RPG Design Handbook: Chapter 2 (part 3)
Posted by Nathan P. on February 3, 2007
(Previous Posts collected here.)
Chapter 2: Core Questions
Part 3: The Power 19
The third broad organization rubric for organizing your approach to a new game design is a set of 19 questions developed by Troy Costisick. This set of questions is the result of really digging into the Big Three and unpacking them, creating a set of smaller scope but more specific questions. These questions can be treated as a checklist, in order to make sure you are at least thinking about each of these elements of your game; they can also be treated as spurs, wherein you try to make sure your game addresses each of them in a meaningful manner.
Finally, they are a powerful tool to apply once you have finished a draft, or at least the core mechanics of, your game. Many of the questions are about specific procedures of play, and how they connect with your design goals. While trying to answer them before you have a lot of material written for the game may identify holes (as in “huh, I should have some kind of mechanic for reinforcing X”), doing it after will allow you to analyze how well the different elements of your design are doing their jobs.
Most of the questions are fairly self-explanatory, though I have a couple notes throughout.
The Power 19 Questions:
1.) What is your game about?**
2.) What do the characters do?**
3.) What do the players (including the GM if there is one) do?**
These three should seem familier – they’re the Big Three. A useful strategy in some cases is to answer the Big Three, and then once you’re satisfied with those answers, unpack and expand upon them by going through the next 16 questions.
4.) How does your setting (or lack thereof) reinforce what your game is about?
5.) How does the Character Creation of your game reinforce what your game is about?
6.) What types of behaviors/styles of play does your game reward (and punish if necessary)?
7.) How are behaviors and styles of play rewarded or punished in your game?
These four are related to the Alternate Three, in that they focus on thinking about how you support your design goals with your mechanics and procedures of play.
8.) How are the responsibilities of narration and credibility divided in your game?
9.) What does your game do to command the players’ attention, engagement, and participation? (i.e. What does the game do to make them care?)
10.) What are the resolution mechanics of your game like?
11.) How do the resolution mechanics reinforce what your game is about?
12.) Do characters in your game advance? If so, how?
13.) How does the character advancement (or lack thereof) reinforce what your game is about?
14.) What sort of product or effect do you want your game to produce in or for the players?
15.) What areas of your game receive extra attention and color? Why?
16.) Which part of your game are you most excited about or interested in? Why?
I think that this may be a question that you should be asking yourself over and over again throughout the design process. Why am I excited about this game? Is what happens in play reflecting what I thought would happen? It’s easy to get discouraged about your design, especially in playtesting, and keeping the answer to this question solidly in mind may be a helpful thing.
17.) Where does your game take the players that other games can’t, don’t, or won’t?
18.) What are your publishing goals for your game?
19.) Who is your target audience?
The last two are very important questions that directly target the publishing side of design; a huge topic that will be covered later in this book. (Though, my personal opinion is that publishing goals should be considered early in the process – but that’s another matter for another time).
Power 19 Criticism
The final component to the Power 19 is considering their limits. They were developed out of the Big Three and Alternate Three, which themselves are heavily rooted in the focused design school centered around the Forge. The questions carry a number of assumptions behind them, including things like the centrality of character; the power of carrot-and-stick reward systems; and a certain slant towards innovation and uniqueness in design for it’s own sake. This is not to say that every game created with the Power 19 in mind will end up looking or playing the same. Far from it!
Rather, it means that it can be ok to answer a Power 19 question with “This isn’t applicable to my game” or “I’m not considering this as a design goal.” The important thing is that these answers are considered and conscious answers. If answering the Power 19 is making you feel like you’re twisting your game into a new shape in order to do so, then maybe you should go through and “unanswer” some of the questions, until it feels natural again.
All three sets of questions are powerful tools for aiding your game design. Considered seperately or in combination, their main utility lies in making you think about your design in both a conscious and critical manner, with an eye towards setting and then fulfilling your design goals. While specific design methods and techniques may, and probably will, still need to be created and put together in order for your design to work like you want it too, these questions will help you identify the holes in your design and brainstorm how to fill them. Finally, the sets of questions are important both for what they make you think, and for how they make you feel – if your design does not “fit” into them well, consider that it may very well mean that your process or design goals are working from a different set of assumptions – which means you should dig until you discover those assumptions, so that you can harness them to help you in your design.
For more information on The Power 19, check out What are the ‘Power 19’? pt 1 and What are the ‘Power 19’? pt 2. Also, for a discussion of the assumptions underlying the Power 19, see this post at the Story Games forum: Design Tools: P19 as Propaganda.