What follows is rambly. You’ve been warned.

I’ve been thinking about another result of the most recent playtest. It was implicit, between the lines of what John said, but I think the lesson was that the game needs a bit more space to breathe.

The game has two economies, cards and tokens, that interact. It’s generally the case that you spend a bit from each in every scene, or at least every scene where you get or take some spotlight time. You get them from, you guessed it, certain moments in the spotlight. This means that the diastolic and systolic elements of the system are very tightly coupled; every moment of gaining currency depends on spending currency, and every moment of spending currency can lead to gaining it.

This can suffocate the story in between. It makes it easy to keep your eye on the mechanical pieces, the currencies, and not think about the story effects you’re making and getting as you do the mechanical game. It makes it easy to evaluate actions in terms of net mechanical effect over embodying a character.

(Yeah, there’s the other extreme, where you’re left drifting between mechanical reference points.)

One way to counter this is to divide scenes or beats (or whatever your relevant unit is) into upbeats and downbeats, action and recovery, spend resources and gain them. This moves the systolic and diastolic rhythm into being a first-class element of your game. They don’t have to alternate by any means, but they should have some dividing lines. Consider Fiasco‘s white dice and black dice: they divide scenes into some concept of up and down (about outcomes, not actions, but still), and let you pace them as you feel necessary.

Another option is to minimize the presence of “resources” and “economies” in your design, as you see in Apocalypse World.

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I’ve been continuing to playtest Arcadia. It’s been going well, but the most recent playtest was that particular kind of frustrating and unsatisfying that a game designer sometimes seeks.

Clearly, some of the gears were slipping. This mechanic here wasn’t quite interacting right with that mechanic there, as the GM I had a hard time pushing for certain kinds of complications, et cetera. And so, I began to reach for the tools to which I am most accustomed: I began to tweak the crunchy bits.

I had to grab myself and pull myself back. That’s not where the problems were. I’ve gotten the design to the point where the problems are in the “soft” pieces, the “content”, the flesh on the bones. And so, if I’m to move this design forward, what I need to do is not change what you do with cards or tokens, but rather change what the cards and tokens and such mean.

I think that this is hard for those who, like me, are systems-minded, programmery people. The flesh always feels like something you can kick down the road, and do later. It’s not, really. You can’t see how your bones work without flesh on them—hell, you can’t always even see how they should be arranged!

And yet, for me, the flesh is also why I play. Without a compelling list of questions on the Read a Person move in Apocalypse World (to take one very arbitrary example), that game wouldn’t click the way it does. The two sides need to support each other, to be sure—flesh without bones only works if you’re an octopus! But the flesh is the part I tend to undervalue in my design work, so it’s the part I focus on.

Well, no, that’s not right. I don’t undervalue it. I fear it. I feel like that’s the place I don’t know well, where I don’t have analytical tools to bring to bear.

So, I stumble through it. What do you do? How do you approach the “soft” side, the flesh?

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So, we played Night Witches recently, and the experience has really bolstered my confidence in AW hacks.

Night Witches is a game made by this big-name indie designer about something they find cool, and while not everything in it jives with me personally, it works.

AW is like the new D20 in that respect, it lets people legitimize a thing they want to play by drawing on a tool everyone else is familiar with. AW happens to be a really good tool, and its spectacular modularity is a huge boon to people who’ve wanted a particular game but don’t want to spend (possibly) years making it from scratch.

It’s fun to be elitist about it (hur hur, another AW hack, hur) but honestly I think it has democratized the game design process to a certain point and I think that’s ultimately a good thing.


Or really, ask?

How about this: the players are engaged in improv, with the general topic as the premise of your game. You’re kind of observing, sitting back and throwing a wrench in the works every time they get too comfortable, and nudging them back into the theme every time they drift too far. What do you ask, what do you suggest, what do you say to make that happen?

The first draft of this post was a lot of inside baseball, and so to counteract that, I’m gonna try to go heavy on the examples.

Continue reading »

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I ran a little playstorm of Et in Arcadia Ego this weekend. It was very informative! One of the best things to come out of it was that, while there are many changes to make, I did not have to rip everything down and start from the ground up again, which is a sign of forward progress.

However, I wanted to talk a bit about the particular observations that struck me in analyzing what worked and what didn’t.

There were two big things: the cognitive load of “does this rule kick in?” and the attention load of “how long does this rule take to sort out before we can continue the moment of fiction we were in?”

Continue reading »

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I had a talk yesterday with Austin about beats. They’ve been on my mind a lot lately. I think a large part of what I like so much about Vincent’s games is that they help me structure play, beat by beat. They help keep scenes from being sketchy, they make surprising outcomes and shape moments.

So, we ended up talking about Apocalypse World. Moves are beats (though, importantly, not all beats are moves). Each moment, you need to know what the next moment is, because it might trigger mechanical things, so you play it through, moment to moment. Each move has uncertain and potentially surprising outcomes, so you play the next moment after it differently than you would have had the move not happened.

But then, a creeping realization stole upon us. What you do in terms of “crunch” in that moment is dead simple, and the game still works. The interest in RPGs doesn’t come from what you do with the dice. A fancy dice game isn’t necessarily a problem, but it is such a profound misapplication of your time and energy as a designer, to think first and foremost “what can I do to make people interested in the dice”. In “what you roll, when” it is the “when” that is most important. What beats get randomized, and sure, there’s a lot of play in how you interpret the dice roll, when and whether you can change it, etc, but there’s a meaningful level at which any dice system is just “let’s get random numbers”.

So, if I want to make mechanics that help shape the moment-to-moment beats of the game I’m making, I don’t need to make a fancy dice game. I need to make good beats.

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I’ve been mulling over the idea of playtests-as-studies. I’ve been thinking particularly about a recent conversation I had with the inimitable Avery Mcdaldno, wherein they suggested that, for a game you intend to Get Out Into the World, you have a limited budget (maybe, say, 4 to 40) of playtests. And so each one has to drive the game forward, but also, you will never get it just right or, dare I say it, perfect.

So, what do we do with that? How do you spend your playtests, allot your studies? What do you need to get filled in first, and what can wait to be done in the detail work, the finishing touches?

I dunno. But I’m curious to find out. I suspect strongly that a lot of the getting-better-at-making-games lies in this space.

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Just shy of a year dormant, but a post! I’m gonna try to get over my “I must post something Worthwhile” hangup.


I’ve spent the day at the National Gallery, looking at Andrew Wyeth, Degas, Cassatt. When I was little, this was my least favorite museum (Air & Space and Natural History always claiming my affections), but as I grow older, I grow to appreciate it more.

What struck me today was looking at a wall of studies Degas did for his series of Mary Cassatt at the Louvre. Eight or so paintings, each more or less “complete”, each with their own moments of brilliance and their own failings. Eight of them, arrayed side by side, showing much (but by no means all) of the process involved in creating the final work.

The final work was definitely more polished, probably better than any individual study, but it got there because of the work put in to the studies. And there were some bits that didn’t come off as well in the final piece, for sure, but you know, that’s just how it goes. Maybe they wouldn’t have been as good in that final (overall better) context, maybe they were just impossible to capture again.

So it is with a game. Maybe, even, if it helps you, don’t call them “playtests”, call them “studies”. Each one is a whole game (gamelet?) in its own right, with some strengths and probably more weaknesses, but not made with an aim to completeness and publication, rather with an aim towards preparation and honing your understanding of the space and your art.

Make more games. Maybe most of them never make it out of your studio, but that’s not at all “failure”.


Today, a guest post from our illustrator and sales expert, Allie McCarthy.

So—you’ve made an awesome indie game. This is the part when you get to take a moment to fully and un-ironically congratulate yourself. Seriously. You just accomplished something amazing, and you deserve credit for it. Also, you’re going to need to feel really, really proud of your game for what comes next—convincing people that they should be as excited about your game as you are. (If you aren’t excited about your game, you either need to fix it or talk to someone who isn’t a total perfectionist. That means you, Kit La Touche).

There are a few ways to do this. Transneptune has found that IPR has worked really well for them, but I believe this has been in a large part due to their wiliness to talk about Becoming Heroes online and sell it from their own booth at Gen Con. This piece is largely aimed at people using forums and the Con community to build an audience for their new game.

Since most of us have fairly unpleasant memories of the last time someone tried to sell us something, the idea of selling your game might feel at little seedy, like you’re sullying this beautiful, sacred world of game design you’ve entered into with your desperate materialism. Rest assured, you can retain your integrity as a game designer and as a human being while still giving your game the chance it deserves by selling it. It shouldn’t even feel like selling. Don’t think of it as selling. Stop. Pink elephants.

Anyway. Some tips on how to make the experience of “selling” your game as pleasant and effective as possible. Bear in mind, I am an introverted, fairly nerdy (surprise surprise) person who grew up on the kind of heroic fantasy that generally eschewed such mundane pastimes as “sales” and “marketing.” I am pretty resentful of the fact that the games that I’m involved in don’t magically sell themselves despite being Things of Beauty That Will Solve All Your Problems. Magical tomes of Great Wisdom and Knowledge don’t need to be sold—why should my awesome game need to be? Psh. Reality. Psh.

Despite all this, I have worked for three years in sales, sometimes in the field and more recently training other salespeople, and I’ve found some methods that really, really work without making me feel like a total ass and, pun intended, sellout. Here goes.

Believe in your game, know your game.

I decided to start with this one because it’s really obvious. You won’t be able to get people excited about your game if you don’t believe it’s good and if you don’t know much about it. Duh. On another level, your belief in your game’s awesomeness will be conveyed through your vocal expressions and body language, which are pretty contagious and will likely make other people excited as well. At the very least, you’ll be really fun to talk to.

That said, if you’re excitable, it’s easy to get carried away. Onward!

Listen about twice as much as you talk

When I’m simultaneously excited (Gaminggaminggaminggaming!) and nervous (there is a human in front of me and sounds are coming out of their face!) it’s hard not to railroad. That is, talk and talk at increasing speeds as the person I’m talking to gets fog-eyed and shifty, but I can’t stop because this next thing I say will definitely get their attention, surely it will… anyhow.

A good way around this very human tendency is to focus on slowing down, and on listening. And the best way to listen is to ask questions, which will provide you with things to listen to. Huzzah! Ask what a person’s favorite game is, ask them why they like it, ask them to tell you about a really good campaign they were a part of. Paraphrase what they say back to them so that it’ll stick in your mind and make them feel heard. But please, for the love of Cthulhu, don’t parrot them. They will notice and be irritated.

There are probably many different facets of your game, and listening will help you find out which facet will make the gamer you’re talking to most excited to play.

Don’t sell features—sell awesome.

Ok. Imagine you’re at GenCon, and you’re looking for a new Indie Game to try out. What sorts of things are you looking for?

Most people (including me, the first time) answer this question by listing off features that appeal to them—in my case; less combat oriented, lots of magic, short character creation, handfuls of Chessex d10’s bathed in the tears of fairies, etc etc. The thing is, I only listed those features because in the past they’ve given me what I’m really looking for—an amazing, transformative, mind-blowing gaming experience with my friends.

This is going to be a little long, but that’s because it’s extremely important. People may think they’re buying features, but what they’re actually buying is the much more general benefit of the game—the extraordinary amount of fun (or education, or enlightenment, I’m not sure how one would pitch something nevertheless great like Grey Ranks as “fun”) they will gain from it. This should be at the center of your pitch.

When you’re talking about your game, don’t talk about game mechanics, how character creation works, or delve into the minute details of the setting. It is easy and tempting, but don’t, unless of course you’re asked. It will be necessary to give an overview of the setting and the premise, but what you really want to hone in on is what a fantastic gaming experience playing your game provides. Talk about the adrenaline rush play testers felt during combat scenes, talk about the transformative conversations you had afterwards, talk about how much you laughed and cried and yelled and about that one game where two of your players started dating in the moments following a game’s conclusion. This is why people game. This is what your game is ultimately about.

Unique Selling Proposition (your Thing)

Unique Selling Proposition is a fancy term my boss uses for That Thing That Makes Your Game Special. This is the Thing that your game does to create the fun, transformative benefits that people are looking for. Most games do it pretty differently, and talking about it in your pitch will help determine whether your game is a good fit for the gamers you’re talking to.

For instance (it is now shameless plug o’clock), I’d say that Becoming Heroes‘ ‘Thing’ is its adrenaline-rush inducing combat and storytelling systems, and its ability to make players feel connected to heroes from their favorite media. On the other hand, I’d say They Became Flesh‘s (a game I recently discovered and loved) ‘Thing’ is the way it allows gamers to deeply experience some very compelling philosophical ideas, and opens people up to the point where they can feel comfortable talking about them. I find both games emotionally rewarding, but in different ways. Know what your game does for people.

Hand a copy of your game to the person you’re talking to

It makes them feel like that copy already belongs to them. It makes them feel like you’re giving them a gift. It’s just sort of nice. They can get a closer look at the pictures. Magic.

Don’t sell yourself short

If a rich guy were presented with identical #2 pencils, one priced at $1 and the other priced at $10, and he had no idea that the pencils were identical, he’s probably pick the $10 pencil. He’d figure he’d get more out of something that’s worth more.

On that note, if you price your 150-page game book that you spent a year on at $5, people aren’t going to think, “Oh man! What a fantastic deal!”—they are going to think that it must be a piece of luh suh. If you price your game at what you think it’s worth, people will have an easier time seeing the value in it.

If you’re shy, there are ways around it.

This is a big one for me. My mom once had to pay me $20 to go talk to a boy I liked at a neighborhood party because she was sick of seeing me mope around the punch bowl. I’m not a natural salesperson, but I had to learn it out of necessity.

Remember: If someone approaches your table, if someone asks about your game, if someone so much as glances at the little flyer thing you printed out to promote your company, they are curious about you. They want to know more. It is not an imposition to ask them a question, to get into conversation, and politely enthuse about your game.

I’ve found that no matter how anxious something makes me, pushing through and doing it three times or so, no matter what the outcome, makes me much, much more relaxed about it. This includes mind-numbing anxiety inducers like karaoke and talking to strangers wearing cool clothes.

Be a human. Unless you can be the Geico Gecko. Then always be the Geico Gecko.

I could wax poetic about this little guy for hours. The way he modulates his voice, the way he gestures with his hands as though he’s offering you a gift, the way he respects his audience’s agency, the way he’s so damn polite…

Love him or hate him (love him.), the Gecko is a sales genius, and when you’re wading through mires of doubt and shyness, try to emulate him. Do the accent if that makes you feel better, I guess, though I can see that particular tactic yielding mixed results.

I think what makes him really effective is his quiet confidence in his product and ability to make it appear that he’s offering you a choice—he respects your time, he respects your decision, he simply wants you to consider Geico. This makes people feel safe and competent, and thus more receptive to his opinion. At the same time, he makes it quite obvious that he thinks his product is the best. You wouldn’t be stupid if you didn’t pick Geico, but then again, why wouldn’t you? ::little green gecko shrug::

Gecko doesn’t waste your time with features. You’re busy. Gecko just talks about what he knows you want—to make this stupid car insurance thing as cheap and painless as possible.

Allow yourself to put a lot of warmth and emotion in your voice. Smile or, if you think a smile will look forced, be thoughtful. If you want to read about how to act like an awesome human or lizard at cons, I highly recommend this article.

Go forth. If you have anything to add or argue about your own experiences, please feel free to share it.

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