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.
As I've been revising the foundational rules of Karma in the Dark for my first full release of Crossing Worlds, I've been reconsidering the utility, theme, and synergy of every mechanic. I found myself stuck on what to do with Harm for weeks. In the basic Forged in the Dark engine, harm is one of five possible consequences from a roll that doesn't get a 6 result. If you take harm, you write a short description in the box. Level 1 means you have decreased effect, level 2 means you have -1d, and level 3 means you need to push yourself or get assistance for actions.
Harm as it stands achieves three main purposes: narratively, it captures more long-standing injury; during scores, it creates a penalty for failure; and during downtime, it acts as a time/money sink because it requires downtime actions to recover.
Examining each purpose through the lens of Crossing Worlds, it didn't seem to fit.
Creating multiple games based on the same rule foundation (Forged in the Dark a.k.a. FitD) has caused me to think hard about the way specific mechanics affect gameplay—and how I might want to manipulate those effects for different results. Today’s post I’m going to review some design choices I made with core roll mechanic for the pirate adventure Tides of Gold versus the cyberpunk rebellion Karma in the Dark.
The Action Roll
Actions rolls are probably the most frequent roll you will make in a game. In the FitD system, action rolls generally play out like this: you face an obstacle, you describe how you overcome it, and you roll a dice pool based on the action you want to use. The outcome of your roll is influenced by three traits: the highest die you roll (e.g. 1-6); the position of your action (how dangerous it is, which affects the severity of consequences); and your effect (how much your roll achieves against the obstacle). In the core FitD system your position can be controlled, risky, or desperate, and your effect can be limited, standard, or great. Additionally, your effect is based on effect factors like your quality/tier, scale, and potency.
Both of my games alter these core mechanics in different ways.
I want to talk about the tension between creating a fair market for TTRPG products and hobby design.
First, let's talk about the value of not-for-profit game design.
Par for the course, I want to start with the psychology side. In the 20th century (and unfortunately still now) many people believed motivation came down to rewards and punishments. In the area of production/labor, this meant if you paid people they would be more motivated. Except Industrial Organizational psychologists found something different. In experiments in the mid-20th century, people engaged in an activity and then rated their enjoyment. Later, they engaged in the activity, received money for it, and rated their enjoyment.
Their intrinsic enjoyment went down when they were paid for it.
I'm known for going on tangents. The only consistent thing in my life is that I spend most of it creating things: novels, games, graphics. I love taking apart how art and games work, then reconstructing my own version from the pieces. I'm also enough of a layout perfectionist to adore eraser shields.