Written by Jeremy Morgan, tabletop games editor, gamer, and software developer.
About | Planescape4E


22 September 2012

I have a game design confession to make. An appropriate term for my problem fails me, so I’ll have to use more words than I’d like.

I’m bad about reading just enough of something to think I know how it works before starting to design/hack. I typically start thinking about how to hack it before I’ve even had a chance to play the system as written in some cases. I know this doesn’t make me a terrible person, but it’s something I’ve been thinking more and more about lately. I think I need to shift my mental paradigm here. I think I need to put in more time with the material before attempting to alter it.

If I’m really going to do this game design ‘thing’, then I need to get serious. A good designer (in my opinion) plays a lot of systems and games to get breadth of knowledge, but also tries to grok each system as much as possible. That second part is where I’ve been phoning it in.

My plan is in motion, and I’ve got a couple of systems to try this new approach on. I’ve even been blogging about some of them recently. I’ve got some co-workers who are willing to play some games at lunch, so I might try and bring that to bear on this problem, too.

Want to help, dear reader? If you see me starting down a design path here or on Twitter, I’d appreciate your asking me the simple questions below.

  1. Have you read all of the rules at least once?
  2. Have you played it as written?
  3. Have you run it as written?

This post may seem odd, but it’s something I needed to get off my chest. What do you think of all this? Am I worrying too much, or have I hit upon something that might have dashed my ‘career’ against the rocks had I not noticed it this early in the game?

Let me know what you think on Twitter, even if you don’t typically respond to my posts.


The Dad Hatter said:

Good luck avoiding jumping the design gun.

TheOtherTracy said:

I don’t disagree completely, but I also don’t agree completely. There’s a certain design instinct that exists. It’s that feeling inside that says “Oh yeah, there’s something here. I’m gonna start working with it.” That feeling is what gets me started down a particular path of design/hacking, and it often happens long before I’ve finished reading the rules, before I’ve ever played a game, and waaaaay before I fully grok a system.

Without following that instinct, I’d be nowhere.

However, the trick is to not just stop there. As the design/hack continues, I keep going back to the inspirational material and getting more out of it. I don’t think I’ll ever fully grok a system, but I trust my instincts enough to know that when I feel that thrill, I need begin designing, or at least get an idea down on paper.

For example, before I submitted for Don’t Hack This Game, I had barely read DRYH, and I’ve still never played it. Pitch got accepted, and two rounds of edits happened. We know the state of that project, so it’s whatever. But, if I hadn’t gone with my initial instinct and pitched on a game I was barely familiar with, I’d never have gotten it accepted.

Have some audacity. Trust your instincts. Go back to the material and make sure you’re not off-target. That’s where I come from.

chad said:

As Tracy mentions, audacity isn’t a bad thing, but in support of your plan, I will add that it’s really easy to fall into design and intention patterns. I’ve also been trying really hard to make sure that I’ve understood and tried the design and intent of a game before I start tweaking it. I’ve found that - when I can manage it - it really helps to get in and try a few different approaches with the game as-is before picking it apart and rebuilding it.


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