Expanding the Void – Contemplative Design

Roleplaying games are marvellous tools for fostering empathy. As a medium, our games demand that participants take on alternative perspectives and personalities. By playing in a game in the role of a refugee of a galactic war, you might reflect upon how you would react to the loss of your home or adaptation to a foreign culture. If you portray a character who leads a fantasy kingdom, you might instead be forced into the hard choices of leadership. Each of these experiences has something to teach us.

At their core, roleplaying games are driven by the decisions that the players make at the table. The strongest games are those who design that decision-space with intention and purpose. Apocalypse World is all about how you build and maintain relationships in a world in ruin. Monsterhearts concentrates instead on how teenagers learn to cope with challenges of identity and expectations. Each of these games leads the players to explore different avenues of thought.

The concept of the Fruitful Void, as coined by Vincent Baker back in Dogs in the Vineyard doesn’t have a Faith stat, or rule for determining if a course of action is moral. Monsterhearts doesn’t have a procedure for determining a character’s identity or sexuality.

In my personal design praxis, I combine the concept of intentional experience design with that of the fruitful void. Each of my games revolves around an attempt to foster specific, challenging problems that the players will have to try to examine during play. In Sig, it’s about the conflicting needs of family, faith, and politics. After the War is about how we can learn to support communities which have suffered trauma. Circles of Power asks you to think critically about complex issues of intersectionality and activism. Each of these games carves out conceptual space for players to explore within a safe context It helps us gain valuable skills and a deeper awareness of important issues.

I tend to refer to this approach as contemplative design, and I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter. Do you take a different approach? What kinds of challenging material do your games help us explore? Let’s start a conversation.

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RPG Design Worksheets

Whenever I run workshops to teach new tabletop game designers, I produce a set of worksheets to help them explore their ideas. The latest iteration of these sheets are now ready for people to use and enjoy.

The PDF document presented below contains a total of 6 letter-sized worksheets which you can print on a home printer. Each of these pages addresses a different area of design and should be a useful aid in starting a conversation. Each of the sheets has a list of questions for the designer to answer.

  1. The Concept of the game, why it exists.
  2. The System, the rules and procedures of play.
  3. The Setting, or the fictional context of play.
  4. The Situation, or the reason that the characters are acting.
  5. The Subtext, or how the game relates to real world concerns.
  6. The Production, planning how the game can be manufactured and shared.

I would love to get feedback from folks, both experienced designers and new ones. Please feel free to contact me at genesisoflegend at gmail

Design Geology

Every game comes from somewhere; from personal experience, to intellectual puzzles, to something inbetween.  Each designer is naturally faced with a question of which element to use as the foundation for their games. This blog post explores three different approaches, with the strengths and weaknesses I have seen in them.  These approaches are:

Stalagmite Design: Concentrating on mechanics first.

Stalactite Design: Concentrating on themes first.

Pillar Design: Concentrating specifically on the interaction of mechanics and theme.

Stalagmite

Bottom-up, concentrating on mechanics

Mechanics are the foundation of gameplay. Games are, defined by the presence of rules and procedures that guide play. These could be as simple as deciding who gets to speak next, or as complex as a tactical conflict matrix. These mechanical elements inform that actual activities at the gaming table; what to write down, what to say, when to roll dice, or when to play cards. The stalagmite design concentrates on determining how we act, and when we act during play.

Stalagmite game designs are established with an intentional focus on specific mechanics of play. The entire experience of play is fundamentally driven by those systems. This is typically done by concentrating on a resolution mechanism, but other forms of system design can also qualify in this category. Some excellent examples of Stalagmite designs include…

Burning Wheel, with the life path system, volley-based expanded conflict systems, and the well-crafted Artha cycle.

Microscope, with a robust procedure for generating a timeline collaboratively, and detailed procedures to reinforce equal collaboration at the table.

Stalagmite design is a strong at producing verifiable and repeatable play experience at the table. The focus on core activities of play means that there is a great deal of attention spent on the various decisions made by participants, which can make for a robust and consistent game design. It can produce groundbreaking designs that move the craft forward, and support a wide variety of settings.

Stalagmite design has dangers associated with it. I have found that many of these games have a tendency of having fragile themes during play, that can fall flat and feel more like a board-game than an immersive roleplaying experience. The concentration on activities during play means that there is often a reliance on a few individuals to interpret/describe events so that a coherent story emerges from the gameplay activities.

 

Stalactite

Top-down, concentrating on themes

Roleplaying games are defined by the narratives they produce. These themes inform the assumptions, the politics, and the values of the creators. Strong games are also artistic statements that communicate ideas through play. These could be done through a focus on certain perspectives, constraints on communication, or on specific settings. The Stalactite design concentrates on who acts, where we act, and why we act in play.

Stalactite game designs are established with an intentional focus on themes and messages. The entire experience of play is designed to reinforce the narrative, and to shape the fiction into reinforcing the themes. This is typically done through establishing strong characters, complex relationships, and a rich setting. Some excellent examples of Stalactite design include…

Montsegeur 1244, a game about Cathars under siege who choose to renounce their faith or burn at the stake. This has pregenerated characters, a premade relationship map, and no random factors. The game is intensely focussed on themes of faith, love, and martyrdom.

Posthuman Pathways, my own game about transhumanism, transformation and sacrifice. The entire system is predicated on the fact that players are constantly faced with hard choices and are obliged to sacrifice something important on the wheel of progress.  

Stalactite design is strong at producing emotionally compelling and memorable play experiences at the table. The focus on ideas and themes tends to make for a very dramatic narrative, with compelling character dynamics. It can be an excellent tool for making political statements or discussing sensitive subject matter.

The dangers associated with Stalactite design is that it can be very dependent on the players. Everyone in the game needs to have robust improvisational skills, because the mechanics of play tend to be minimal. Participants also have to all be on the same thematic page, as any disconnect can ruin the experience for the group. These games also tend to be short-lived, burning brightly for a single session and fading afterwards.

 

Pillar

Middle-out, concentrating on situations

Stalagmite design starts with the mechanics. Stalactite starts with theme. Pillar design is the third path, where the designer intentionally chooses both a core mechanic and a core theme that interact in a specific way. Pillar design is a way of concentrating on the specific situations that you want to encourage with your design. It’s a compromise solution in many ways, neither as thematically driven, nor as mechanically developed compared to the other options.

Pillar game designs are difficult to craft, because of the difficulty in pairing the two disparate elements. In order for a pillar game to be successful, it needs a core mechanic that is engaging that is either reinforcing or intentionally contrasting the theme. A successful pillar game might be a game about the price of violence, where the strongest tools are violent ones. It might instead be a game that gives tools for resolving conflicts in other ways, and rewards those who abstain from violent options.

Some excellent examples of Pillar designs include…

Headspace, a game about technology (normally portrayed as a dehumanizing force) and teamwork (which requires humanity). The game mechanics centre on a piece of technology, known as the Headspace implant that allows people to share skills. When skills are shared, you also share emotional baggage along for ride. If focusses on emotional consequences as characters work together, and learn about each other’s dark pasts.

Red Markets, is a game about capitalism and zombies. It’s a game where you have to keep careful track of your equipment and maintenance costs as the fundamental experience of play. The only way that you can manage those costs are by spending money, which can only be earned by risking your lives by facing the undead hordes. It’s a game about poverty, and the no-win situations it causes. It’s also currently on kickstarter!

Dread may be the strongest of all of the examples of pillar design. It’s a horror game that uses a Jenga tower as the core mechanic. The physical tower provides a strong sense of suspense and anxiety, underpinning the intentional themes of the game.

Pillar design is good at producing games with a memorable experience. They are relatively unique and focused. They are often quite difficult to design, and are relatively rare. It’s an area of design that I believe warrants further exploration, and it is driving my new design work.

 

I would welcome your thoughts on this article, and the lens through which I am viewing design. Are there any hidden strengths for any of the approaches that I have neglected to mention? Are there downsides not yet identified? My comments are open.

 

RPG Design Overview Sheet

I have a tradition of running RPG design workshops in my local community, either at local gaming conventions or as part of Game Chef. It’s always a great time, but I often feel a need for more robust tools to help new game designers. That’s why I prepared the RPG Design Overview Sheet

The basic principle underlying this little tool is the idea of limited resources. Designers need to account for the amount of complexity associated with their designs, and to prioritize the elements they find most important for the desired play experience. Certain focused games in the story games tradition may be quite streamlined, emphasizing very specific kinds of play experiences.  Other, more traditional game may be structured for versatility and diverse play experiences instead. In all these cases, the designers has made intentional choices which this sheet can capture.

Game Design Sheet - Spark

 

 


In terms of the overall purpose of the exercise, it’s two-fold. Firstly, the intent was to establish a foundational document at the start of a game design project. This foundational document would fill the same general role as the old power 19, allowing designers to both examine their design and discuss it fruitful with others.

The second purpose of the sheet is the potential of using those as snapshots of different game designs. I could foresee a reference document full of the things so that someone could cross-reference designer intent with mechanics/experiences in play. It would be a fascinating to use this tool to document a single game from a variety of different perspectives.


Game Design Sheet - D&D 4E


What do you think? Where this could be adjusted to be a more useful tool for designers young and old?

 

Where Credit is Due

A similar idea has already emerged independently in the Larpwright community, and would be worth your attention. https://nordiclarp.org/wiki/The_Mixing_Desk_of_Larp

The Big Three questions (at the top the sheet) were created by Jared Sorensen of Memento Mori Theatrix.

The types of engagement are derived from Marc “MAHK” LeBlanc (http://8kindsoffun.com/)

Basic Budgeting for Developing Indie Tabletop RPGs

The Price of Publishing

The independent roleplaying game scene is fantastically accessible, relative to other forms of game publishing. One of the challenges for a new game publisher is in determining an initial budget for their projects. I’m here to help you with some advice on how to allocate your scare resources.

Before we get started, I recommend you check out the excellent article on publishing costs that Fred Hicks published a couple years back. http://www.deadlyfredly.com/2014/10/dd-mysterious/ When you are done with Fred’s article, come on back and we will get started.

Set-up Costs

There are a ton of potential expenses in the world of publishing, but here is the basic set of affordable tools that have served me well in my publishing career. Grab these as early as your career as possible, and allocate some time for learning.

  • A word processing program. The free options are the open-source LibreOffice, or potentially Google Docs. When you have the resources down the line, Microsoft Office is pretty commonly used.
  • A photo-manipulation program. I personally love the free, open-source program known as The GIMP and use it to this day. Adobe Photoshop is another option for this role, though it’s costly.
  • A vector illustration program. I use the free, open-source program Inkscape, and it will serve you well. Adobe Illustrator is another commercial option, though it is costly.
  • A layout program, such as the free, open source program Scribus or the more expensive and professional Adobe InDesign.
  • An ebook format program, specifically the open source program Calibre.
  • The Non-Designer’s Design Book, by Robin Williams. This should cost you about $25 USD, and it’s worth every penny.
  • A copy of Scrivener, by Literature and Latte. This should cost you about $40 USD, and I have found it to be an invaluable tool for outlining and initial drafting of RPG texts.
  • A variety of free or pay-what-you-want RPG texts, including Fate Core (http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/114903/Fate-Core-System) , Dungeon World (http://acodispo.github.io/Dungeon-World-HTML-SRD/ ) , Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition (http://dnd.wizards.com/articles/features/basicrules ) and Lady Blackbird (http://www.onesevendesign.com/ladyblackbird/)

For those who have been counting, the baseline costs for those items above is about $65 USD or $100 CAD. For publishers with some additional resources, an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription will let you get the tools for #2, #3 and #4 for relatively cheap.


 

General Publishing Expenses

Expenses for game publishing tend to fall in a few categories. When I say “Day”, I mean a morning writing sprint or an evening after work. Most of my weekends tend to have 3-4 “Days” worth of writing when I’m productive.

  • Writing, both mechanics and fiction. I tend to assume I can produce about 500 words of high-quality text in a day, for budgeting purposes. If I hire freelance writers to do this work, the baseline rate of pay is 5 cents per word.
  • Playtesting. I tend to give myself a playtesting budget of 1 playtest per 1000 words of text as a rule of thumb.  I call each playtest about a day worth of effort, both for the day itself and for the revision process afterwards.
  • Editing, both developmental editing (structural) and copy editing (grammar). Since it is impossible to effectively edit your own work, I budget 2-3 cents a word for freelance editors.
  • Art is extremely variable, and can be a place where you save or invest a great deal of money. Fred’s blog gives some great numbers for planning purposes. Don’t forget to consider public domain images, creative commons, and icons (thenounproject.com or game-icons.net).
  • Layout can be done affordably with some skill, patience and time. If you do it yourself, allocate about a day per 1000 words of text you are laying out. This assumes that you don’t have the necessary skill-set and you are learning the tools. If you want to hire it out, decent baseline prices are in the $500 to $1500 range.  
  • Production is highly variable, and will be discounted from this. For the purposes of this budgeting exercise, I assume that any print products are produced via DrivethruRPG Print on Demand service, which has no up-front cost and thus can be excluded from these discussions.

Books are Beautiful


 

Microgame Budget

This category of games are the smallest in scope, usually associated with game design competitions such as Game Chef. These are the thought-pieces, experimental works, and highly focussed designs. My own (award-winning) game Posthuman Pathways falls in this category, for example, as would Lady Blackbird.

For a project this size, your wordcount tends to be 4000-6000 words. A bare-bones budget for a microgame assumes that most of the investment is in time. I will use 5000 as the baseline, which tends to come to about 20 pages of a digest-size book.

  • Writing: Approximately 10 days of solid writing.
  • Playtesting: 5 playtests, which includes another 5 days for revision.
  • Editing: For a bare-bones editing, hiring an editor at 2 cents/word will cost you $100 for this.
  • Art: If your text is minimal and you use free sources of art, you will only really need a cover. You may be able to secure re-use rights for ~$150, if you can find a suitable piece in an artist’s portfolio.
  • Layout: By doing this yourself, it will take approximately 5 days of work to lay-out the work.Posthuman Pathways

Total Resources: 20 days of work, $250

Adding Extras: If you want to add additional resources to a microgame, commission additional art; 2 half-page images and 2 spot-images, which would run you about $150 according to Fred’s numbers. I would also recommend another 5 days, dedicated to playtesting the text (to ensure clarity) and polishing the prose. Microgames often have less tolerance for unclear language, so your game would benefit from the additional time.

For Reference: Real-world budget of a microgame: Posthuman Pathways (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/Jagash/posthuman-pathways/posts/887880)

 


Indie Game Budget

The story game community has a long history of producing games that are full of narrative complexity, but relatively small in size relative to the traditional RPG products. These tend to be commercially viable products that can be sold in stores easily and often amass a following.

For a project this size, your wordcount tends to be 20k-40k words. Producing a professional quality product at this scale is not an easy task, but it’s often worth it. I will use 30,000 words as the baseline, and assume this is about 120 pages.

  • Writing: Approximately 60 days of writing and revising.
  • Playtesting: 15 playtests if it’s based on an established system, 30 if it’s a brand-new resolution system. About 20 more days of additional revision work.
  • Editing: Hiring an editor at the minimum of 2 cents/word will cost you $600 for this. If you expect multiple revision passes or significant developmental editing work, allocate another cent/word for the additional work by that editor or another one.
  • Art: For a piece this size, you are likely going to need a new custom cover (~$400), at least six half-page pieces ($300), and at least 8 quarter page pieces ($200). I tend to go very light on commissioned art in my work and have had to be creative, but that will only go so far. These numbers will allow you to put in one piece of art for every 10 pages, which is light in terms of art, but some layout tricks can help minimize this.
  • Layout: Layout for a project like this is a big task. By doing this yourself, it will take approximately 60 days of work, assuming you have already learned the basic skills and have all the resources necessary.  You may be able to get someone to lay this out for you for $1500, and that’s a _fantastic_ use of kickstarter funds, but I will assume you do it yourself.

Total Resources: 140 days of work, $1500

Adding Extras: If you have extra resources, I would strongly recommend paying the additional amount for editing ($300), adding some full-page art pieces ($400) and another $300 worth of smaller pieces. Hiring someone someone to do professional layout (~$1500) is expensive, but also shaves two months of your own work off the timeline and will get you a much better product while you are at it. You could spend some of that additional time playtesting the text, demonstrating the game at conventions and preparing additional material.

 

For Reference: Sig: The City BetweenKickstarterCover

My latest kickstarter project was in this category although with a smaller wordcount and with full colour interiors. I allocated $750 to editing, $750 to art, and about $200 for indexing work. I cheated heavily on the art budget by reusing parts of the cover, and intentionally making the text align with some of Gustave Dore’s public domain work.

 

 


 

Major Game Budget

This is for the Fate Cores, Dungeon Worlds or Urban Shadows of the world; hefty and impressive games that usually hit about 60K-100K. I have yet to produce a game of this size, but here is how I would roughly budget for a project of this scope based on my current knowledge set.

Games of this size depend on kickstarter for development/production costs, and offset print runs. These tend to be about 300 pages of digest sized text, or 200 of a larger, letter-sized book. All of these prices are based on a 75K book.

  • Writing: This would take about 5 months of dedicated writing time. Even if the publisher is the lead on the project, I would recommend hiring freelance writers for at least a third of the book. (~$1,250)
  • Playtesting: Of all of the elements, playtesting needs to be scaled up the least. I would still recommend about 50-75 playtests if possible. About 2 months of additional revision work would be needed.
  • Editing: Hiring a pair of editors; one developmental and one for copyediting will cost you at least $2000 for this, and likely closer to $3000.
  • Art: I don’t honestly know where to start. A stunning cover (~$750) and at least $2000 of additional art would probably do the trick, but this would depend heavily on your specific needs. By reference, my quick count for Urban Shadows (at my side) had at least 25 full-page greyscale pieces, which would run $2,500 when using Fred’s numbers.
  • Layout: You are paying for a professional for this, unless your name happens to be John Harper or Daniel Solis. Budget $2000-2500 for this.

Total Resources: ~6 months of work, ~$9000


 

Comments?

I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Did I over-allocate funding in any given category? Skimping too much on editing? This is all more art than science, and I would love your wisdom. I’m especially interested in additional information to revise the Major Game budget numbers.

(Note, article has have taken 3-4 days of writing time, no editing costs, and re-uses art. No layout costs. )