Wednesday, December 30, 2009

To all aspiring rpg designers:

What I'm about to say, I say not as someone who's some kind of industry veteran (I could technically call myself a professional game designer, but even that's stretching it). But there's a pitfall I stumbled into a few years back, and since then I've seen a hundred other amateur game designers do the same thing. At this point I have to start shouting it from the rooftops:

STOP OBSESSING OVER RESOLUTION MECHANICS. You're missing the forest for the trees.

Over and over, there'll be a fellow excited designer who's got this project he's eager to discuss with others. Great! I love hearing about/brainstorming on these things! They'll start with a few sentences laying out some original premise, usually one that sounds pretty darn promising.

And then they'll follow this up with a page of text detailing exactly how you roll the dice.

Yes, you do at least need a rough idea of the process the players use (i.e. participate in) to determine what happens when they try to do something. It'll be a prominent part of the gameplay, and in early discussions they'll at least warrant an explanation of the basics. But don't say "It's a game where you're wannabe dragonslayers in a realm where they're venerated as gods", follow that up with four paragraphs about how you roll a dice whose size is determined by the relevant stat and then roll that many d6es (plus an additional number equal to the relevant skill, etc. etc.), then after that say "What do you think?" The only way I can provide substantive input is to gloss over everything you said about game mechanics, focusing solely on the premise. Otherwise I'm stuck making vague generalizations like "This sort of mechanic can potentially be [negative/positive quality], assuming [condition A] and [condition B]. You know, if that's going to be the case."

The point I'm trying to get across here is that core mechanics are kinda like the main ingredients in a recipe. Choosing them means you've gone a long way towards determining what your creation will be like, and any unconventional decisions at this stage will set you far apart from the pack. But that doesn't mean you can evaluate the *quality* of your creation, or even have a substantive discussion on the matter. You've got to know the other ingredients, and how they'll come together. And the more original your ideas are, the less useful discussion becomes; some things can only be discovered once you actually try the recipe out.

Also, no one cares if your scores can be arranged in aesthetically pleasing fashion. If you have X sets of Y stats and each has Z relevant skills, making it so that all 3 variables are the same number will not improve the game experience in any significant way. It doesn't matter.


F. Douglas Wall said...

Yeah, while mechanics are important for setting up how your world works, it really is easy to miss the forest for the trees. I think that's one reason that I tend to design rather simple systems, so that the mechanics are directly in support of my theme.

vazor said...


Dagda (Brooks Harrel) said...

That's an interesting way of putting it, "setting up how your world works". I know that I see mechanics- even in an RPG that focuses very little on the G- as determining which aspects of the narrative the game focuses on (as well as to what degree). Two games might have combat resolution systems that lead to the same in-game world- my hero having a 30% chance of beating the cyclops by himself, for example- but if one system resolves combat using 3-second rounds that involve 2 die rolls each, and the other has me roll once to see if I win, then they're going to create very different experiences for the person *playing* the game.