“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.
1. Start with the Fiction
Blades in the Dark is a game rooted in its fiction. While this is true for most games, it becomes especially true for Blades because fictional positioning is woven into the foundation of its rules.
Fictional positioning is the idea that the way you describe the situation, and how your character is relating to it, influences your outcomes. Blades makes this explicit through its position and effect rules: how you describe your character’s actions affects how dangerous their action is (position) and how much it will accomplish (effect).
Stras makes the point that fiction in design is key because to answer the question “how dangerous is this action?” requires knowledge of the fictional world.
Even beyond position/effect, the fiction is represented in almost every aspect of Blades: you can push yourself by taking stress, recover with vices, and develop traumas when you take too much stress—that very loop says a lot about the tone and nature of the fictional world. The names of actions reflect the fiction. Actions give you a finite number of options so that says something about the way people can act in this work. Being able to Skirmish and Wreck creates a very different world from one where you Connect and Console. Playbooks, from their description to their special abilities, all establish the fictional tone.
You can see John Harper discuss this approach with Adam Koebel here.
How to Start with the Fiction
I recommend making your game’s equivalent of the one-page game overview that was included with Blades. It is a useful outline for answering: what is the main concept, what is most unique about this world, how do the characters fit into the world, and what is play going to focus on (as represented by the GM’s role).
Once you have this overview, it can act as a touchstone throughout the design process. When you need to make decisions about rules or descriptions, you can come back and ask: “how does it fit with this idea?” Of course the document can be edited as you work on developing the game further. Those edits can be a useful guide for revision. If you decide to change something in that overview, you know that’s a change you need to keep in mind on your next editing pass to make sure it’s consistently applied.
2. Start with the Playbooks
Playbooks (or character classes in other systems) can be one of the first ways players connect to a game. When people talk about D&D it doesn’t take long for someone to ask, “What class do you play?” or “What kind of characters do you like to roleplay?” When I GM a game, I can almost guarantee that if the players looked at any of the rules, they looked at the playbooks (or their equivalent). It’s a natural entry point for a game.
Which also makes it a natural entry point for game design.
Starting with playbooks can be useful from a practical standpoint because it’s a quick way to get materials ready for playtesting. You can write a description, some special abilities, and xp triggers, and you’re ready to try it out.
How to Start with Playbooks
First, think about what you want playbooks to define about characters. (I talk about this in some length for Tides of Gold in another blog post.)
Are playbooks going to be like character classes, saying something about your job/expertise (Blades is mostly this: fighter, magic user, rogue, etc.). Are they going to say something about your social role in the group (Tides of Gold is this: leader, moral compass, rebel, etc.). Are they going to say something about the genre archetype you represent (Pasión de las Pasiones is mostly this: the beauty, the evil twin, the matriarch). If you aren’t sure, take a look at many different games. Not just Forged in the Dark games, but any games with classes or playbooks (there’s a huge world of Powered by the Apocalypse games for inspiration).
Once you know what playbooks say about characters, go ahead and brainstorm a few. I’d recommend starting with 3 to 5. This gives you enough different playbooks to begin experimenting with what makes each one unique but starts at an achievable amount.
Write a short description for each playbook and brainstorm some XP triggers. You can think of XP triggers as a signal to the player how this playbook should feel in play. A playbook that rewards easing suffering is very different than a playbook that rewards using violence is different than a playbook that rewards using charm. XP triggers can be about how you do a thing (cunning or strength) or about the types of things you do (uncover a secret, protect your crew).
Once you have these essentials defined, you can start thinking through special abilities. If this is your very first hack or design I recommend looking at abilities available on the Blades SRD or in other games. Start by taking existing abilities then rename them and change the narrative aspect of the description to fit your playbook.
If you want to be over analytical (like me) you can look at existing playbooks, categorize the different abilities, and strive for a similar balance in your design, e.g. I categorized abilities as +1d, +effect, special armor, downtime ability, teamwork/assist ability, and new narrative effect (i.e. control weather). While I changed the fiction and changed some abilities in my first version of Karma in the Dark, I kept to the balance of ability-types in Blades as my starting point.
(Making completely new special abilities deserves its own blog post).
3. Start with What’s Different
My first completed hack was a mash-up of Blades in the Dark and Shadowrun. I started by immersing myself in Shadowrun 1E, then looking at the Forged in the Dark system and asking “What doesn’t fit?”
The faction system was the first point of tension. In Shadowrun, factions are way more than powerful than an individual Shadowrunning team. The idea that a team could start it’s own faction and reach the same level as a AAA corporation didn’t make sense. I knew I needed to create a new form of advancement to replace the Blades Tier and Faction rules. The question was: what?
That question is where I started my design.
You can use this strategy even if you aren’t trying to mix together two existing IP’s. Usually when we want to design something our inspiration came from somewhere. So hold that inspiration up against Blades in the Dark and ask, “What doesn’t fit? What is the most obvious thing that needs to change?”
How to Start with What’s Different
This method can fall into the “easier said than done” category, so let’s break it down.
Start with the advancement systems. Apart from playbook specific triggers, PCs can advance when they make desperate rolls. Do you want to encourage desperate/reckless action? Teams can advance by completing types of jobs, securing claims, and increasing their faction tier by building up rep. Do these systems fit your inspiration? How might they need to be tweaked or redefined?
Or start with the phases of play: scores and downtime. Look at engagement plans for scores. Do these types of plans fit your inspiration? Or would they need to be changed? For example, if your game is about a band building up a rep and seeking fame, stealth and transport might not be fitting plans but something like exclusive venue or flashy fireworks or crowd participation might be more fitting.
Look at downtime and each step inside it. Does heat make sense? Or (to continue the band metaphor) would it be better as scandal or review scores or tension inside the band? Entanglements is a broad enough idea it might apply to numerous inspirations…but what kind of entanglements? Even before you write specific ones, ask what purpose they serve. In Ruralpunk, for example, entanglements are about personal history between PCs and town contacts. In Crossing Worlds, entanglements are about the team putting their community at risk for backlash. And so on.
Or, the real secret? Start anywhere in the Forged in the Dark SRD. As you read over the rules, ask yourself, “How does this fit my inspiration? Where does it rub wrong? Is this something that could be re-flavored or does the underlying system need to change?”
When I started Ruralpunk I began by redesigning character creation to use a life-path system because I wanted characters to have a sense of multi-generation history. So like I said: look over the rules. Literally any section can be a launching point when you find something that doesn’t fit your vision.
Where to start…and how to continue
Any of these three ideas can jumpstart your hack. So how to pick one?
Pick what gets you excited. If you stall with one strategy, try another. If you get excited writing up a summary of your world, start with the fiction. If you get excited thinking up playbooks, run with that. Or if you get excited thinking about new plan types for scores…go with it.
The second step? Try jumping to one of the areas you didn’t start with. If you have some playbooks written out, write up a fiction overview. Voila, you have enough to playtest. Or jump to changing what entanglements do. Eventually you’ll hit a part that doesn’t interest you and needs to be worked through anyway, but when you’re first starting out build momentum by playing around with what’s fun.
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.