Hamsterprophecy: Prevision

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

RPG Design Handbook: Chapter 2 (part 2)

Posted by Nathan P. on December 5, 2006

So far:

Chapter 2: Core Questions
Part 2: The Alternate Three

The “Alternate Three” are another set of three questions meant to help you focus on what, exactely, you want your game to do, and how you want it to do that. It’s most useful as a filter to pass your actual drafted rules through, as it is really good at picking out where a rules text is inconsistent with the stated purpose of the game. I first heard them expressed by Jared A. Sorensen (author of InSpectres, OctaNe, and Lacuna, Part 1, among others) in this fashion:

  • What? What is your game about?
  • How? How is your game about that?
  • What? What behaviors does it reward or encourage in order to fulfill the How?

What? What is your game about?

We’ve covered this question already in the last section. However, the Alternate Three can help with turning the ad copy answer into the productive answer – so, if you are having trouble finding this answer when doing the Big Three, try doing the Alternate Three first!

Example: “My game is about a world where it’s always night and vampires are the ruling class, but now the sun is rising and the humans are fighting back.”

This isn’t a very useful answer, right now. Via the Alternate Three, we’re going to analyze it and see if we can make it more useful.

How? How is your game about that?

This question is asking what procedures of play enact or create the thing that your game is about. This applies to written rules, to expected interactions, and even to presentation and packaging of your game (if you’re already thinking about that). Basically, when someone sits down to play your game, how will they be enacting the experience that you want them to have? Do you have a resolution mechanic that creates the right kinds of outcomes that you want? Do you have pacing mechanics that structure a play session in the way you want? Do you have a character generation engine that creates the kinds of characters the game requires? When writing rules, you can come back to this question over and over again. How does rule X support premise Y? How does this procedure create that outcome?

Example: “How is my game about a world where it’s always night….(and so on)?”

Let’s say that, in this game, you can play either vampire Nobles or human Revolutionaries. The game has a GM, is structured such that the group of players can be either all Noble, all Revolutionary, or half and half. There’s some rules about player-vs-player conflict when it’s half and half, and the GM gets a different set of responsibilities in this case as well. The resolution system is a percentile roll-under system, and the scope of resolution is primarily about whether discrete tasks are successful or not. There’s also a Prestige mechanic that enables players to gain narrational authority over NPCs that know of their character, and to improve their characters abilities.

So, looking at this limited set of mechanics, how are they about the stated premise of the game? Well…they’re not, really, except for being able to play Nobles or Revolutionaries. The rest of the answer to “what is your game about?” is setting explanation and character concepts.

And here we come to the full usefulness of the Alternate Three. Once you have identified the procedures of play that you, as the designer, pick out as those that support the goal of the game, you can reverse engineer from them back to your “about.” The lesson here is that the game will be about what the procedures of play support, not the other way around.

Example: So, in this case, the game is about the conflict between Nobles and Revolutionaries, which you can explore either from one side, or from the middle (as the character generation implies). It’s about gaining the most mindshare from the general populace (as thats where the Prestige mechanics kick in) via descrete tasks and attempts (looking at the resolution mechanic).

So, we can re-conceptualize the answer to the first question as “This game is about building or squashing a revolution, as both sides act to get the general populace on their side.”

What? What behaviors does it reward or encourage in order to fulfill the How?

This question is about the nuts-and-bolts of how your game will structure the interactions of the players in order to attain your design goals. A resolution mechanic that require a caculator will probably discourge quick-moving, highly stylized play; a simple bidding mechanic will tend to make it difficult to enact deep strategic choices; and so on. This extends to all of your written procedures of play, of course. Characters should have the kinds of abilities that will allow them to interact in the way you want; players should be able to affect different parts of the fiction in different ways in the same manner. One common example of this is the “plot point” mechanic, whereby a player can spend a plot point in order to make a change to the fiction that they usually couldn’t. Depending on how the plot point economy works, this could either encourage players to bide their time and wait for the big scenes to use them (few plot points, rarely refreshed), or to be continually pushing what they want onto the stage, knowing that everyone else can do the same (many plot points, constantly refreshed).

Example: So, what behaviors does our sample game reward or encourage? The character generation encourages making a concious choice about all being in this together, or about the game being more of a personal struggle; the Prestige system rewards gaining the attention of the populace; and the resolution system rewards attempting descrete actions (say, by some kind of long-term experience point gain that happens whenever you engage in resolution, whether you succeed or fail).

Let’s trace the Prestige mechanic back up through the questions. It rewards swaying NPCs to your side; this enables you to gain their mindshare in order to help you in your fight against the other side; this is how the game is about getting the populace to back you in your struggle.


As you can see, the Alternate Three is an interconnected set of questions. This is a powerful tool you can use in order to identify inconsistencies in your design, and address how it all works together. You can trace your procedures of play up and down through the three levels in order to fully conceptualize them as being in line with your design goals.

Next up: The Power 19


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

  1. A said

    It may be worth adding John Wick’s Addendum to the Alt 3.

    Why is that fun?

  2. Oooh, nice question.



  3. I hadn’t heard the addendum before. Nice.

    (though, that gets into hairy territory of whether creating “fun” is your primary design goal….but that’s another topic entirely)

  4. Heya,

    Oh yeah, trying to define “fun” is a hairy mess. Not something you would want to include in a work such as yours, Nate. However, in conversation with someone, I think it’s a great question.



  5. Upon further consideration, “why is that fun” basically is another way of asking “why do you want that result in the first place”… which equates to “what are your design goals for this game?

    So, probably a valuable thing to be asking yourself every so often, especially once you begin playtesting and changing things. Does this still align with my design goals? Does this create the experience I want? It’s easy to stop asking that question, I think.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: