2012-01-09 : 2011 here at anyway

2009: Compiling
2010: The Basics of RPG Design

In 2011 I tried to talk about rpg design instead of rpg theory, and it was tough going!

Social Context Begins At Home
2011-01-10 : Social Context and Design
Designing for a social context means design, long before it means publication and marketing.
2011-01-20 : RPG Design, Craft and Discipline
My kids are growing up thinking that publishing a book is appropriate and reasonable behavior.
2011-01-25 : Social Context and Design Scales
If you hope to reach a certain target audience with your game, and your game works great in internal playtesting, but your target audience isn't seizing upon your game the way you hoped, then...

Design Scales
2011-02-07 : Design scales: to the text!
I've gone to my game shelf and brought down a likely assortment of games. I'm going to pull passages from them for us to compare: first a passage that says what we do in the game overall, then a couple of passages that give examples of what we might be doing at any moment of play. Ready?
2011-02-14 : Tablut
The player who captures more and loses less benefits, yes, and so does the king's player. This means that the king's player can go more blithely into danger, despite having fewer pieces, more freely making bold and aggressive moves. The enemy player has to weigh constantly whether to engage in kind or to hold discipline.
2011-02-21 : Into the Unknown?
[As player, you] solve weird problems...
[As GM, you should make] the new utility ... be an option to solve the scenario's Problem.
One of these is a lie! Do the players solve the problems, or does the GM?

2011-03-17 : My First-time Publishing Advice
If people are going blank during your pitch, change your pitch; if people are excited by your pitch but go blank when they look at your game, there's nothing to do but go back to design. If you publish it as-is you'll just get the same response.

2011-04-08 : Freeform
You can change people's normal social system with content... You can change people's normal social system with principles... You can change people's normal social system with procedural cues... You can change people's normal social system with mediating cues (popularly, mechanics).
2011-04-12 : A background in Principled Freeform
Meg, Emily and I played a pretty intense and long-running principled freeform game from let's say 1998 to 2005. We wrote approximately one million billion words about it, back in the early days...
2011-04-25 : We are creative equals
If you want to play this way, grab some friends to be your creative equals and go for it. Nothing's stopping you, and there's no sense waiting for a game text - it wouldn't help you anyway.
2011-05-11 : The Un-frickin-welcome
When we want to let our characters off the hook, we need rules to threaten them; when we want to kill our characters, we need rules to protect them.

Design vs Mere Instructions
2011-05-17 : Game Design vs Mere Instructions
Telling someone that they have permission to do a thing isn't the same as changing the group's social system so that they really do have permission to do it.

Concentric Game Design (or: GM Agenda, cont.)
2011-06-07 : Concentric Game Design
Okay! Here's a cool thing about Apocalypse World's design in particular, if I may say it myself: Apocalypse World is designed to collapse gracefully downward... The whole game is built so that if you mess up a rule in play, you mostly just naturally fall back on the level below it, and you're missing out a little but it works fine.
2011-06-13 : A roleplaying game has two centers
Oh, of course it does! It has the center of what we're here to do with this game, which is the core of its reward system, and it has the center of what we're doing right this minute, which is the core of the creative relationship it creates between the players.

Some Handy References
2011-03-10 : Hungry Desperate and Alone
2011-03-16 : Toward One
2011-06-27 : The Dice & Clouds series from 2009
2011-08-01 : The Unreliable Currency series from 2010

Guest Posts by Ben Lehman
The much-misread 2011-02-17 : Ben Lehman: Playtesting: Stop
Playtesting is fucking dangerous, and you need to stop doing it, stop talking about it, and stop using it as a substitute for the hard work of game design.
2011-05-18 : Ben Lehman: Rules and their Functions
There is a tendency among role-players, particularly those who identify with freeform play as a thing, to classify immediate rules as "rules" and continuous rules as "not rules." Someone who says "we didn't use the rules once in the entire session!" is only referring to immediate rules: the only way to avoid use of continuous rules is to not play the game at all. There is also a tendency among rules-focused game designers like, say, me, to consider all of these things just "rules" and not to distinguish between them. To someone like me, "we didn't use the rules once in the entire session" doesn't make any damn sense at all: of course you were using the rules! You divided responsibility, decided what happened in the fiction, and so on.

In Sum...
Yep. Tough going. Social context and game design are the crux of what we're doing and what's its future, but I didn't make much headway here.

Please don't reopen those old threads. Please comment in this thread instead!

1. On 2012-01-09, Marshall B said:

I missed that one about Tablut. My first experience with it was a PC game in the 90s called King's Table. It had a Ragnarok theme: the king was Odin, the white pawns were the Aesir, and the black pawns the fire giants and other forces of darkness.

Interestingly, unlike the one you posted, the game was on an 11x11 board, with 12 white pawns (in a diamond pattern) and 24 black. The king was also limited to 1 or 2 spaces of movement in a single direction. Also, a match consisted of two games, one in which you play white and one in which you play black, and you had to win both matches to win the game. Otherwise it was the same.

It also had a 'Ragnarok' mode in which each side picked 4 out of 6-ish special pieces themed on personages from Norse myth, with special rules and/or moves, to replace 4 of their pawns. Frex, Tyr (white) and Garmr (black) had to be surrounded on three sides to be captured, while Heimdall (white) and Loki (black) moved diagonally instead of orthogonally. I remember finding this mode frustrating, however, as I had a hard time recognizing the special pieces, remembering their rules, and factoring that in my strategy.

Not too long ago I built my own board for this at work (I work in a lumber yard) and challenged one of my coworkers to play (I hadn't played it in at least 10 years). I was immediately struck by how interesting the design was. I liked how you had to think in order to set up a capture that wouldn't immediately meet reprisal, and was awed at how the game favors white even though black out-numbers them 2 to 1.

I need to find some other people to play with so I can continue to study it.


2. On 2012-01-09, Micah said:

From RPG Design, Craft and Discipline:

"Notice how it feels to have a sound idea, versus an unsound idea; notice how the latter demands a sense of conviction to make up for itself, and the former instead invites exploration."

I had to highlight this. It's a great observation for life, not just game design.


3. On 2012-01-10, David Berg said:

My personal takeaways:

  • Just because I can see how the momentary actions of play connect to the game's point and purpose doesn't mean the players can see it.  The players need to be able to see it.
  • The black box of the GM's judgment can be an obstacle to the visibility of such connections.
  • One way to go from insight to design is to think through the situation your insight describes, in terms of what outcomes could result and what conditions could factor in.
  • The possibility of truly unwelcome outcomes is more important than their actuality, as a yardstick of whether a game is truly getting people to do what they wouldn't have just done without it.
  • Pushing the limits of what players will accept can give more value to a smaller audience.
  • Don't assume that telling someone to do something will actually get them to do it.  There are more effective alternatives, however.
  • Players may skip or forget the outer details of games, so it can be useful to have a core that functions without them.
  • Options to change a social system include: 1. Content ("We're on Tatooine and I'm a storm trooper!") 2. Explicit principles and instructions ("Immersion is most important; whenever your immersion is broken, call a time out.") 3. Fictional structure ("After this scene, the game says the Nazis pull out of the city and we have one scene left.") 4. Constructed interactions without cues ("There's a GM and it's me.") 5. Procedural cues ("Roll dice for narration rights.") 6. Fiction-mediating cues ("Roll dice for which character wins.")

It's been a challenging and genuinely thought-provoking year.  Thanks for these discussions, Vincent!


4. On 2012-01-11, Paul T. said:

Great stuff, thank you for the summary! It's some very useful context.


I like your insights, too! I get all of them except...

"Pushing the limits of what players will accept can give more value to a smaller audience."

What does that one mean?


5. On 2012-01-11, David Berg said:

Just referring to what Vincent said in this post (last paragraph).


6. On 2012-01-11, ara said:


I was wondering if you have some insight on why we tell stories or rather why we want to (with all your posts on design, social interaction, and your three questions) particular with games.



7. On 2012-01-11, Paul T. said:

Ah, makes sense, thanks, Dave!


8. On 2012-01-16, Carsten said:

We're equal, not interchangeable

I like that one. Also a good reason to keep convetional GMs.


9. On 2012-01-17, David Berg said:

Here's a topic I'd like to throw into the queue for eventual discussion:

How do you effectively change a social group's permissions and expectations to accommodate a given instruction?  E.g., is a clear connection to the activity's purpose sufficient, or are formal feedback and incentives necessary?  Are there any technical "do"s and "don't"s?

If the correct answer is different for every problem, how does a designer arrive at the correct answer?  What's best to examine or focus on?


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