Game Design Memories

I wrote my first game back sometime around 1988. It was this weird class project I packed in a JCPenny’s shirt box for a class project. It was called Slang Wars and it was a cardboard chit, Avalon Hill style wargame that had to do with the battle between “proper speaking” and “slang.” I was in love with the Afrika Korps game from Avalon Hill that was the first “real” wargame that I ever played and so it trickled into my game design. Of course, I was also still very young and my experience with other games consisted almost solely of Moldvay D&D and Monopoly. Thanks to my Granny I also loved Kismet – and the D6 is still my favorite die type…

Seriously though, I am not a professional game designer. I don’t even consider myself an amateur game designer really but I have written a few games over the years and done a LOT of tinkering with other games. Some of that tinkering I’ll be writing about in my next few posts (I’ve been working with some of my old notes from Arcanum – thinking about running it for a short term game). Digging for those notes led me to some of my other old game design notebooks and I stumbled across this little bit that I would have written sometime around 2000-2002 (when I was working on the first incarnations of what would become Legends of Ryllia), “A roleplaying game needs two basic things — an action resolution system and a more specific system for combat.” And underneath this I wrote, “BUT, what if you are building an epic fantasy RPG?” I went on to answer my own question…

The same elements apply but they need to inspire that epic feel. The game system itself should inspire the players the way the imaginary world inspires their characters.

At this point I was fairly disgusted with my younger self… I remember this period that I was deeply under the fanboy sway of designers like John Wick and I feel like I’m parroting him here… but I was redeemed! On the next page I found this…

I’ve run Amber for years and learned that game system means next to nothing when compared to the power of the interaction of player and gamemaster.

And that was the beginning I think, of my shift in thinking as a gamer. I realized that I really didn’t like system. I really don’t like mechanics… and this thought has continued to this day with some modifications.

My thoughts continued (and I’m probably boring the heck out of all of you but I find my past ruminations somewhat illuminating considering my current gaming funk) to evolve here and things were going swimmingly…

I want heroes leaping rooftops, I want swords flashing in the moonlight, I want demons, and slavers, and violence, and glory, and romance, and quiet lonely trails. In short, I want them [the players] to know what it feels like to be a legend.

I was proud of myself for this until I read what I wrote on the next line, “So how do I do this with my game system?” and then the notes turn into a series of diagrams as I try to plot out the complex interactions of a system that could give me what I want… I missed my own wisdom it seems. System cannot give me what I want. Only engagement gives me the gaming experience that I want. But it seems I was still more under the influence of Wick and the Storygamers more than I thought I was. (Wick and the Storygamers should totally be a geek band.)

Speaking of John Wick, he recently published another of his Play Dirty videos and he makes the statement, “most roleplaying games, the character sheet protects the player from the gamemaster.” Now, I may not be a fanboy anymore but I’m still a fan of John Wick. He’s doing his thing, he’s successful, he’s good at it, and even if I’m not a fan of his mechanics or his motives, I still love to read his stuff because his worlds and creations are always so fantastically passionate and just plain interesting. But his statement there rubs me wrong. And I’m not sure if it’s because I disagree that what he says is true or that I know it is and that’s what upsets me so much…

That little tidbit from his video was part of what inspired this post because, well, one I wish I was brave enough to do some video posts – they look like fun, but also, because I’ve always had a really different vision of a character sheet.

I see the character sheet as two things. First, I see it as a wish list. When you pick out the stuff that you put on your character sheet I see it as saying, “Look at me, this is what I want to be able to do in the game world.” I see it as your best chance, before play begins and the world and your experiences begin to shape you (as they inevitably should), to have a little alone time with your character and really put some thinking into what you want out of the experience of this game. You want to be a super-athlete, you buy a lot of physical skills and jumping and stuff. You want to be a grim-eyed warrior you do that… and so on. This is probably not that surprising to most gamers. I bet I’m not alone in this part of how I see a character sheet. The second function I see a character sheet serving though is a bit different (maybe, who knows?). I see a character sheet as a contract with the game – and with the other people at the table – that you are planning to play a certain way and be a certain way. They need that information to be reliable to you so that your representation is reliable to them. If you play a chaotic good rogue with an 8 Wisdom in a Pathfinder game then I certainly don’t expect you to be the calm, slow-playing, careful member of the group who is always the first to slow down the action and make the deep plans. Maybe that’s just me – but I feel like you’ve set an expectation with your choice to deal away your common sense and willpower (lower Wisdom) for advantages somewhere else and by taking a Chaotic alignment. That’s just a quick example off the top of my head and maybe not the best one but it makes something of the point.

I see the character sheet not as a defensive wall but as the first, most honest point of interaction between the player and the game. And I realized that when I designed my game, Legends of Ryllia, I deeply tried to accomplish that – but I failed because I kept letting mechanics get in the way without considering the message what I was doing might be sending. By making everything about “bonuses and penalties” I failed to connect the dots on the exactly what I wanted to accomplish.

And now, with about a decade more of gaming behind me I find that I’ve moved even farther in the direction of engagement over rules – but I still have no idea how to make that idea live. Like I said, I’m not a game designer…

As always, thanks for reading (especially today!)


4 responses

  1. BTW, I don’t know if you’ve seen this, or if you are interested, but this cross my feeds and I thought of you – – Uses the same system that powered Amber, don’t know if they did anything different with it.

  2. Heh. I was actually looking at this tonight. I’m debating if I’m in for this one… but thanks for the link… I appreciate the thought.

  3. I really like the co-mingling of what you seem to be getting at here.

    Somewhere in my past ramblings I ran across something similar where I began to wonder if there’s a better way of designing an epic system.

    Understandably, this is off-the-cuff and paraphrased heavily, but the concept went something like this:

    What if the game doesn’t need all that “stuff” for describing what the characters to do and define how they interact within the world. What if the real focus of the action isn’t about the characters at all but the reaction of everything to everything else. What if instead, the rules simply define how the world interacts with the player’s choices for their character, giving them free reign to be and do what they desire not because the rules allow it and its described on their character sheet, but because the rules don’t disallow it and the player so desires it.

    I think it was one of the first times I recognized there was another way. Maybe it wasn’t the best way, or even a good way. But it was a divergent path from the norm.

    I still think there’s merit to the concept of shifting the first action/reaction from the player to the world (and vice-versa.) And somewhere in there also lies the root seed of the concept that rules are merely interfaces to the enjoyment that can be harvested from a game.

  4. And that’s a good distillation of what I’m hoping to accomplish/wish I could figure out how to accomplish… I want the rules to act as a simple interface, not a detriment or a game of yahtzee. But then I think about climbing a mountain and I realize that if a character falls and there’s no dice roll – does that make the GM a jerk?

    It’s a weird dynamic. I don’t like what randomization does to a game but I’m also deeply just as sure that if you remove that element… it shapes what kind of game you run and what kind of challenges are important, and has just as many limitations… they just manifest in different ways.

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