Thursday, 27 November 2014

[Design Talk] The Power of Inventory

Hello World,

Equipment, items, supplies, phat lewts, whatever you want to call them, they make an appearance in almost every RPG system. From the heavy inventory focus of D&D and Pathfinder to the narrative importance of Fate or Heroquest the methods of item representation can be done in countless ways. I am noy going to debate about which game handles inventory the best because each has its strength and weaknesses. Instead I would  like to talk about the importance of how you handle items when designing a game. But first, a story.

About a year ago I was running a Pathfinder game in which one of the players had grown fond of his characters pair of bolas. These weren’t special bolas, just the simple kind which you could buy and any store, but they were his favorite piece of equipment. This attachment developed from a number of encounters in which a good bola throw got the team out of a jam. He could always rely on his trusty bolas. But tragedy stuck...

One fateful night, as a thief was making off with their valuables, a lone bola toss stood between the thief and her escape. The bola flies true, entangling the thief’s legs and knocking her to the ground. The group begins to run up to the downed thief. Seeing her foes approaching the thief begins to panic, she pulls out her dagger and cuts the rope of the bolas. Dropping the stolen goods, she is barely able to make it out of their alive.

In that moment a minor unnamed enemy became the most hated villain of the game. The player was heartbroken at the loss of his trusty weapon, and for some time the campaign became focused on tracking the thief down.

I was trying to make one thing clear with this, stats don’t always make an object important, interactions with that object do. Whenever you are designing a system, always ask yourself, what objects result in the most impactful interactions? I know that may seem like an odd question to ask, but hear me out. Items only matter when they have some form of major impact on, or connection to the player. Unless players within the game are going to be stranded and hunting for resources chances are, things like rations, tents and encumbrance don’t really have a big impact on the game, and may be better left out. In fact a lot of game masters choose to drop these rules because all it adds is needless micromanaging to their game, taking away from the experience they are trying to deliver.

Same goes for weapons and equipment. Ask yourself, what do you want to have a larger impact in your game, the player’s connection to the weapon or the weapons qualities? Do you want your player to use the sword that is passed down from their father or the enchanted blade they plundered from a perilous dungeon? These are all questions which should be asked, and the mechanics of the game should be designed around those answers. Don’t just put in an item list because other games have item lists, put one in if it makes your game better. A good comparison you can do when looking at this is by comparing the Dungeon World fighter with a Pathfinder fighter.  Pathfinder fighters are always on the lookout for the next best piece of equipment, while Dungeon world aims to have the fighter develop their skills with a single weapon. However you go about handling equipment and items within your system, ensure it improves your game. Never add mechanics just for the sake of having them.

Thanks for reading,

-  Patrick

If you would like to suggest topics for future posts, you can use the form on the right hand side to email me directly. You can also stay up to date on my latest projects and posts by following me on Twitter or Google +

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Growing as a Developer

Hello World,

As those of you who follow me on twitter may know, I have entered the National Game Design Month Challenge or NaGa DeMon for short. Participants of this challenge are charged with the monumental task of designing, creating, and playing a game over the span of a month. I am currently two thirds through the challenge and it has been a herculean gauntlet so far. Fitting the countless hours of game design into my already busy schedule has left me stressed and exhausted, but truth be told. I love it.

I know it sounds strange that I love an action that is making my life more stressful. But I am both doing something I love, and improving skills as a designer. I have heard it said that a person only grows when they are pushed outside their comfort zone and I agree with this statement completely. In most cases we won’t force ourselves to grow unless we have to. We get complacent and we do what is easy, over what is right. But by challenging ourselves to do something difficult we are driven to complete a task which is beyond us. Growth is that moment when you complete the challenge and realize that it wasn’t too great for you to handle. With new found vigor and courage, you strive to take on the next challenge, which is even greater than the last.

But there is a dark and looming flipside to this mentality. The fear of failure. No matter who you are, there is always the voice which tugs at the back of your head, reminding you of all the consequences of failing. We get so caught up in this fear that we become too afraid to challenge ourselves. But fear of failure will only hold you back, with every new creation there are going to be flaws, with ever new challenge there is a chance you might not make it. Don’t take those as an opportunity to give up, see them as a tool to get better. Why ask someone to tell you where you need to improve, when your mistakes spell it out for you clear as day. Anyone who is successful has built their success on a foundation of failure.

Go out there and really challenge yourself, put the axe to the grind stone and push yourself every day. Only then will you create something that will leave its mark on the world.

Thanks for reading,


Thursday, 13 November 2014

[Tabletop Musings] The RPG Wall

Back when I was in middle school I began to hear about Dungeons and dragons. Being the type of kid who likes board games and medieval fantasy, this seemed right up my alley. I looked at it and saw a board game in which characters persisted match to match.  To 12 year old me, this sounded awesome! I began to look into what was needed to play. It was tough because back then most of the TRPG products on sale at my local game store had the DnD name slapped on them, making it hard to figure out exactly what I needed. Eventually I was pointed towards the D&D red box. With the box being too expensive for my ten year old allowance, I wouldn’t get the game until my birthday.

There I was, a fresh faced 13 year old, trying to make heads or tails of Dungeons and Dragons. I was able to decipher the rules mechanically, but any time I tried to play the sessions just fell apart. There were a lot of aspects about the game that we had just never seen before. Things like Game Masters, and role-playing were completely foreign to us and after a few more attempts I gave up, letting the game gather dust in my closet.

It wasn’t until the following year that I tried an RPG again. Another student at my school tried to get a group together to play a tabletop RPG after class. Most of the kids who attended only knew about D&D through its depictions in media. The GM however, didn’t have a rules system, miniatures or a map. He ran a strictly theatre of the mind game in with a strong focus on role-play. The players were given total freedom, and whenever there was a conflict he rolled a d20 and told us if we passed or failed. This game only lasted a few sessions, as we the players weren’t exactly sure what the goal of the game was. Also with the lack of rules and total freedom, character actions began to border on the ridiculous.

By this point I had two very different experiences with tabletop RPGs, neither of them very successful. I went on for a number of years without giving the medium another chance, choosing instead to stick to my video and board games. In high school however, my interest in tabletop RPGs began to rise and I was looking to give them another shot. I downloaded the PDFs for the core D&D books and began to read through them, doing my very best to get a good understanding of how to play. After a week or so of studying the rules in my spare time, I still wasn’t sure how to run a game. So I began to ask around, to see if anyone at my school knew how to be a Game Master. Although my search for a GM was unfruitful, I did find a lot of people who had always wanted to try D&D but have never known how. Not confident enough in my own GMing ability I wasn’t willing start a group at the school. Instead I looked online, and it wasn’t too long till I found a local gaming group who played on Friday nights. I contacted them, and they were gracious enough to let me join. The group was made up of guys in their thirties who had been play tabletop RPGs since they were in high school. These guys were veterans of the medium, and even though there was a lot I didn’t know they were willing to teach me. I played with this group for many years, learning a lot of the subtle and unspoken rules of tabletop RPGs, as well as trying my hand at a large assortment of games and characters.

Now you may be asking yourself, why am I sharing this story? Well it’s to prove a point.  Tabletop RPGs are a very unapproachable as a medium. Here I was, a kid who was willing and eager to get into this hobby, but with so few resources to help me. There are a large amount of rules and nuances that are just not addressed within the majority of rulebooks. All these little techniques build up to a large wall of misunderstanding for a beginning player. This junction becomes even more apparent when we see that the majority of players were taught how to play tabletop RPGs by someone who has been playing them for many years. There is a lot added to tabletop RPGs, things beyond the basic rules that people within this hobby have developed and practiced over the past 40 years. Unless you are able to experience it first hand, or talk to someone who has, it is impossibly hard to play a tabletop RPG.

But this topic isn't all doom and gloom, with the widespread nature of YouTube, podcasts, forums and blogs there is a great well of resources available for players to see these techniques in action. The fact that I can go and watch someone play an RPG online allows me to see these techniques used in real time, providing a great educational tool for new players. But play sessions aren’t the only resource that has become available. These nuances have begun to be looked at in an academic light, allowing for a better understanding of the intuitive nature of RPGs.  Rickard on the story games forums has actually done a great job of highlighting these implicit practices as well as explaining them in depth. I strongly recommend that anyone who is looking to design games gives that thread a read. It is chalk full of great information and is updated often. I do also feel that some responsibility needs to fall onto the designers as well. We already have a brief section on how to play a role-playing game in pretty much any book, but this section merely skims the surface.  I believe that its something that should be expanded to the extent that a player, who has never played or seen an RPG before knows how to play the game. No other game medium does this, you don’t see board games that skim over the rules and expect the players to fill in the blanks, why should RPGs be any different.

The interest is there, people of all ages are exposed to the idea of tabletop RPGs through the media they consume. There interest is peaked, they want to play, we just need to let them. If we make this medium as approachable as video or board games, we could reach an audience greater than this industry could have ever imagined.

Thanks for ready,


If you would like to suggest topics for future posts, you can use the form on the right hand side to email me directly. You can also stay up to date on my latest projects and posts by following me on Twitter or Google +

Thursday, 6 November 2014

[Design Talk] Reward Systems Within Your Game

Hello World,

I have heard it said that games are like mind control. They convince somebody to overcome unnecessary obstacles and act in an anomalous manner. From the view of an onlooker it would seem as though a gamer was crazy. Why would any sane person spend their already limited time and money, doing extra work in which there is no apparent reward?  To most gamers the innate gut reaction to this kind of question is because games are ‘fun’, but why is a game fun?

 At their core games are built on rewards. The medium has been engineered over the decades to be as engaging and fulfilling as possible.  Everything from the thrill of overcoming a boss, to the challenge of figuring out a puzzle are all activities which are innately satisfying. Although games are built on reward systems it is very important as a designer to implement them effectively into your game. And this first step to doing that is to understand the two types of rewards, extrinsic and intrinsic.

Extrinsic rewards are some kind of payment received for performing a task. While generally referring to physical payouts, such as money in a poker game, or a salary at a job, games most capitalize on this phenomenon through in game rewards. Think about all those times you have grinded in a game to get the best gear, or unlock the next part of the story.  In a game like Dungeons and Dragons, these extrinsic rewards are seen in the form of items, gold and experience. Loot and XP may not be the only reason you risk your characters life exploring ancient ruins, but it sure as hell helps.

Intrinsic rewards on the other hand are rewards that come from within the action itself. These often take the form of psychological and chemical rewards within our own body. Examples of this are the camaraderie of spending time with friends,  the hope of being successful or feeling a part of something bigger. In short, intrinsic rewards are when the act of playing the game is its own reward.  This style of reward, while harder to create within a game, has a much more lasting effect on the player. It should be the goal of the designer to have every aspect of play be as intrinsically rewarding as possible. This is however much easier said than done, especially in tabletop games.

In a good video game, everything is working together to make that moment as intrinsically rewarding as possible, everything from the music, to the atmosphere, to the in game mechanics.  The developer acts almost as a conductor making these elements all come together to create one experience. This makes it much easier for the game to illicit intrinsic rewards on its own merits, rather than depend on how the player is feeling at that moment. Tabletop games on the other hand are a much more variable medium. The way in which one group runs a game could be completely different to the way another group approaches it. In either scenario, it is the group itself that has the largest bearing on the intrinsic rewards, rather than the system. I believe this is where the whole “System Doesn’t Matter” mentality comes from. That isn’t to say that systems can deliver their own intrinsic rewards, but these rewards are best received when approaching the game from a specific mindset.  I have seen no better example of this than Dungeons and Dragons. DnD is the most intrinsically rewarding when you play the game as a combat heavy dungeon crawler. While plenty of groups have lots of fun playing the game outside this niche, their intrinsic rewards are coming from the group itself.

One of the most effective tools I have found for managing reward systems is to have your extrinsic rewards encourage players to get into the mindset required to fully engage with the game’s intrinsic rewards. When you are creating your game you know the mindset you want your players to be in. You have a clear vision of how a session plays out, how the players act, the types of the decisions they make. While it isn’t possible for all players to be in that mental state all the time, you can encourage them to be in it as much as possible. A good way to do this is to make playing in the right mindset the best strategy for playing the game. If you look at Planet Crashers, I designed the game to be enjoyed in a comedic, beer and pretzels mentality. To encourage this style of play, I gave the players a better chance of success if they acted in comedic and cliché ways. This encourages the players to get into the right mindset to fully enjoy the game.

Some possible methods to implement extrinsic rewards are as follows. 
  • Character Advancement
  • Mechanical bonuses to actions
  • Recovery of resources
  • Loot

Although all of these methods and more can be implemented into your game, it is important to consider what kind of behaviors you are encouraging. Try to align encouraged play with the game’s most engaging play. If the best way to get loot and XP is to go dungeon crawling, your players will want to go dungeon crawling.

If you have any examples of how you have used extrinsic and intrinsic rewards , or have suggestions for future topics send me a message using the contact form on the right hand side!

And as always, Thanks for reading.


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