“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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Tides of Gold was the one-weekend experiment that ended up becoming the game that shifted how I thought about Forged in the Dark (FitD) game design.
Rather than do a full post-mortum on the project I want to highlight one aspect that turned out to be really important: the role of playbook concepts.
In Blades and my previous game Karma in the Dark, playbooks were primarily about the type of professional you are, i.e. your skill set. A Whisper is about tapping the occult in Blades; a Broker is about social manipulation in Karma. The playbooks were about what you do (with some flavor of how you do it in the xp triggers).
For Tides, playbooks are more about your role in the crew. If you choose the Compass it isn’t just about doing mystical stuff, it’s about being the moral anchor and voice in the group. Think Cassie in the Animorph books or often Kayley in Firefly. If you are the Old Timer it’s not just about being skillful with surviving, it’s about being the one who has seen tragedy and wants to prevent it from reoccurring by sharing wisdom. The Firebrand, one of the new playbooks, is about being the one who pushes people to take action, to be passionate, to challenge and act fiercer in pursuit of what you care about.
All of this ties back to the central theme of the game. Tides is a game where you play as pirates, but it’s actually about the intersection of family and purpose. You have an anchor that motivates you along with some purpose for striking out into dangerous waters and trying to gain money (and perhaps respect/power). You have a crew that is more like a found family. And your playbook is a way of saying, “this is the role I want to take within this (probably dysfunctional) family.”
In July I tweeted: "When you've been working on a project for 3 years, are preparing to release the 4th version, and THAT's when your brain is like, 'Oh, THIS is what the game was about the entire time.' Thanks editor brain, glad you finally showed up to the party."
Last summer I was writing an intro to the Mission chapter of the book, and as I described what missions you would be called to do, and why the powers-that-be relied on the desperate, my brain was like, "Oh hey, this feels familiar."
Crossing Worlds is about several things, but the advancement system? The entire concept of doing missions for "more important people?" Starting with a mix of ideals and ambition, then becoming jaded and beat up in the process?
That part of the game is about the military system in the United States.
What do I mean by that? On this Martin Luther King Jr Day, I'm going to turn to his words. From his speech "Beyond Vietnam":
"I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.
"Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.
"My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettos of the North over the last three years, especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent."
Full Speech transcript and audio. If you aren't familiar with this speech, it is well worth a listen (or read).
Crossing Worlds, in many way, is about the military. Join. Fulfill the agendas of those above you. Conform to the system to find success, or leave the system. Be pulled in by the promise of benefits (healthcare, stable salary, educational scholarships) but pay the price of extreme stress, potential trauma, and existing in an inherently dehumanizing system that refers to you as "bodies", i.e. "We need another body...you can't go on leave, we don't have enough bodies...ok y'all, we're going to be down some bodies over the next few weeks."
I will be the first to admit the benefits of military service can positively change a person's life. My own family has served for generations, and received financial and educational benefits, as well as developing skills of leadership, resilience, organization, discipline, and probably a dozen others from that service. But as MLK Jr highlights, you can't escape the violence inherent in the system, especially with such a disparity between who makes the laws and declares the wars, and who actually serves.
I can't play military-themed roleplaying games personally. Partly because seeing non-service members "roleplay" being in the military based on Hollywood stereotypes is grating, and partly because I don't like my hobbies to remind me too closely of real-life events.
But as it turns out, all along I was making a game about the military. Just in this version there are no ranks or uniforms, and instead we have super-sized magical pets and Inspector Gadget level cybernetics....and I'm okay with that.
I've continued to work on the setting summary. Rather than edit the first post (again) I've decided to post the next version of the setting. Since I don't currently stream my design, this is the closest you can get to design-in-real time.
I am working on making a default ready-to-play setting for Karma in the Dark. Other design projects have been put on pause while I jump fully into this revision.
This is something I've been considering for over a year but put off for various reasons. The rulebook will continue to support making your own world with the world creation chapter, but that will be optional rather than required.
I've been turning around ideas about the default setting for a long time. I want to hold onto touchstones of a dystopian, oppressive world counter balanced by fantastic magic and technology. Perhaps the biggest (and maybe divisive) choice was to leave earth for the default setting. I've felt restricted by concepts of traditional cyberpunk and want to explore similar themes in a different way. That suddenly became easier when I stepped into the broader speculative fiction space.
Below is a draft of the current concept. It is still open to significant change and reworking. (For example, this write-up has already been redone three times today).
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.