Start to finish: Theory of Game design

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Jimmy the Barrel:
I am a wanna be game designer, and I have enormous amounts of notes on various ideas for games. These include: system notes, setting and style. But, they never seem to form a cohesive whole.

My question is:
Where do you start on game design?

I know that people approach this from different angles. I just want to get an idea of how YOU approach this, and WHY.

What are the ideas that get you started?
Is it setting, system, style or other?

Jimmy the Barrel

I always start with the concept.  I mean, what is it that characters can DO in your game (yeah, yeah, say "anything" and I punch you in your mouth).  All games have a standard conceptual standpoint.  It can be through character type (i.e. Sorcerer), or by plot/setting (i.e. Obsidian), or by victimization (i.e. Call of Cthulhu :smile: ).

Once you have that down, then worry about "how" the characters interact with the world (read: mechanics).  Then setting (unless it's your core concept), then style/layout/other.  Yeah, well, that's my approach anyway.  The style element more or less works itself out based on other layers of the decision-making process.  

Outline it, then fill in the topics and subtopics.  

Yeah, I know, pretty straightforward, but don't mess with it if it isn't broken.


First, I begin with the idea of 'this is the kind of world I'd love to visit and maybe even live in' and go from there. The setting may also include some framework of a premise or plot.

Finally, I try to tailor a system to the setting and/or premise.  My reasoning is that the system (and the GM for that matter) should be as invisible as possible.

Hope that helps.

Jeff Diamond
6-0 Games  

I agree with Dav.  You need to start with your concept.  What is the game about?  The best mechanic idea is useless unless it is supporting a concept of some sort.

I'm actually going to cheat and talk about the wargame that I designed (called Junk).  The summary:  you pilot a mech-type vehicle called a 'Can that is built from scrap and jury-rigged components and has an engine that is fueled by beer.  A big idea behind the game is that you spend as much time holding your own 'Can together as you do dealing out the damage.  (Hmm.  A game devoted to saving your 'Can....  :smile:)

Anyways, I felt that a different system needed to be designed to reflect the inherent instability of the 'Can.  Therefore I invented the concept of Whuppin'.  Rather than tracking specific damage to each location on the 'Can, only critical damage is tracked.  Instead, when "damage" is dealt, the overall level of Whuppin' goes up, which increases the chance of taking critical damage.  This represents the effects of the constant pounding on the jury-rigged components in the 'Can.

I'm obviously summarizing a bit.  However the point that I want to make is that I could not have designed that system in the first place if I didn't already have a concept in the first place (in this case, jury-rigged mechs).

That being said, I recommend stashing ideas for future reference.  You never know when you might have a use for them.  Think of it being analagous to a writer keeping a notebook of ideas.  You never know when one might come in handy.

Hope this is helpful.

Ron Edwards:
Hi Jimmy,

Basically, your question is too big. You are very much in the position of someone looking around at all the variety of music available, and stating an interest in inventing your own instrument.

Notice that I did not say, "in being a musician." As a role-player, you already are. The RPG itself is only an instrument.

So the REAL questions - and believe me, we are MILES from system, setting, or anything like that - are as follows:

Why make a new instrument? What's the problem with existing ones? Is there some sort of music you wish to see played by others? Can you make an instrument that does that? Why?

If your answer is, "Because it must be cool to be adored like Gary Gygax [or whoever, maybe Peter Adkison is the new focus for this praise]," or, "Because it'd be great to make money by doing this," then I, at least, don't have much to say that can help.

But your answers to the questions I'm asking MAY be the sort of answers that amaze me. Dav and his partner Micah certainly amazed me with the energy they poured into Obsidian's psychic/religious rules. Robin Laws and Greg Stafford amazed me with the innovations and scope of Hero Wars. John Wick amazed me with his ability to generate consumer support, and for using fiction constructively in an RPG. Jeff Diamond amazed me with the zest and skill he brought to Orbit. Doug Bolden amazed me with the pure & playable beauty of Ghost Light (in a few scrubby pages!).

Non-independent RPGs have never amazed me in this light, with the exceptions of Over the Edge and Everway (and they have a basis for their exceptional status). I suggest that creator-owned RPGs are where we get the innovations and developments that lend ANY quality to this hobby at all. I suggest that you may be capable of contributing astounding things, and I'd love to see them.

But it only happens by answering the questions I've listed above. And just to keep the hyenas from my door, "system" and "setting" are among the means for answering.

The thing to avoid, I think, is to HAVE a system or setting or whatever WITHOUT answering those questions.



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