Game Design: The Dreaded Roll and Move… Sort of

Some mechanics are considered weak, redundant, or just plain bad by most gamers, and leading the march of this sorry band is roll and move.

Roll and move does what it says on the tin. It’s simple, unsophisticated, and when I was a toddler it was great. Snakes and Ladders was fab when I spent most of my time trying to eat the pieces and couldn’t devote much effort to more sophisticated notions. But things have mostly moved on. Today I only rarely ingest gaming pieces, and I’m with the horde when it comes to militating against such agency-denying rules as roll-and-move. At least, as a general thing. But are they inherently bad? I’d say not.


A 19th century Indian Snakes and Ladders board from Wikimedia. I especially like the 7-headed horse at the top right. Sadly extinct now. 

Blast ’Em actually uses a sort of roll and move, and if I explain my thinking, perhaps you’ll see that even such outdated nonsense can sometimes be put to interesting use.

Blast ’Em has three kinds of movement. The first is called a step, and this is a freeform move of up to 2”. It is included in all other actions (including the movement ones) as a free extra, so you can always do a little positioning to hug that cover tighter, or just step around the corner, out of sight. It’s very easy to remember as you can always do it alongside any other action. No exceptions. Two inches doesn’t sound like much, but on a battlefield strewn with cover and line of sight blocking terrain, it can be critical. Indoors it gets even better. Also note that the Step can be taken either before the main action or after it, lending it even more flexibility.

The second type is a Sneaky Move. The third is a Fast Move, or Run. Both use the character’s Speed stat to determine a type of dice to roll. Sneaky Moves use 1 of those dice to generate a distance in inches; Fast rolls 3. I’ll ignore the other (important) differences between these movement types for now.

Using the character’s stat to give a range of variance means that overall, speedier characters go slightly further. Makes sense. Rolling more dice for a bigger average distance when you run rather than sneak also makes sense. But why roll dice at all? Can’t we safely assume that a given character could cover the ground between A and B in pretty much the same time every time they tried?

The randomness of the movement dice isn’t so much about the rate of movement of the character as about their sense of timing. In reality, the average variance in Speed is unlikely to be much. What the roll really reflects is part of the complex and rapidly changing environment of the skirmish and, especially, how alert the enemy are at that moment. Have they spotted the moving character quickly enough to react to them?

This could have been done as some form of alertness test for the enemy characters, but they’ve already been allocated chits and that covers some of the same ground. Also, by making it a roll by the active player, it raises the tension of the action and feels like they’re taking more than the dice into their hands when they decide to go for broke across that gap. The player has much of the same information as the character would: they know where the enemy are, and whether they’re distracted with other things or hunkered down waiting for them to make the dash. They can guess the distance to safety and calculate the risk of their move. Then they can choose whether to take it or not.

Obviously, the player and character are not in the same circumstance in most respects, but by giving them similar things to weigh up, the game can bring up a sliver of the same tension and excitement.

And that’s a good thing!

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World-Building: A Vast Zooniverse

As Douglas Adams tells us in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

Science Fiction backgrounds often involve a fair chunk of this space stuff, but quite how much varies a lot. Some stories take place entirely on one planet or spaceship; others roam between the stars in great treks across the galaxy. There is no better or worse approach, just what suits the tale you need to tell.

Technology is the great limiter here. Technology and time. Technology because you aren’t going to travel between stars in a single lifespan unless you can either move very quickly or avoid dying for unnatural ages. Time here is a modifier, and lots of it will excuse poorer technology by letting you colonise the universe with generation ships and the like. Note that we never need to bother with the details or even the plausibility of our chosen tech if we don’t want to. Hard SF generally wants to know how things work and keep things credible, sure, but even there it’s guesswork. If hard SF authors really knew how to build warp engines, they’d be collecting Nobel prizes instead of writing stories.

For folk who want to write grand Space Operas, small-scale character pieces, or make games of any sort, the details of how the technology works can be skipped lightly over in the most cursory of fashions. Often, it’s enough just to say that the spaceships have warp engines (or whatever). The characters can move among the stars as they choose. Nuff said. Get on with the story/game/whatever.

It’s usually best to decide early on what works for your world (and I use “world” here to mean the whole universe, not a single planet). That saves you having to build great chunks late on or wasting your time with unnecessary work at the start.

For Blast ’Em!, we’re not talking about a lot of space as a percentage of what’s in the observable universe. However, from the viewpoint of you or me it’s still vast. How to deal with it all? The answer is partly discussed in Mind The Gap and What Not To Tell. However, there are other ways to help with the problem.

My intention is to fit all manner of aliens and planets into the game, which means that I need a lot of room. Blast ’Em! is not hard SF, it’s much more Space Opera-ish, in the manner of the games I mentioned before: countless planets and a star-spanning empire controlling them. But this is just a starting point and the very broadest of brushes. Unlike many, this Empire is neither evil nor entirely benign: it’s just the government of the day and they sit in the background doing the usual stupid stuff that governments do. For most people, on a daily scale, they’re not the main driver of events. Doubtless, tomsonn will tell me how dull that is, and if that were all there was to it then I might be inclined to agree. The interesting stuff is all smaller scale. However, that’s not what I wanted to talk about today or how you solve the problem of creating so much. I want to mention random tables.

The canvas for Blast ’Em! is so broad that I’ve no ability, intent, or expectation of ever filling it up in detail. I can go on forever describing new aliens and planets and never reach the end. Also, the universe is not a static thing and won’t wait for me to catch up. This is a good thing.

In order to deal with this scope, I’m planning to do what you have to. This is detail a small number of places and races to set stories in and act as characters within them and fudge the rest. However, this fudging will also come with a DIY section, and this is where the random tables come in. This is the clever bit: you don’t create the detail, you give the audience the tools to do it themselves. These tables will let you create your own worlds and creatures if you don’t want to wait for me to do it all.

Random tables and D100 silliness was always one of the most entertaining parts of (some of) the old games, and something I think would be sorely missed if it was left out. I feel that this encouragement of the audience’s creativity was very much more common and important in the old school games, and I rather miss it in most modern offerings where everything is done for you. Of course, I’m secretly glad stuff is done for me as I’m as lazy as the next triffid, but I still fondly remember many a happy hour rolling up characters, planets, and aliens so I’m determined to pass that fun along.

And finally, in the spirit of keeping the vibe and tweaking the odd detail, expect to see a bit of that sort of D100 playfulness during play too. Back in the day, these random tables tended to be used before games or after them rather than during, but it felt like too much of an opportunity to pass up.

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Illustration: Chicken Scratches

Over the last few weeks I’ve been getting back into drawing. Unsurprisingly, this plan, like all others, has needed modifying when it confronted reality. In this case, it’s the digital aspect. I thought that I’d be able to focus mostly on that, and there are good theoretical reasons to do so. However, two things have modified my approach.

The first thing is that I’ve swapped in the Old Skool Skirmish project, and it just doesn’t feel appropriate to do those illustrations digitally. Not to start with, anyway.

Secondly, I simply don’t enjoy making digital art as much as using traditional media. It’s just less fun. There are also some marks I can make and visual results I can get traditionally that I can’t find a way to do digitally. The opposite is also true, and working digitally has some really big upsides. There is definitely merit in being able to do both, and I think that I’ll eventually settle on a process which flits between them as needed for each project. For the moment, as I’m mostly working on the retro vibes of Blast ’Em!, I’ll be working traditionally.

As I haven’t done this for ages and have no idea where half my old kit is, it’s also been a nice excuse to buy some shiny new art stuff. Mostly this has been pens, as you can see.

Black and white

A variety of pens for drawing in black, white, and grey. 

I did get myself some water-based coloured pens too. Back in the day, I rather took to the American idea of “water media” rather than thinking of watercolours, inks, gouache, watercolour pencils, acrylics, etc as separate ways of working (how they’re usually taught). Thinking of them all as water media and combining them in the same pictures gives you all sorts of intriguing options. These pens looked like being another entry to that stable of water-based tools. I never got on half so well with oil-based paints or alcohol-based inks. Not sure why. Either way, I’m going with my strengths, so it’s back into the water for me J


All the colours of the rainbow and a few extra to boot. 

The chicken scratches of the title are me practicing making marks with the new pens. This is basic stuff, but absolutely vital if you’re going to make the marks you need when you need them. My rustiness betrays me here, so I’m keeping them to myself. It’s all simple enough to fix though. I just need to put in the hours to get my familiarity with them back. In the past I used to draw with technical pens. The new fineliners are a smooth replacement, and the brush pens are a joy to use. Looking forward to being able to do them justice.

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Game Design: A Load of Chit

When I started work on the Old Skool Skirmish (OSS) system, the main challenge was to make it feel like it belonged in the 80s. At the heart of my approach was to focus on old mechanics, and I soon discovered that a good old-fashioned chit draw worked really well for both the game and the feel. In case you are unfamiliar with the term, a chit draw is the process of taking chits (card tokens or counters) out of a cup or similar. Each chit that is drawn indicates where the artillery arrives, the site of a new event, or, in my case, helps to decide when individual warriors take actions. Chit draw describes the process rather than its effect, so it comes in a wide variety of implementations.

It’s a simple, low-tech approach to the common problem of how to create an interestingly unpredictable feeling and series of opportunities within a rapidly changing combat environment. It’s been used for decades, way before the 80s, and was a staple of designs by companies like Avalon Hill. I grew up using it, so it’s very familiar.

Chits can have anything on them, so it’s a very flexible mechanic and chit draws are different from both dice and card-driven processes. In my case the chits have mostly just got numbers on, though there are a few “wild card” and blank ones to spice things up. It’s also quite adaptable. In effect, the Bolt Action (and Gates of Antares) dice bag system is a chit draw that uses dice instead of card tokens. That’s managed to reinvent the chit draw and look modern and clever while it does so, and it’s proved very popular. Quite a different way of using it from OSS, even though both are variants of the same core idea.

As always when you choose a rule, you gain some features and lose elsewhere. In the case of the chit draw in OSS, you gain a great degree of flexibility, a load of tactical nuance and interesting decisions, and lots of ways in which you can interact to characterise weapons, individuals, and factions. Lots of excellent stuff.

The downside of chit draws is that they are viewed by some gamers as being a bit clunky and slow, and in my case it entails having counters on the playing area. I thought that both of these downsides added to the period feel, so I was more than happy to accept them. The more serious negative was that it was slower than some other options. However, as this was a direct result of the extra choice, it was hard to complain. Anyway, speed wasn’t a primary goal for OSS, and game design is about compromise. You can’t have everything.

The variant of the chit draw that I’ve used in OSS currently goes broadly like this:

Place the pool of 20 chits in a cup and mix thoroughly. At the start of a round, both players draw an equal number of chits from the cup, keeping their values secret. The players then distribute all their chits, placing 1 or more next to each of their miniatures.

When all chits have been placed, one player starts calling out numbers, starting with 12 and going down. When a number is called for which you have the matching chit, reveal it and take an action with the miniature it was allocated to. Continue till you get to 1 and act with that miniature.

It’s definitely old skool in feel, though not exactly like anything I’ve played before. There are a few caveats to the above version, plus wild card chits to interrupt the sequence, and blanks to bluff the opposition. This adds enough spice that you’ll be wrong-footed by clever opponents if you’re not sharp.

Most of the time you’re not using the whole pool of 20 chits, so knowing what you’ve got doesn’t give you perfect info on the other side. Outnumbered retinues naturally do a bit more to balance things out and keep the fights interesting down to the wire. It does let you make educated guesses though, and this informs your strategy and bluffs. Whether or where you feint, and how risky you want to be with the sequence you choose, is a big part of the game. Clever players can build in some contingency plans if they’ve got a wild chit or two, and perhaps even if they haven’t. There’s lots to think about, and the puzzle changes as the fight evolves. It’s not a challenge you can easily solve.

It’s a funny thing to play because it is so different from modern games which tend to value slickness of rules and speed of play over depth of tactical pondering and planning. It does introduce some intriguing subtleties that you can’t get in most other games, and I do rather like it.

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World-Building: Be Consistent

This is the first article of a several-part series on different aspects of a core world-building topic: consistency.

The basic message is very simple: your world must be internally consistent. Doesn’t matter if it’s science fiction or fantasy, and it makes no odds if it’s a novel, game, or opera. At all times, your world must be consistent to itself.

Now, this is very different from the behaviour of the individuals within that world being identical or them all having the same opinion (we’ll come to that in part 2), so don’t get muddled. I mean the world itself: the laws of physics and so on. These can be different from the ones in our world if you really want them to be. Changing stuff will make it hard to foresee all of the knock-on effects, but it is possible to do. For example, the science fiction novel On by Adam Roberts is based in a world where gravity runs in a different direction to the norm. Messing with this fundamental law makes a huge change to the way this world works, but that’s fine. What matters is internal consistency within the world, and he applies that with rigour. Once you get your head round this basic oddness it makes perfect sense, and the rest follows logically.

In your world, you are likely to choose to keep the laws of physics as they are in the real one where possible. This is certainly the simplest approach, and often messing with them is unnecessary. However, fantasy and science fiction genres pretty much compel you to dabble in the unreal, and this is where you need to be watchful.

Luckily, you can rely on humans. Humans are adaptable, and as most of your audience are likely to be humans you can rely on this to get away with all manner of odd situations and realities. Once they get over the initial shock of the unfamiliar, your audience will generally follow along with your fictional reality as long as it makes sense in its own terms: ie, it is internally consistent.

This gets to the why of it. Why do you need to be consistent? It’s about trust. With your fictional world you build a contract with your audience; you need them to trust you as you spin this tale. This is a layering process where you start with the basics, and what could be more basic than the laws of physics? Once they understand this then you can build on top and they will follow. If you change the ground rules every few paragraphs, then you make it very hard for them to move past this first step. Give them some solid ground to stand on, and no matter how odd it may be they will soon accept it – as long as it’s consistent. Then they can build on that to follow whatever your narrative might bring.

The only exception here is a surface inconsistency. You can present something which is apparently inconsistent, but here you want your audience to already trust you enough to know that it’s only apparently so. This technique is often the trigger for an investigation by the hero(es) or some other plot device. Why is this thing not what it should be? The implication here is that the world would naturally be consistent without someone or something (usually the narrative’s Big Bad) messing with it, and when the audience understand what is messing with it the answer will reveal that the world is indeed consistent.

So, your world must be internally consistent. If something you present to your audience is inconsistent with the world you have built then it had better be only apparently inconsistent and you have very good (and internally consistent) reasons for it hiding behind the curtain. A curtain that you will probably want to eventually pull back for your audience.

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Illustration: Blasted Art

Earlier, I said I was after a specific style of art for Blast ’Em! What I have in mind is the loose and sketchy sort of black and white, pen and ink illustrations that were common in the early 80s. These often looked like, and sometimes were, the product of getting aspiring rather than professional artists (often the publisher’s mates) to bash out a few pics quickly for a six-pack of beer. I even had a couple published myself in some of the multitude of fanzines that were commonplace at the time. Probably awful. Best forgotten.

I’ve always been attracted to the energy that you often find in sketchbooks, and which is often techniqued out of the final version. Of course, polished work has its place too, and for another project that’s what I’ll be after. For this Old Skool look though, I want that informal energy, coupled with the practicalities of the mono linework (to reduce the print costs – made sound financial sense at the time).

These days, this style is less in vogue (and printing in full colour is easy and relatively inexpensive). It does, however, still surface once a year in the month of Inktober. Perhaps the best example of this style in modern terms is the excellent Mr Ian McQue. He is, in fact, far more polished and professional than he should be to fit this profile, but he just feels right for this, so I’m going with him as an example.

Ian McQue 1.jpg

A random page from one of Mr McQue’s sketchbooks, dragged kicking and screaming off Twitter, I think. As you can see, he has a lovely loose and whimsical style.


The cover of one of his books, as it says. He’s got 4 different volumes of sketches and other art for sale on his site (along with prints and some originals) – a fact I didn’t realise till I had a rummage today for the link. Happy I did so as I’ve now been able to order all 4.

You might ask why I’ve not gone with showing you the original art. Good question. There are several reasons, not least of which is that I can’t lay my hands on the originals today. I’ll see if I can find them before next Saturday. Oh, OK then. The internet provides…

Laserburn  cover.jpg

Cover of the rulebook. This is quite a nice, dark copy. The vagaries of the cheap (often short run) printing available at the time meant that some are much more washed out than others. 

Combat 3000 cover.jpg

Cover of the rulebook. Can’t find decent pics of the interior stuff of this or Laserburn. I’ll take some myself when I work out what I’ve done with them.  

However, as I said before, nostalgia is a funny thing, and this Old Skool vibe is about fitting with how I remember it, not necessarily how it was. And if we add a little polish along the way? Well that’s fine. It’s the feeling I’m most interested in. That was the core of the challenge, after all.



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Game Design: Challenge Yourself

As I mentioned on Monday, I’m swapping out Project Shuriken for the moment while I polish my drawing skills a bit more. The replacement is a tabletop SF skirmish game called Blast ’Em! This is the first outing of what I call my Old Skool Skirmish (OSS) system, and the genesis of that is what I’d like to talk about today.

One of the things that I often do for my own amusement is to set myself design challenges. These vary enormously in specifics, but all share the same core aims: to entertain me, and to make me a better designer while it does so.

OSS began life as a design exercise. I’d been picking up miniatures that I liked for ages without having anything to play with them. For me, gaming is the point of miniatures, so I knew I was buying them with a view to getting them on the table at some point, but with what I didn’t know. For personal preference and practicality, I knew it would be a skirmish game, and I’d start out with an SF setting because that’s what I was acquiring at the time. However, I didn’t really fancy using the games I already had.

At the same time, I was seeing a lot of stuff online about Oldhammer, and was pondering how you would go about being deliberately old fashioned. The combination seemed like an interesting one to play with, so I did.

It was easy enough to design old fashioned stuff back in old fashioned times, when you hadn’t encountered anything outside that. For me this meant that I could simply pick through my old notes and pull something out from back then (I’ve designed at least a dozen skirmish systems over the years). That wasn’t a challenge though. A proper puzzle was forgetting all the anachronistic ways I knew of doing things and using only period mechanics. Mind you, even that really just requires research and discipline. What would make it a real challenge would be to make it a fun game for a modern audience too. That, in turn, may require adding a sprinkle of modern details. The core would have to be distinctly old fashioned though for it to be a success (in my eyes), but I would allow a little leeway when it came to some of the details. In essence, this design challenge was about making something that had the right vibe.

Now if you know your obscure indie games, you’ll realise that there are already a bunch of different options out there which fit this bill. That’s not the point of a challenge though. Making my own would be much more fun.

The first stage was to define what I was trying to do. Challenges need rules so you can tell if you’ve actually completed them or not. For me, this idea had several requirements. The game needed to be an SF skirmish game that:

  • Captured the feeling of early 80s SF gaming. I’m thinking games like Laserburn, Combat 3000, and early Traveller.
  • Used no more than a dozen figures per side. Preferably playable with 4-6 minis each.
  • Encouraged RPG-like storytelling and strong characterisation of the individual warriors on each side. I want coherent reasons to fight and not (always) just “kill the enemy because they’re the enemy”. Some progression between fights would be nice too so that you could tell the ongoing stories of your heroes and villains.
  • Would allow any SF miniature I liked the look of to be statted up for play and included.

Now I’m ancient enough to have played Laserburn and whatnot at the time, and still have copies lying about. My research was more like trying to remember how they worked and rummaging through some old files. Nostalgia was part of the puzzle and it’s a funny thing. Importantly, it was my nostalgia, so would be different for everyone else. Like all nostalgia, it relies on the sloppiness of human memory and so is not entirely related to what actually happened. Essentially this meant that I’d know it when I felt it.

I won’t go into the details of the rules just yet as I’d like to get back to the idea of design challenges. Suffice to say that I’ve played some games and the core of Blast ’Em! works nicely and has the right feel. More another day.

Back to design challenges. Having done this for decades, I’ve settled on a couple of guiding principles when I set out on a new one. They might help you too.

Firstly, make it a formal thing. Write it down. This helps you to take it seriously and also helps to clarify it in your mind. At the end of the day it is a sort of contract with yourself. It’s not about pleasing other people. The aim is to enjoy yourself as you learn. If you happen to get a useful product out at the end, then that’s a lovely bonus. If not, then what I’ve found is that elements of old challenges have a habit of cropping up in future projects. They certainly help to inform future work.

Secondly, focus down on one element. While your challenge should involve making a whole game, the aim should be to investigate all the possible answers you can think of to a specific question. More specific is better. You can use stock mechanics and elements you understand well to fill in the rest if you like.

Your focus could be on a particular game element or rule. For example, things like:

  • How do I make a game play faster? The challenge I set myself on this ended up many years later as the basis for DreadBall.
  • How do I balance majorly asymmetric player powers/experiences?
  • How do I do catch up mechanics without alienating the leader?
  • How can I make an interesting game with just X? I’m thinking both physical components or a limit on the mechanics. Could be only roll and move, or only a deck of cards.
  • How do I get events to respond to player actions rather than feeling tacked on?
  • How can I reduce the amount of resource components without messing up the way it plays? This is a real-world requirement you may get from publishers. Use an existing game (either yours or someone else’s) as a starting point.

And so on.

Then there are two big categories that supply quite a lot of my own challenges:

  • How do I invoke X theme? Usually a combination of a time period and location like the Victorian sensibilities of the staff in a stately home, or the desperation of a besieged medieval city. You may want to dig down into this to define more detailed aspects of this overall theme that you want to invoke.
  • How do I invoke X feeling? Could be horror, rising paranoia, time pressure or another intangible. Very touchy-feely and tricky to nail down. Powerful if you can pull it off though.

You get the idea.

Now you can give yourself a time limit or a component limit (both worth exploring). You don’t need to do either, though you’ll know whether you need a deadline to maintain focus or not.

At the end of the day, you’re trying to build your skill. When you’ve finished, have a ponder and think about what you have learned. Maybe write yourself some notes. I find that a formal sort of debriefing (just with and for myself) helps clarify things here too.

Often, when designing games, you are drawing from a library of known mechanics and approaches. That’s fine. Everyone does. What will make your games sing is being able to stock that library with fresh ideas – maybe even things that you’ve never seen before.

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World-Building: What Not To Tell Them

Today I’ve got a couple of things to talk about.

The first is a change in the two projects I’m focussing on at the moment. I’m putting Project Shuriken to one side for a little while. This is simply a practical function of what art is needed for each project, and the fact that I’m not yet happy with the stuff I’ve been doing for it. I have a specific idea for what it should look like, and I just need more practice to get it right. So, for the moment, I’ll put that down and go back to another idea that needs a simpler and sketchier style of art to illustrate it.

The other thing that I wanted to talk about today relates to how you approach your world-building.

When you describe your world to someone, you’re not going to be able to cover every last detail. This is actually a really good thing. And, with that in mind, I’d like to suggest that if you’re wanting to make finished products for a wide audience, you should consider the following.

There are three strands to this approach. Note that it is not a step-by-step process as you’ll be bouncing back and forth between these stages as you work. But I think that it helps to see these as distinct tasks within the whole:

  • Build the parts of your world that your story/game/whatever needs.
  • Hint at what is just over the horizon of the bit you’ve just defined.
  • Stop yourself from defining the rest of the universe.


1 Build stuff

This is the most straightforward: you have to define the parts of the world that your game or story will be set in. Only you knows what that is.


2 Hint at More

This is possibly the most entertaining bit. You’re going to tease your audience with intentionally incomplete information about what’s lurking just out of sight. Drop hints of battles or locations, people or events; but only hints.

The aim here is to mimic reality. In the real world, the road goes ever on, and there is always something just out of sight. Your audience is used to this. A world in which things are defined close up with nothing beyond is unreal and harder to believe in. Incomplete information is also more interesting and adds to the mystery. For example, you drop in a casual mention in passing of the Final Protocols of the Eminent Seers. What are they? Who has them (assuming they are written anywhere)? Who are the Eminent Seers anyway? And how are they involved in the disappearance of the 3rd legion (assuming they really did disappear).

A few careful hints can imply a much larger and much more credibly vague world than spending the same time on properly defining a few more pieces will.

Importantly, even you don’t need to know the answers to these questions yet, or maybe ever. You’re adding questions that don’t need answers.

If you have the time or need later, perhaps another story will explore the Seers in detail, or plot the route of the 3rd legion and reveal their fate. Or not. The function of these details at this point is simply to add a wider context to what you’ve done in (1) and to intrigue your audience. Worry about how everything links up later. Or never. See how things go.


3 Stop

This might seem like a non-task to you, but for me it’s possibly the hardest of the three.

Building worlds is fun. Finishing products and dealing with logistics and marketing is much less fun. It’s very tempting to hang out in the former while leaving the latter to another day, and this isn’t good if you want to get stuff out into the world and also get better at doing it.

Unless you’re making this all for your own amusement and nothing more, you’ll want to try and move forward with your project as a product and leave the extra world building for another day. It’s hard, I know, but necessary.

Stay strong.

Posted in World-Building | 2 Comments

World Pangolin Day

It’s today.

The reason this is relevant on will take a long time to wriggle out from under other projects, but trust me when I say that pangolins make sense.

Plus, they’re really weird and intriguing beasties anyway, so why not?.

Posted in Random Thoughts

Game Design: Where Do Ideas Come From Anyway?

Over the years I’ve often been asked where I get my ideas from. It’s a standard question that is often posed to any writer or designer. There are several ways to reply.

The most honest answer is to admit that I’m not 100% sure 100% of the time, but that I can perhaps get you in the right ballpark so you can discover the rest for yourself.

I don’t usually say that.

My usual two answers are either the simple and short, or long and complex, depending on the circumstances. I’ll cover these standard replies later. I want to start today by giving you an alternative answer because it’s probably the most important one, and the one less often heard:

“You’re asking the wrong question.”

Now for this to be true, I’ve got to have jumped to some correct conclusions about what’s behind the question in the title, so I’ll cover that first.

This reply assumes that you really want to know more about the game design process because you want to design games yourself. You’ve probably had a go already. Not knowing a lot about the process, you perhaps think that getting the initial idea right will make the whole thing run smoothly. If only you had the right idea then it would be easy. As I’ve had  the question and discussed it with the questioner several times, it seems to be a common fallacy. Well let’s stomp on that notion right now.

The initial idea is a tiny part of the whole process. Sure, there are better and worse ideas, and easier and harder ones to make into your chosen format of end product. However, in all cases, having the right idea won’t make the rest of the job trivial, and it often won’t even be a large part of the task. The truth of this is easily demonstrated by the many unfinished ideas for a project that every practising creative has: ideas are the easy bit. It’s the rest of the process you’ve got to worry about

So, like I said, the questioner has probably made this wrong assumption about the pre-eminence of ideas. Still, if you can’t come up with them then you’re going to struggle. So how do you?

Don’t get me wrong here; working off a rubbish idea isn’t a good thing. But every creative person I’ve ever spoken to about their work has always got way more cool things they want to do than time to do them. And they think of another half dozen during each one they complete. This is true of musicians, knitters, and sculptors as well as game designers and writers. Once you get into the right mindset you’ll be flooded with ideas.

So where do all these ideas come from? We’re back to my two standards answers.

The short answer is “anywhere and everywhere”. The long answer is the same as the short one with a bit more structured explanation added.

The short version is admittedly a bit glib, though it’s still probably a reasonable summary. Many creatives don’t really know where a lot of their ideas come from. At least, not so they could explain it in a coherent and step-by-step sort of process. In my view, this is because it’s largely to do with the subconscious, which is a closed room to your conscious brain. How it comes up with things is a bit of a mystery, so when asked for an explanation you’re left with trying to piece together a trail from the few breadcrumbs you can find. You can usually describe some of the genesis, but all of it? That’s uncommon. And the pieces that the idea is built from could genuinely come from anywhere. Could be something you watched (film, YouTube rant, discussion at a bus stop, cat falling off a table, snow falling) or read (book, instant noodle packet, side of a bus, tea leaves, divorce papers), or a taste, smell, or texture. Really could be anything. Keep your eyes open: there is potential inspiration everywhere.

Of course, you can always try to force ideas mechanistically, if you want. I don’t tend to find this necessary, though it can help on occasion. It is also a good way to get someone thinking in the right sort of way, and can help as a sort of training method. Maybe it will help you. Let’s look at some options.

The simplest way of having an idea for something is looking at what’s around and copying one you like. I’ll design a game about adventurers in a dungeon fighting monsters. Seen lots, played some, think I can do better. Copying the idea of a thing is easy, and not a terrible (or uncommon) starting point. By the time it’s gone through all the iterations it needs for a finished piece it won’t be the same anyway. At least, it won’t be if you let your own style come through.

The next level is to take the copy and deliberately add your own twist. You probably came to this idea one of two ways: either fed by your subconscious when it joins a couple of previously unrelated pieces, or by doing this by hand. For example, you watch The Abyss one night, and play Heroquest the next. The day after you’re putting something in the kitchen cupboard and you think “what if I had an adventuring game where the dungeon was underwater?

Alternatively, you can take things you like and mash them together: I like dungeon games and deck building so how about I combine them?

More involved mechanical approaches can be achieved by simply writing tables of each step and rolling dice. When you come up with a combination that sparks your creative juices you can build on that. Take odd combos and run with them: Gregorian Chant + Rap + Mountaineering…

However you approach it, at some point you’re going to have to enlist the aid of your subconscious. It’s way faster to make connections than your conscious brain, and it doesn’t work in series, which is what often causes dull and repetitive projects. The series process is usually obvious and many other folk will have trod that same path. Incidentally, this is also related to why two unconnected people can simultaneously have the same idea and the notion of an idea whose time has come. It’s to do with the cultural information which is fed into the random engine of the subconscious.

Anyway, I digress.

Where do ideas come from? If you’re not just copying, then ideas come from a making connections between previously unconnected possibilities.

What’s great about this is that it’s a learnable skill. I know some people who tell me that they can’t do it. However, I believe that it’s that conviction which is mostly responsible for holding them back. They can really. Same as drawing (anyone who can hold a pencil can learn); it’s culturally taught as some mystical ability. In reality it’s entirely learnable.

If you want to get better at coming up with interesting ideas, get a coin or a dice and try this as a starting point:

  • First, relax. There’s no pressure, and no being wrong: you’re learning a process. You can do this as many times as you like. The more you do it, the less you’ll need the structure as a prompt and the more you’ll be able to do it freeform.
  • Choose the sort of thing you’re going to do (board game, short story, or whatever you like. This process works with anything).
  • Pick a broad theme or genre that you like and know about.
  • Now, ask which of two options is going to be true. One should be very common, and the other rare. This question can be about any aspect of your project.
  • Bearing in mind the answer to (4), ask another question with a common and rare answer to build on the previous answer.
  • Ask another.
  • Keep doing this till you either find a good idea or find yourself too far down the rabbit hole. Change tack as often as you like. Stop whenever you like. You can choose answers, or ignore them. It’s a very fluid process and you’re in charge. However, don’t shy away from difficult answers. That’s often where the really interesting ideas come from.

At each stage try to give yourself options quickly without overthinking. Remember that you’re doing this for your own amusement and nobody’s telling you it’s right or wrong. Relax. See what happens.

When you need to choose between a common and rare option, toss a coin or roll a dice. Give yourself a 50/50 chance of either happening.

Also, at any stage you may find yourself full of more ideas. This process is just here to jump-start stuff, so if you’ve got your own motor running take it from there. You can come back to the formality of this process if you want, or not. Up to you.

You could combine two or three simple choices to get a very strong idea from which you build later. Combining two or three apparently unconnected things is often gibberish, but occasionally genius. My favourite example of this working well is The Great Escape movie + Claymation + Chickens = Chicken Run. It’s a strong initial idea which is inherently original because it is so odd.

Before I go I’ll give you an example. This digs down through a lot more than 3 steps, which you can choose to do or not. I’ll also keep to the same topic for a few questions instead of flitting between them as one would have needed to do to get to the Chicken Run example. Both approaches are valid.

  • Relax.
  • I decide that I’ll search for a board game idea.
  • My theme is a fantasy dungeon bash. D&D sort of thing.
  • First question: are the players going take the role of the adventurers (common) or the monsters (rare)? I flip a coin and get tails: the rare answer. Monsters. So, a dungeon bash board game where the players are the monsters.
  • Is it cooperative (seems the natural option for this), or competitive (less likely)? I get competitive. Yes, I really am flipping a coin for each step as I write this. I’ve no idea where it’s going. But each time I have to ponder where it could go, and the randomness is taking me where I might not have gone otherwise.
  • Are the adventurers abstract (common because it would be easier) or played out in detail (tricky)? Naturally I flip and get detail. This could be an AI card deck, for example. I should ask. But first, let me check. Yup, this coin really does have a heads as well.
  • Are the adventurers controlled by an AI (the obvious option) or something else (dunno what)? You’ve guessed it. I flipped tails the fourth time in a row. It’s the non-AI approach. Now I’ve got to think about what that means. How it can be done. My first thought is that it’s got to be the other players if it’s not an AI. It’s a little scary to flip on that topic, but let’s do it for that reason.
  • Are the adventurers controlled by the other players (my first idea for this) or something else? Yet another tails, which means it’s not my first thought. Oh how we laughed. This is giving the old grey cells a workout. To recap: the adventurers are not abstract, they are controlled and their actions are detailed. This is neither done by an AI nor the other players. My first five ideas are all really just variant AI systems, so they’re out. I think the only thing left is scripted. This is still sort of an AI, but I can’t immediately think of how else it could work. Maybe asking questions on a new tack will shake something loose. Hmmm… wait a second. I know how to do it! The player controls the adventurers too. That’s interesting. I wonder how that works…

And so it goes.

Why not give it a try yourself and see what you come up with?

Posted in Game Design Theory | 2 Comments