When you’re designing a game, it can be helpful to ask—and answer—”what do I want my players to describe?” It’s probably not the first question you want to answer, but when you need to ask it, you know you will. It’s not quite the same as “what happens in my game”[1] because, importantly, it’s about what details your players will dwell on, what will give the game its texture.

Once you have some answers to that question, the next thing to consider is how to get your players to actually spend some effort describing those things. This is part of what Vincent’s whole thing about “rightward pointing arrows” was about. They’re one possible technique for making the things described in the fiction meaningful and important enough that people don’t gloss over details, and thus describe what you want them to.

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  1. Look at the wonderful illustrations from Dylan Meconis for the Italian edition of Dogs in the Vineyard for a great expression of “what happens” in Dogs. []

We talk a lot on this blog about issues of balance. This is tied to fairness[1]. There’s a strong unspoken assumption in game design that, if you believe balance is a relevant category for your game, then your game should have it, should be balanced.

I’ve just been talking with Austin about why I’d rather play D&D 3.5 than D&D 4 if I’m looking to play a minis game, and in so doing, I had a realization. Two rogues with spears in a party, flanking at long reach? It’s great. It’s something hard to do with 4e. It’s something particular to the ways 3.5 is broken and imbalanced. And it’s part of why I would play 3.5 not just as a minis game, but as an actual role-playing game.

Role-playing games should be unfair, but they should be unfair in both directions.

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  1. See Rob Donoghue for more thoughts on that. []

Recently we circulated among ourselves a very well-written article by Robert Schwalb about the frustration surrounding skill systems, particularly in D&D. I recommend the article, but want to talk about an idea that’s slightly tangental—target fixation.

Target fixation is the concept of becoming so focused on something that one excludes everything else, to the detriment of achieving the goal one set out to do. Here, it expresses itself as an obsession with the mechanics of a game, as if they were the only way to achieve anything. As Schwalb points out, if everything is a skill check, then story is quickly abandoned in favor of a series of sequential skill checks. Nothing in a game should be allowed to dominate play to that extent.

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The wonderful Joshua A.C. Newman recently tweeted this:

In my Human Contact backer’s survey, the players who said they played D&D said, “D&D, of course”. All three of 248.

This raises an interesting point. All three of us here at Transneptune began gaming with D&D. A lot of what we do exists in reaction to this, whether we want to admit it or not. A lot of our idea of what pathological gaming is and can be, and what good gaming is and can be, stems from this common ground we have.

But I think that the whole story-games movement is opening up the field to many people who might never have played RPGs precisely because they weren’t interested in D&D. The game is undeniably still popular, but the audience for games where you sit around a table with friends and make up a story with the aid of some dice seems to be widening.

So what, then, is the purpose of our D&D reactionism? Well, it certainly provides a common language and a common set of experiences among the three of us. But let me turn that question outward for a moment, and ask what you, our phantasmal readers, have found as the recurring touchstones of this genre? What benefit do you see to having a common set of references, and how common do you think D&D really is?

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This distinction has been brought up many times by many people, though not as much in reference to gaming, and not in so many words. The gist of this distinction is historical: Epic protagonists from ancient sagas like Gilgamesh and Beowulf do not undergo the same kind of psychological change and examination that modern ones do. Gilgamesh is what he is, and his story does not examine or care about the choices he makes nearly as much as their consequences. A lot of creation myths and parables also fit this pattern. When the character is well-defined and consequences are interesting, it can make for a decent story.

The more interesting story in my mind is the one that examines the protagonist’s choices and their motivation. Consequences figure into their psychology, and their future choices, but aren’t the focus of the story. I want to know who this protagonist is, what makes him great, and why he has decided to use his talents the way he does. If Gilgamesh is a good example of an Epic protagonist, then Gregory House might be a good example of a modern one. In the show, his actions are largely secondary to the motivations he has for them. Other characters spend the majority of the show analyzing and overanalyzing his motives, emotions and affect.

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There are many qualities that are advantageous when developing games. An understanding of mathematics. A background in drama and philosophy. Historical perspective. Innovative ideas on play. The list is as long as my arm. But one that I have become keenly aware of is unity of vision. It’s more of a concern when you have multiple designers all struggling to form ideas around the kernel of a game, as we tend to have. But concerns over unity and coherency are ever-present even for the single developer.

Do Not Go Gentle has been causing us fits to design primarily because not one of us has a clear idea of what we want to do with it. We know some things that will be true of the game when it’s done, but without some central shared vision to build on, we’ve been at a loss to make significant headway. It started off as a zombie panic game, but then transmuted into a game about the last days of one’s life, and then loosely to something inspired by Ghost. Without a firm idea of what we’re trying to write, we can’t construct mechanics or even really know if it’s worth building.

Which is not a problem we had with In a Dragon-Guarded Land.

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I want to talk for a bit about something I sometimes see in RPGs (and, less often, in other games): mechanics that resolve one thing while producing a side-effect for something else. For example, critical hits in D&D, divine interventions in In Nomine, and the complications/opportunities system in the Leverage RPG. For the purposes of this article, a side-effect mechanic is primarily about one thing (whether you succeed at something, generally) but that produces a side-effect that is taken into consideration elsewhere in the game.

That's the way I roll

That's the way I roll

First, though, I’m not a huge fan of side-effect mechanics. I find they usually add more complexity than benefit. They can be jarring if the side-effect is something fairly removed from the original thing being resolved. Side effects have to be balanced such that they work with the core mechanic, neither ruining its original feel nor making the secondary effect insignificant. In short, the whole concept is troubled from a design perspective. Still, there are times when it’s completely appropriate. Where and when is the key question.

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