Archive for September 19th, 2007

Strategy-Free Games

2007 Sep 19

I’ve been getting a bunch of good comments on this post I made on Story Games, so I thought I’d re-post it here, with some clarifications.

While Fingers on the Firmament is currently allowing me to indulge a bit in a retro-future game design style, something that mixes D&D with weird bleeding age hippy stuff, if someone asked me to talk about what my own design “school” or interests were like, it would start from a couple of core principles, which are basically things to avoid. I know that defining this negatively instead of positively is not the best thing in the world, but it’s a start.

  • I Don’t Want to Design Perfectly Balanced Mathematical Systems: I’m a humanities major. I want to create beautiful structures that are built on words, ideas, and themes. If you’re writing a system that uses dice or resource mechanics, it’s important to limit the kinds of design decisions you make to create a game system that’s easy to remember and learn, one in which you’re not constantly using a different set of rules for every different task. You want consistency and elegance. You don’t want to roll 3D6 for Task X and then, the next time, be rollng 1D12+8 for the same task. You have to make sure that the players gain and use resources at the right speed. You have to make all the numbers work together like a well-oiled machine. I’m doing this now for Geiger Counter and it is a royal pain in the ass. If I was writing it using freeform guidelines (say, like Polaris‘ ritual language negotiation thing) instead of mechanics, I wouldn’t have to do any of this. I’d playtest the ritual phrases a bunch to make sure they created the type of play I wanted, but that’s a whole different set of issues and, honestly, a task that’s much more interesting to me as a designer.
  • I Don’t Want To Have To Be Successful Strategically In Order To Express Myself Effectively In Play, including managing resources, doing probabilities in my head, maneuvering miniatures around, picking the best skill set, picking the best feats, picking a charm list that makes me be the badass I wanted to be, understanding the combat rules, etc. If I decide I want to make a character who’s a badass, I don’t want to have to spend a lot of time working on it, making sure he’s a badass. He should be a badass because the group have decided that he is, not because I’m successful at maneuvering my way through the mechanical puzzle of making an effective character and taking strategically appropriate actions. This is especially true if the rulebook DOES NOT TELL ME HOW TO MAKE AN EFFECTIVE CHARACTER at any of the major tasks that will regularly occur in play, but instead expects me to learn by making a bunch of ineffective characters and having them fail or get killed until I figure out an effective way to do things. If I wanted to join a mystery cult, I would become a Mason.

Yessir.