Sunday, November 27, 2016

Game Design: Core Tenets

From the app game Monument Valley
So I've been bitten by the fantasy bug, probably at least part in reaction to the whole election stuff. This isn't unusual, really -- look at Tolkien -- but it's unusual for me, because working at WotC and on d20 stuff for so long had seemingly inoculated me against fantasy stuff. I still can't play D&D or Pathfinder. It's like a mental contact allergy, except it involves ranting and a reaction to classes and levels.

However, I've started putting thought into a fantasy game, and I think it a) actually has some legs and b) would be fun to play and c) does enough that's different to be worthwhile and not just another heartbreaker. So I figured I'd post about it as I go along and see what people think.

So, first of all, I've figured out I have rules for game design overall, and even fantasy games have to fit within them. Here are my rules.

1) There has to be a goal of play. 
I have nothing against sandboxes settings and systems, but that's not generally what I want to do. Frankly there are tons of generic systems and settings -- there's very little point in me adding to that pile just for the sake of it. I prefer games, though, that hew toward a specific type of play experience or genre emulation (and I can and do make the argument that even generic systems call out a specific type of game experience, but that's not the point of today's post).

2) Nothing is sacred.
There is no idea of game design that isn't better off removed at one point or another. I haven't wargamed with minis in forever, for example, and so I'm not interested in replicating that environment. "Because we do it this way" isn't enough to include something in a game. Go back to empirical philosophy, except instead of sense-based phenomena, go with play-based phenomena. If we can't confirm that it exists and what it does for the game we want, it doesn't belong there.

3) Power dynamics at the table are meant to be part of the design. 
So people organize into groups, and groups distribute power. A traditional d20 table has a GM with all the narrative power over the world (and some over the characters), while players have limited and largely reactive narrative power that applies primarily to their own characters and not much else. That's a lopsided, largely classroom dynamic. I don't think there's anything wrong with it necessarily, but it does lock the table into a specific style of play, and that style may not be the one you want.

4) Something has to be cool.
There a whole universe of ideas and themes out there, and games up to date have explored only a few of them, and those somewhat exhaustively. Novelty is cool. Fun is cool. Emotion and reaction are cool. People play games to be transported, whether for new excitement or a familiar comfort. Escapism or Nostalgia. That can happen through the type of game, the setting, the genre, the experience... there's a lot of ways to do it. Using a different die type is not one of them. Games have to earn their place in the world -- they don't come into being and get played just because. Find what makes it cool and build on that.

So those are my starting points. Let's see where they go.