This blog has changed a lot over the three years (?!) I've been writing. It started very much as a personal reflection space about my own designs and ideas, but expanded into many other topics like accessibility in layout and cultural values in game design.
While it's been a great ride, due to changing circumstances, there won't be any new posts on this blog for the foreseable future.
My Patreon will continue to be the place where I post about the more personal (and less polished) thoughts about my design process and development.
In this post, I created an index of some of the most popular posts for easy reference.
Culture in Games
Why Games Matter
Play Pyramid as a Revision Tool
Starting a Forged in the Dark Design
Designing Trauma-Informed Games
Toxicity in TTRPGs: Role of Social Economy
Can the Discourse Improve
Toxcicity in Game Development
Managing Parasocial Relationships
Personal Design Process
Forged in the Dark: Role of Rolls
Tides of Gold: Rethinking the Role of Playbooks
Tides of Gold: Balancing Power Fantasy & Meaningful Choice
Ruralpunk: Weaving Genre with Reality
Ruralpunk: New Advancement System a.k.a. Friendship is Magic
Ruralpunk: Changing the FitD Trauma Mechanic
And the very first post: Why I Created Karma in the Dark
The discourse over the past week has led to numerous people on both sides declaring they feel hopeless about the TTRPG community, scared of engaging, and defeated. I have yet to see anyone really say, “Gosh, that went well.”
I’m not good at being hopeless, but I also don’t want to lean into unearned optimism that things could be better/are better than they seem. So I want to step back and analyze some of the larger dynamics in the discourse. Specifically, the role of Twitter as a platform, the role of ambiguity, the role of bias, and ways we can start to improve how we manage these elements.
The experience of trauma is unfortunately common. In a previous post, I discussed some ways we can incorporate the principles of trauma-informed care into the way we play games and relate to each other in gaming spaces. In this post I want to start a conversation for how these principles could look embedded into game design.
There will be some repetition in this post to catch up people who haven't read the earlier post about trauma informed care.
Why Should Game Designers Think About Trauma?
As revealed by the ACE study traumatic experiences are common: 66% of respondents experienced at least one adverse event in childhood and more than 20% reported three or more different kinds of adverse events. This study focused only on childhood in the U.S. Another study found that worldwide, 70% of respondents experienced a trauma in their life and 30.5% experienced four or more traumas.
Not everyone who experiences a trauma develops posttraumatic stress disorder. The absence of PTSD doesn't mean, however, that they are unaffected by it. There is a wide range of expected and normal reactions to severe stress.
There is also growing evidence that chronic stress causes changes to the mind and body's reactions in ways similar to PTSD. So even people who do not experience trauma as we might think of it can still experience PTSD-like changes from being in a fight-or-flight state on an ongoing basis.
The reality is, when we design and release games we are engaging with a group (humans on this planet) who likely have experienced trauma or chronic stress and will react differently as a result.
CW: This post references a game that has been criticized for promoting power imbalances in sexual relationships and pedophilia. While I do not discuss the game's content in any detail, the post does include links to Twitter threads which talk about the game. The post is also fundamentally tied to those topics as I process the situation below and it may be upsetting to read.
Before last night I never saw or read Hot Guys Making Out. The title made it clear the game wasn't for me (I don't play romance TTRPGs). After reading the game, all the Twitter threads I can find, and past discussions/comments, there is a lot to unpack.
Parasocial relationships can be incredibly uncomfortable. They are also nearly impossible to avoid if you are an indie developer who wants to market your game. Platforms like Twitter and Twitch can be huge assets for catching attention and engaging interest.
The power of these platforms goes beyond business. In a world of constant stimulation, the loudest voice often makes the biggest impact. How do you get a loud voice in the digital world? Have a bigger social media following. Get more channel subscribers. But as your platform grows, your ability to know and interact with individual people rapidly diminishes. The parasocial relationships forms.
This is hardly a new problem; it’s been the problem of celebrity for generations. But now it’s a problem that many people who never wanted celebrity—who maybe just want to make games or make political change or talk about their passions or play games—face.
Today I want to dive into a bit of the psychology of parasocial relationships: why they can be so uncomfortable and some possible methods for easing that discomfort.
Earlier this week I made the decision to pull Karma in the Dark from public access.
As it stands now, the game needs significant revisions before I would feel comfortable keeping it available. Some of my problems with it are tied to the genre and original games that inspired it. Some of the problems are related to game mechanics that need a significant overhaul.
At the end of the day, it made more sense for me to take pieces of the game and start from the beginning to build an entirely new game. That game is Ruralpunk: a game about the cyberpunk future in rural communities.
Once Ruralpunk's main playtesting is complete, I will re-write the world generator from Karma so people can create their own cyberpunk setting.
“I want to design a game…where do I start?”
I see this question come up frequently in gaming spaces—Discord, Twitter, forums—so in this post I want to give three different answers.
Why three different answers?
Every project and every creative process is different. I’ve used all of these techniques when starting a game design. Part of the design process is figuring out what approach works for you.
Because Forged in the Dark is a popular first-hack system, I’ll use it as my example. These techniques can be used for most projects that adapt an existing system. If you want to create your own system that’s a more complex topic for another day.
CW: Discussion of abuse, harassment, and mention of intimate partner violence
I read two sides to the backlash against the announcement (and resulting interactions) of Ooblets being exclusive to the Epic Store.
Side 1: Wow gamers are super toxic and entitled.
Side 2: Wow the Ooblets developers were really antagonistic and deserve to be called out.
After reading through multiple twitter threads, blog posts, Discord chat, and seeing screenshots (some allegedly doctored) my take away has six points I want to explore at length.
Before that exploration, however, I want to make one thing clear: racist, violent threats are never justified. Harassment is not justified. Literally everything I write here must rest on that foundation or it’s pointless.
While I am going to use Ooblets as an example, these dynamics are not unique to their case. Much of what I want to explore occurs frequently, which is why it seems worth taking a closer look.
Note: this post originally appeared on my personal blog; it's been reposted here as I've decided to keep all of my articles in one place
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a fairy tale of privilege.
If it was just an ancient psychological theory, I wouldn’t care, but thinking that agrees with it continues to shape people’s judgments about motivation and acceptability.
Let’s break it down.
One of my main design goals with Ruralpunk is to balance narrative decision making with streamlined advancement. Today I want to share the different group advancement mechanics I've created and how they all fold into the same theme: interwoven relationships.
In Ruralpunk, you don't have different crew types, you choose a town type. This determines your starting town, the local factions, the contacts you can make, and the improvements you can build.
You advance your town through three systems: managing corruption, contacts, and town improvements.
I ran into a problem with Karma in the Dark: the system incentivized roleplaying that could be...unpleasant. If you filled your stress tracker (which was even more common than in Blades because the system leaned into mechanizing overwhelming oppression/power imbalances) you gained a "jaded instinct." A little bit of your rebellious idealism wore away, replaced by tendencies to insist you were correct or distrust others or exploit others. If a player roleplayed this jaded instinct, they gained xp.
In theory, it sounds very cyberpunk.
In practice, it means that either the PCs become unpleasant people or the players give up a chance for extra xp.
I knew I wanted to find a new solution for Ruralpunk: something that still reflected back the wear and tear of pushing against an oppressive world, but allowed for a wider range of roleplaying. Something players could tailor to their own RP interests a little more.
I found the answer in a sacrifice/beliefs mechanic.
My favorite experiences involve contrasts. This is why games that mostly lean into a power fantasy, or games that try too hard to create a gritty experience, only hold my interest for a short time. When I designed Tides of Gold, I wanted to explore a game that tried to weave these two elements together. The fantastical experiences would be inspiring and fun, but the difficult decisions would introduce a sense of meaningful, weighty decisions.
There were two reasons for this.
One, I know in my game groups, our desire to play something light or challenging can be heavily influenced by real life circumstances. I wanted a game that allowed groups to adapt the tone of their campaign session-to-session, depending on their mood and IRL circumstances..
Two, my strongest memories in game campaigns are the bittersweet ones. The sessions that mixed humor with loss, heroic success with sacrifice, or over-the-top antics with a serious underlying theme. I wanted to design a game intended to create these moments more often in play: the contrast of inspiring and gritty.
The rest of this post is going to review how I designed Tides of Gold with this contrast in mind.
"Social media is a toxic cesspool of hate and has no value"
"We all like and play games...a social hobby. Why does this keep happening?"
I only started really participating in online TTRPG communities in the past eight months. In that short time I've lost track of how many events led to escalating arguments that always seemed to end in hurt feelings, factionalization, and abuse of some sort (name-calling, dog piling, cursing out, all the way to targeted harassment and doxing). Listening to people who have been around much longer, this seems to be "normal."
Frankly, I find that horrific and about two months ago decided I need to rethink participating in any TTRPG community or designing games for the TTRPG community.
But cut-off isn't usually my first tactic, so I decided to step back a little and take time to analyze what I saw, in myself and in these larger community dynamics.
The dynamics are complicated. I quit writing my first draft of this blog at 20 pages because my response was spanning too many words and too many topics and still leaving out important factors.
So now, instead, I want to focus down on one specific dynamic I haven't seen discussed much: the commodification of community and the way that shapes interaction.
I've been quietly experimenting with idea of RuralPunk since last fall. There's always been a disconnect between me and traditional cyberpunk caused by its urban focus. I've spent most of my life in small towns and rural communities. While many of the stressors of the future between urban and rural places are connected, they manifest in different ways.
So that's the question that has teased me for months: what would a cyberpunk future look like in a rural setting?
I decided this month I need to dive in and explore that space. I am going to revise the Karma in the Dark rules and focus them on a ruralpunk setting. Immediately, I realized that this process would mirror my original process of adapting Blades in the Dark to a cyberpunk setting. Many mechanics will stay the same, but many others will need to be tweaked to fit this new setting.
The question became: what needs to change? And what does that look like?
The answer, I realized, is based on how I see and want to explore this ruralpunk future.
"If we make that main character, it won’t be appealing to fans.”
“I don’t think this story is very relatable.”
“Why does a white person writing ‘Asian fantasy’ get more attention than people from the original culture??!”
I imagine many of us have seen the discussions, the debates, the criticisms, the arguments—in fiction publishing, in video games, in movies, in tabletop games—that point to an ongoing problem: the entertainment industry is still dominated by Western, white, often United States-centric creations and themes.
This dominance doesn’t continue because no one else exists in these creative spaces. A diverse range of people, across multiple aspects of identity and experiences, are creating entertainment.
But who gets funding?
Who gets PR?
There are exceptions, sure, but the majority still focuses on the same demographic.
There’s a conversation we can have about accessibility and resources (and many people are, which is great) but there’s another element at work: the challenge of creating a sense of resonance when you don’t belong to the majority culture.
What do I mean?
The last few weeks I’ve split my downtime between returning to World of Warcraft (WoW) and participating in beta testing for the Classic (original 2004) version of WoW. Returning to both games at roughly the same time, after not playing any version of WoW for almost ten years, led me to automatically compare and contrast the versions.
This post is a casual reflection on those comparisons with some ending thoughts on game design.
A number of creative disciplines use some form of the daily sketch. For artists, this often means doing one rapid sketch a day. In creative writing, this might take the form of writing a few paragraphs or pages each day based on a random prompt. In crochet and knitting, you can practice a new advanced stitch for a few lines each day. With musical instruments, this might mean practicing a new scale or passage focused on a specific technique.
These exercises have a dual purpose: they build a daily habit and focus on experimenting with new techniques, instead of a finished product.
But what does this kind of practice look like for designing tabletop RPGs?
Some people suggested that game jams fulfill this purpose. I disagree. Game jams usually emphasize or even require a finished game. It can be rough, untested, and short, but there is still an expectation of a game. This keeps a product-focus rather than a technique-focus.
I decided a few months ago I would try to find a form of design sketching that works for me. The rest of this post will review the process I developed, some example prototypes, and what I learned along the way.
I am terrified of the game I'm currently designing:
It is a game about cultural disconnection, the harm family members do to each other, and children growing up and needing to decide their place in those dynamics.
It is a game that could be made very, very wrong.
It's also a game I haven't been able to get out of my mind for over a month.
Developing a chronic illness in 2018 fundamentally changed how I play games, which also changed which games I can play. This past spring I've started to take what I learned as a player to modify my design approach so I am creating games people like me can actually play.
This is not, to be clear, "how to design games while coping with a chronic illness," but more about how I have changed my own views on "good" game design as a result.
A little over a week ago I wrote a post about making anti-colonial games which generated some questions on Twitter about how this applies to video games and the role of design methdologies (e.g. using gameplay loops as a design tool).
Question 1: Can these [cultural] explorations happen in video games given the binary nature of computers?
My first reponse is on Twitter, but today I want to expand on the topic some more.
All game design—tabletop, video games, road trip time-wasters—happens within a cultural context. Or more accurately, within multiple contexts (context of the designer, context of the genre, the market, the individual players, etc.) but I want to focus for now on the context of the designer.
Before we dig deep into the discussion, I want to introduce some tools for examining culture. Culture, especially if you belong to the dominant culture of your area, can be like the water surrounding a fish: it is easy not to actively notice its existence or implications. In fact, as anthropologist Ralph Linton once famously said, "Water would be the last thing a fish would notice."
To step back and start noticing our own water, it can be helpful to start recognizing that our entire world and perception of it is interpreted. There are several lenses that affect this interpretation; today I want to focus on the idea of epistemology. Put simply, epistemology is the study of knowledge: what methods do we use to know something, how do we determine if something is valid, and what is the scope (or limits) of our knowledge?
In really practical terms, our ways of knowing shape how we understand and interact with our environment; it also strongly shapes what we would see as "valid" interpretations, and act as a filter for our expectation for the "default" way of understanding and reacting.
Conversation about accessible rulebooks often raises the question: why aren't more tabletop roleplaying games in epub and mobi format?
Diversifying the formats offered would allow more control over layout for those who need it. MOBI allows you to tap into all of the Kindle app's features like color of text and background, column size, text size, font, etc. EPUB allows control over font size, and also offers an easy to use text-to-speech feature.
I'm pretty sure that Jason Pitre was the one I first heard suggest a workflow involving markdown to allow easy adaption of your game text into ebook formats. Based on this idea, I decided to try and create a workflow that would allow me to publish games in 3 formats with the least amount of extra work: interactive PDF, EPUB, and MOBI.
So how did it go?
Since getting horribly sick last night means I couldn't finish my next blog on design theory, I want to focus instead on an important practice for my own development: seeking out new perspectives and lessons on design. I try to either read or listen to new content every week. It sharpens my skills, and also keeps me inspired by hearing the insights of others.
For today's post I want to point at a few of the resources I've found helpful for shaping my own thoughts about design.
Note: This post is very U.S. centric in nature.
Note the Second: I make broad statements in this piece; any discussion of culture is extremely complex and open to nuance and one blog post cannot do that justice
The folklore game jam has helped me realize what bothers me with a lot of the conversation around making anti-colonial games.* (*Many people use the term "decolonizing games"; I've moved away from that term, since decolonization should not be separated from its real-word actions; in other words, decolonization is not a metaphor.)
I didn’t plan on making a folklore game; then I ended up making two. One is based on a Cherokee story; the other was inspired by a Scottish story. As I worked on the games I found myself revisiting the stories I grew up on. Looking at Cherokee and Scottish stories at the same time made one thing very clear: folklore reveals a lot about culture. It captures the values we want to pass on from one generation to the next.
This statement may seem a little “no duh” for anyone who has considered folklore before. But it feels revolutionary in this moment to me because folklore takes the unspoken values and make them blatant. It takes the cultural assumptions and teaches them outright. I’ve returned to a number of stories I grew up on with a new eye, and feel like I’m crystallizing in my mind the unspoken, transmitted values that surrounded me throughout my life.
How does this relate to cultural assumptions, and colonialism, embedded in games?
I hit the designer’s version of writer’s block for the first time this winter. I wasn’t sure how to deal with it, so I decided to avoid the issue by throwing myself into playing a lot more games. And reading even more.
Turns out, that’s exactly what I needed.
Every time I read or play a game two things happen:
I won’t dive into every game I’ve played or read, but I want to focus on one specifically: Interstitial: Our Hearts Intertwined by Riley Hopkins a.k.a. The Kingdom Hearts roleplaying game.
I had no idea what to expect when I agree to play this game. I’ve never played more than 30 minutes of Kingdom Hearts. I’ve never played a game where I roleplay an existing character. And I’d never actually heard of the game until someone suggested we play it. The game is made with the Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) system, and at this point I’d had lukewarm experiences with PbtA games.
So it’s probably fair to say my reaction going into this game was, “Meh.”
My reaction coming out was, “I love this game. I have so much to learn from this game. When can I play again?”
If you want to hear me talk about the game as a player, you can keep an eye on the Voices at play podcast, where I was part of a roundtable discussion about the game. That episode will be coming out in the next month.
Here I want to focus on the game as a designer.
Revisiting the concept of a play pyramid for game design recently helped me focus my editing process for game mechanics.
Crossing Worlds is going to be a new game based on mechanics developed for Karma in the Dark. But just hacking Blades for a Shadowrun inspired setting (Karma) required mechanical adjustments; taking Karma into a game world about Cherokee futurism in a off world sci-fi setting would definitely require mechanical adjustments. I also learned a lot in my three years of designing Karma, so many of my mechanic choices now seem...questionable.
I've been grappling with this pretty massive revision project, and not well. My direction for tackling the revision drifted over the past few months as I struggled to find a good way to making editing decisions.
Then I watched Cory Barlog's GDC presentation on reinventing God of War. As he described the process of moving from the original franchise to pitching a new game to actually developing that new game, one image stood out: the play pyramid for the new game.
Thinking about pilars of gameplay isn't revolutionary (I've even looked at it before for Karma in the Dark) but this image struck me for two reasons:
This dynamic appealed to me because Karma (and by extention, the first draft of CW) had begun to feel unwieldly. There were too many ideas, too many systems, too many rules to learn. I wanted something more streamlined.
I stepped back and asked myself what the play pyramid would look like for Crossing Worlds.
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.