Structured Game Design (Warning: Long Post)

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While responding to another post, I mentioned the way I start designing RPGs.  Ron thought it would be interesting to develop the idea further, so I'm starting a new thread dedicated to exploring this idea.  I would love for everyone to jump in and help us flesh this idea out.

Anytime I want to design either a new setting or a new system, I'll sit down and imagine what a "perfect" game session would be like when it's actually played.  In my mind's eye, I'll actually see fictional players sitting around a table playing my game.  

As they're playing their game in my mind, I'll write down the game in a dialog format without any details of how the system behind the game works.  Here's an example of a game in progress:

NOTE:  A statement made by a player without quotes is directed to the GM.  A statement made with quotes is an in-character comment.  Words in parentheses are the player's action, not the character's action.


GM:  You finally arrive out in front of the apartment building well after dark.  The night has an uneasy quiet about it despite the traffic from the busy highway just a few blocks away.  It's almost as if the air is made of cotton and has muffled the traffic somehow.  No one is out on the street.

Bob:  Do we see Dr. Rastenburg's car here?  

GM:  You see one fitting the description, but you can't see the license plate from where you're at.  

Bob:  (backhands Jim lightly across the chest) "Come on, Jerry.  Let's check this old piece of junk out and see if it's Rastenburg's."  

Jim:  (nods) "Sure thing, Bobby."

Sally:  (glares at the two of them) "Oh and I suppose you're wanting me to watch the car again?!?" (while raising her voice)

Bob:  (smiles innocently at Sally) "Everybody's good at something, I always say."

Jim: (smiles and shakes his head) "Well, you won't be saying anything for long if you keep that up."

Sally:  I get out of the car and slam the door.  "Why, I've never ...."

Bob:  I get out of the car quickly, half expecting someone to come running at the sound of the car door.  "Hey, keep it down why don't ya?  It's not like we want everyone in the world to know we're here."

Jim:  I get out of the car and start walking toward Rastenburg's car.  

Bob:  I walk past Dawn, giving her the most charming smile I can. (smiles at Sally)

Sally:  (sniffs indignantly then laughs while trying not to) "You're a jackass ..."

Bob:  "Yeah, but I'm YOUR jackass."  I walk over and stand by Jerry at the back of Rastenburg's car.

Sally:  (shakes her head and laughs)

GM:  You guys glance down at the license plate.  There's something dark over part of the last couple of numbers.

Bob:  I reach down and brush off the license plate.  

GM:  When you touch the dark spot, it's sticky and comes off on your fingers.

Bob:  (rubs his fingers together) "Geez, what is this shit?"

Jim:  "Here, let me see."  I pull out my pen light and shine it on his fingers.

GM:  As you shine the light on Bobby's fingers, you see it's some type of thick black fluid.  It looks like it could be some kind of oil, but it's congealed slightly ... like blood.

Sally:  "Hey, what's the holdup?  I want to get some sleep tonight."

Bob:  (glares at Sally) "Keep yer pants on."  (turns to Jim and whispers) "What the hell is that?"

Jim:  (shakes his head slowly) "You've got me, but it looks like blood ... black blood."

Sally:  I walk over to where they're standing.  "What the hell are you two gawking at?"

Jim:  (turns to Sally) "Take a look for yourself."

Bob:  (holds his hand out to Sally)

Sally:  "Shit.  That looks like blood.  But it's black.  Where'd you find it?"

Bob:  (motions downward toward the table) "It was on the plate."

GM:  As you three look back down to the license plate, you barely notice there's more of the fluid just above the license plate ... like it dripped out from under the trunk lid.  

Each of the players eye each other, their eyes widening a bit.

Bob:  (wipes his hand on an imaginary handerchief)  "I wonder what we're going to find in there."

Sally:  "I don't know, but I don't think we're going to like it."

Jim:  "That's what I was afraid you'd say."

Bob:  (nods then turns to the GM) Was this Rastenburg's car?

GM:  You uncovered enough of the license plate to get a good look at it.  It matches the number you got from the DMV for Dr. Rastenburg's car.

Bob:  "Well, it's his alright.  I say we pop his trunk and see what the good Dr.'s hiding."

Sally:  "What if his car alarm goes off?"

Jim:  "She's right, Bobby.  He might take off."

Bob:  (nods)  "You're probably right.  Maybe we'd best have a little talk with Rastenburg first."  I start toward the apartment building entrance, wiping my hand again just to make sure I got all of that black gunk off.

Jim:  I'm right behind him.

Sally:  "Well, I hope you don't think I'm just going to stand here and wait for you."  I push past Bobby and try to be the first one in the door.

GM:  Suddenly, you hear a crash like glass breaking then a chilling scream splits the air!  You hear a wet muffled sound, like a watermelon falling to the pavement from a couple of stories up.  Then you hear another one, but it's not as loud.  The sounds seem to be coming from the alley around the left side of the building, not far from where you parked the car.

Bob:  "What the hell?!?"  I yank my pistol out, turning toward the scream.

Sally:  "Shit!"  Was it a man's scream or a woman's?

Jim:  I take a step back and put my hand on my gun without drawing it.

GM:  It sounded like a man's scream.

Bob:  "We'd better check that out."

Jim and Sally both nod.

Bob:  I creep toward the alley, keeping the building to my back.  Are there any more screams?

GM:  No, no more screams.  (turns to Sally and Jim)  What are you two doing?

Sally:  I pull out my gun and follow Bobby closely.  

Jim:  I pull out my gun and bring up the rear.  I glance back every few steps to make sure no one runs out of the apartment building.

GM:  Suprisingly, no one seems to have heard the scream ... or cares.  You guys make it to the alley entrance without any problems.

Bob:  (looks to Sally) "Cover me.  On three, two, one ..."  I spin around the corner quickly, dropping to my knee so Dawn can shoot over me.

Sally:  I spin around the corner when Bobby does, aiming over his head.

Jim:  I keep watching behind us.

GM:  The alley is pretty long.  Very little light from the streetlight makes it's way down the alley.  About halfway down, there appears to be someone bent over and kneeling, like he might be sick ... or worse.

Bob:  (raises his eyebrows to Sally)  I start walking toward the guy in the alley.  Does he do anything?

GM:  No, he doesn't seem to even notice you.

Bob:  I keep edging closer to him.  

Sally:  I follow Bobby, staying a few feet behind him and never lowering my gun.  

Bob:  I keep my gun down at my side so I don't scare him.  "Hey buddy, you ok?"

GM:  You're about 20 feet from him now.  He seems to be kneeling over a dark shape on the ground, giving it all of his attention.  He doesn't answer you.

Bob:  (turns to Jim and Sally) This doesn't look good.  I get my flashlight out of it's leather pouch on my belt.  I raise the flashlight and my gun at the same time like they do in the cop shows.  "Hey, you sick or something?"  (moves to the edge of his seat)

Jim:  I walk out in front of the alley, but stay where I can look down the alley and at the apartment building entrance.  I motion to Dawn for her to move to the one side (makes a movement to the left with his hand).  

Sally:  I move closer to the left wall, so Jerry can shoot past me if he needs to.

GM:  Bobby, you slowly raise your flashlight and point it at the kneeling figure.  As your light shines on the top of her head, she raises up and hisses at you, blood and gore running from her mouth down over her chin ... and falling onto the man's body beneath her!

Bob:  "OH JESUS!  We've got another god-damned bloodsucker here!" (raising his voice)  I open up fire on her.

Jim:  I run down the alleyway, trying to get in position to take a good shot.

Sally:  I hug the left wall and try to get in position for a shot at her.

GM:  Bobby, she stands up and leaps at you even as you fire off a round.  She's moves damn quick, but your bullet moves quicker.  The bullet hits her in her left shoulder, half spinning her around ... but it doesn't even slow her down.  She's almost on you!  (turns to Sally) You've got a clean shot at her if you want to take it.

Jim:  What about me?

GM:  (shakes his head) No, you're too far down the alley and Bobby's in the way.

Sally:  (smiles then looks at Jim)  Don't let that stop you.

Bob:  Hey now!

Everyone laughs for a minute.

GM:  (turns back to Sally) Did you want that shot?

Sally:  Oh, hell yeah!  I aim for her head!

GM:  You fire, but you miss her.  She's just too quick.

Sally:  Damnit!

Jim:  I run down the right side of the alley, trying to find a good angle for a shot.

Bob:  I start running backwards while I keep firing at her point blank!

GM:  (turns to Bob) You're not quick enough.  She grabs you, spins around and throws you about 10 feet down the alley ... away from your friends!

Bob:  (his eyes widen in suprise) Oh shit!

Jim:  I should be able to peg her now!

GM:  Oh, yeah.  You've got a clean shot at her back right now.  You too, Sally.

Bob:  Am I out of it or what?

GM:  No, but you're going to have to catch your breath before you can do anything.  It banged you up pretty good.

Bob:  Ya think? (smiles)

Jim:  I unload on her.

GM:  Black blood sprays as your bullet rips clean through her back and out her front, ricocheting off the wall!

Jim:  Black blood?!? (turns to Sally)

Sally:  Oh, hell!  I shoot again!

GM:  (turns to Sally) More black blood sprays as your bullet tears into her left side.  Suddenly, she wheels around at you and hisses!

Sally:  Crap!

Jim:  Can I step in front of Dawn before that thing gets to her?

GM:  Hmmm.  That thing's fast ... it's going to be tough.

Jim:  I'm still going to try.  

GM:  OK.  As it lunges for Dawn's throat, you step in front of it, catching it off guard.  Surprised, it grabs you by the shoulders and holds you straight out at arm's level.  Man, what a grip!

Jim:  "Ungh!"  I try to shoot her if I can.  

GM:  (shakes his head) She's holding you too tightly for you to get a good shot.

Bob:  Am I still stunned?

GM:  No.  What do you want to do?

Bob:  I'm behind her, right?  I sit up and try to shoot her in the hamstring.

GM:  That's going to be a bit risky.  You might hit Jerry here (motioning to Jim)

Jim:  (turns to Bob) Do it!  Get her off me now! (smiles a little)

Bob:  (nods to Jim)  It was nice knowing you, buddy. (smiles)  Ok, I aim for her hamstring.

GM:  (smiles) Your bullet tears through her left hamstring, buckling her knee and spinning her to the ground.  She let go of Jerry as soon as the bullet hit her.  Good shot!

Bob:  (smiles)  Piece o' cake.

Jim:  Good shot, ol' buddy!

Sally:  Alright, Bobby!  Is it my turn yet?

GM:  (smiles at Sally) Yeah, it's your turn.  

Sally:  I'm going to aim at her head again.  

GM:  She sees you aiming at her and rolls away from the bullet a split second before it gets there.  

Sally:  (sighs)

Jim:  I shoot her while she's down.

GM:  She does the same thing, but rolls the other direction and gets to her feet ... hobbling on her ruined left leg.

Bob:  I get up and start running down the alley toward them.

GM:  (nods to Bob)  She turns and runs away towards the mouth of the alley.

Sally:  Crap!  I follow her.

Jim:  I'm backing her up.

Bob:  I see who it was she attacked.

GM:  Dawn, you chase her out of the alley, but she's still a lot faster than you ... even with one bad leg.  

Jim:  "Let her go.  It's too dangerous.  Besides, we've still got to find Rastenburg."

Sally:  "Yeah, you're right.  But I hate leaving that thing out there alive."

Jim:  (smiles coyly) "Well, I don't think you have to worry about leaving it ALIVE ...."

Sally:  (rolls her eyes at Jim) "Very funny."

GM:  (turns to Bob) You notice there's broken glass, and blood, all around the guy laying in the alley.

Bob:  I kneel beside him and shine my flashlight on him.

GM:  As you move your flashlight over him, you notice he's all cut up like he was thrown through a window.  You glance up and confirm it ... there's a window on the second floor that's missing the glass.  His throat's been ripped out.  When the light hits his face, your heart stops ... it's Rastenburg ... and he's still barely alive!  

Bob:  No way!  "Hey, get your asses back here!  It's Rastenburg ... and he's still kickin'!"

Sally and Jim together:  We run back to Bobby.  

GM:  You hear police sirens only a couple of blocks away.  They're getting closer by the second.  OK, let's take a break here.  

Bob:  (sits back and relaxes)  Man, I wonder what this guy's into.

Sally:  I don't know, but I want to see what's in that trunk worse now than ever!  Did you notice the black blood when we shot her?

Jim:  Oh yeah.  I don't think we're going to have time to look though.  The police are too close and they might think we killed Rastenburg.

Sally:  Good point.

Jim: Hey, I know ... Dawn used to be in juvenile hall for boosting cars, right?

Sally:  Yeah, why?  (She figures out Jim's plan)  Oh, good thinking!  I'll steal it and we'll get out of here before the police show up.  They'll think someone killed him for the car.

Bob:  Good plan, but one problem ... that was a vampire that attacked him.  He's going to turn into one when he dies.

Jim:  Damn, you're right.

Sally:  We'll just have to sneak into the morgue and finish the job.

Everyone smiles.

Meanwhile, the GM sits back, smiles, and quietly writes himself a little note.  It reads: "She's not a ghoul anymore.  She's a vampire."


After I wrote down the example of play, I would sit it aside for about 24 hours and try to stop thinking about it.  Notice I did say "try".  <smiles>

A day or so later, I'll get out my notepad and sit down to read through it again.  I ask myself:  "What information can I get from this example?"

In this case, my notes might look something like this:

The GM doesn't have to do as much as he does in other games.  The players seem to drive the action.[/list:u]

The players make physical actions for their characters and banter back and forth.  Encourage this type of interaction.[/list:u]

The setting is modern (pen lights, car alarms) and horror (no one is out on the street, monsters exist).[/list:u]

There's quite a bit of cursing among the players.  This is good because they're emotionally involved in the game, but it assumes they're adults.  Do I want to target just adults with this game?[/list:u]

The situation starts out simple, but with multiple twists.[/list:u]

The situation gives the players several paths to explore (look in trunk, find Rastenburg, or check out scream) while allowing the players the freedom to direct the action.  These are events not a forced plotline.[/list:u]

This is a game of heroic action adventure.  The characters don't cower in fear from the monster, they open fire on it![/list:u]

The game uses abstractions in combat (about 20 feet) instead of absolutes.  Combat is based more on narrative than simulation.[/list:u]

Bob (playing Bobby) makes an incredible shot to hit the monster in the left hamstring.  Was this luck or does the game have some sort of mechanic for letting the player have absolute control over an action from time to time?[/list:u]

The players aren't worried about the characters' dying so they take more heroic actions (Jim having his character Jerry step in front of Sally's character Dawn).  But they do seem concerned they might be put out of the scene.[/list:u]
The players act like their characters' have seen monsters before.  Are they monster hunters?  If so, who do they hunt them down for?[/list:u]

The game encourages cooperation amongst the players not just the characters.[/list:u]

The GM used the players' idea on the vampire when he had originally decided it was a ghoul.  Make sure to emphasize this in the game.  This gives the players more directoral power than they even realize they have and makes the GM's job easier (he didn't even have to come up with the adventure involving Dr. Rastenburg rising as a vampire in the morgue).[/list:u]

Now, I'll put it down and come back to it tomorrow and go over it again, adding to the assumptions I found the first time.  For example, I might add:

There'a Mike Hammer/detective show feel to the dialog although it's a modern setting.  Do I want to incorporate this into the setting?  Does it appeal to a wide enough audience to be marketable?[/list:u]

After gleaning every drop of info I can out of that example of play, I'll go through each of these assumptions and start work on my design document.

I'll give you an example of that sometime over the next few days.

This all started with just a simple idea:  "It's our world, but monsters are real.  The players kill them."  It may have started off sounding like a modern version of D&D, but it took on a life of it's own while I watched it being "played" out in my mind.  Not bad for just a couple of hours of work.

I would like to note that I referred to a target market and marketing a couple of times in my notes.  If you're designing a game that you're going to sell commercially (whether as an indie game or not), you'd better start thinking about marketing right at the start.  Otherwise, you may end up with a game that only you want to play.

What questions would you ask at this point?  What would you do next?  Let us know what you think.  


Michael S. Miller:
This idea is SO obvious and makes so much sense that I feel like slapping myself in the head! This is great, I want to try it right now!

One of the problems I run into with my game ideas is having a resolution mechanic and maybe a character creation system, but having *no idea* what is going to be resolved, or what the characters might do. This breaks this block by putting these issues right at the start. If I can grab some time this weekend, I'm definitely gonna try this. Thanks.

I'm glad it's inspired you.  I'll start working on the next part tonight.  

To the rest of you:  Is this thread helpful?  Do you agree with the advice here or disagree with it?


I tried it last night, and it was so useful I felt like kicking myself in the head too.

Quote from: Roy

To the rest of you:  Is this thread helpful?  Do you agree with the advice here or disagree with it?


I have certainly imagined my "perfect game" many times before, but have never gone through and done a treatment of it as you have. In many ways I have kind of done things in the reverse, I have had a vision of the gameplay I want my game to support, and have been constructing the mechanics and concepts to build up to this game play.

It has always been frustrating to me in trying to convey my "grand vision" of the game to others by showing them the foundation I have been building to get there. They only see the mass of construction, and not the
magnificent edifice I see in it.

Have you found being able to draw on this "game treatment" helpful in communicating the nature of the game to other people? If I was working from this to generate a design document, I would outline the sort of rules sections I would need to support the game as I see it at this point, and the major features/feel of those sections. Bullet points that I want the game to support. etc.

This brings to mind an interesting point to me, as my game has been evolving over the years. Mostly as design notes and aborted attempts at mechanics, but the overall structure, and the ultimate thrust of the design has kind of been growing in the background for me, such that it has solidified on its own. I have a notebook with tentative design documents that have evolved into the game as it is now. Each iteration or attempt at it by me has refined it, giving way to the broader design I have for it now.

Anyway, sorry for the rambling post, but wanted to respond a bit to your points.


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