Design is Serious, A Ramble

Strap in, I ran my first playtest last night…

Design. It’s a simple word. These days, it’s a serious word. Put any other word together with design and it becomes serious business. Learning is fun. But use the term “instructional design” and watch people cringe. Visuals are fun, but Graphic Design evokes images of serious hipsters punching out marketing posters like the world’s most practical stock photo. Game Design is a similar thing. We love our games; we love playing them and being the game master. But talk about Game Design and people starting tripping over themselves to argue about the Forge and GMS, player agency, system balance, and worst of all… how you legislate fun. It’s serious business.

Couple of things to know about me. I’ve been playing Role Playing Games for 36 years. I’m well versed in them. I’ve been playing board games and war games for roughly the same amount of time. I’ve been writing about gaming since maybe 2003? I also have a Master’s degree in Technical Communication. At my work, I create forms and write instruction sets for our processes. I also work with and write complicated solicitations and contracts. I’m fundamentally good at writing in a formal manner.

Now, I don’t tell you those things about me to toot my own horn. I tell you those things about me to say that all it took was attempting to design my own RPG to realize that I absolutely suck at writing. Even before the session started, I was reading through what I wrote and just realizing that it was an awkward, boring piece of work – full of holes – that couldn’t stand up to the barest level of scrutiny. Running that first session I felt like a tenth-grader who had to tell his whole class why he just shit his pants in homeroom. I didn’t think it was possible to feel the level of embarrassment that you can muster as a teenager once you weren’t one anymore. I was wrong.

Was it actually that terrible? I don’t know. My players seemed able to make characters for the game and only needed to ask a minimum of questions. I wanted it to be rules-light and we didn’t end up breaking out the dice all that often, so that seemed to work as intended. Of course, that realization had my wheels spinning that maybe I’d done something wrong because if we weren’t using the dice then what was the point of the multiple pages of rules explaining how to use the dice?

Did I learn anything in the process? Certainly. Though the two big walk away thoughts for me at this moment are that fantasy – as a genre – feels generic no matter how hard you try to make it different and that – apparently – I’m only a competent technical writer when I’m doing it for someone else. When I try to employ those hard-earned skills for myself they just fly away like so many little birdies headed south for the winter.

Which brings me back to my original point. Gaming is meant to be fun. Designing a game however, is an exercise in raw misery. If you are considering plopping down at the keyboard to hack out a new game, I suggest two options. The first is that you instead take a wood-working class and just cut all your fingers off with a jigsaw so you can’t type (and have enough other problems that you don’t want to anymore). The second, less awful option is to find a game system that’s “close enough” and just make the best of it. That’s why we’re all still just basically playing D&D after all these years, right? Because the exact moment that you stop gaming and start designing a game, it turns into serious business and lots of feverish moments of embarrassment.

I’ll stop rambling now. I think I just needed to get that off my chest. As the playtest continues I will write more about the game and the stuff I learn, tweak, change, and grow.

As always, thanks for reading.

p.s. The Rhetorical Gamer does not seriously condone taking a shop class and cutting off your fingers as an alternative to designing a game. Go with the second option.

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