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