Sunday, September 15, 2019

Nine Assumptions in Game Design

There are a lot of unspoken and unconsidered assumptions that influence the design of role-playing games. These are the major ones I want to think about, so I'm posting this here for when I want to return to the topic:

  • Assumption #1: The people playing this game will be constituted by the same group at your table week after week as the game progresses. 

  • Assumption #2a: The game is meant to be a pleasant object to read cover-to-cover.
  • Assumption #2b: The game is a resource designed to be referenced in play. 

  • Assumption #3: There is a correct balance between the "work" of gaming and the "fun" of gaming. 

  • Assumption #4a: Everyone at the table is looking for the same kind of fun out of the game. 
  • Assumption #4b: People at the table are looking for different kinds of fun but the game itself navigates that divide.

  • Assumption #5a: Advancement systems for characters should encourage a certain kind of play.
  • Assumption #5b: Advancement systems for characters should reward simply playing the game.

  • Assumption #6a: Roleplaying is part of the game and should be included mechanically in the game's rules.
  • Assumption #6b: Roleplaying is separate from the rules of the game, whether incidental or just not in need of a connection to the game's rules.

  • Assumption #7: Any time the word "story" is used, whether for or against in gaming, there is likely an assumption about the nature of rpgs in play.

  • Assumption #8: A game's rules should be tied to setting and/or genre.

  • Assumption #9a: Ideally, a game's rules should "get out of the way" and fade into the background until needed. 
  • Assumption #9b: A game is about its rules; engagement with the rules should be a fundamental part of play.


  1. Your game is going to have mechanical rewards for RP, is that right?

    1. I'm not sure what you mean by "your game" in this context.

    2. I was under the impression that these were deign precepts you intended to apply to a game you will design.

    3. They're applicable to that sort of situation, but I think they're also good starting points to talk about game design in general.

      Tbh I don't see myself leaning too far into mechanical rewards for roleplaying; I don't think I've ever seen a system that does that in a satisfying way.

  2. I think that the most important one is missing:
    10a: the players are moving their characters as they would pieces in a boardgame; metagaming mechanics are going to add to the fun
    10b: the players are the characters during the game; metagaming mechanics are going to destroy the immersion.

    1. Yeah, that's a good one. Though I'm not sure any game that leans into 10a would frame it that way. I get what you mean though!

  3. So may of these appear to be in conflict, of course, though I think it's perhaps more helpful to view them as being part of a dialectic. The problem comes in when people want to enshrine their end of the dialectic and frame it as the "right" answer.

    1. Yeah, I think that's largely true. Things that appear to be oppositional are often actually pretty closely tied together. And they appear to be oppositional mostly where they've been weaponized to stake some sort of rhetorical position.

  4. I think there are some interesting paired beliefs about randomness and fairness, something like:

    a: Everyone's character and/or everyone's experience of the adventure should have the opportunity to be the same. It would be unfair if high or low dice rolls gave one person a much better or much worse time than someone else.

    b: Random dice rolls are the only way to ensure that it's fair when good things happen to one person and bad things happen to another.

    Both these positions also maybe have implied positions about trust and competency as well.

    a) Some players are going to try to cheat, and if we allow those people to roll dice where we can't see it (for example, during character creation) they're going to cheat and say they got really high numbers, which is unfair to people who are playing honestly.

    b) Learning all the rules and options, and figuring out how to maximize the effectiveness of a character using that system mastery, is really difficult. It's not fair to other players if a few masters are allowed to pick the best traits for a perfect "build" instead of assigning those traits randomly using the dice.

    1. 2a is one I personally struggle with. As you know from playing in my online games, I don't require anyone to roll with an app that we can see because I generally trust people. That said, it still bugs me when someone is obviously cheating, like when they never happen to roll lower than a 15 for weeks at a time.

      And I'm not sure why it even bugs me!

    2. I mean, it's a violation of the social contract. If the rest of us have agreed to roll the dice to determine the results, then of course it feels like someone is taking advantage of the rest of us if they're not rolling the dice and just saying the number they want. They're refusing to play the same game as the rest of us, and kind of hijacking the group to play their to play their own game at everyone else's expense.

      You could look to the book "Finite and Infinite Games" for some thoughts on this, or just the general principle that no one likes to feel like they're being taken advantage of.

      Really the difference between a) and b) is not that they'd both be annoyed by that behavior - it's that a) would worry about it more, I think, and also a) is drawn to solutions that involve taking average results instead of rolling, while b) is drawn to solutions that involve rolling the dice in the open in a verifiable way.

    3. Yeah, it's the social contract part I guess that bugs me. If someone lies to you, even about something that doesn't matter, maybe especially about something that doesn't matter, it probably irritates for the same reason.

    4. Possibly related:

      (a) All characters should progress at the same rate. Players should not feel as if they're "falling behind" just because the dice didn't favor them or real life prevented them from playing in a session. (Also tied to #1 above.)

      (b) Character advancement should take place independently among the players to incentivize specific behaviors or reward "good play".

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