Starting Out

My first ideas when starting a new game design have the biggest impact on the whole process. It’s something to be careful of and respectful of.

Let’s say I get this cool idea for a dice mechanic. Say, step dice attributes + dice pool skills. There’s a lot of assumptions in that little formula. The first is that there are dice at all. The second is that we’re going to have attributes and skills. That means that, if this is our core mechanic, we’re testing competency more than anything else. That probably ┬ámeans this is an adventure game rather than a story game.[1] So we’re already on the road towards legacy GM/player roles.

There’s a school of design (and I think it’s bigger than just The Forge) that recommends against thinking of mechanics first. That would tell you to ditch that mechanic, nail down the play experience you are trying to create first, then find the mechanics that support that experience. This is awesome advice and I would echo it every chance I get.

But there’s a part of me that just likes to tinker with dice mechanics. That asks, this is a cool thing I wonder what kind of play experience it would create if I made a game around it? I get excited about these things. If I have to ditch my cool mechanic just make a game the “correct” way, I’m also ditching that enthusiasm.

And enthusiasm is a huge factor in getting anywhere with a game design.

So often I go with enthusiasm and try to recognize and challenge my assumptions. Game design by this method is a bit like playing Jenga. I build it up and try to take out everything that isn’t necessary.

Sometimes that works well. There’s a little anecdote I’ve heard about the design for the Smallville RPG. I heard the game was originally designed with Attributes and Skills in addition to Relationships, Values, and Distinctions. But, according to the stories, some rogue genius alpha testers came along and said that’s really a lot of stats. And out of all of those, Attributes and Skills are the most boring and have the least to do with the show. So they got rid of them, but they were still able to keep the core mechanic. It was like one of those really loose Jenga pieces that comes out easily. It made the game much more lean and focused.

Sometimes its not so easy. As has been the case with my designs for Noblesse Oblige over and over again, sometimes the best bet is to let the tower fall and start building again. The previous attempts weren’t a waste of time, though. They taught me a lot about Jenga architecture and engineering. They taught me what shape I’m going for. Each time I start over again, I’m able to do so with a stronger and stronger foundation.

Robin Laws said it best on Twitter a while back. I’ve marked this as one of my favorites. He said:

The path to the right rules may take you through the wrong rules first.

  1. [1] Going by Ryan Macklin’s definitions found here
  1. Amen.

    This was last night for me: we ended up scrapping a bit of core mechanic that’s been with me from the beginning in Et in Arcadia Ego (game about Regency-era magicians). We’ve been playtesting this game, and things didn’t feel right about it. A few hours of discussion lead to figuring out why, and some clearer ideas about why some games we do like work.

  2. Greetings! As I’ve posted on RPGNow, I’m very interested in crafting a magic and religion expansion to Chronica Feudalis. The CF mechanics are elegant and run very quickly so I was considering playtesting an expansion at Celesticon in Redwood Shores, CA this upcoming September. I would like to avoid developing anything that might clash with Noblesse Oblige and would enjoy a dialog or any wisdom you might impart. Thank you!

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