Optimising your idea machine — getting the possible ideas from your mind into play

The problem — too many ideas, and they scatter to the wind

The basic problem is that I generate lots of ideas and thoughts, for games I’m running and games I’m not. I’m fairly good at writing them down, somehow and somewhere, but I’m not so good at getting them to the point where they are actually used in play. I think I miss a lot of opportunities to put the fruits of my mind into a position where players can experience them.

I had an idea. Now what?

Now, sure, there are some irreducible constraints on this. Play can’t always provide good context to bring in all the ideas you have — you may well generate ideas that require too many entirely different games. And even if everything lines up, you might produce more ideas than can ever be fitted in the playing time you have. Some ideas will fall on stony ground because the world is just like that.

But some losses are accidental. Sometimes, you’ll get an opportunity to use an idea, but miss it. This might be because you forgot it entirely. Or it might because you remember the general idea but you forgot important details (and can’t find them fast enough to not break game flow). Such losses can be minimised if we’re clever about it.

What I want to do is to be as efficient as possible at getting the best ideas from the seething ferment of my mind to the actual world where players can suffer them. I want maximise my ratio of (effort put in) to (amount and quality of ideas that make it to play).

A general model — engineering your idea machine

Continue reading “Optimising your idea machine — getting the possible ideas from your mind into play”

Introduction to being an rpg player

A player in my games who is new to rpgs has asked for recommended reading for how to be a good player. This is hard, because I have been playing rpgs longer than almost anything else — I started when I was 8 or 9, and I’m 40 this Autumn.

I tried searching the web for articles, but many of them bored or annoyed me. Perhaps unsurprising, since I’m not their target audience. However they have other problems. One common tendency is to be patronising, to talk down to the newcomer. Another is to assume a very low baseline of ordinary social skills — in contrast, what most people need is for the article to assume that and to explicitly demarcate those challenges that are distinctive to rpgs (or to common rpg subcultures).

So, despite me being a bad choice to write something on this, I have done it anyway.

Key message

Every game is different, every group is different. Some groups override the rules completely with a local version, and sometimes that’s implicit (just local practice and custom). Some groups do that for some games but not others.

Continue reading “Introduction to being an rpg player”

Three interesting things to read

System matters, but it’s easy to not know that

Justin Alexander gives a succinct account of why rules matter but many players don’t get the experiences they need to realise this. Key quotes:

“…most RPG systems don’t actually carry a lot of weight, and are largely indistinguishable from each other in terms of the type of weight they carry.

In theory, as we’ve discussed, there’s really nothing an RPG system can do for you that you can’t do without it. There’s no reason that we can’t all sit around a table, talk about what our characters do, and, without any mechanics at all, produce the sort of improvised radio drama which any RPG basically boils down to.

The function of any RPG, therefore, is to provide mechanical structures that will support and enhance specific types of play.

… What I’m saying is that system matters. But when it comes to mainstream RPGs, this truth is obfuscated because their systems all matter in exactly the same way.”

There’s a robust simple procedure for running Into the Odd

As an example of the structure Alexander is calling for, have a look at Chris McDowall’s simple procedure for running Into the Odd.

“Diegetic” and “Non-diegetic” are useful terms for game design

Emmy Allen explained two useful terms for talking about rpgs. They weren’t new to all of us, but her explanation is clear and to the point. Next time someone asks, we can point them there.

Sean McCoy on Twitter then showed how those terms make explicit what he was implicitly trying to do while designing Mothership.

This is good theory — it gives us words for what expert practitioners do.


There is an aesthetic that I want and a way I want to feel

I’ve been thinking, and talking online, and I’ve concluded that it’s not quite right that low production values are better for my enjoyment. Rather, what I want on my table, and in my prep environment, is artefacts that have a particular aesthetic and that (partly because of that) give me certain intuitions. There will always be an irreducible element here of “subjectively what I like, but cannot describe”, but I can put some of it into words.

So, in terms of direct things-we-can-agree-we-are-looking-at, what I am looking for in third-party artefacts I put on my game table is this:

  • First, the presentation needs to be unobtrusive. It needs to be somewhat subdued. Put on my table, in my dining room, with the artefacts I’ve made myself, it shouldn’t stand out very much.
  • This pushes design towards plain white paper, with monochrome or muted inks and a matte finish
    • I think there is space here for some colour, for some striking art. It just has to be subordinate to the whitespace of the page. E.g. I’ve not seen Wet Grandpa in full, but the sample pages online suggests it fits in this category.
    • This applies to covers as much as to internal pages, not least because small books tend to end up lying closed. I particularly enjoy matte covers on books, and would like some rpg books with cloth binding.
  • The art can’t be cartoony, because that’s not something I can imagine an rpg world to be like. Cartoony art thus interferes with my internal image-making. Photorealistic art can work, as can more abstract forms. But the art of Dungeon World, D&D 5e, even Fate, doesn’t work for me.
  • Explicit recognition that groups will hack and modify, without pretending that this is novel or that a book can give (or take) authority to do this.
    • Shout-outs go to Knave for its “Rationale” sidebars, to the 5e DMG for its “three things to be really careful with when you’re hacking” (p263, para “Beware of…”), and of course Apocalypse World for its “how to hack this” appendix.

And as for the feelings and intuitions I get from them, I am looking for these:

  • This artefact is of comparable value to the home-made artefacts that are on the table with it. It’s not better or more important than them. (Even if it is better, and indeed that’s why I brought it to said table, I don’t want that to be obvious. I want it to snuggle in with the rest and to work its magic subtly.)
  • I could, with time and effort, I could have created this artefact myself, while remaining a hobbyist and an amateur, without needing a significant budget or to do rpg design all day.
    • There can be an element of cunning here — Scrap Princess’s art in Deep Carbon Observatory looks like something I could sketch myself, but it isn’t. (see an example page in my previous post)
  • The creator would see me as a peer — if we met, they would respect my (rather amateur) design skills, and find me worth talking to in that regard.
  • The artefact was created for mature adults, not primarily for children, or for (arrested) adolescents. My social identity is that of an adult, if a rather odd one, and I want the artefacts in my games to support that. The artefacts I bring to games are ambassadors for my social role, so they need to be consonant with it.
  • On some level, its appearance admits that the game is going to be messy. RPG play is always messy, disorganised, slapdash, especially in the styles I like (where players have the freedom to go where they like and do what interests them). Scrappy bits of paper, or things that are cunningly disguised as such, are honest about this. Glossy coffee-table books are not.

Interlude — when I say “my table” I literally mean my actual dining room table in my house where I live. I am literally talking about putting books on it, as shown below:


The above criteria are compatible with, but do not require:

  • Skilled and elegant typography, because that can be subtle, and because I have some confidence in my typographic abilities and (crucially) in my ability and willingness to learn more.
  • Good organisation for play. You can look like Deep Carbon Observatory while being quite a lot easier to run.
    • Admittedly, part of that change would be a more precise, less sketch-like mapping style, which would challenge my comparable-value-to feelings. /u/realScrubTurkey suggested Winter’s Daughter as an example of good organisation, and based on the sample pages online it’s both well-organised and compatible with my aesthetic desires.

The above is mostly not compatible with:

  • Art that is reliably inoffensive to a very broad audience
  • Art that is consistently suitable for children
  • Art that is gratuitously offensive to a wide range of people
    • I am increasing reluctant to bring Lamentations of the Flame Princess books to the table. There are exceptions, but so many of them (including the core “Rules & Magic” book) contain art that is too offensive to too many people.
  • Art that is elaborate, extravagant, or in any sense “lavish”
  • Any textured backdrop that makes the paper look like anything other than paper, and exactly the type of paper that it really is

It’s clear that the preferences above are not widespread. But I suspect a good crowd of us share them. If you’re one of those people, I’d be interested in hearing from you.

Low production values are better for my enjoyment

I’ve been thinking some more about my concern in my previous post – that “high production values” are a net negative for my pleasure in rpgs. There are three reasons for this. For clarity, I will express them purely in terms of art:

First, if the art doesn’t work for me, it damages my fragile images of the imagined world. For example, anything cartoony feels wrong to me — Dungeon World, Masks, Fate… even D&D 5e is too far down this path. I’m sad to say that Silent Titans gives me trouble, too — I find Leichty’s art powerful, but too abstract and far too garish. It thus prevents me visualising the Silent Titans world.

Second, even art I like can be a problem if creates an unwelcome contrast with things I’ve brought to the table. My own rules and texts have basic typography and little or no art. I might have art printouts or a Pinterest board, but they’ll have a mishmash of artists and styles. I might have made a map, but it will look a bit shit. If there’s a game text on the table produced to a high standard, my work will look poor by comparison.

Continue reading “Low production values are better for my enjoyment”

Idea — a prize for the “Best RPG product with modest production values”

I think David Grogan is right, in that improving production values in rpgs may be antithetical to improving actual gameplay. Now, sure, people can make what they like, charge what they like, and buy what they like… but I don’t think the move towards ever-fancier production is net-improving our gameplay experiences.

(for a narrower, more personal, angle on this, see my post Low production values are better for my enjoyment)

So, I have a proposal — we could start an annual prize for the best rpg product with modest production values. This would reward people who come up with good ideas, good words and good game design, but don’t want to (or can’t) take the cost, delay, and risk of fancy art and layout and printing.

A few possible rules:

  • Bottom end of “modest” is “competent use of a word processor”
  • Upper end of “modest” is “POD-quality book with some spot art and maps”
    • So e.g. Patrick Stuart’s Deep Carbon Observatory might scrape in at the top (although that feels a bit like cheating as Scrap’s art has a misleading effortless quality)
  • Middle ground might be something like Archipelago III
  • No weird distribution channels e.g. “You have to get it from the author at a con”. Has to be easily available in at least one Anglosphere country

Ideologically, I’d like to make it PDF and POD-only, because it supports idea that this competition is about avoiding barriers that some creators put between (their ideas and design expertise) and (people who might use and benefit from them). But I’m not wedded to that.

I envisage this as being something I run alone, and that has no reward other than glory — something in the vein of the Rammies. If I’m feeling extravagant, I might send out hand-signed certificates.