Friday, July 6, 2018

Game Design and Re-Inventing the Wheel

Continuing off of my most recent blog on re-skinning AD&D, I'd like to look at the core philosophy behind the stance I took in that blog. I've been designing games professionally for about 19 years, starting with Palladium around 99 and having done projects since then for Misfit Studios, Eden Studios, a brief stint for ICE (which to my knowledge was never released), a few other small publishing companies, and most recently, Troll Lord Games and Goodman Games.

Over that time I've explored a range of different ideas in game design and something keeps coming back to me: I firmly believe in the KISS Principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid! I think as gamers we've all been conditioned, especially in the last 20 years or so, to look for the next new, "innovative" system. We've been told you have to design a specific system for every genre. We've been told you can't handle every situation with a given system.

I could rant for pages about the concept of "innovative" RPG design, but that's not the subject of this blog. Suffice it to say I abhor that word and that idea.

In any case, in some situations it's true that while re-skinning works just fine, a game can work better if you design a specific sub-system when it's needed. On the other hand, as designers, I think we rush to build new systems and tinker far too often, when it's not necessary. In fact, it's become so common that people have started to have knee-jerk reactions when someone suggests otherwise. I've had a number of such reactions to my last blog (most over on Facebook). Some have even taken the suggestion that a simple re-skin is functional as some sort of personal attack on their gaming sensibilities, which is just weird to me. But that's social media, I guess.

Re-Inventing the Wheel

Folks, when you engage in complex redisgns of something that you don't need to redesign for it to work in a different context, this is called "re-inventing the wheel." When you take something that works just fine, and create an often-overcomplicated solution to change it for a single, specific situation, it hurts the overall play experience. It becomes a slippery slope (a term people hate these days, but bear with me) where once it's done, people tend to do it more, and more, until the system becomes weighty and bloated. 

I go out of my way not to re-invent the wheel when I design. Before I dive into any project, I look carefully at the existing system and options. Is there a way I can accomplish what I need with the rules that are already there? If so, that's a bonus to both the GM and players of the game. They don't have to learn a new rule. There's fewer bells and whistles to muck things up and clog the system. 

An Example of Design Philosophy

Once again, let me go back to Amazing Adventures. When designing that game, I wanted to include a gadgeteer class. I pored through over a dozen different pulp and other games and supplements to look at a dozen different ways that people handed gadget creation. All of them were neat and fun, but most were incredibly complex and I could see how they could slow down or bog down games to the point where it would quickly become inelegant and irritating. 

Finally, I said, "is there a way I can accomplish this that it'll just work within the current context?" Yes, there was. I realized that most gadgets were created based on what they do, and I already had a few hundred effects right there in all the spells. Why not just buy a spell and re-skin it as a technological gadget? A few guidelines for handling the re-skin later, it was done. It playtested brilliantly and has been one of the more widely praised elements of the game. 

Likewise, even supposedly new sub-systems like the psionics really are specifically designed to work within the existing framework of Prime checks. When you use a psionic power, you simply make an ability check with a CL set by the GM, based on what you want to do. It's not remotely new or removed from the way the rest of the game works. This enables it to be dumped into ANY SIEGE game with no modifications, and it adds a new option without bloating the game. 

From https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tabletop_role-playing_game_icon.svg
By User:JohnnyMrNinja, Sabine MINICONI & http://openclipart.org/user-detail/yves_guillou [LGPL (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/lgpl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Is There an Easier Way?

In the end, I think the question we should always be asking in game design, and what game masters should ask themselves while planning campaigns from a rules standpoint is whether there is an easier way to handle something than what they're currently doing. Simple is almost always better in game design. After all, this hobby is about collaborative storytelling, and complex rules that force you to step out of the game and consider the mechanics rarely accomplish that end. The best game systems, in my opinion, get out of the way and let you tell a story. 

The easier your solution is, the better your game will run. It'll be smoother, your players will be more engaged, and the story will flow much better. At least, that's been my experience without fail. If I can get by without extra dice rolling, that's the best result. I'm not a diceless guy; on the contrary, I think dice are essential to task resolution in a game. I just like to minimize their effect when I can...but I guess that's a subject for another blog. 

It's Okay if You Disagree

For a large subset of gamers out there, this very idea is anathema. They prefer a rule for everything. They prefer mechanically-detailed characters with a laundry list of skills, abilities and the like. They prefer tactical combat with detailed planning and movement. There's absolutely nothing wrong with this. 

I'll repeat that in the vain hope that someone won't call me out on it, anyway: There's nothing wrong with this. This whole thing is just about my personal philosophy towards design, and my personal preferences in game play. As long as you and your group are having a good time, keep on keeping on, regardless of whether or not we agree. 

I'm not a one-true-wayist, and to be honest, I have little patience for those who are. This blog is just my thoughts and philosophies on gaming and design. Take them for what they're worth, which is words on a screen. I only bring this up because it seems to be a theme on social media these days, to take things personally or to feel that people have to argue every point. 



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