“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).
A speaker at GDC (unfortunately I can't remember the specific speech) made the argument that we shouldn't aim to please everyone with our games; that tactic often leads to more bland, middle of the road game design. Instead, we should design in a way that sparks conversation and controversy. If a game mechanic is polarized between "loved it vs. hated it", your design is more interesting than "everyone said it was fine."
This speech crystallized some of my dissatisfaction with certain aspects of team advancement. In v3.1 of Karma, team upgrades often follow a similar pattern: get the ability that increases our action skill, get an ability to make training xp more efficient, etc. Even the upgrades that were less optimization focused felt...dull?
So I decided to rework almost all of team advancement around a few principles:
This post is completely a thinking-by-journaling piece, so even more than normal I'm developing my thoughts as I go.
I've been listening to GDC presentations during my commute the past 2 weeks. Today I listened to the newest release, a 2018 presentation by Zach Gage called "Building Games that Can Be Understood at a Glance." He introduces the idea of a game that is "subway legible", i.e. if you play this game on your phone while taking the subway, the person next to you can glance over, see the game, and get enough visual information to grab their interest and communicate the core mechanics/point of the game. He teaches people how to create these types of games through the idea of the "3 reads".
Using the example of a concert poster, he explains that the first read is what people can see from a distance and immediately grabs their attention (e.g. the band's name in big text); the second read is when that person moves closer to the poster, seeking more details (e.g. the day, time, venue); and the third read is when people look at those much smaller details that provide the information you only need if you're going to act on the poster or especially interested (e.g. the organizer of the concert's name).
His talk is relatively brief and gives some great examples of how this applies to visual design in games, user interfaces, tutorials, advertisement, etc.
As I watched, I started thinking that this applies really well to tabletop rpgs as well.
The core question of Karma in the Dark is archetypical: what are you willing to do for power? How much will you let the pursuit for power corrupt you?
In the fantasy genre, this is presented as a pretty black and white concept. There is the Big Bad who is Evil, and the Good Guys who fight for what is Right no matter the cost. This paradigm assumes a certain black and white morality.
In cyberpunk, it is more common for compromised, imperfect antiheroes to push back against an even more corrupt system . . . or to push back against people who are doing "the right thing" but in horrific ways that undercut its rightness. This is the gray vs. grey trope of the genre. While it doesn't offer the same stark morality as fantasy, there is still this play of morally right, wrong, what falls in between, and what really determines one from the other.
In Karma, I'm not as interested in right and wrong. From a design standpoint, I don't want to enforce my morales on the player, both on principle and on an engagement level; it's hard to be engaged in a moral struggle if you don't genuinely feel invested in the moral issues.
This is part of why I want players to pick their virtues, rebellion, and team ideal. You pick your morales, and then the world holds those as true.
But I'm also more interested in exploring how these moral choices impact a sense of identity.
When I edit designs, I like to invoke the rule of three. This gives a certain symmetry to design, but it also helps enforce editing. For example, in v3.0, bonds can be used for 5 benefits right now. Once I see what gets used the most by players and what makes the game the most interesting, I will edit those down to 3 benefits.
As I "think aloud" through design, I will also edit it down at different points. When it comes to answering world-building questions, the rule of three has another use: it helps me tap into the core aspects which should be reflected in mechanics.
What do I mean by that?
Criticism 3: What would be your version of a dystopia?
This point came in the context of disconnecting from Shadowrun, but raised perhaps the most compelling questions of all. When I made Karma 1.0, I was intentional about trying to limit my own political views and creative vision. It leaked in some, but I held back. In version 2.0 and now 3.0, I let in slightly more of my personal vision.
This question, and the developing v3.1, has allowed me to drop all restraint and fully embrace what I want to say in this game. And yeah, it's political. To steal Andrew Gillis's phrasing in his Girl by Moonlight playtest document, this is a game about cyberpunk-fantasy, but really it's a game about oppression and violence, and how those two forces can twist our sense of identity.
Criticism two: streamline mechanics
The second criticism hits on something I knew was a problem, but hadn't solved yet. Namely, that while I like the idea of relevance changing your effect in the world, the current implementation is clunky because it adds an extra step to the entire process of determining a roll. You need to factor in relevance, then look at other effect factors, if well...relevant.
One possible suggestion was to make relevance a factor instead of quality, and maybe rethinking scale and potency as factors. The idea of redefining how fictional positioning works in my game opened my mind to a new level of hacking the Forged in the Dark system.
Critiques are the best part about releasing a game for playtesting and public feedback. I was lucky enough to get some criticisms/ suggestions which crystallized some issues I've been turning over in my mind. As I work through those design points, I want to post more here.
Criticism 1: You need to remove all traces of Shadowrun
When I first made Karma in the Dark I never planned to make it a real game. I figured it would be good experience/practice before I focused on my real game, Rootless.
But then as I playtested the game, and worked through design problems, the game became its own thing. Now that I do want to develop it into something real, I need to remove all traces of Shadowrun.
This challenge is amazingly freeing creatively; the first few changes are already exciting me.
"It's a very, very dark world you describe. . . but there are surprising moments of light."
The concept of this game started out very simple: I want to play Shadowrun with the mechanics of Blades in the Dark. That took a sidestep when I decided I wanted to play Shadowrun 1E (my childhood experience) with Blades mechanics. As I began to re-read the first edition rules, then all of the associated sourcebooks, the world design grabbed me in a way newer versions of the game never could.
Shadowrun was about being a SINless, someone who legally cannot participate in society.
Shadowrun was about surviving based on who you knew. . . not your money or gear.
Shadowrun was a mix of being a mercenary and an idealist, outside the system.
Very little of that flavor text translated into game mechanics in Shadowrun, so that became my new challenge: make mechanics that create an experience like the actual world design.
The first version of Karma was the hybrid child of Blades and Shadowrun. The second version started to play with a new idea: making your ideals vs. corruption matter. This third version is intended to be a much stronger step into using specific mechanics to create a specific experience.
This week I finally found myself able to define what that feel is:
You will never be forced by the mechanics . . . only tempted and punished by them.
I am currently working on the third version of Karma in the Dark:
One of my core editing goals at this point is to create a cohesive, streamlined system for the rules. The rules will have some crunch to them, but I want it to all fit together tightly and make both mechanical and conceptual sense.
This is probably the hardest part of the design process for me. Before games, I studied architecture. My process was predictable: get a design problem, come up with some off-the-wall radical twist, create the super complicated version of my design . . . then spend 90% of my time editing: refining, streamlining, simplifying. Creative ideas are easy; elegant execution requires blood, sweat, tears, and many sleep-deprived work sessions.
Watching Adam Koebel's recent Office Hours episode reminded me of Jared Sorensen's 3 questions of game design:
Which might point to why my work on Rootless has become so relationship-focused.
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.