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.
As luck would have it, I left my notebook of design sketches from the past month at work by accident. Since I had no intention of driving back to work during my long weekend, I turned to Twitter for help. I asked people to vote on three different mediums: tv show, video game, and tabletop RPG. Based on those results, I made a new design sketch every day this weekend.
After two months of design sketches, I've developed a pretty consistent process. I give myself only 30-60 minutes to run through it. Whatever doesn't get finished is left for another time:
1. Cross Unlikely Inspiration Sources
For the examples based on the Twitter vote, I crossed TV shows, video games, and existing TTRPGs. I asked people to vote to get random results on purpose: thinking creatively is often easier within limits. This is why writers will often use a writing prompt, or artists might participate in monthly themes for their daily sketches.
Normally I don't ask Twitter to generate random prompts, but I do always decide on a limited focus for my design sketches. This helps me generate new ideas quickly and in unexpected ways.
My daily sketches almost always start with me combining unlikely pairs:
Hint: you can right click-open image in new tab to zoom-in on any of these photos. Not that my handwriting is very legible anyway.
2. Define Core Aspects of the Original
Saturday's design sketch was based on the #1 result of each poll area: She-Ra television show; Dishonored video game; and Masks TTRPG.
Sunday was #2: Cloak & Dagger; Slay the Spire; and Stars Without Number.
Monday was #3: Breaking Bad; Armello; and Dungeons & Dragons.
As you can see in the images, I took 1 page and about 5 minutes to jot down the key aspects of the originals. I'm guessing most people can read my lists and think certain things were left out or they would highlight different aspects, and that's perfectly valid. The key is to focus on brainstorming quickly, and focusing on what sticks out or appeals to you when thinking about the inspiration sources.
What I focused on varied depending on the source material. For example, Slay the Spire caused me to think about game mechanics more, while Dishonored made me think about atmosphere and how stories were told, and Armello made me think about who made up the world. This is one benefit of combining different ideas every day or two for these design sketches; it makes you focus on and consider different aspects of what goes into a design.
3. Mix Inspiration Themes to Create a New Core Concept
Usually by the time I finish listing themes and ideas from the inspiration source, my brain has already started generating new ideas based on mixing and matching them.
At first, this new concept often consists of a question or even a few images/words. I don't begin to really develop it until the next step.
Saturday's core concept (She-Ra/Dishonored/Masks): teenagers with super powers are kicked out of school/labeled as delinquents and have to fight back against the tyrant who framed them
Sunday's core concept (Cloak & Dagger/Slay the Spire/Stars Without Number): characters suffered a tragedy together and now are caught in a loop fighting something, dying, and facing it again until they can resolve...? powers around hopes/fears are important
Monday's core concept (Breaking Bad/Armello/Dungeons & Dragons): D&D but you are animals and also building a criminal empire like Blades in the Dark
As is pretty clear from the examples, the focus and detail of the concept varies significantly based on the inspiration sources and what interests me about them.
4. Experiment with Mechanics
After I've started to form ideas about the new concept, I brainstorm mechanical ideas. For some design sketches, I spend the majority of the time on the first three steps, figuring out a new concept. In other cases, most of the time goes into this mechanics section. In all cases, I focus in on only a few mechanics.
The point isn't to leave this sketch with a complete game; it's to experiment with new ideas. The fact problems are left unsolved actually makes it easier to keep thinking through the design and if it stays interesting, devote another sketch session to building on those ideas.
The image below shows that for Sunday's sketch, all of my "mechanics" design fit into two pages. It resulted in very little concrete decisions, but focused more on identifying the different systems the game would use.
Monday's design, in contrast, focused almost entirely on mechanics. This isn't much of a surprise since the core concept I developed was D&D meets Armello (a digital boardgame) meets Blades in the Dark. When you combine mechanically-heavy inspirations, the question becomes how do those mechanics interact?
On Sunday I thought mostly about how to tie disparate themes and emotions into a mechanical framework; Monday I spent a lot of of time on anydice.com calculating roll probabilities. As far as the purpose of daily sketches goes, both were equally useful because they forced me to practice very different aspects of design.
Overall, these daily sketches have taught me an important lesson about developing mechanics. I cannot design engaging mechanics in a vaccum. What do I mean? Several times my daily sketch has focused only on this step: I think of an interesting mechanic, and spend my 30-ish minutes trying to develop that mechanic into an engaging form.
It never works for me. It's hard to balance a mechanic, or decide what "works" when it's removed from the context of how I would use it. Usually I finish the design sketch frustrated and throwing the work out. It feels too convoluted; or too boring; or too pointless.
Let me give an example of the opposite result. Monday's sketch focused on weaving together mechanics from D&D and Blades in the Dark. I decided to embrace the D&D dynamic of using dice of many different sizes: d20 is the base, but you can also use d4, d6, d8, d12, etc., especially when it comes to combat damage.
Several times the question became: okay, but which die type do I use? Is this a d20 moment or a variable moment? And if it's variable, what dice should I pick?
The answer for me was to ask the question: how swingy do I want the roll to feel? Is there a higher chaos level (e.g. a d20) or should there be more controlled progression (e.g. always a d6, but you get to add modifiers)? By asking myself about the experience I wanted to create, I was able to quickly pick the mechanical design that supported that experience.
5. List Unfinished Work
I finish a daily sketch by essentially making a to-do list of unfinished work. This is never meant to be an exhaustive task list. It serves two purposes. One, I can brain-dump questions or ideas that came up but couldn't be completed. This allows me to step away from the daily sketch with a clear mind. Two, it provides creative prompts for future sketches. When I don't know what to work on, or I know I want to return to a previous idea, it provides the initial inspiration to get started.
As shown in the examples, this list is often very short:
Benefits of Sketching
I've been practicing design sketches several times a week for about 2.5 months.
The practice has helped me grow as a designer in numerous ways. I've become more comfortable with different mechanical systems; I've become better at modifying and creating my own mechanics; I'm able to develop the core premise of a game easier; I can separate good and bad ideas faster; I've become better at thinking about the connection between specific mechanical choices and the experience they create; I'm more aware of the way the idea/concept of a game inspires interest, etc.
The practice has also taught me a more sustainable form of design. Sketches have taught me how to design games in small, focused bursts of creativity. This makes it easier to fit design work into a busy schedule. It also means the progress of projects is less affected by chronic health problems as I can continue to iterate and develop in short sessions, and I always have a list of things to work through during the days I feel better.
Unexpectedly, daily sketches have increased the amount of fun I have designing. They have brought a sense of playfulness back to thinking about games. They are also a daily reminder to toss out perfection. To disband with the idea that a design must become a game and a game must become a product. I have a notebook full of sketches; I'd guess 80% or more will stay in sketch form, never becoming something else. Many of them are bad ideas. Or tired/trite ideas. Or not something I'm interested in playing.
Trying to cross concepts and experiment with new ideas has also encouraged me to read many more games. Not to play them; not to compare myself to them; but to find inspiration for new experiments. Not surprisingly, that has the side effect of introducing me to some awesome designers I probably would have missed otherwise...and lets me appreciate their work even when I can't play every game.
But...the Vote Prototypes?
After sketching out three different prototypes, am I making any of them into a game?
The She-Ra/Dishonored/Masks game doesn't feel original enough to interest me right now. I'm interested in further exploring you-are-psychics-but-the-powers-are-a-metaphor-for-teen-angst theme, so a future design sketch might involve exploring what those playbooks would actually look like. And how the power advancement (choose more power or better control) might play out.
The Cloak & Dagger/Slay the Spire/Stars Without Number sketch has a surreal feel that appeals to me, but my brain needs to turn over a lot more ideas and questions before I have any actionable next steps.
Completely against my own prediction, the D&D/Armello/Breaking Bad game interests me the most. The core concept came together easiest. I quickly worked out the core mechanics. Now I need to develop some animal themed D&D inspired classes. Which is interesting, intimidating, and a very concrete "next step" plan, which makes it easier to pursue.
So who knows. Maybe that will be June's experimental game: you are animals in a land ravaged by magical Rot, your homes and traditional sources of food destroyed. Now you must band together as a clan of bandits to steal from the tyrannical lion king so your family can survive. Mechanically, it will be Dungeons & Dragons meets Blades in the Dark.
Or maybe tomorrow's design sketch will set me an entirely different direction. That's part of the fun.
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.