Netflix-Style Game Development


Now, when I say “Netflix-style” in the title, I’m not referring to the idea of having people pay a subscription to access infinitely a library of games until the time comes where they stop paying their subscription, because that idea is bad. Instead, what I’m postulating on is the idea of a game development strategy inspired by Netflix’s content production pipeline, although the translation isn’t exactly 1-to-1.

So, we’re mainly focusing on the concept of Netflix Originals, which is the name given to projects that are produced, or co-produced, by Netflix. These projects have basically nothing to do with each other, except when they do, such as in the case of the interconnected Marvel/Netflix collaborations like Daredevil and Jessica Jones.

Vaguely inspired by this format, I present the Netflix-Style Development Strategy for Video Games, which you can tell is important, because it’s capitalized. It’s meant for a medium-sized development team, of probably at least 12 team members, with a fairly even distribution of specialties.

The first part of the Strategy is what I would call the Preparatory Stage. During this time, team members pitch the concepts for games they want to make, perhaps in the form of a game jam to produce prototypes, much as how Double Fine has done in the past. From these projects, the entire team selects a number of projects that they A) feel passionate about, and B) feel are similar gameplay-wise to the other selected project. Obviously, this judgement process might be a bit laborious, but it’s important that the projects selected share a good number of mechanical characteristics. These projects together compose what is called a Season.

With a Season selected, the Prep Stage ends and a new part of the Strategy, called the Group Stage, begins. Here, the entire team is working together, basically developing code, art, and design that all of the games can share. Programmers are developing general code for movement, inventory, menus, etc. that all of the games can share, as well as code for any mechanics the games share (here’s where the Season being cohesive comes into play. The more commonalities in the games’ mechanics, the more work can be done by the entire team during the Group Stage). Artists and sound designers make general assets that all of the games can use (crates, doors, GUI, grunts, whatever).

Once all of the common assets are developed, and all the work that remains would be specific only to a subset of the games in the Season, the Group Stage ends. Everyone who pitched a game selected for the Season becomes the new project lead on their game. They then create a small team out of whatever roles they cannot fill, and these teams divide, marking the start of the Cluster Stage.

During the Cluster Stage, there are a lot of small teams working on their own separate projects, building upon the general-use code and assets developed during the Group Stage to fit the needs of their own game. Maybe the RPG team is working out their leveling-up mechanics, while the shoot-em-up team is working on bullet behavior. The teams don’t break communication, however: optimizations and improvements made to the common code and assets get redistributed out to every team, and team members are free to ask for help and input from one another, and are in fact encouraged to do so. Ideally, the Clusters are still all working in the same space.

The games of the Season don’t release at the same time. The smallest project of the Season gets released first, at which point the team members from that project disperse out into the other projects. This continues until the entire team is finishing up the last game of the Season. Once that’s out, the Clusters are formally disbanded and the process starts anew.

Obviously, my experience with formal game development is limited as a student, but this is more of a thought experiment than a legitimate suggestion. As far as I can see, here are the positives and negatives of this design strategy:

PRO: Everyone gets a chance to be Creative Director

Everyone can pitch an idea or make a game during a jam during the Preparation Stage, meaning anyone has a chance to have their game be selected and produced.

PRO: Highly efficient

This is obvious. Anything that could be shared is, and no work is repeated amongst the Clusters. Furthermore, a nice, dense release schedule of games is ensured by staggering releases. Small teams making small games get to finish fast and release fast, while bigger games get slowly bigger teams, and get longer development time.

CON: Big teams can be suffocated by bad scheduling

If smaller teams take longer than they expected to release their smaller projects (which will almost certainly happen), the teams making bigger teams will have to carry their much larger workload on their few shoulders for longer, desperately waiting for new team members to come help shoulder the burden.

PRO: Big teams speed through heavy lifting, small teams work on passion projects

During the Group Phase, the entire team can combine their knowledge to hammer out the more generic and boring parts of the game, freeing individuals in the Cluster Phase to work on the things that they are interested in.

CON: Games come out samey

Since all of the games in a Season share assets and code, they’ll all probably be extremely reminiscent of each other

PRO: You’re releasing an anthology, not an epic

This is just a rethinking of the previous con: your team is instead working on smaller, related projects, giving them the chance to do some experimental stuff without using the entire organization’s resources on it.

PRO: Speed up acclimation of late arrivals to teams

When a game ships, the team members disperse out into the remaining Clusters. However, they don’t need to acclimate as much as a completely new team member would: they saw the game when it was pitched, they worked on a lot of the shared assets, and they watched and helped out with a lot of development previously, so getting up to speed is much quicker.



I don’t intend for this to be the last post about this idea. As I think about this strategy, and work on more game development teams, I want to refine this (probably crap) idea using my experience into one that might be one day actionable in my own indie studio.


Board Games Are For Your Friends

Behold, the aftereffect of German mathematicians trying to calculate “fun”

(Another late post, my bad! First week of school kicked in, so I haven’t had the time to build up my stockpile of posts. This week I should get back on track)

I hate Catan. There, I said it.

The Settlers of Catan, the poster child for the modern renaissance of board gaming, is a bad game, in my opinion. The theme is utterly meaningless, the mechanics are boring and mathematical, and, most importantly, the game doesn’t spur on interactions between players in any meaningful way. All you can do is trade, which is boring, aggressively place the robber, which really is just a denial of resources more than it is the creation of an interesting decision, and place roads and towns in places such that other players can’t put theirs there. Again, this is just a denial of options, not a generation of the new, interesting decisions which make up a good board game, in my opinion.

That’s why I’ve pushed for Catan to largely be replaced amongst my gaming group. Instead, we play this bad boy:

The critical component missing from Catan is, of course, colored pucks

Archipelago, if memory serves me right, was designed by a fellow person-who-hates-Catan, and in my opinion it is a strictly superior game in every way. The theme of maintaining an island colony for resources is more heavily represented in the mechanics. Less abstraction means the board actually looks like an archipelago, and you can see your workers moving around and collecting resources, making it easier to imagine the stories in the game world taking place, instead of Catan‘s abstract “I rolled a 4 so I shall collect stone from my stone hexagon now”.

Most importantly, though, Archipelago‘s mechanics allow for a more complex interaction between players, which produces a bounty of new, interesting decisions. Clever movement and construction allows a player to take over a hex another player has taken root on, allowing for more directly aggressive play than Catan‘s robber, even if it requires more preparation than “Oh, cool, I rolled a 7”. The board will have to come together to solve crises, which allows for tense bargaining situations where someone will have the last couple resource cubes needed to end the crisis, allowing them to hold the game hostage unless everyone agrees to an unfavorable trade deal.

This, I think, ties into how I fundamentally feel about board games: their primary goal should be to create interesting reactions between your friends, allowing for complex decision making and individualized tactics.Thus, my favorite board game of all time:


Coup is an extremely simple card game, where players attempt to force others to discard the entirety of their two card hand using the powers and abilities of the cards in their own hand. The very clever catch is that you don’t have to show a card from your hand when you use its power, allowing you to mercilessly lie about your hand’s contents. These simple rules and cards, combined with mechanized cheating, means every game of Coup is a game centered on trying to understand your friends psychologically, figuring out when people are lying and, more importantly, figuring out how to play smart while not drawing attention to yourself.

Another game that gets pretty consistent play with my friends is The Metagame. A group of game designers’ answer to the fun but shallow Cards Against HumanityThe Metagame has players arguing that the card in their hard is the best fit for a category card played down on the table, leading to heated arguments about which is the better demonstration of masculinity, an AK-47 or a mullet.

The best part about The Metagame is that the entirety of the game is based on the social dynamics of the group you’re with, which you’ll get to explore if you play with strangers. The way things get argued, the cards selected for each category and answer, and the precise arguments made all vastly vary based on the particular people in the group. Everyone will argue points differently, even more so when you take into account the fact that players who aren’t participating in an argument serve as the jury, and thus an appeal to those people always comes out during an argument. It’s great fun.

The crux of this post, I guess, is to say that the most interesting thing that separates board games from other types of games is that it provides a very formalized set of rules for a game played by a bunch of people, in person, right next to each other, and the best board games have rules to capitalize on that social dynamic.

Fantasies Permitted versus Fantasies Enforced

“Yo, check out these heads I found. Someone just left them there, can you believe it?”

As time goes on, I’ve begun to notice two trends sort of waxing and waning in the games industry, in direct opposition to each other, despite at first glance appearing to be the same thing. These are two types of games defined by a core design decision, two categories I call Fantasy Permitted and Fantasy Enforced games.

The first type of games, Fantasy Permitted, are best exemplified by Bethesda RPGs, such as Skyrim or Fallout 3. These are games that give players a variety of ways of dealing with the challenges of the game world, and allow the to select a set of solutions fitting with the character, or “fantasy”, they want to play out. In Skyrim you can be a great wizard, an expert magic user, or a mighty barbarian. In Fallout 3 you can be a smooth operator or rip and tear through everything.

This type isn’t necessarily limited to open-world RPGs. Wolfenstein: The New Order firmly falls into this category, allowing characters to be gun-toting badasses or stealthy agents, as do the Grand Theft Auto games. Overwatch arguably fits into this category, with the number of options it gives as far as characters are concerned, and MOBAs definitely can be categorized as Fantasy Permitted, as rosters with dozens of characters means a player probably can find a character to fit any playstyle they want.

The second type of games, Fantasy Enforced, has a lot of different manifestations, but I’m going to pick the Witcher series as my defining example, because it parallels well to the Elder Scrolls series (which is definitely Fantasy Permitted). In The Witcher, you don’t get to choose between some spell-slinging wizard or an amazing swordsman or a crafty apothecary, you have to be a Witcher, a combination of the three. If you don’t play that way, you’re not going to be equipped with the tools you need to succeed. This is what Fantasy Enforced games are all about: giving a player a single playstyle to embrace, with little room for variation.

Call of Duty is largely a Fantasy Enforced game, as is Titanfall and, to a lesser extent, BattlefieldJalopy is a really specific Fantasy Enforced game. The Assassins Creed series is definitely Fantasy Enforced. These are games that define a role for you, be it “master assassin”, “guy with shitty car”, or “super cool soldier man”, and while maybe giving you some degrees of freedom within those roles, force you to play the game within those confines.

OK, maybe calling Jalopy’s “Dear god I hope this piece of shit car can make it up this hill” experience a fantasy is a stretch, but bear with me.

This is not to say that I disagree with Fantasy Enforced design, far from it. By designing a game with a singular playstyle in mind, it allows a design team to focus every mechanic on that playstyle and maximize its impact. Since Titanfall lacks vehicles other than the eponymous Titans, Respawn was able to construct tight-knit maps full of buildings that complemented the parkour-style gameplay nicely. Arkane could focus a lot of time and resources into creating stealthy paths through the levels of Dishonored, knowing full well that most players were going to use them, and as a result that game has fantastic level design.

The dichotomy that these two styles form is one of generalization versus specialization in design. Take, for example, Skyrim, a Fantasy Permitter. Skyrim has melee sword combat, just like The Witcher, a Fantasy Enforcer. However, Skyrim‘s sword combat feels a little flaccid, and has a variety of weapons that don’t really have any tangible difference, while The Witcher limits itself to just swords, but has a much more rhythmic, rewarding combat. Then again, if you want to play a ranged character in The Witcher, you’re SOL, while Skyrim has you covered.

Skyrim also features stealth systems, just like Dishonored, another Fantasy Enforcer. Skyrim‘s level design doesn’t really account for or accommodate stealth in any significant way, unlike Dishonored‘s crafted levels full of sneaking routes. However, if things go bad in a sneaking attempt in Skyrim, you can always switch to another approach successfully, while a botched attempt at stealth in Dishonored ends in consuming all of your resources to survive, frantic hiding, or death.

Skyrim also offers giant monsters, specifically dragons, to fight, sort of like how Shadow of the Colossus, a third Fantasy Enforcer, does. Fighting dragons in Skyrim is much like fighting…anything else, really, and in fact the combat systems really show their weak points when you fight larger opponents, while Shadow‘s combat systems make fighting massive opponents immensely satisfying, creating on the mechanical level this sense of grandeur. However, Skyrim also lets you fight things other than giant monsters, which Shadow of the Colossus does not.

The key to identifying these two design philosophies, and to picking one that’s best for your project, is to recognize the key idea I’m trying to point out. The more options you give a player on how to play your game, the more freedom they have, but the less polish each of those options is going to receive, and greater potential will exist for the systems corresponding to those options to cause friction in the design. The fewer options you give, the less freedom you give your players, but the more time you can spend refining and perfecting those options, and the more time you can spend ensuring those options form a harmonious whole.

How I Would Make A Suicide Squad Game

Step 1: Be Not Terrible

This isn’t going to be a review of the recent Suicide Squad movie, because I don’t have much to say that reviews haven’t already. It’s really bad, and has some severe problems with pacing, choppy editing, and characterization. That’s not interesting to say, though.

Instead, I want to explore a hypothetical. Let’s say that DC wants to release a game following the movie’s critical failure, in an attempt to regain audience approval. It’s going to be a big-budget, AAA game, and I’m assigned to be creative director, presumably because every other game designer in the world died in a tragic accident. Maybe all of GDC got swallowed up in some sort of hell portal. Who knows. It was probably id’s fault.

First thing’s first: I would set the game up in a mission structure, where every mission takes place in a semi-open area, like Dishonored. The prison would serve as a hub area for story elements, to embark upon new missions on, and maybe to handle character customization. More on that in a bit. Each mission has Amanda Waller send the Squad out on some dangerous job, usually to neutralize a super-villain, but there are plenty of collectibles and side-quests in this areas. This structure lacks the “But shouldn’t you be saving the world right now?” problem of games like Skyrim: the Suicide Squad is full of real jerks, so it’s in-character for them to drop what they’re doing and go pursue selfish desires.

However, despite this, we need a reason for the Squad (read: our players) to stick relatively close together. If we include objectives which only one person cares about (which would be cool, I think, like having Deadshot take a diversion to steal some textbooks for his daughter), we need a reason for them not to just book it in that direction and leave the rest behind. The way we handle that is NOT to give the player playing Rick Flagg the ability to blow up any other player’s head, because that is an awful idea. I think the solution would instead just be to make the game fairly challenging, such that players who run off on their own, they just get curb-stomped by a swarm of enemies.

But that brings us to the actual gameplay, then. Here’s where I think the really good design needs to be. My first idea, design wise, is that half of the characters, specifically Deadshot, Rick Flagg, Captain Boomerang, and El Diablo, play from a first-person view, while Harley Quinn, Killer Croc, and Katana play from a third-person view. These three characters are largely melee focused, and in my opinion, melee combat just feels better from a third-person perspective. On top of that, those are three characters who look pretty cool doing what they do, from Harley bouncing around hitting people with a bat, to Croc tanking enemies like a monster, so why not let those players see themselves be awesome? On top of that, a third-person perspective gives these players greater situational awareness than the other four, adding to their value to the team.

Actual gameplay focuses more on the players getting swarmed by nameless mooks, like in the film, sort of like in Left 4 Dead. Maybe these swarms will be melee-focused zombie guys, or maybe they’ll be ranged opponents, but mixing it up gives a chance for both the ranged and the melee Squad members to shine. I think key to the design should be that every Squad member plays differently, such that a player who is sick of, or doesn’t like how, one character plays can re-spark their enthusiasm for the game by playing someone else.

“OK, which one of you ding-dong-ditched me?”

For example, among the melee Squad members, there seems like some surprisingly different gameplay styles implied through the character design. Harley is a more nimble opponent who isn’t actually very physically tough, so what if she played as a more dodging and blocking based melee fighter, maybe not as efficient as Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham games, but still extremely mobile, and focused on well-timed interruptions to enemy attacks. Killer Croc, meanwhile, is an obvious fit for party tank. He can just wade into enemies, and maybe can toss them around for an added sense of being a real big tough guy. Katana, meanwhile, has a sword that consumes the souls of those it kills, so I think she plays more as a finisher-based character. If an enemy is stunned or staggered, like after being thrown by Killer Croc, Katana can launch a super-cool instant execution and consume that enemy’s soul, which maybe also has some sort of mechanical benefit for her, like regaining a bit of health (since she lacks the survivability of Harley’s deftness and Croc’s size).

In the interest of fairness and brand consistency, maybe we don’t have Killer Croc be a twelve foot tall murder machine, as fun as that would be.

Among the ranged Squad members, there’s still plenty of room for variation. I think El Diablo, as the resident pyrokinetic, is heavily focused on AoE damage and controlling space. His fire doesn’t do a ton of damage, but by spraying large clusters of enemies, or by covering key chokepoints in fire, he gets his money’s worth by spreading that damage around. Deadshot and Flagg are both similar characters, ability-wise, so I propose leaning heavy into the key differentiators. Deadshot focuses on tricks (like the hopping on the hood of the car thing in the movie). I’m thinking we give him some parkour abilities, and maybe some fun, almost gun-kata moves. Flagg, meanwhile, as the only official member of the team, can requisition some cooler gear, so he has access to traps, grenades, rocket launchers, and other cool weapons and items.

I think Boomerang sticks out as a character whose gameplay isn’t immediately fun. However, given his personality and characterization in the movie, I think we can make him the character most suited for “lone wolfing it”, despite what I said earlier. He’s pretty fast and a little tough, so he can stand being out on his own for a little bit longer than anyone else. Why give him this ability? Because he has a unique secondary goal that ties directly into his character and gameplay: find alcohol and get wasted. The drunker the Boomerang player gets, the more access he has to powerful, awesome boomerang-powered skills that are extremely handy in a firefight. Boomerang might randomly split from your party for no reason, but when he comes back, he’ll be your guardian angel in a firefight.

Add onto these basic mechanics some player progression, maybe through loot, or maybe through leveling up a skill tree for each hero, add in some interesting side quest design and encounter design meant to give every hero a chance to shine, and maybe some raid-style boss battles at the end of every mission, and I think this game would be super cool. It offers the team-based gameplay of a Left 4 Dead or a Rainbow 6: Siege that has players replaying missions over and over again, trying out new characters and strategies and gaining map awareness, but also the character driven gameplay of something like Overwatch that makes every character feel unique, and we have ourselves an interesting game.


Thirty Minutes or It’s Free: Using Dominoes In Tabletop RPGs

This is both incorrect and making me very hungry

Sorry about the late post: I recently moved, and in the hustle and bustle of the move I forgot to queue a post for this Wednesday.

Something that has always fascinated me is the idea of making a tabletop RPG which does not rely on dice as the primary resolution mechanic. While reliable, understandable, and fun to roll, dice are hardly the only way to produce random results in a physical space. Cards have been used for a while, notably in Deadlands, but that’s not the end of it either. The thing I’m interested in, however, are dominoes.

Dominoes have a number of interesting properties. For starters, every domino has sides, which can have the same number, different numbers, a number and a blank, or two blanks. On top of that, the shape of a domino makes it easy to lay on a table, and hard to accidentally shift around. The uniform shape of dominoes also makes it easy to lay them adjacent to one another. Geometric shapes can easily be formed using dominoes in this manner.

The naive approach to making a game with dominoes is simply to use them as close to dice as you could: whenever you need to resolve a skill check, pull a domino from some sort of bag, box, or other random pile, and use one of the numbers on it as the result for the check, plus or minus modifiers. This works, but it’s also really boring, and does nothing that a die couldn’t do.

What if we spiced that up a little bit? What if the domino pulled represented both your skill check and you enemy’s skill check, simultaneously? After all, it has two numbers on it. I could see this working in a game of dueling, where the actions of the two combatants seem to happen simultaneously.I think for this to be interesting, you’d need a system where “get the highest number” (or, conversely, “get the lowest number” isn’t the core principle for dice rolls, or players will just always end up giving themselves the good side of the domino and their adversary the bad.

The issue with such a system is that player characters don’t always have an active adversary. If the character is climbing a wall, they pull a domino and, what, the other side represents how wall-y the wall is? That’s goofy. However, there is one “adversary” that player characters will always have to confront:

Their love of classic literature!

Characters are constantly undone by their own flaws, their own tragic characteristics and dark secrets. It’s possible to structure a game based around those flaws and tragedies using dominoes as a core mechanic. Whenever a character attempts to do something, they pull a domino, and choose a side to select as their skill check result. The other side doesn’t go to an enemy this time, instead it goes to what I am hastily going to name the Tragic Flaw Table.

The Tragic Flaw Table contains as many entries as the highest possible number on the side of a domino plus one (the plus one is to account for the blank), and contains a series of the character’s worst personality traits, with a short description and/or mechanical ruling when appropriate. When a character makes their skill check, they must look at the unused side of the domino. The flaw related to that number on the Tragic Flaw Table activates. This is obviously going to require some clever wording of the Flaws to ensure they make some amount of sense: if a character swings their sword at a foe, and the Flaw that comes up is “Has a hard time getting to sleep”, you’re probably going to just end up with a player shrugging.

Or, what if we took the dualistic approach even further, and simply gave every character a straight-up evil side, like the Mr. Hyde to Dr. Jekyll. Instead of the Tragic Flaw Table, you have a sort of Latent Evil Table, and whenever you pull a domino, you use one side as the skill check and the other one activates the associated trait on the Latent Evil Table. For instance, maybe 3 is associated with Disappear Without a Trace, an ability that lets your evil doppelganger simply disappear from a scene, no questions asked. Every time you pull a domino and don’t use a 3 side, you’re giving your evil side one “Get Out Of Jail Free” card.

love this, but let’s shift gears and talk about how we could use the domino’s geometric shape in game design. Traditional domino rules state that you can only lay dominoes next to each other as long as the touching sides have the same number. Let’s ignore that. That’s no fun.

Instead of that, what if we used the dominoes as a sort of “sentence construction” system. For instance, for convenience sake, let’s say we have dominoes that can have the numbers 1-6, without a blank, on any given side. Let’s then construct this table:


Whenever you lay a domino on the board, you have to connect it to at least one other domino by having the sides touch. This laying of a domino represents your action. When you do so, you read the connection you made through this table, and that represents how you did. For instance, if there’s a domino on the table with a 5 side, and I lay a domino down such that a 2 is now touching the 5, I can read my result on this action as “With my heart pounding, I use the environment to succeed”. Depending on the context, I can then go on to describe how exactly that plays out (maybe I throw a flowerpot at my foe to distract them while I make the killing blow, or maybe I impress my crush by hitting the jukebox to get her favorite song to play). Clever domino orientations can introduce a third number to this chain, which adds the suffix sentence fragments.

Dominoes are just one way to spice up a resolution system for a roleplaying game. When considering how mechanical resolution in a game will work, don’t be afraid to use things other than dice, especially things as common as a deck of cards or dominoes. When you do venture out into the Wild West of game mechanics, consider what makes your new mechanic unique, and build a game based on that.

What Can We Learn From The First Chapter of RPGs? Part 2

What you don’t realize is that this Lizardman Warrior is so scary because he’s armed with knowledge.

So, in the previous edition of this series, I discussed how the first chapters of assorted fantasy roleplaying games introduced players to the games’ mechanics. Specifically, I talked about how the various editions of Dungeons and Dragons performed this feat, and how the differences in these first chapters mirror the differences in editions.

Well, there are more fantasy tabletop RPGs out there than just D&D, so a thorough analysis should also include those games which Wizards doesn’t make (or those who adopted Wizards’s rules, in the case of Pathfinder).

Same rules as last time, but here’s a quick refresher:

  1. I only looked at fantasy RPGs, and crunchier ones at that. My game is a rules-medium fantasy game, so I figured that was where I should look to see my inspiration. That means yes to looking at Dungeons and Dragons, no to looking at Dungeon World.
  2. I’m specifically looking at how mechanics are introduced. Explaining the concept of a role-playing game is pretty constant across games, and introducing setting is dependent on how much setting a game has to introduce. All games have mechanics to teach, though, and each game could differ significantly in how much of their mechanics they teach, so this is what I’m interested in.
  3. As a result of Rule #2, the “first chapter” doesn’t necessarily mean the very first chapter in the book. To avoid going “Yeah, this first chapter is just setting, so there’s no mechanics”, the “first” chapter of every book is the first chapter that includes any game mechanics.

Earthdawn, Second Edition

Hey guys, there’s a…there’s a dragon…THERE’S A DRAGON LIKE, RIGHT THERE

A criminally underrated RPG, Earthdawn is equal parts Dungeons and DragonsFallout, and Foundation. In the world of Earthdawn, there was a great apocalypse of demons which destroyed the world. Prior to this, a particularly forward-thinking empire called the Theran Empire got its power trading protection from this armageddon, specifically in the form of vault-like kaers: giant underground cities. Now that the Scourge is over and people are free to walk the scarred earth once more, tensions arise due to the Theran Empire’s power.

Earthdawn begins its first chapter by describing the rolling of dice, and specifically the idea that, if a die rolls its highest value, you get to reroll it and add that to the total (a concept frequently called “exploding” dice). Once that’s out of the way, the game describes why you’d want higher sums: in this game, you’re going to be rolling skill checks with dice to beat a Difficulty Number. Just as your dice can explode, you can also have critical failures, which spell bad news.

Once Earthdawn has this bare basic structure of a dice roll down, it describes what flavors these skill checks come in: you can roll against a DN, roll against a DN and have the degree of your success come into play, or just roll and try and get as high as you can.

With this information, Earthdawn then lays on the final element of complexity into its dice rolling system: Steps. Basically, all attributes, skills, and talents are measured in the form of Steps. Whenever you want to roll for that attribute, skill, or talent, you see what Step you are, then compare that to a table which describes what dice you roll. This gives the system the benefit of being able to require fairly complicated dice pools (such as 1d20+1d10+1d8+1d4 for Step 25) without cluttering the character sheet or requiring clunky conversions. Also conveniently noted is the fact that the number of a Step is always the average of the associated dice roll.

The opening chapter then goes on to describe, in brief detail, the assorted attributes of the characters, but by this point, you already have the fundamental mechanic of the game down pat. Earthdawn does a really nice job of building complexity upon the most simple expression of its rules (“roll a die”) until it has cemented understanding of the whole thing in your mind.

A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying

“And for my first decree, I demand the comfiest pillow in all the land, because the seat of this chair is made of pointy swords.”

I am only a bit familiar with the Song of Ice and Fire series, but I have picked up enough through cultural osmosis to know what’s going on: it’s basically just the War of the Roses period of medieval history with a layer of dragon-colored paint. Heavy focus on interpersonal relationships and politics. Got it.

The intro chapter to SIFRP begins, again, simply: you’re gonna be rolling dice and adding the results together. Sometimes you’ll get bonus dice to roll, and you get to choose the best dice to add to your result. Sometimes you’ll get a modifier, which just adds right to your result, no roll needed! Lovely.

The book then goes on to describe how to perform the most basic skill test. It divides the procedure up into steps, then describes each step, and provides a moment-by-moment example of how it works in action.Once we have this example learned, it teaches a few variants: sometimes you’ll have to do multiple tests in a row for the same thing, sometimes you and someone else are going to make tests alongside other people, and sometimes you’re going to be making tests against other people. This covers basically every significant deviation from the norm.

The system then goes on to describe other edge cases: getting help, taking longer to succeed at a task, how failure works, how to to determine difficulty numbers and whoa, ah, fuck, where’d this character creation come from?

The book just jumps right into some character Archetypes, before we’ve even gotten into detail about what the characters are made out of. The book just says “Here, take one of these, I made ’em special!”. However, for the chapter based around introducing new players to the game, I hate this idea. Character creation is the ultimate moment of expression for the game, and is maybe the most important part of any tabletop RPG. Don’t just encourage players to fasttrack. Also, on just an organizational note, this infinitely more belongs in the Character Creation chapter immediately following the intro.

Dungeon Crawl Classics

“OK, for starters, why did you even think this would work?”

Dungeon Crawl Classics is a masterpiece of old school-style roleplaying. Designed to harken back to the glory days of AD&D, where adventurers were made to delve into dungeons and kill stuff, DCC manages to simultaneously feel familiar to those well versed in OSR-style gaming, while also innovating in new and interesting ways. My favorite feature of DCC is character creation: instead of rolling up a level 1 adventurer per character, every player rolls up several level 0 characters who go through an adventure called The Funnel. Those who survive are elligable to be played as player characters.

Befitting of the Old School Revival, where games have minimal rules to give game masters greater control over how a game is played, DCC’s introduction “chapter” is a single page.

In fact, in perhaps the most refined version of the Dungeons and Dragons opening chapter yet, this page only really has one single section to teach mechanics: The Core Mechanic. In essentially two paragraphs, the book details the concept of rolling a d20, adding and subtracting modifiers, and trying to beat a difficulty number. It also introduces the idea of Armor Class, as well as the idea that maybe you’ll roll a different die other than a d20, in a surgically efficient number of words.

The other 2/3 of the words on the page is dedicated to an interesting segment: a section describing how DCC is different from other games the reader might have played before. We’ve seen games use this first chapter used as a way to teach brand new RPG players, as well as a repository for system vets, but this idea of the “you’ve played RPGs, but not this RPG” is a relatively novel one. Specifically, this section targets people who have played various editions of Dungeons and Dragons, pinpointing the exact ways in which DCC differes from the assorted iterations of D&D.

With this sort of introduction, those who have played D&D in some respect (read: basically anyone who’s ever rolled a d20) are given a mental comparison point, meaning instead of teaching someone a whole new game from scratch, DCC goes “Remember D&D? With these exceptions, everything you learned there translates here”, and the entire process of teaching is replaced with the much easier process of remembering. If you’re brand new, DCC only teaches you the single, base mechanic, allowing the rest of the book to expand upon it naturally.

The One Ring RPG

Pictured: a horrible forest full of monsters, or maybe a photograph of Arkansas

While the original Dungeons and Dragons was heavily inspired by, but not directly related to, Lord of the RingsThe One Ring is a liscensed LOTR game, designed to explicitly recreate the type of stories in Tolkien’s books. We’ve got Hobbits and Gondor and pipeweed and everything, with no need to cleverly dodge copyright.

The first chapter of The One Ring spends a lot of time on story before eventually beginning to explain the game. However, instead of leading with a mechanic, the book starts off by explaining the flow of storytelling, specifically the two phases of the game: the Adventuring Phase, which is where most of the normal RPG things happen, and the Fellowship Phase, which represents characters taking a breather and seeing the results of their action.The game’s first real description of gameplay doesn’t describe dice rolling, it describes the passing of “storytelling initiative”: basically the story stick that gets passed around, giving you the power to control the story.

The first chapter describes its dice mechanics, which is pretty par for the course, but before that it does something pretty interesting: it has a detailed breakdown of the character sheet. Instead of anchoring player’s experiences on the core mechanic, it instead anchors them on the character sheet.

This is the interesting thing about The One Ring, is that it’s truly trying to capture the spirit of the Lord of the Rings books, not just in the mechanics, but in the very way the player thinks. By writing the first chapter in such a way as to force the player to think about the game as a story, and to consider their characters as the origin point for the entire game, The One Ring takes steps to ensure that its adventures are seen as stories, not dungeon crawls.

With this, we can see the sheer variety of ways you ca introduce people to a set of relatively similar games. The very mundane and unimportant-seeming decision of what order to introduce ideas in can greatly affect a player’s understanding of a game, both in the way they comprehend the rules, and the way that they percieve the purpose of the game.



Dice: A Tale of Triumph and Despair in A Galaxy Far, Far Away

“Look, all I’m saying is, I’ve never seen Yoda and Darth Vader in the same room, that’s all.”

Currently, I’m having quite a bit of fun running a campaign of Fantasy Flight Games’s Star Wars Roleplaying Game for my college buddies. After getting an itch to create my own stories in the Star Wars universe, and finding that itch unsatisfied with games like Knights of the Old Republic, I did some investigation into what tabletop games have been made for the iconic franchise. The answer turns out to be quite interesting: one per trilogy, approximately.

During the time of the original trilogy, West End Games put out Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game. A fun and fairly simple d6 system, this game actually used an evolved version of the mechanics from West End’s Ghostbusters game. About six trillion supplement books came out for this game, and it’s good fun. It’s not too simple, not too complicated, and a lot of people still consider it their go-to Star Wars system.

With the prequel trilogy came a need for a new game company to produce the roleplaying game, as West End Games went bankrupt a year prior to The Phantom Menace. The late 90s and early 2000s were a relative dark age for roleplaying games, with the indie revolution not yet able to begin, and the golden era of Gygaxian roleplaying long dead. Thus, with only large publishers to turn to, the Star Wars license went to Wizards of the Coast.

Star Wars d20, and its subsequent rework as Star Wars Saga Edition, are basically reskins of Dungeons and Dragons into Star Destroyers and Sarlaccs. The d20 mechanics of D&D are basically unchanged, and new classes were developed for the new setting. D20 tends to be the least popular of the three Star Wars games, as it has a hard time offering interesting class features to distinguish any class from any other class, and on top of that, Force users are stupidly broken compared to anything else.

Now, with the new trilogy beginning, the license for Star Wars has gone to a relatively new juggernaut in the world of tabletop gaming, Fantasy Flight Games. FFG’s main foray into tabletop roleplaying prior to this was in creating the Warhammer 40,000 tabletop RPGs, so they’d had experience working on large sci-fi universes with established canon. Star Wars is the king of that category, however, so Fantasy Flight had a lot to live up to. Could they match the fun of West End’s d6 system while creating a more comprehensive set of rules? Could they fix the balance issues of WOTC’s d20 system without gimping the Force users into oblivion?

Oh hell yes

Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars Roleplaying Game is thoroughly, in my opinion, a masterpiece of a game, not just among Star Wars games, but in the entire roleplaying genre. The entire game just oozes Star Wars, and manages to be complex in every way it needs to be, while remaining fast and fun.

The first, and most immediately noticeable, piece of genius in this game is the fact that it’s divided into three core rulebooks. However, unlike other, more Dungeon-y and Dragon-y games, where all three rulebooks are required to play, each of these three core rulebooks in Star Wars contains all of the rules needed to play and game master. Instead of segmenting rules, the Star Wars RPG rulebooks segment themes. The first book, Edge of the Empire, covers games featuring smugglers, bounty hunters, and other criminal types in the Outer Rim. The second book, Age of Rebellion, covers adventures of Rebellion heroes fighting the evil Empire. The final book, Force and Destiny, covers how to play an adventure focusing on Force users.

By creating this distinction, Fantasy Flight lets you only pick up the books relevant to the stories you want to tell, while still having a full game available. Every aspect of Star Wars is given equal, deep coverage, and the division of books also gives you a nice way to frame your game in such a way as to avoid things irrelevant to your story taking the spotlight. Don’t want Jedi and Sith to be the strongest characters in your game? Don’t play Force and Destiny. Force users are still available in Edge and Age, but the lesser amount of coverage they get means they won’t become the de facto hogs of the spotlight, at least not without some work.

The next biggest aspect of Fantasy Flight Games’s Star Wars Roleplaying Game is easily the one that interests me the most, and that’s these babies:

“Luke, these were your father’s polyhedrons. Yes, your father was pretty lame.”

The Star Wars Roleplaying Game uses custom dice, which initially led to skepticism about them being a cheap cash-grab, but having used them, these dice are a masterpiece of design. You’ll notice that these dice don’t have numbers, but symbols. When you roll these dice, you total the symbols, and infer the results from their meaning.

Success and Failure symbols cancel each other out, and as long as you have one uncancelled Success at the end of a roll, you succeed at doing the thing you’re doing. Advantage and Threat symbols also cancel each other out, with a surplus of Advantage signifying that things are going your way, while a surplus of Threat indicates that things are starting to go down the crapper. Triumph and Despair symbols represent moments of incredible success and dire failure, but interestingly, this pair does not cancel each other out.

It’s a lot to learn at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s extremely simple. Knowing which dice to roll becomes extremely easy to figure out after a session of doing it (which the Beginner Games make silky smooth), and having results in the form of these symbols instead of a flat number or sum means that skill check results exist on a spectrum. You can succeed, but badly if you have uncancelled Successes but a surplus of Threat (ex. You can successfully blast an enemy droid, doing damage, but doing so disables his combat inhibitor and increases his deadliness). Similarly, you can fail, but still fail in such a way that’s beneficial with a surplus of Advantage (ex. You miss your shot against the Imperial Jailer, but the shot rebounds and instead breaks the lock on your buddy’s cell). Add the dimension of Triumph and Despair to this, and it’s extremely hard to roll the dice and have nothing happen. Which is good, because nothing happening is an extremely boring game.

Imagine all the times you played a roleplaying game and the GM said “Roll a Perception check”, or “Roll a Sense Motive check”. You roll the dice and he goes “Oh. You notice nothing.” That is so ungodly boring. All you gained from that interaction is a bit of metagame knowledge (there’s something to perceive here, or a motive to sense, I just need to figure out what it is) with nothing gained in the story. Imagine instead if you could still fail that check, but still grow the story in interesting ways. “You notice nothing about the boss you’re talking to, but one of his cronies is really antsy, and keeps eyeing the nearest escape”. Isn’t that more interesting?

This is the key to Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars Roleplaying Game, and the way it solves one of the hardest problems of roleplaying game design: keeping the game interesting. If your party always succeeds every check, there’s never any risk or tension, but you don’t want to nerf a party that’s obeying the rules. If your party fumbles every check, they can’t move ahead in the story, but you don’t want to give them victories they haven’t earned. With these custom dice, Star Wars ensures that even parties on a losing streak can push forward in their goals ever so slightly, and parties that win all the time still aren’t free from danger.

A story of nothing but success or nothing but failure is a boring story. The best storytellers know that engaging stories are made of struggles, and Fantasy Flight created this system of “Yes, but…” and “No, but…” to ensure that every action the players take has the potential to be more interesting than simple flat success and failure, and thus ensure that the game’s core mechanics naturally generate struggles and a constant stream of successes, failures, and most importantly, twists.