This article was written by Nathan Russell and originally appeared at TheStockade.net on September 28th, 2009. The Stockade was a website dedicated to encouraging Australian game designers to get up and create their games, much like NaGa DeMon! The Stockade has been “finished” for a very long time now, and its web hosting expires very soon, so I thought I would share some of the still-relevent articles here over the next few months.
Okay, I have made mention of “the 3 questions” a few times, both here and at the google group. What are they? They are three questions put forward by Jared Sorensen (designer of InSpectres and others), Luke Crane (Burning Wheel) and John Wick (Legend of the 5 Rings, Houses of the Blooded) put forward as tools to help as you design your games. Jared, Luke and John occassionally do a design seminar at cons and ask would-be designers these questions, attempting to scrape away at things like setting and fluff to get to the heart of what a game is about. By knowing what the “essential” element of your game is you can remove the unnecessary, avoid distractions and get on with making your game as strong as it possibly can be. For example, you might (as I often do) get hung up on setting, a character type or some other element, shoe-horning it into your game when it neither fits nor is necessary. It’s about identifying your sacred cows and mercilessly slaughtering them!
The big three questions are;
- What is your game about?
- How does your game do this?
- How does your game encourage / reward this?
John Wick likes to add a fourth question;
- How do you make this fun?
Lets consider each in turn. What follows are my own interpretations of what the questions mean, accompanied with examples from a few games I am familiar with.
What is your game about? While most of us think of our games in terms of setting, plots and characters, this is not what the question is asking. This question wants you to think about what idea your game is about. This could be a theme, social issue, particular activity or anything else, but is NOT setting. For example, Dungeons and Dragons is about killing monsters and taking their stuff (this is not a criticism!); Space Rat is about winning the attention of the Galaxy’s most eligible batchelor; Cyberpunk 2020 is about surviving the dangerous city and looking good while you do it. Notice, each of those answers makes no or little reference to setting or character types. What they do mention, however, is what your characters do – pretty important in a roleplaying game!
How does your game do this? What mechanics or devices are in place to make your game about whatever you mentioned above? If you say your game is about “survival” but you have no obvious threats, then what are characters “surviving”? D&D is about killing monsters and aking their stuff and it provides lots of weapons, attack abilities and an entire book of monsters as a “core” product – almost all of which have “treasure” to take; Space Rat is about getting attention because the attention track is right there on the character sheet, and you only play characters interested in a romantic interlude with Jack Cosmos; Cyberpunk 2020 says it right there on the cover – Style over substance – and has a long list of weapons, cool clothing and cyber enhancements.
How does your game reward this? Mechanics are just one part of the game. The other thing you need to do is make players want to do whatever your game is about. D&D rewards you by giving you experience points to upgrade your character so you can kill bigger things and get better stuff. Lady Blackbird‘s keys reward you by giving you either XP or more dice to spend, everytime you act in character, really driving home the idea that the game is about the relationships of characters as they travel across the Wild Blue. Games do not have to reward you with XP and character advancement, though. Space Rat rewards you for undermining other players by refreshing your Luck pool; Spirit of the Century gives you Fate points when you “take a hit” in character.
How do you make this fun? Here is something that is sometimes tougher to narrow down. What is fun about killing monsters? In D&D it is the variety of forms of attack, the uncertainty of whether you will hit or not, and the slim chance of getting a critical. For some, the resource management of hit points, spells, and other special abilties are also a lot of fun. In Space Rat it is never knowing when pushing your luck will mean losing out. In other games it might be the cool powers available, the types of play opportunities provided or something else. Often this will depend on the needs or interests of the players, so it is also important for you to be aware of your target audience – are you trying to appeal to “hack and slash” players, people interested in deep immersion, or a play group that like diceless, freeform play?
This is just my brief introduction to these concepts. The “big 3 questions” won’t be for everyone, but I do think they are worth considering, even if you don’t actively sit down and write out an answer to each of them. Finally, I have collected a few interesting links that deal with these questions. Check them out;
- Ryan Macklin
- Brennan Taylor
- Rich Rogers
- John Wick’s You Tube articles (episode 0)
- RPG Design Handbook
I hope this stuff is useful to someone!