Designing Games for Fun and Profit

Monday , 17, April 2017 16 Comments

Rifts. Batcrap insane, yet amazingly over-the-top awesome.

The cry has gone out across the land: “So, Daddy Warpig, is all you know how to do is aggravate other geeks over the fact that the Pulps were, hands down no questions asked or needed, The Golden Age of Fantasy & Science Fiction?” I wish to reassure my millions of screaming fans that that is NOT all that Daddy Warpig is about.

I can also aggravate people over tabletop roleplaying games.

Fact is, most fans of RPG’s are on the spectrum somewhere. The numbers, the mechanics, the dice—like videogames, they appeal to sufferers of the ‘tism. This means a large number of RPG fans tend to respond to mechanics they dislike by hollering, in effect, “THIS GAME IS GARBAGE AND SO IS THE WAY YOU PLAY AND I’M OFFENDED AND YOU SUCK AND THIS GAME SUCKS AND YOU’RE A TERRIBLE PERSON AND YOUR FUN IS OBJECTIVELY WRONG.” Roleplayers are volatile like that.

This makes designing an RPG akin to skipping through a minefield. No matter how clever a mechanic one devises, there will always be one guy who loves it, two who think it’s okay, three who’d rather watch anime, and four who will declare a fatwa against you and your family line, even unto the seventh generation.

Because of this, I’m a big proponent of the “Game Designers should know what the hell they’re doing” school of game design—if you’re going to piss people off, you ought to at least know why you chose one mechanic over another—but even I can admit this is clearly not always absolutely necessary. Let’s take Dungeons & Dragons.

D&D wasn’t designed: it grew by accretion, decision by decision. Many mechanics of the game were ad hoc responses to situations that came up in play at Gary Gygax’s and Dave Arneson’s tables.

Clerics, for example, came about because a vampire PC was raising all kinds of a ruckus, so Gygax took inspiration from fighting priests of the crusades and Hammer Horror flicks and came up with the armored, healing, undead turning cleric D&D players know. (In so doing, he accidentally completed the holy quartet of fantasy roleplaying combat roles: shock infantry, infiltrator, heavy weapons, and combat medic.)

This was just one decision, but it revolutionized the game. It made D&D’s classic dungeoneering play style possible, and the game might never have become a hit without it. Design by accretion.

There’s also design by strange alchemy, like Rifts. Rifts is gonzo, bonkers, completely insane (but also over-the-top awesome). Growing out of what were obviously House Rules of D&D, Rifts added to these Mega-damage weapons and a bunch of batcrap crazy classes, monsters, weapons, and spells. Lots of people have identified flaws in the rules, but every single attempt to fix them has wrecked the game—“good” rules for Rifts are almost always worse than the existing “bad” rules. Rifts is designed badly, but correctly. Strange alchemy.

In contrast, I’m a proponent of deliberate design, an important principle of which is “Understand the mechanics you reject well enough to explain their utility and value.” In other words, understand a spurned mechanic better than most of its proponents do.

Lets take hit points, a classic mechanic. First used in naval warfare war games, they ably represented the degradation of the iron armor of warships. Gygax pretty much imported them into Chainmail unaltered, and thence into D&D.

I’m currently designing an RPG which doesn’t use D&D-style hit points, but not because they’re objectively bad. How do I know? The rule of thumb is “Use evinces utility.” We know they’re useful because people keep using them—they’re ubiquitous in tabletop games and computer RPG’s. Reasons include:

  • Simplicity. One number to measure the health of a character, creature, or object. You decrement it as damage is done. Simple.
  • Satisfaction. In combat, players who roll a “1” for damage may not have killed the creature, but they’ve accomplished something: the creature is a little bit closer to defeat. Players can get frustrated if they hit all the time, but never do any damage. In contrast, doing some damage, even if it doesn’t kill the opponent, offers satisfaction.
  • Quantification. Hit points are a direct measure of resilience. A character/creature with 50 hp can take 10x more damage than one with 5 hp. The difference is easily quantified.

There are also good reasons NOT to use hit points in your game (just check any RPG message board, the rants are ALSO classics), but it’s not a clear cut decision. Design is about choices, and each choice has consequences, so designers should understand what they are.

There’s a reason certain mechanics have survived, and even thrived, and game designers who are ignorant of those considerations are basically developing in the dark. Sure, accidental accretion or strange alchemy might mean you end up producing the next D&D or Rifts, but more likely your game will be total garbage (as most are). It’s foolish to depend on luck.

Last, and most important, is playtesting. If you don’t test your designs in actual play, you have no idea if they’re any good at all. Rules are only valuable in so far as players and GM’s can use them at the game table. It’s play that reveals the flaws in a design, and all designs are flawed, so test the hell out of your games.

Now, lest my millions of screaming fans take that last statement amiss, let me assure you that MY work-in-progress is nearly perfect, barely flawed at all, and is, in fact, entirely awesome and amazingly cool, and anyone who dislikes my game is objectively wrong.

THAT you can take to the bank.


Jasyn Jones, better known as Daddy Warpig, is a host on the Geek Gab podcast, a regular on the Superversive SF livestreams, and blogs at Daddy Warpig’s House of Geekery. Check him out on Twitter.

16 Comments
  • Durandel Almiras says:

    I feel like part of this post is missing. What are reasons to dispense with hit points and why, and what might be a good replacement, assuming a replacement is needed?

    • Jeffro says:

      For science fiction gaming, being marked as either lightly wounded or mortally wounded is sufficient.

      The interaction of the tech is going to be much more relevant than something like hit points. Think… what weapon rating can even penetrate a battlesuit or force field.

  • deuce says:

    IMO, Rifts started out pretty damned cool, but Siembieda fell victim to one-upping himself with each new release, eventually throwing things outta whack. I still dig the original game.

  • We’re in total agreement about Rifts. Weird as hell, but it’s just *right* somehow.

  • palaeomerus says:

    Beyond ’tism RPG also attracts quasi-compulsive bullshitters, shy drama-nerds who need an outlet, “I need to draw constantly” people (oddly not all of these people have artistic illustrative talent) and the “let’s talk about dinosaurs, I love hamburgers I think it might rain, oh dinosaurs are awesome” ADD/ADHD types.

    • Gaiseric says:

      Gaming groups are what you make of them. I absolutely refuse to game with somebody that I wouldn’t hang out with socially doing something OTHER than gaming. To me, this always seemed intuitive, but a lot of people will game with people that they otherwise don’t like.

    • deuce says:

      I came to the exact same conclusion, though it took me 4-5yrs to face the painful truth. After that, the quality of gaming experience for everyone — everyone still there, that is — went up fairly dramatically. Let the spergs, freaks and powergamers find their own games.

  • Alex says:

    Me: “I’m not sayin’ you’re playing B/X wrong if you’re not using minis, but having to throw out all of the weapon & spell range/AOE and movement rules should make you think!”

  • JonM says:

    I feel bait and switched here. The headline, fun AND profit(!?), misled me to think he found the holy grail. We’re still left knowing that you have to choose between designing RPGs for fun OR profit.

  • Rick Stump says:

    “Game balance is for chumps”
    -Siembieda (allegedly)
    Ever read Shazam and the Monster Society of Evil?
    It’s awesome because whimsy.
    Rifts is awesome because gonzo.

  • C.J. Carella says:

    My game design philosophy, back in the day, was two ask two questions:

    Is it fun?

    If it isn’t, how do we make it fun?

    Rifts was a mess rules wise, but damned if the setting didn’t push a bunch of geek buttons. I was hooked as a player (although I didn’t use the system) and enjoyed contributing to it (earning the hatred of many game-balance nags in the process).

    Everything else was fiddly bits. Sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn’t. Provide tools for GMs and players to create compelling cooperative narratives, which is fancy-babble for “Is it fun?”

    IMHO and YMMV, of course.

  • Man of the Atom says:

    Keith Parkinson — lost way too soon.

  • B&N says:

    “let me assure you that MY work-in-progress is nearly perfect, barely flawed at all, and is, in fact, entirely awesome and amazingly cool”

    Isn’t that what God said about mankind, and then we ate the apple anyway?

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