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

After the War – Playtest Invitation

After the War is science-fiction horror roleplaying game, set on the frontier world of Polvo in the aftermath of a galactic conflict. This is a game about people who lost their homes and their families in the war and have come together to rebuild their lives on this rough, frontier world. It’s about diverse communities of Terrans, Martians, Belters, and Aliens, who come together to build a new home for themselves. When the seductive Song or brutal Tormenta threaten your settlements, it’s your job to protect your new world.
Your story is centered on the settlement that you now call home. You work to build, strengthen, and grow their fledgling home. You deal with internal disagreements and external threats, because this is the only place you have left.

Coming to Kickstarter in Fall of 2018


Playtesters Wanted

We are looking for playtesters for After the War, and we hope you are interested. If you would like to try out the game and give us valuable feedback, please click on the image below and fill in the quick google form to provide us with key information. Once that’s done, you can download the quickstart for free and get access to our private playtest community.

Thank you for your time, and welcome to Polvo!


Quickstart Available

Just want the quickstart without signing up for the playtest?  Check it out at http://eepurl.com/dBcJA5

 

The Four Structures

Every failure has made me a better designer. Seeing the fail states if games, either in playtesting or after publication, has shown me a dozen different areas where I can hone my craft. Recently I decided to step back and look at the broader patterns which highlighted four different core design structures that need to be carefully tended in order to produce a compelling outcomes.

Every game can be viewed as a combination of four distinct structures, and the balance of effort among these areas will vary greatly depending on the nature of the project. How you combine these elements is an important decision for any designer and it’s worth your attention. Two of these structures (System and Setting) are well trod territory, but I rarely see mention other two (Situation and Subtext) and wanted to share my framework more broadly.


System consists of the rules and procedures of play. This is all about how you play the game, and how the person at the table will interact with the fiction you create. Rules mechanics and resolution systems all fall into this structure. A weak system tends to result in a game experience that depends on the personal competences of the participants in order to create a compelling play experience. The expression of a game “so good that we never touched the dice” dice stems from weak systems.


Setting consists of the fictional context for play. A setting can be as broad as a galaxy, or as small as a tiny pub where everyone knows your name.  Setting often represents and existing genre of fiction, but there is plenty of room for innovation in this realm. A weak setting feels bland and generic. There is no flavour to play, and the narrative is shallow.  Indistinct character personalities and lack of immersion into your roles are symptoms of weak settings.


Situation consist of the inciting incidents and the purpose of play. This is all about why you are playing the game, why your characters matter in the setting, and why the system will help them shape the narrative. A weak situation feels aimless and undirected. The participants have no strong direction or guidance in how they should be acting or what they should be doing. If the players are purely reactive to the GM’s plot or the fiction feels “on the rails” it’s a sign that the situation isn’t giving motivation.


Subtext consists of the deeper meaning and symbols associated with the game. Every game is a reflection of the real world in some way, and the subtext is all about intentionally crafting the messages and politics encoded in play. A weak subtext feels unintentional or unimportant. The participants are driven to achieve their practical goals, but those goals don’t align with the player’s personalities or passions. If a game that feels uncomfortable to play, or seems to accidentally perpetuate harmful philosophies, it might be a sign that the subtext is unintentional in nature.


An example in action. My first game was titled the Spark Roleplaying Game and it was a mixed bag. The system was fairly robust and moderately well implemented in hindsight. It didn’t have a single cohesive setting, but did give some amazing tools for creating your own settings at the table as a group. The lack of a singular setting led to very weak situations and only allowed for the simplest of subtext. The game had all of the basic functionality necessary to play, but that game itself wasn’t compelling  enough to stand out from the crowd.

The 8 Structural Questions.

Consider answering these questions to explore how these different structures fit into your own game projects.

1.       What does your system encourage players to do at the table?

2.       What is the most important mechanic, rule or procedure in the system, and why is it key?

3.       What about your setting is mundane, relatable and human?

4.       What about your setting is wondrous, fantastic, and exciting?

5.       What is the situation that encourages the players to interact with each other in play?

6.       What is the situation that encourages the players to interact with the setting in interesting ways?

7.       What kinds of player behaviours are encouraged by the combination of system, setting and situation?

8.       What is are implications, morally or politically, of those behaviours?

Fate of the Galaxy – Call for Contributors

Fate of the Galaxy - Call for Contributors

 

We just released our first major public announcement for Fate of the Galaxy, and we are blown away by the enthusiasm fresh out the gate. One of the key aspects of the game is that we are trying very intentionally to design the game with a focus on inclusion, and we need your help.

This project is going to need more contributors who can bring their lived experience to the table. We are looking for women and for non-binary contributors. We are looking for contributors of colour, and for more contributors with disabilities. We want to your voices and your art to make it into the game and show us a more interesting vision of galactic politics.


We will need artists to illustrate the diversity of this open galaxy, the powerful leaders of the fringe worlds, and the fragile beauty of the worlds they protect. Our current artistic direction is to present grey-scale or minimally-coloured images, and we would love to see anything that you have in your portfolio. Our general guidelines, including our standard rates of pay, are available here. We welcome experienced and new talent alike!

Interested Artists: Apply Here


If you are a freelance writer from a marginalised community, please fill in this form to let us know your interest. We will be selecting a number of folks to write new Core Systems for the game as part of the kickstarter process, each which will present a different vision of the space opera genre. Any writers chosen would work with us and our brilliant editor, Amanda Valentine, to develop this setting.

Interested Writers: Apply Here


We know that the design team on this project consists of three cis-white dudes (Jason Pitre, Mark Richardson & Brian Engard), which is why we need your contributions. If you are a creative from a marginalised community, we need your help to make Fate of the Galaxy a success for everyone. Please don’t self-reject or let imposter syndrome hold you back.

The call for contributors is open from now until May 31st, 2018.

The Fate of the Galaxy rests in your hands.