Thoughts on Designing a Game

A couple weeks ago I came across this little image:

Brought to you by Pluto Water … and if you don’t know what that is, click to find out

It belonged to some form of baseball game. You’d spin the arrow and find out if you got a single or strike, etc. I imagined some kids back in the “olden days” whiling away a Sunday afternoon with this game. and this inspired me to write Pen & Paper Baseball, a companion game, so to speak, to Pen & Paper Football (available now).

I’m in the process now of testing the game rules, and I’m pretty happy with them. I need to “adjust the mixture” a bit, but overall I have a working set of rules, I’ve designed a fantasy league to test them with and … and this is most important … I’m having fun doing it.

So – here are a couple things to keep in mind when you’re designing a new game or an add-on or adventure to an existing game.

ONE – Make a Rough Draft

You have to start somewhere. Conceptualize in your mind what you’re trying to simulate, come up with an easy way to do it, and then put it down on paper. It will change, but you have to get the rough draft down before you can make it better. Do not get bogged down in the minutia right off the bat – work on the overall concept and do it in broad brush strokes. The details will come later.

Once you have a rough draft, play it. This will show you where the obvious errors lie, and may point you in a completely new direction. With my baseball game, for example, I initially decided on a single dice roll to determine the broad spectrum from strike to ball to foul ball to grounder to fly ball, etc. This worked in general, but the details were wrong. I tinkered with that single roll quite a bit before I decided I’d have to do it in two rolls – one to see if the ball was struck by the bat, another to figure out how hard it was struck and a third to figure out the direction. I tried to pack too much into a single roll, and the game really demanded it be spread out a bit. Simplicity is always the goal, but you can also oversimplify.

TWO – Think About Player Agency

A good game should involve meaningful choices made by the players. Candy Land, as great as it is for spending time with little kids and helping them learn their colors, is not so great a game for adults because it involved no meaningful choices.

For my baseball game, there are fortunately some meaningful choices built into the game being simulated – should I try to steal a base, do I throw out the runner heading to second or the one heading to first, etc. At this point, my rules don’t have quite enough meaningful choices, so I’m now engineering an additional choice to make the game more interesting. I’m not sorry I waited to do it. My current set of rules has allowed me to get quite a few of the probabilities right – chances of throwing a strike vs. a ball vs. the ball getting in play, chances to catch a fly ball, etc. Now that the basic rules are working, I can play with modifying them.

THREE – Don’t Forget About Random Chance

Chess is a great game, but it’s all about choices. Awesome for strategy … but maybe not the best simulation of warfare, which is rife with random chance screwing up brilliant strategy and tactics. You want to achieve a balance between player choice and random nonsense – after all, every batter is planning on hitting a home run, but few actually manage it. In the game simulations I’ve run so far, I’ve had some wonderful random chances figure in to make the games exciting – unexpected home runs tying up games in the ninth inning and line drives that were certainly going to win the game for a team being surprisingly caught out.

FOUR – Do Your Research

Do your research. It can come after you have made your rough draft, but it does need to happen. I have a massive database of firearms, aircraft, automobiles and tanks that I built when I was designing Grit & Vigor because, frankly, I didn’t know nearly enough about those things to design a simulation that felt right. Most of that data remains unused … though it won’t forever … but all of it was vital to getting the game real enough – and I mean “enough” – that people could make informed decisions within the game about what to do. I did a tremendous amount of research into professional football games for Pen & Paper Football – from numerous eras – to get things like the likely yardage gained on different types of running plays pretty close to correct. Not exactly, mind you, but pretty close and accurate enough that somebody who understands football can make an informed in-game decision about whether they should run or pass in a 3rd down and 4 yards to go situation.

Even if the game you are working with is fantastic, many of the physical laws of the universe are going to apply, or at least are going to apply until magic enters the picture. If everyone has a good chance at jumping 20 feet forward, what’s even the point of having magic. Do your research – it’s important and will not be wasted.

FIVE – The Fun Factor

Some folks are genuinely happy with exacting, detailed simulations of things that take hours and hours to play. I’m not. I like games to be light, fast and fun. I like games that leave enough time in between rolling dice and making decisions for chatting and snacking. I like fun, and I try to make games that allow groups of people to have fun without too much investment of time and money – because we never seem to have quite enough of those things, do we?

Player Motivation

I was recently thinking about the people I’ve played games with over the years, and what motivated them. I think a big part of being a successful Game Master is figuring out what gives players a thrill and then trying to find ways to work those things into your game.

Understand, I’m not talking about winning here. Most (if not all) players enjoy winning. Everyone can’t be a winner all the time. But consider war games, even such a venerable war game as chess. In a game of chess, one player wins and one player loses (unless there’s a draw), and yet people keep coming back to the game. Winning really isn’t everything.

The motivations I’m talking about are the situations that give people a charge while playing a game. Sitting behind my GM screen, I could see, as events unfolded, the way eyes would light up. Taking note, I tried, when it was possible, to present the situations people enjoyed in every session to give people a charge and leave them smiling at the end of the night, even when things didn’t go quite as planned.

Oh, and when you run into a player for whom winning is everything, don’t let them into your group. Nothing but heartache and headache will follow. Unless you actually are the parent of the player in question, it’s not your job to teach them how to be a good loser. Maturity matters.

Here are the player types I remember:

1) Combat Junkie – loves rolling dice. Loves a good challenge, whether it’s a big monster that has to be swarmed or a mass of minor monsters that have to be waded through, or some weird challenge they have to figure out. While it is true that players in the early version of the game often did their utmost to avoid combat and walk away with the treasure (more on that in a moment), many modern players come for the dice rolling, and put up with the exposition in between.

2) Ladder Climber – loves to level up, buy the better armor, build the stronghold, etc. They love success. This doesn’t mean they throw a fit when they don’t win, or their character loses a level or dies. That’s part of the game. But they really love moving up the ladder, getting the new skills and abilities, and generally showing progress.

3) Make Believer – love to play a roll. Maybe they’re wicked, maybe they’re motherly or fatherly, maybe their something else, but they like the chance to interact with fictional characters and help write the game along with you.

4) Problem Solver – loves to figure things out. Sometimes these are min-maxers, who place all their focus on bending the game rules to their will. Those guys are a pain in the ass. The best ones are the ones who enjoy solving problems that are in-game – puzzles, riddles, strategy, tactics, mysteries. They love the mental challenge that does not involve dice rolling.

The tricky part about running a game, of course, is balancing these different interests. It is possible that not everybody will love every game all the time – in fact, this is likely. But throwing people a bone in the midst of an adventure that doesn’t push their buttons is a good idea, and can make the game better for everyone else.

For example, we’ll take the good old fashioned dungeon crawl. Dungeon crawls have been so successful over the years because they tend to make #1, #2 and #4 happy. Plenty of monsters, so plenty of opportunities for combat. Plenty of XP and treasure, so the ladder climber is happy. Problem solvers get traps, tricks, etc. to keep them interested. However, the make believer doesn’t always get what they want in a dungeon crawl. What to do? Throw in the prisoner who was kidnapped by the monsters and needs help getting back to their home. Throw in the hesitant monster who wants to parlay (but can she be trusted). Give them some personalities with whom they can interact, and better yet – in whose life they can have an impact – and the rest of the dungeon crawling becomes more palatable.

Here are a couple ways to “throw players a bone” without breaking the game …

Pointless Fights – You don’t want to overdo this – and it’s very easy to overdo – but once in a while throw the combat junkie a melee party. Throw a mass of minor monsters into the game who probably will not score a TPK, but who give the junkie a chance to roll some dice. Think of this as the opening scene of an action movie, where the hero and his or her prowess is introduced by them beating the crap out of a bunch of pointless mooks. It doesn’t really forward the story, and since it’s the first scene you know the hero is in no danger, but it’s a bit of fun nonetheless. Again – don’t do this too often, and if you’re playing something other than an old school game where the combat can be played out with relative ease, think hard before you do it at all.

Story Arcs – A story arc that shows up as recurring characters or a situation that gradually gets dire and then gradually gets better by the players’ actions can help keep the ladder climbers (who need more power to face the greater evil), make believers (who can make a fictional difference and interact with the recurring characters) and problem solvers (who must unravel the villain’s master plan … even if there isn’t one*) happy, without too much extra work or time spent for the GM.

* Sometimes, the best master plan is actually created by the players. As they discuss what they think is happening, adopt their ideas, or roll randomly for who is right, and then from time to time throw in a curve ball. They think they’re figuring it out, when in reality they’re writing the script.

The players have some work to do as well. Much ink has been spilled over what the Game Master should do to keep players interested … but what about the players? Think about it – the Game Master has probably invested far more time, energy and money into the game than the players, and they outnumber him or her by four or five or six to one … but it’s the GM’s job to make the game successful? Doesn’t sound right, and it isn’t right.

What the players can do to help make a game a success is to recognize what their fellow players enjoy, and to indulge them their obsessions. In fact, try to get into those obsessions yourself. Player X likes role playing, Player Y likes rolling dice. Instead of rolling your eyes when the other player is getting what they like, try to find the fun in it yourself. Get outside the old comfort zone, fake it to make it, grow as a gamer – you never know what you’re missing until you try.

Just a few thoughts on playing the game … more crunchy stuff to come. The Monster book will be out tonight .It would be out already, but I can’t use rpgnow at work … I can’t imagine why? Oh well – time to write about real estate – see you all later!