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Design Theory Reading List

Started by mjbauer, May 09, 2009, 04:02:49 PM

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I'm wondering if there is some kind of unofficial (or, perhaps, official) canon of RPG Design Theory. Things that every RPG designer should read before trying to create a game. Maybe it's just a collection of Forge threads or a list that's been compiled of great design theory articles? Or is there a book that I should get? The more specific the better (a link to the Design Theory Forum is too broad), I'm looking for particularly poignant articles (The GNS theory article, System is Setting, for example).

I keep coming across threads and articles in various places that are really important and helpful, I just haven't seen a collection of "starter" articles for those of us who are new to RPG design and trying to play catch-up.

If you don't know of any lists, then just the names of individual articles that you think would be helpful. I'm basically looking for any help I can get, and hopefully a useful list for other aspiring designers in my predicament.

Thanks in advance.
mjbauer = Micah J Bauer

Eero Tuovinen

Not really. Somebody should write the book - just linking a bunch of random threads won't do you much good, I fear. Better if somebody takes a concerned look at design and tries to teach a comprehensive theory.

Video games design has books, if you're interested in that. Has little to do with modern rpg design, though. (And I personally think that the theoretical understanding in the field is amusingly quaint, for whatever that's worth.)

I love helping people with game design, but this is personally a bit difficult topic for me... I'm pretty self-taught as a designer (as most people probably are); I've implemented general rpg theory, art theory and interactive sociology, and read a lot of random material that just has condenced into a personal theory and methodology of design over time. And then there's the experiental facet, the fact that I wouldn't care about design without personal artistic need for expression... So I'm nowhere near ready to give a patented off-the-shelf answer to something like "what I should read to become a game designer". If I had to give some advice, I'd say that your best bet in developing as designer is to design and play and design and play, trying to understand the social impulses and why some things work and some don't. With time it starts clicking.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Lance D. Allen

This is something I've thought about occasionally, and here's what I've concluded:

The only things that should be considered 'required' is experience playing and reading games. It helps give perspective when you've seen how others have done it, whether that's good or bad in your view.

Some amazing games have been created by people who've never read a lick of RPG design theory, and some truly mediocre ones have been created by those who consume and digest all the theory they can get their hands on. The theory and advice may help, and it may not. Experience pretty much never hurts. The only way to actually get that experience is to do. You can tap the experience of others, but it's not required, and it's no substitute for experiencing it for yourself.

That said, there are some particularly useful collections of information, but like Eero says, it's not necessarily in the best format for consumption. An ongoing thread can be a great way to get information. Reading through past threads is less so, because you're trying to take it all in at once. If someone were to take old threads and make an effort to digest them fully, then take the information and put it into an essay or some such, it'd be much more useful. Also, some information changes. Printers and printing techniques are going to vary as time goes on. Theory evolves.

So: short answer, No.
~Lance Allen
Wolves Den Publishing
Eternally Incipient Publisher of Mage Blade, ReCoil and Rats in the Walls

Daniel B

Hmm, you make good points Lance, but I tend to disagree. While it is certainly true that great games have been made by people with no previous design education, and poor games have been made by people with tons of it, I think researching the subject before making an attempt will at least increase your odds. Similarly, while there is absolutely no substitute for experience, if you experience nothing but crap, you're not going to learn very much.

mjbauer, I've started compiling a list of games I want to try/buy because I've heard they're good for expanding one's mind in RPG design. I don't have it with me here, but I'll post it when I get home.

Arthur: "It's times like these that make me wish I'd listened to what my mother told me when I was little."
Ford: "Why? What did she tell you?"
Arthur: "I don't know. I didn't listen."


In my experience influential texts are a personal thing, but perhaps you will do everyone a favour by building such a list yourself? Just keeping links to the various things that inspire you can help, and then you can whip them out when something someone says reminds you of them. Beware that that is a sure-fire way to make a conversation deep and full of hard to explain things, or cause a massive pause as everyone interested in your thread reads through your references!

Personally I'm very slowly building a list of such references, I have probably about a hundred I have found useful in the past dotted around my computer, but I suspect those overlap a great deal! As you find threads that jump above the "pretty useful" to the impressive why not just post them in this thread?

Graham W

If there's a reading list, it'll be a reading list of games, not books. Try Dogs In The Vineyard, My Life With Master, Poison'd, Sorcerer, The Shab Al-Hiri Roach, for example.

Better still, play these games, then write a game you'd want to play.


Daniel B

I'm going to add to Graham's list. The first few are already on his list, but sound so alien to the usual D&D experience that they deserve a 2nd mention.

Dogs In The Vineyard
My Life With Master
Drowning and Falling
Hahlmabrea (a heartbreaker)
Dawnfire (another heartbreaker)

I made these choices because I'm interested in seeing other approaches to game design, or the games have mechanics that sound funky enough to incorporate them into my own game (especially in the case of the heartbreakers, which otherwise sound dull based on their descriptions.. their perfection will add to our own, resistance is futile)

Arthur: "It's times like these that make me wish I'd listened to what my mother told me when I was little."
Ford: "Why? What did she tell you?"
Arthur: "I don't know. I didn't listen."


I have a list of games that I hope to read and play, but I don't think that is always as useful as reading about why a game was designed a specific way.

Today, I listened to an interview with Epidiah Ravachol about Dread and hearing why he chose to use Jenga as part of his resolution system was really helpful. This is more what I'm interested in, but I do agree with JoyWriter in that the things that are meaningful to me are more personal than universal.
mjbauer = Micah J Bauer

Tomas HVM

Seems to me you got your priorities straight in this respect, MJ.

To read everything, both of theory and real games, is good, as long as you don't go into "system overload". To play anything you see which is remotely interesting, or challenging, or both, is good to. You will be a better designer by orienting yourself in the jungle of current role-playing games and role-playing tools, of course.

However; you will be even better if you actually design a game. The great divide in game-designers is between the doers and the dreamers. To carry your ideas into a finished game is a tough task. Good luck!
Tomas HVM
writer, storyteller, games designer