The 3 Questions (+1)

This article was written by Nathan Russell and originally appeared at 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 RingsHouses 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;

I hope this stuff is useful to someone!

5 Questions with… Michael Wenman

This interview was written by Andrew Smith and originally appeared at on April 10th, 2011. 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.

This is a new feature for The Stockade, called Five Questions With… Our first guest is Michael Wenman. As you’ll see from this interview, Michael is a game designer based in the Sydney area and has been designing in one way or another for a few years. So without further ado, here’s the interview.

Tell us about the first game you made, published or not.

There’s a gradual decline into game design. When I was in high school, I played a few games with my friends, AD&D, Ars Magica, Cyberpunk 2020, TMNT, Shadowrun, Rifts, the early releases of White Wolf’s World of Darkness. I was the group’s fall back GM, because I wasn’t afraid to jury rig the elements I iked from different games to produce a specific play experience. If I wanted a game with a certain combat style, and another style for magic, I’d flat out tell people that we’d be mixing and matching system X with system Y. So I guess the first games I designed were those frankenstein beasts.

The first full game I designed rom scratch was called “Platinum Storm” in the mid 1990s (1994 I think). I guess it was a bit of a heartbreaker, with elements I liked from a few systems, cobbled together and attached to a basic percentile system, then refined to make the odd bits integrate a bit more smoothly. It was a pseudo-japanese setting, basically L5R before L5R became popular; a lot of people at the time told me that no one would be interested in a Japanese styled game. It was 32 pages, black and white in a simply printed red outer sheet, with thirty copies run off at the local Officeworks, these days they’d probably call it an “Ashcan”. I ran a few sessions of it at SAGA (Sydney Adventure Gaming Awards, a now defunct convention), and at $10 a copy I sold out most of my stock over the course of the weekend. I’ve looked back at one of my last copies recently and I can see what a hideous monstrosity it was, but I thought it was good at the time and I still know a few people who’ve kept their copies after all these years.

What do you consider when writing setting material?

There’s an old writing adage that every page should have a hook. In my setting material, I try to produce evocative paragraphs; each containing an element that could form the basis for a story (or at east a scene). Every paragraph may not entice every reader to plunge deeper into the world, but hidden within the words there should be a subtle siren’s call. Within a few paragraphs, most readers should find something interesting to latch onto.

Good setting materials don’t provide static locations that have already been explored, nor do they retell specific events. They offer starting points with directions for players to explore on their own. They prompt exploration and ask more questions than they answer.

I think this is one of the reasons why I’ve never really liked prewritten modules. One of the only times I used a prewritten module for a game, I let all of my players read through it. With that knowledge in place we ran a loose game based on the concept that the module had been completed as written a few weeks earlier, and now the player characters had to sort out the mess left behind by the earlier adventuring party.

What’s important to you when you design the connections between the rules of your game and the story it produces?

I’ve aways thought that three factors contribute to the production of story within a roleplaying game: Players, GM and Rules. These three pull at one another in an eternal tug-of-war, and different styles of play emerge depending on which if these elements has the power. If you really want to tailor the story experience from a game, you need to consider all three of these elements. Designing a bunch of mechanisms that infuence story will only go so far toward the whole experience; the same mechanisms will produce very different results under the control of very different GMs and players…some combinations will take on a life of their own, others will die horribly. As a point of fact, I’ve run exacty the same scenario, with the same GM (me) and different player groups at conventions, the change of one element can make or break a game. The same applies to a change of GMs, I’ve played the same game system with the same players and different GMs, ony to see dramatic changes in the way things resolve themselves. Using the same GM, the same players, but different rules sets can also produce differences in the final story type.

In my mind, a good set of rules should address all of these concerns. It should give the GM a guideline on how to run the game (like an automotive mechanic’s manual describing the various mechanisms, their inputs and how to keep them running smoothly), it should give the players some ideas on what to expect and how best to achieve those results (a drivers manual on how to use it best advantage, and the expected outputs from the mechanisms), then it should provide those mechanisms in language as clear as possible, showing plenty of play examples.

In the old days, games just provided you with the mechanisms; they expected you to work out how best to apply them to generate a story. Instead of providing play advice and GM notes, they just give you a bunch of extra rules and mechanisms, or a few pre-written scenarios. These are the tools of story generation in the context roleplaying, but they need a proper user guide before a consistent story outcome is possible. A lot of newer games are better in this regard, describing meta-mechansisms such as scene framing options, division of narrative control and general explanation of how things should resolve in play.

Which games impress you, and why?

I love B-Grade movies, and films where the main producer is the director, and this one person has the creative drive to produce what they want rather than kowtowing to a faceless corporate committee (Quentin Tarantino, Zac Snyder, Darren Aronofsky). In the same way I love the games turned out by contests like “The Ronnies” or “Game Chef”. Contests like these don’t make pretty games tha are flavouress clones of every other product on the shelf…instead they are always pushing the envelope of design. Some games produced are beautiful trainwrecks, absoutesy savage beasts that you wouldn’t want to play in their competition state. But in every contest I’ll find an idea or two that makes me reassess what gaming is about,or consider new approaches to my existing projects. I’ve often found that in polished game products, these innovative ideas are usually the ones that get filed away when the production committee decides that the edges need to be smoothed out. Every time I see a contest I fall in love with another new idea.

One of the few ideas that has consistenty impressed me know for amost two years is more of a quirky mechanism than a game in it’s own right, and that’s Vincent Baker’s “Otherkind Dice”. I first saw them and thought about how eleganty awesome the concept was. So simple, yet capable of such complexity and story drive. I love the concept of Otherkind Dice so much that I’ve tweaked and twisted them for my game FUBAR.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m building a steampunk/art-nouveau foosball table.

But I’m guessing you’re actually referring to game design here.

In that regard, I have a few projects on the go. Firstly, I’ve actually started to see some decent turnover of my game FUBAR, with over 1000 downloads from various websites, and a slow but constant rate of sale for the first supplement “High Plains FUBAR” (switching the genre from cyberpunk to cowboy western), I’m working on updating the core rules and producing a series of monthly supplements for that game range…”All for One and One FUBAR” (pre-revolution French swashbuckling), “Faeries and FUBAR” (fantasy and dungeonbashing), “Close Encounters of the FUBAR Kind” (Conspiracy Theories and Aliens), “Feathers, Fur and FUBAR” (Lycanthropes), etc.

Secondly, my Quincunx project. This is one of those projects where I want to make sure it’s done right, and the first release in 2009 just wasn’t right. This project is linked in with a parallel graphic novel while has taken precedence for a while, as I think about better ways to sort out the game mechanisms.

Thirdly, the goblin labyrinth braunstein. This is project harkens back to the origins of roleplaying. It’s a miniatures game for ten or more players, where each player has a number of their own agendas for the session (some of which involve combat, others trade, negotiation, investigation, or something else). Players interact by moving figures around a cast resin city designed in the style of the movie Labyrinth, they may only interact with one another when their figures are in close proximity (whether that interaction is talking, fighting, healing, or anything else). Since everything in this game plays out in real-time, the thing that slowing down this project at the moment is trying to develop a real-time combat system capable of handling players who control a core character with an entourage of a dozen or more barely competent goblin lackeys (while maintaining a feeling of freewheeling goblin anarchy). Hand sculpting the city is taking a while as well.

Thanks to Michael for his time. If you’d like to see more of his work, go to Vulpinoid Studios or his RPGNow webstore

Typeface & Layout

This article was written by Nathan Russell and originally appeared at on January 17th, 2010.

Brad Murray is one of the writers of Diaspora, a hard sci-fi roleplaying game built on the FATE system. I came across this blog post by Brad Murray during one of my frequent tours of the internet. I don’t know how many people are at the layout-stage of their design (I am not), but if you are like me, you are probably thinking about it! This particular post  explains Brad’s process for choosing fonts for his projects. I am far more… umm… intuitive… less analytical (?) than Brad, and I think this blog post has given me some sound structure that might make choosing typefaces easier in the future. Have a look and see what you think. The post is here.

A Brief Check-In

Hi all,

This is just a brief check-in and apology. I promised a newsletter and discussion of the survey for February, but that obviously didn’t happen. Life, illness, and a serious lack of mental fortitude conspired to drag my attention away from this most noble project. I have a lot going on at the moment that requires much of my attention and my few moments of respite have been spent with my family or engaged in mind-numbing distractions to keep me sane!

I will say a HUGE THANK YOU to everyone that contributed to the survey – there was some excellent feedback, and your kind words were much appreciated. NaGa DeMon is a labour of love, and it is good to know the efforts are appreciated.

I am also pleased to see there are a number of you continuing to work on your NaGa DeMon projects, and making great progress. Top work! NaGa DeMon was originally conceived as a way to kick-start people, provide some extrinsic motivation and help them (You!) on the path to completing their work, so it is great to see exactly that happening. I would love to hear from anyone who is still working on their project, either in the comments below, or via email.

Thanks for all your support and patientce. I will have more for you soon.

– Nathan

5 Questions with… Daniel Solis

This interview was written by Andrew Smith and originally appeared at on April 17th, 2011. 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.

We’re quite fortunate to have as an interviewee, Daniel Solis. Daniel is the author of games such as Happy Birthday, Robot!, Split Decision, Sagefight! and the recent Kickstarter sensation Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple. He also hosts the Thousand Year Game Design Challenge, if you’re up for a tough design goal. In between working, designing games and riding the wave of success that is Do, he’s found time to be part of Five Questions With… Daniel Solis.

Which part of producing a game do you have the most confidence with? What gives you that confidence?
Because I am a graphic designer and art director by day, I feel most confident in being able to present a game visually. I can hire the right artist to reflect a game’s mood, supplement the text with informative and evocative layout, and create promotional and marketing materials for the game’s branding.

What do you consider when designing the connections between the rules of your game and the story it produces?
I like there to be a synergy between the physical components of play and the themes that the game intends to evoke. These can be small things, like how the first player in Pandemic is supposed to be the last person who was sick or how Agon asks you to roll dice in your left or right hand if you’re attacking or defending, as if you’re holding a sword and shield. Then there are more overt ways to create those connections, like the use of a Jenga tower as the central mechanic in Dread.

In the case of Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple, I wanted to create a metaphor for karma in a very classical sense. Not that you have “good” or “bad” karma, but simply that every decision affects those around you. So Do uses black and white stones in a bag. On your turn, you draw three and decide to keep some and throw the rest back into the bag for the other players. The stones you keep affect your pilgrim’s fate at the end of the game. Meanwhile, you’ve also changed the odds for the other players to draw stones they wanted.

What’s been the most useful play test feedback you’ve received?
A while back, a friend of mine named Mark Sherry created an AI program that could emulate different strategies of play in Do. He ran thousands of simulations with different mixtures of player strategies to find the right number of stones to use in play, the average length of a game, the average number of turns for players in a certain group-size, all sorts of stuff. That was really valuable just to get the basic mechanics sorted out. I learned then that cooperative games require really tight refinements of algorithms, which is something I need a more mathy person to figure out. Thankfully, many smart and generous people like Mark Sherry are willing to help artsy-types crunch the numbers.

Tell us about the tools and software you use for writing, art and layout.
I write in Word or Google Docs, depending on if I’m collaborating with an editor in real time. Once the text is settled, I bring it into InDesign to format and style it. You can see that process in this video.

For any illustrated art support, I use photoshop to adjust colors, contrasts, etc. For vector elements, I use an old program called Macromedia Freehand. Most folks use Adobe Illustrator, but I learned on Freehand and I kinda stuck with it even though it’s not supported any longer.

Who would you like to work with on a game?
Many times I come across an artist who I’d love to use in a game. Or rather, an artist for whom I’d make a game just to have an excuse to use their art. Let’s see, the wishlist includes Kelly Hamilton, Claire Hummel, Steph Laberis, Tom Bancroft and Jen Wang.

Daniel maintains a fascinating blog, in which he talks often and in detail about his game design projects. It’s well worth your time subscribing to that feed. He also has a Cafepress storefront.

Dice Probability

I am no math guy. I can count enough to put the right number of candles on my birthday cake, but not much else. This doesn’t usually worry me when it comes to game design, because I am more of a “it feels right” kind of guy, rather than a hard probabilty guy. This has served me well enough (so far). Some games (and game designers), though, like the mathamatical stuff you can do with dice probability. And if you are designing for an existing game, you probably need to understand how the probabilities work in that system. There has been a fair bit of discussion on my own game, FU, over at the FU yahoo group about alternative dice mechanics, probabilities and the like. It has all been very interesting (if I do say so myself). If you are interested in that discussion you should check out the yahoo group. If you are interested in dice probabilities, have a look at the AnyDice website.

Game Design Notes

This article was written by Andrew Smith and originally appeared at on October 12th, 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.

Game design notes can be a useful text for any aspiring designer.  It gives insight into someone else’s game and their design process.  Importantly, it gives the inexperienced designer some things to watch out for.

Steve Jackson Games published Revolution this year, and have just made available the design notes.  These are notes from an experienced designer, working with an experienced game company.  If your game project for the Stockade is your first game, take the time to read a few game design notes and ask yourself whether the same issues apply to your game and if they do, how you will tackle them.

And if you know of any other game design notes out there on the web, post them in the comments.

2013 So Far

Hi all and welcome to 2013! I hope you had a great festive season and enjoyable new year. I have enjoyed spending some time with my family, beginning a project or two, and generally trying to relax. It was my birthday a couple of days ago, so I ate way too much cake, but otherwise have been trying to look after myself! I have also had a chance to play a host of interesting games, including a few deck building ones, which have my interest at the moment? Have you been playing games?

I am going to collate the results of the 2012 Survey in a few days time. If you have not taken the survey I would really appreciate your feedback. You can find the survey here.

I am also currently putting together the next newsletter. I have been waiting to collate the survey results, so it will likely go “live” early February. You can subscribe to the newsletter by clicking the Newsletter link to the right.

I have been thinking about how best to use this website so that it isn’t a ghost town for eleven months of the year. My plan is to do a couple of posts a month related to games and game design. Maybe I can get some guest posts, too. What would you like to see on the site?



Now It’s December

Hi all! I hope you have been enjoying a well-earned rest after the effort and hi-jinks of November!

I just wanted to let you all know that the first issue of the NaGa DeMon newsletter went out to subscribers today. It’s short and sweet (just like me, some would say) and if you aren’t a subscriber yet, you can be by clicking here!

I am hoping to send a short newsletter each month, probably with a brief article about game design, and / or update on NaGa DeMon. If you would like to write something either for the newsletter or the website, then get in contact with me! If you wanted to spit out a few hundred words on your “journey”, or just share how awesome you were at slaying the demon, I wouldn’t stand in your way!

Speaking of contributors, I really appreciated the help of all the people that wrote articles this year – without them this site would not have been updated anywhere near as regularly as it was! So, everyone give a big round of appreciative applause to Ben Gerber, Rob Lang, Michael Wenman, Chris Watts, Keith Fyans, Mike Bilter and Andrew Smith. You lot rock!

I would also like to thank everyone who has responded to the 2012 Survey. That’s about 50 of you so far, but I know there is more of you out there that have participated or thought of participating in some way! Any kind of feedback is appreciated, no matter how much or how little you completed in November, and I would love it if you took 3 minutes to complete the survey. The feedback I have received so-far has been very enlightening, and the comments have been both enthusiastic and valuable.

I am really pleased to see so many of you still blogging and tweeting about your continued NaGa DeMon adventures. Some of you made amazing progress in November, and even more of you are tying up loose ends in December. Great work, and don’t forget to post a comment here, on the Facebook or Google+ pages, or via Twitter when your work is done!

Enough from me, for now. Once again, thanks for a great November.

– Nathan Russell


Helpful Hint: play “We Are The Champions” by Queen as you read the following.

Congratulations Demon Hunters, you have reached the mighty station of Demon Slayer! Whether you finished your game or not, you should know that you have left a mighty mark on the world, making it a better place through the sheer desire to want to create games. To those of you that fell by the wayside on this epic quest, we salute you and thank you for joining us. For those of you that made it to the very end, we commend you and are now, at this very moment, penning mighty ballads about your deeds, to be sung in the halls of Valhalla!

No matter how much you achieved, you truly are mighty. Pat yourself on the back right now.

I am bone weary and looking forward to an evening where I don’t sit in front of the computer. I am happy that I made such magnificent progress on my game. But I am also sad that this event is over, because I have so enjoyed, and been truly amazed by the participation and enthusiasm of people from all around the world. I’ve met a lot of new people and am looking forward to playing some awesome games in the future. You guys have made NaGa DeMon 2012 totally amazing, and I thank you for that.

I am looking forward to continuing the conversations on game design, too. Many of you have indicated that there is more to do on your game, and that your work will continue even though November is over. That is just fantastic and I plan on following your progress, so continue to share! I will be posting my own NaGa DeMon wrap-up soon, over on my website, too. And, of course, there is the NaGa DeMon newsletter. The plan for that is to send out a semi-regular (is that a thing?) email to subscribers with a useful article or interview, and an update on NaGa DeMon 2013. I already have some ideas and look forward to sharing them with you. Speaking of next year, can I please encourage you to take the 2012 Survey – by knowing what worked this year, I can work at making next year even better.

Before I sign off and leave you to your rest, here is a badge you can use on your website or have embroidered into a stylish jacket. It’s not much for all your hard work, but I give it to you with genuine appreciation of your efforts.

(The big image is 377px, the smaller is 150px.  Right-click and “save as”.)