you can abstract things to the point where they're extremely elegant in terms of system design, but yet bug-all boring as shit for the players. In my Towerlands fantasy RPG project, I took all these ideas about loyalties and relationships and binding spirits for power and having favorite swords and being experts in different fields -- and I abstracted it all into a trait system and tossed away the detail. It was the detail that gave the game color. When I wrote up the character sheet and left off all that detail, no one could tell from the sheet that it was even a fantasy game. I'd lost the soul of the game by being "clever." I still needed the unifying mechanic, but I needed to keep the detail that I used to get there.
  • Don't know if this one works, so... caveat.

    One way you can give people freedom to make up any amount of colour they like is to have very clear rules for how to give anything in the world mechanical weight (basically, by committing some resource to it). No resource = no mechanical weight; no mechanical weight = not usable in the resolution system. So you can have as cool a world as you want, but it's all set-dressing until you invest the resources - which in turn means that you don't need to stat everything up or give elaborate rules for how it behaves.
  • This is today: You don't motivate people via game resources of "win" conditions. You motivate people by providing them with what they enjoy.

  • Posted By: Ben LehmanThis is today: You don't motivate people via game resources of "win" conditions. You motivate people by providing them with what they enjoy.

    I'm going to quote you.

    And Mike, I don't think a revelation has to work, it has to feel like one. Or work for you.
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