Hamsterprophecy: Prevision

It\’s All About Pen, Paper and People.

RPG Design Handbook: Chapter 2 (part 1)

Posted by Nathan P. on November 2, 2006

So far:

(Also, this post has been translated into Italian. Thanks Marco Iotti!)

Chapter 2: Core Questions

So far, we’ve stated the assumptions this book is going to be based on, and talked about some of the tools you can use to identify your play and design preferences. This chapter is going to describe some systems to use once you’ve had an idea that you want to develop.

Chances are, you picked up this book because you already have a great idea for a game, and want some help in realizing it. Or, maybe, now that you’ve been actively “listening” to how you play, you’re discovering the areas that you want to improve or modify. In any case, this chapter is going to assume that you have some concept that you’re ready to run with. Whether it be one sentance (“Vampire priest’s saving the world from the tyranny of the sun”) or a notebook full of weapon statistics, there tools given in this chapter are meant to shape and channel your ideas into something unique, productive, and producable.

Here are three sets of overlapping questions, each approaching the same conceptual territory from slightly different angles. Those are the “Big Three,” the “Alternate Three,” and the “Power 19.”
The Big Three

The big three questions you need to ask yourself when your ready to sink time, effort, and money into your game idea:

  • What is this game about?
  • What do the characters do?
  • What do the players do?

What is this game about?

The first thing to know about the answer to this question is what it isn’t. It isn’t the sales pitch, and it isn’t the back-cover blurb or ad promo for the game. It isn’t the cool damage mechanic, and it’s not the dragon mythology or the epic backstory. These are all tempting, tempting answers, because they are what we’re used to hearing when we ask what a game is about.

“What is Dungeons and Dragons about?” “Well, it’s about being an adventurer in a fantasy world, where you can do anything you can imagine!”

“What is Vampire: the Masquerade about?” “It’s a storytelling game with a dice pool system where you’re a vampire and you have to deal with your bestial nature all the time.”

“What is Dogs in the Vineyard about?” “It’s about mormon gunslingers in a west that never quite was.”

None of those answers are correct, or useful to designing those games. Or, to put it another way, these are not answers that underlie the actual design content of those games.

Answering this question is almost like answering “Why am I writing this game in the first place?” with something of the construction “I haven’t seen any game that does X, and thats what I want this game to do.”

To take Dogs In The Vineyard as an example, the answer is probably closer to “This game is about judgement, including both the judgements that the characters bring to bear in their roles as gods watchdogs, and the judgements that the players of the game make about their characters.”

This question can be a hard one to answer, or at least it can be hard to find the right words to express your answer. But it’s worth taking the time to think about it, because finding those words will help orient the rest of your design thinking.

What Do The Characters Do?

“Adventure” and “explore the game world” are both bad answers to this question. This is because those are components of almost every game, and (arguably) of every kind of roleplay. Many times, what the characters do is the hook into what the game is about. Or, to put it another way, once you know what the game is about, you can see what kinds of activities the characters will have to have the ability and opportunity to do in order to engage with that subject matter.

To look at our earlier examples: In D&D, characters overcome threats, usually physical or magical, with their strength and wits in order to gain rewards and increased resources. In Dogs In The Vineyard, characters ride from town to town, solving problems and doling out judgement on sinners.

An Aside: See how the answers for a “traditional” design (D&D) and a “focused” design (DitV) differ in scope? Many traditional designs couch their character hook in more general terms with an implied connection to what the game is about, which many focused designs make a direct, strong and explicit connection.

Characters are the vehicle for engagement between the players and the shared game fiction – so, what the characters are up to, whether explicit or implied in the rules text, are one of the first filters through which a potential player will view your game. Many games are “pitched” to a group via what kind of characters they can play (“You play Mecha pilots duking it out with alien invaders!”) as opposed to more conceptual or structural elements of the game (“This game is about imperialism and cultural identity!”) So answering this question is valuable both as a guide for various design elements that center around character building and advancement, and as a conceptual tool for identifying how others will approach your game.

What Do The Players Do?

Again, the number one answer is not a helpful one: “Play their characters.” Again, this is a definitional answer, not a constructive one. Playing a character can take many different forms, and the answer to this question can aim at a number of places. What does playing a character entail? Does the player get complete control over their character, or are there other influences? Are there certain ways of playing (like character immersion, say, or developing backstory through play) that you want to encourage or discourage with your game?

Secondly, there are many more ways a player can have an influence on the game than just by playing their character. For more details on this specifically, see the later sections on Stances and GM Duties & Responsibilities. But, in short, can players contribute to developing the game world? Introduce NPCs? Reward or punish the GM, or other players, for certain behaviors?

You can look at this question as answering why a player will have fun playing your game, and/or as what kinds of interactions an outside observer would see while watching people play your game. This question is all about the actual people at the actual table, and how they engage with the game and with each other through the game.

For more on the Big Three, see What are “The Big Three”?; Troy’s Standard Rant #1; and Troy’s Standard Rant #2.

(Next Up: The Alternate Three)

17 Responses to “RPG Design Handbook: Chapter 2 (part 1)”

  1. Linnaeus said

    I think a proper answer (such as it may be) to What is this game about? for a traditional game would be useful, much like the contrast between D&D and DitV under What do characters do? is informative.

    • SaintHax said

      D&D 1st and 2nd editions were about “accumulation”, IMO. They produced a trove of interesting magic items to get, most adventures revolved around getting these items, and if you weren’t a spell caster, your damage potential (and usefulness) required them. They had a mechanic (damage being equipment based rather than skill) and it spurred player motivation.

  2. Yeh, good call. I have personal problems with claiming authority on things that I’m not sure that I know about…like, the design intentions behind D&D 3rd. But I’m sure I could word it in such a way to make clear that it’s my interpretation, not a declaration of TRUTH.

    I’m glad you find the contrast informative…I do want to build on the early sections and show how the basic stuff cascades through the rest of the process.

  3. Linnaeus said

    I have personal problems with claiming authority on things that I’m not sure that I know about…like, the design intentions behind D&D 3rd.

    What about asking Mike Mearls, Robin Laws, or Bruce Baugh for a description of the intent behind one of their games. While I haven’t dealt with them myself, they all seem like friendly sorts who have done trad game designs (I’m thinking of Iron Heroes in Mearls’ case).

  4. Thats not a bad idea.

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    Is it something other than “whatever the players (and GM) feel like?”

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