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End Of The Line

Posted by Nathan P. on August 21, 2010

As you may have been able to tell, this blog is pretty much defunct at this point. However, I’ve decided to start a new blog that hooks into my current branding, and will cover my experiences as a designer of physical things as well as games!

The last year has been a pretty fallow one for me, game-wise, but I’ve come out of GenCon 2010 with renewed energy, and I’m starting to feel like I have things to say again. So that will all be on the new blog.

I will also be talking about stuff rising out of my experience in my graduate program as I go through the second and final year. As I go through a formal design education, I make more and more connections between my “hobby” and my coursework, and I hope to talk about both of those things.

One thing I will still be using this space for is continuing the RPG Design Handbook. I’ll post to the other blog when it’s updated, but it will remain on this blog for the time being.

The new blog is simply the ndp design blog.

Thanks again for your attention, dear reader. Onwards!

Posted in Artistry, Mission, Personal, Promo, RPG Design Handbook | 1 Comment »

RPG Design Handbook: Four Spheres of Design

Posted by Nathan P. on November 21, 2009

Note: This is a break from the overall outline. I’m not quite sure where it should go – maybe as the first part of “Why Design”? Maybe it’s almost an intro. I don’t really know.

Also, since I made the first post for this thing, I’ve (a) grown a lot and (b) started a Masters degree in industrial/product design. A lot of what I’m learning in school has cross-over meaning for game design – hence this post.

Table of Contents here.

Four Spheres of Design

In product design, there’s a vague categorization of design into four (often overlapping) spheres: Commercial design, Experimental design, Responsible (also referred to as Universal) design, and Discursive design. Similar trends occur among roleplaying games, and being mindful of which sphere you are designing in can be helpful both for deciding which other games to look to for inspiration and guidance, and for keeping your efforts focused on your goals.

For the purposes of this guide, I’m divorcing the terms from their context a little bit and remapping them to the roleplaying market and community.

Commercial Design

Commercial design is the largest sphere, and the best-treaded. When embarking on a commercial design, one of your primary goals is to get your game into people’s hands. Whether you expect to gain actual monetary compensation, or would rather measure your success by actual play reports, a commercial design has some kind of meaurable goal. A free game can be a commercial design, for example, if it’s designed to (say) appeal to a certain demographic and the designer wants to get the satisfaction of watching a community grow around his or her work.

However, most games that are designed with the intention of being sold have a goal of gaining some return on the money invested in production of the physical product. In traditional publishing, games are expected to bring in enough return to keep the company going; in small-press and indie publishing, the goal is often to break even on the production costs of the game without necessarily paying the author a wage or enabling them to “quit their day job.”

Commercial games tend to target a specific audience, and you, as a commercial designer, benefit immensely from having an audience in mind as you design. They also tend to be designed to be at least familiar to the “average” game consumer. A commercial design wants to stand out from the competition but not be so foreign as to require a high barrier to entry to understand (and, therefore, purchase).

The majority of game publishers are embarked on commercial design, from Wizards of the Coast all the way to the self-publisher who puts their game up on lulu.com with the intent of making some beer money on his ideas.

Experimental Design

Experimental Design is design for design’s sake, in many ways. This is where a designer takes an idea, whether it’s a clever dice mechanic or a specific way of distributing narrative authority, and pushes it to an extreme or builds a whole game around it. Many such “design noodlings” are experimental and unpublished, or are put up on the internet for others to find and experiment with.

When an experimental design is brought to market, it’s often done so in order to “shake up” the current landscape or to present a new and different way of doing things. While very few games are published in order to lose money, the success of an experimental design is often measured by how many other designers and roleplayers take the ideas from the game and keep refining them.

In the traditional sphere, games like Nobilis and Wraith: the Oblivion, while having commercial goals, also had strong experimental aspects. In self-publishing, most of Jonathon Walton’s work is expressly experimental; also any number of games that come out of contests like Game Chef tend to explore new and different ideas for the sake of it.

Universal Design

This category maps least easily to game design. In product design, this refers to design with the goal of accessibilty, or making things possible for people or communities who are disadvantaged in some way. In game design, I think this sphere covers games that are written with the intent of enabling a kind of play experience and making it as easy as possible to enagage in that experience.

Designers write these games out of love for whatever they’re doing, and then make them as accessible as possible, often for free on the internet. As opposed to experimental design, the intent is to engage with a community, not to push the boundaries of design itself; often these games are remixs or “hacks” of existing games, genres or properties, and the work itself is extremely open to people getting involved and adding new content. Also, many group design projects seem to fall into this category.

Some examples that I consider Universal design are the Red Box Hack, which was abandoned by the original designer but picked back up by other people who really liked it; fan-made free (unofficial) World of Darkness supplement Genius: the Transgression; and open game system frameworks like FATE and Fudge.

Discursive Design

This sphere of design overlaps even more heavily with the others, in that a Discursive design can also have strong tendencies towards being a Commercial, Experimental or Universal project. However, the main focus of a Discursive design is to create a dialogue around a certain point, trend or set of issues that the designer feels passionately about.

This is often done by selection of subject matter or setting of the game, such as setting the game during a war or some kind of social breakdown. Many discursive games also focus on a certain theme, such as dysfunctional relationships, the nature of judgement, or how far someone will go to get what they want. Often, the setting/subject matter is chosen in order to showcase or highlight the theme, though sometimes it is actually a counterpoint.

Many of the iconic games that come out of the focused design traditional exemplified by the Forge are Discursive games with a design intent that’s hard-coded into the design. Paul Czege’s My Life With Master is about dysfunctional relationships; D. Vincent Baker’s Dogs In the Vineyard is about judgement and humanity. Some Discursive games are more open. Burning Wheel, for example, allows the players to decide for themselves what issues they want to deal with through its Beliefs and Instincts, with the rest of the design centering on challenging those traits.

The Point

As you can see, these spheres are more of a Venn diagram. Most games that are sold have Commercial goals, even if they are also pushing an Experimental or Discursive agenda; many Discursive game are Experimental as well; Universal games can be made Commercial by packaging and selling them; and so forth.

The important thing to keep in mind is that each path entails different goals and priorities, and being clear at the beginning of your process what you are embarking on makes it easier to make design decisions during the process. If your goal is to push the boundaries of (say) character ownership with your game, maybe you don’t need to spend so much time concentrating on that hyper-detailed fantasy setting; if your goal is generate some income, maybe you need to dial back the Discursive elements that will alienate your target market. Maybe you will discover midstream that the project is more important to you because of its Discursive element, so you decide to make it open and Universal as well in order to make it more accessible.

As with everything else, having a mindful approach to what you are designing and developing your design goals clearly is the important, and difficult, first stage of design.

Posted in RPG Design Handbook | 9 Comments »

RPG Design Handbook: Chapter 4 (Part 2)

Posted by Nathan P. on November 15, 2008

(previous posts collected here)

Chapter 4: Authority & Credibility

Part 2: The GM is Not a Person

Defining the GM

The vast majority of RPGs centralize most authority over non-player-character game elements in one person; the Game Master (which has evolved as a system-neutral term. You may be familiar with Dungeon Master, Storyteller, or other game-specific title). Game texts often specify a certain set of duties for this person, such as:

  • playing NPCs
  • describing locations and environments
  • keeping track of time and telling everyone how long their actions take
  • framing scenes
  • run a mission, adventure or story in which to involve the characters
  • arbitrate rules disputes

There are also many non-specified duties which can be expected of the “standard” GM, such as:

  • preparing the mission, adventure or story ahead-of-time
  • organizing the logistics of getting together to play
  • providing a space in which to get together for play
  • own all of the necessary materials for play
  • have the most knowledge of the game system and/or game setting

As these two non-exhaustive lists demonstrate, there are many, many things that can fall under the GM umbrella.

Breaking It Apart

All of the duties listed above, along with many more, are necessary for your game. But is it necessary that they be performed by one person? This is a critical question for game design. As with everything, there are good reasons to answer this question with a yes, or with a no. But it is worth examining exactly which duties you wish to be performed, and by who, in order to acheive your design goals. While doing so, keep in mind the non-systematic duties (that second list), and whether (a) you wish to address those questions at all and (b) how addressing them will aid or hinder your design goals.

GM Patterns

Once you begin thinking of the GM as a collection of responsibilities (with their associated authorities!), it becomes useful to think of the role of the GM in a given game as a “pattern” rather than as a role. Here is a breakdown of some common GM Patterns in published games along two axis: Single/Multiple, and Centralized/Distributed.

  • The Single, Centralized GM is the default GM Pattern in most games, regardless of design tradition. The GM is textually expected to perform almost all systematic duties (other than players choices for their characters), and is often socially expected to helm the logistics of actually getting together to play. One of the benefits of this kind of pattern is that it supports a GM who has a strong vision for play and makes it easy to enact that vision; it is also suited to games that require secret information or plotting that will eventually be made known to the players, making the “Big Reveal” truly surprising. However, it can be intimidating for somebody to approach a new game and feel like they have to know everything about it to run it “properly”, and it can be exhausting for the GM to carry all of their responsibilities continuously. Most traditional games exhibit this pattern, like Dungeons & Dragons (any edition), the World of Darkness games, GURPS, and so on.
  • The Single, Distributed GM is a pattern wherein the GM has a smaller subset of textual duties, with others being performed by other players. The GM duties tend to cluster around presenting the world, creating plot hooks and resolving rules disputes. Duties such as scene framing, authoring new color (or mechanical) elements into the game world, and even creating or playing NPCs can be shared amongst the other players equally, or they may be distributed systematically. This pattern can support the GM who comes up with the “adventure” beforehand, but it also works well for a game where the plot is supposed to emerge from the events of play. One game that works this way is InSpectres, wherein the resolution mechanic is what gives total authority over narration of the result of an action to either the player in question or the GM, and it is expected that events will veer wildly away from the initial setup to the game. This pattern is easy to move into from the Single Centralized GM pattern, if the group identifies certain duties that they would rather share amongst themselves. It’s the default for many small-press focused design games. This pattern works well for a game that expects and supports creativity and engagement in the game entire from all of the participants, but it can also result in a certain sprawling and unfocused kind of gameplay.
  • Multiple, Centralized GMs is a pattern that assigns the same set of GM duties to different people at different times, and sometimes to more than one person at once. Usually based around how scenes are framed or a certain turn order, different players will have authority over the world, NPC, scene framing, etc at different times. Usually, every player has a character, and plays that character when they are not performing GM duties. One example of this kind of game is Polaris, where each player serves as the GM of the person sitting across from them at the table, and there is a strict turn order that gives each player a turn as Heart (their character) and Mistaken (the GM for the person opposite them). A game currently in playtest called How We Came To Live Here has two GMs, one of whom has authority over “inside-the-tribe” affairs, while the other has authority over “outside-the-tribe” events. This pattern works well for a game that is aimed at giving everyone a chance to play a single character, but also has a structure (whether narrative or mechanical) that needs to be maintained by having a singular touchpoint for it. Often, this kind of game has a particular manner in apportioning the GM duties that can be difficult to parse if the group is not used to this structure, and it is difficult to push one persons vision into the game if it’s not shared by the rest of the group.
  • Multiple, Distributed GMs is a pattern that is commonly referred to as “GMless”. Typically, GM duties are equally distributed across all of the players, with some kind of systematic structure for when and how they can be enforced. In this kind of game, everyone is typically responsible for an equal share of each part of the game, from scene framing to character ownership to plot events, though there is often felixibility in terms of how interested each player is in using their authority in each area. One example is Universalis, which works by giving each player a set of resources with which they can establish characters, create new rules, enforce consequences of actions, and so forth. Another is Baron Munchhausen, which revolves from player to player, with each player narrating an astounding tale of derring-do, which is subsequently judged by the other players. This kind of pattern is well-suited to round-robin, high-narration kinds of games, as well as games that seek to offer every player the same role in shaping the game experience. However, they can be somewhat fragile and subject to being dominated by those with strong personalities or more significant investment in the game.

These are not hard-and-fast categories, and many games that are written with a certain pattern in mind can be easily modified to accomodate a different pattern (especially along the Centralized/Distributed axis). The primary lesson here is that the GM is a set of duties and responsibilities, which can and should be organized in the manner best suited to your game.

Posted in RPG Design Handbook | 3 Comments »

RPG Design Handbook: Chapter 4 (part 1)

Posted by Nathan P. on September 28, 2008

(previous posts collected here)

Chapter 4: Authority & Credibility


You are probably familiar with the basic split between “the GM” and “the players” in an RPG. While there exist many games that either blur or entirely get rid of the GM role, the majority have some kind of division between the majority of the players who (usually) play a singular character, and one player who is responsible for most of the other elements of gameplay.

This chapter is dedicated to exploring the reasons behind these split roles; talking about what exactly a GM is and does; and discussing the notions of authority and credibility as a framework for making design decisions about who is responsible for what in play.

How Does This Apply to Design?

At it’s most basic level, roleplaying consists of a number of people talking to each other. The purpose of the interaction is to explore a certain kind of fiction, but that exploration is done via description, narration, and integration of systematic elements into that shared fiction through conversation.

Game design, as discussed previously, is the creation of a framework to organize and direct these interactions towards a desired goal. While often expressed in mechanics, statistics and game-related fictional material, the most basic act of game design is to say who says what and when. This is where the concepts of “authority” and “credibility” come into play.

Authority concerns where the buck stops in any given interaction on the table. Who has the ability to say “this conversation is over, we’re moving on”? Who has the ability to introduce something into the fiction without being challenged? Who is able to make declarative, definitive statements, and about what? Authority is about adding and ending. In many traditional games, the GM has authority over the actions of NPCs, events in the game world, and so forth, while players each have authority over their characters actions and their characters responses to the situations they find themselves in. In a game like Polaris, on the other hand, which has no singular GM role, each persons authority in each scene changes depending on what character the scene is focusing on.

Where authority is about who can say what, credibility is about how much weight those statements have in relation to one another. Again, in a traditional game, a player has authority over their characters actions, and also an enormous amount of credibility in declaring those actions. The GM can rarely tell the player that their character acts or feels or thinks in a certain way without the player invoking his authority over the character to overrule the GMs statement, for example. In general, many resolution systems are about apportioning credibility to statements made about the outcome of a conflict or challenge.

We’ll come back to authority and credibility after talking about the GM role in roleplaying. But for now, here’s the important things to keep in mind:

Authority is answering the question “Who gets to talk about X?”

Credibility is answering the question “How is a disagreement about X resolved?”

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RPG Design Handbook: Chapter 3 (parts 2 & 3)

Posted by Nathan P. on January 12, 2008

(previous posts collected here)

Chapter 3: Methods & Conceptual Frameworks

Part 2: The Lumpley Principle

If you are an experienced RPG player, you’ve probably run into the idea that an RPG consists of two parts, the “Setting” and the “System.” For now, I’m going to stay agnostic as to whether that divide has any meaning outside that of a set of easily comprehensible labels for talking about different components of a game. However, I’m going to be using the term “System” a lot throughout this part of the text, so this section is about defining what I mean.

The Lumpley Principle is one such definition.

The Lumpley Principle:

“System (including but not limited to ‘the rules’) is defined as the means by which the group agrees to imagined events during play.” (formulated by D. Vincent Baker. Definition taken from the Provisional Glossary at The Forge)

So, System includes not only the formal rules out of the textbook, but any “house rules,” group-agreed-upon behaviors, and the often non-articulated agreements on what “counts” in play that each individual group has. This is a more expansive definition that I think is typically meant when people say “System,” but I think it’s a clear articulation of the fact that the rules that you write effect the behavior of the players of your game.

A main criticism of the Lumpley Principle is that it’s overinclusive and vague to the point of being meaningless. This is best articulated by Malcolm Sheppard here, where he also states that:

Sheppard’s Rules

Rules are game text which directly inform game play.

A game text is written for the purpose of informing play, as opposed to other texts which still inform play, but are not intended to.

I think that’s simple and clear enough that it doesn’t require unpacking. He has more to say on the subject, but that’s the most directly applicable to where I want to go next. “Rules” and “System” do not map one-to-one, and they are not interchangeable when talking about design.

So, we have the concepts of System and Rules. I’ll drop the annoying caps, but when I use the word “system” I’m talking about Lumpley Principle, and when I use the word “rules” I’m talking about Sheppard’s Rules. Which leads us right to…

Part 3: System Does Matter vs System Doesn’t Matter

Design Does Matter is a design philosophy articulated and championed by Ron Edwards, and is the context for many of the independently published games that were developed at the Forge. While it has been extensively debated and refined, the basics of the theory are expressed in a 2004 (? best date I can find) essay by the same title. One note: when Ron says “all three outlooks” he’s talking about the three “Creative Agendas” from the Big Model, another way of thinking about play. For our purposes, I would read “all three outlooks” as “any potential goal for play.”

System Does Matter

One of the biggest problems I observe in RPG systems is that they often try to satisfy all three outlooks at once. The result, sadly, is a guarantee that almost any player will be irritated by some aspect of the system during play. GMs’ time is then devoted, as in the Herbie example, to throwing out the aspects that don’t accord for a particular group. A “good” GM becomes defined as someone who can do this well – but why not eliminate this laborious step and permit a (for example) Gamist GM to use a Gamist game, getting straight to the point? I suggest that building the system specifically to accord with one of these outlooks is the first priority of RPG design. (from the article posted here)

System Does Matter is saying that the system of the game can and should be focused right at the designers goals for play, and that by not doing so you are creating a higher barrier for your potential players to get over if they want to enjoy the game in the way you intended it. This makes the corollary claim that it does not require a certain set of honed skills in order to enjoy a game to the fullest, and that a well-designed game can be enjoyed by groups of people that do not have a lot of play experience together.

So, what’s System Doesn’t Matter? Usually understood as a negative concept (i.e., the opposite of System Does Matter), it’s a shorthand for the widespread opinion that you can enjoy a “bad” game with a “good” group, and that a bad group can destroy even the best game. This is a philosophy that puts the social adhesion of the group playing the game above the intentions and effects of the rules system that they use.

To recast this divide with the language from Part 2 (system does not equal rules!), I would recap thusly:

System Does Matter: Designing rules that aim squarely at your design goals makes it easy for a given group to engage in systems that result in your desired play experience.

System Doesn’t Matter: The rules of a given game will always be trumped by the non-rules systems that a given group already has in place.

I think that System Does Matter is a natural viewpoint for aspiring designers, and it’s the basis of most modern focused design, to various extents. However, when looking at the two statements I’ve made above, they are not mutually exclusive. That is, even if the rules of your game are trumped by the social systems already in place, you can lower the barriers to enjoyment with both focused rule design, and a conscious attention in your game text to articulating the play experience you are aiming for, in order to allow a prospective group to decide whether your game is right for them.

Posted in RPG Design Handbook | 7 Comments »

RPG Design Handbook: Chapter 3 (part 1)

Posted by Nathan P. on December 9, 2007

(Previous Posts collected here.)

Chapter 3: Methods and Conceptual Frameworks

Introduction & Part 1: The Process of Roleplay

There are a variety of models, theories and frameworks for understanding and thinking about roleplaying. These are valuable to the designer for a couple of reasons. Not only does an understanding of the underlying processes of the activity you are endeavoring to shape give you the tools with which to work, it also gives you a language with which to express your activity. As design is rooted in play, most (if not all) of the material covered in this chapter grows out of and is aimed at interpreting and understanding play.

So, what is it we do when we’re roleplaying?

Roleplaying is an activity made up of two crucial components: creation and collaboration. When a group of people is roleplaying, they are engaged in a process of collaborative creation. We are all working in unison, guided through the system of the game, to create something together that didn’t exist before. The “something” in question is what I usually call the “fiction” of the game, which is a term that entails both what actually happens in the fictional world of the game (i.e. the “plot”), and all of the other details, constructs and context that the events of your game impact on and change in an indirect manner, but which are important to your group (i.e. the “setting” and how it changes, among other things). This concept is also commonly referred to in some circles as the Shared Imaginary Space, or SIS, but I prefer fiction as a more neutral term.

The other critical concept to consider is the nature of the players. Unlike almost every other social activity, people engaged in a roleplaying game are both participants and observers, with each individual player biased towards one or the other end of that continuum in different proportions at different times. A player of a roleplaying game is both participating in creating the fiction, usually through the medium of their character or their role as the Game Master, and simultaneously observing the contributions of others as they interact with the fiction as well.

To summarize, here’s a definition of the basic process of roleplay:

Roleplaying is a process of collaborative creation, wherein each person involved is both a participant in and an observer of changes made to the fiction of that particular instance of roleplaying.

Or, to say it less formally, when you roleplay, you make stuff up with your friends that you all enjoy.

What does this mean for design?

The direct implication of this understanding of roleplay is that game design is simply deciding on certain ways to shape the interactions of the participant-observers with the fiction, using the levers of collaboration and creation. Roleplaying is, at root, a social interaction. Game design is the art and craft of shaping that social interaction towards a desired goal (remember your design goals?), and here we have a handful of vectors (with non-exhaustive questions to think about) to channel that shaping:

  • Collaboration. How do the players of your game get to influence each other contributions to the fiction? How does their interaction influence the fiction, or the tools that they each have to bring to bear? What happens if the players of your game choose not to collaborate? Does competition figure in at all?
  • Creation. How do players of your game contribute new material into the fiction? How do they negate material? Do they get to create material for each other? How do oppositional creations work?
  • Participation. What tools and support does your game provide for aiding or shaping the participation of the players? How is “spotlight time” apportioned, if at all? What happens during the times that players aren’t fully participating?
  • Observation. How does someone who is almost fully observing fit into your game, or do they? Does observation have an effect on what’s being observed? Is there support and tools for constructive, productive “downtime”?

Again, this a set of questions aimed to get you thinking about your specific tools, not proscribe them. Notice how these four approach vectors can be combined with one another to generate more food for thought (what happens along the Observation-Collaboration vector, for example?).

While the rest of this chapter will outline and detail more specific models of roleplaying, this overview of its basic process should be kept in mind for the design process. The basic thing to remember is that you are shaping a particular set of social interactions towards to certain goal.

Posted in RPG Design Handbook | 4 Comments »

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.

Posted in RPG Design Handbook | 5 Comments »


Posted by Nathan P. on January 4, 2007

…page, that is. Up above you can see I added a seperate page to index the RPG Design Handbook stuff.

Oh, and I need to do another print run of carry. Many thanks to everyone who’s picked up the game. I hope y’all get to play it. I’m going to be doing a typo correction re-edit, and I’m adding one rule (it’ll be posted everywhere once I have the wording correct in the text). Feel free to point out typos and other weirdnesses with the text in the comments, if you have a mind to.

Happy New Year, everyone.

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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

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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)

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