“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.
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.