What is the design process?
By now if you’ve been reading this blog, if you haven’t go back and look over the stuff in the Anthology #1, you’ve seen me introduce thoughts and suggestions on various aspects of design. Sometimes I’ve talked about components (Death Spiral, Magic, Situation) and sometimes about tools (Big Three, Alt 3, Power 19). What I haven’t really talked about is a process to use these things. So here’s what I’m going to do today. I’m going to show you the process I’ve used on my games like Cutthroat, Hierarchy, and Holmes and Watson. Perhaps, it will help you out also and perhaps someone can offer an alternate or better version of a design process.
The first stage is generating a game idea. I carry around two spiral notebooks wherever I go, and I’m never very far from a computer. In the notebooks I jot down any game idea that comes to me. I feverishly write down all my thoughts without worrying about if the idea is workable or playable. The reason is that I forget stuff very easily. If I focus on working out all the details right away, I’ll miss the next wave of inspiration when it comes. This is just a brain storming exercise at this point.
After several days or weeks of jotting notes, I sit down in front of my computer and type up everything I’ve written down. I organize it, categorize it, and delete redundant or extraneous ideas. It’s at this point where I actually see what I’ve created and where my imagination was going with this.
#3-The Big Three/The Power 19-
After gathering up all my notes and ideas, I see if I can answer the Big Three about the game. Usually I can, but if I can’t, I know that either it’s not a game I can make or I need to do more work. If the Big Three come easily, I set to work on the Power 19. I meticulously go through them and answer as many as I can. Sometimes the answer is “I don’t know yet” or “Not applicable” which is just fine.
Once I have the Power 19 in hand, I’m ready for feedback on the Internet. Whether I post my answers or I post a more general idea of what I plan on creating depends on what I need for the game design to progress further. Feedback is important because it will point out gaps and inconsistencies that the Power 19 or other design tools aren’t able address. Sometimes I take the advice and run with it. Sometimes I politely say thank you and go with my original idea. I wish I could give you some method of knowing when to do which, but it’s very much based on the individual who is designing the game.
After feedback, it’s time to rethink things. Questions like “Can I finish this?”, “Is this game worthy of being finished?”, or “Will this game be enjoyable if I do finish it?” are the way I approach this phase. If I can answer yes to all three, then it’s time to get to work. Reexamining the Key Components is the next step I take in the Rethinking process. I call Key Components of a RPG design the following: Chargen, Resolution, Reward Cycles, Currencies, and Color. Using the feedback I have gotten, I explore how each of these areas of the game can be improved and how they relate to one another. Once I have that done, I’m ready for the draft.
The First Draft comes in at the 6th stage of the design for me. I think a lot of people start at the draft stage and get overwhelmed by the project. I really encourage people to make an outline, use the Power 19, or come up with some other sort of devise to organize and categorize their design thoughts before attempting to write a playable draft. The work of writing an RPG, even one that’s only 50 pages or so, is immense. Breaking it up into smaller parts helps make the job more manageable. In any event, for me, the first draft is intended to be a coherent, readable, and playable version of the game. This is the “Alpha” design stage.
Getting feedback on a draft used to be the hardest stage for me. Mostly because I couldn’t figure out how to share the draft. Now, with so many designers having their own websites, it’s easy to get someone to help out in that department. I gotta thank Blankshield Press for helping me out with Cutthroat in that regard. They were awesome about helping me out. And there are many more out there willing to help just like them. Anyway, posting your draft on the ‘net and getting people’s reactions is the next stage. It’s here where your game will really be molded into the RPG it wants to be. Even though you’ve already done a lot of work, expect many more changes to your game to come as a result of this stage. Be persistent here. Sometimes it can be deflating when no one responds to your posts. Keep trying and try on many websites. The Forge, RPGnet, and Story Games are all open forums for this sort of thing.
After getting feedback on the draft, it’s time to revise. This step is pretty simple. Choose the feedback that makes the most sense and adapt it to your game. Disregard the feedback that doesn’t make sense to you or that simply praises your design. Sadly, praise isn’t all that helpful when it comes to revising a draft. You may revise your draft, post it again for more feed back, revise it again, post, and repeat this process many times. Once your revisions are finished (at least for now), it’s time for the most fun and most agonizing part of RPG design.
Playtesting is fun because you get to actually play! But it is also excruciating because it is slow, shows SO many weaknesses and ambiguities in your game, and requires constant revision. When I playtest, there is one thing I hold as important. That one thing is to play the full playtest session with the rules as they are currently written. I don’t change the rules midstream during a session just because we hit a bump in the road. Like any new game, it can take while to learn the system. Allow for that learning curve to take place before changing anything. Also, it’s hard to know how playable your draft was if you keep changing things constantly as you go. Playtesting needs to give you a clear picture of what your game is like and can do. It can’t do that, in my opinion, if you’re constantly stirring the waters with new ideas and mechanics on the spot.
Our old friend Revision is back. This time we take the feedback from the playtest sessions and use that to upgrade and revise the game. It will probably take several “playtest and revise” cycles for you to get a design hammered into shape. There’s no exact number, but I can definitely tell you it is greater than one. Somwhere in the middle of these cycles, you ought to open up the playtesting to groups outside your direct influence. The feedback you get from them will be invaluable.
After playtesting and revision, its good to open your game up for one final round of feedback on the ‘net. This is when they can point out what sections of your game need more words, better clarification, and more examples. It’s really helpful if people who have never read your game before are able to look at it at this point. A fresh set of eyes will usually find the vagaries and oversights in a design. Get as many people to read it as possible. And for heaven’s sakes don’t worry about someone stealing your design and publishing it before you do. That’s one of the biggest mental obstacles new designers face. No one is going to steal your design and publish it. They might take inspiration from your mechanics and write their own game, but that’s only good for you! More than likely they will mention your game as they write theirs and, boom! that's free advertising for you. Never fear about someone swooping in and taking credit for your work.
With the final feedback in hand, you are ready for what will likely be the last revision. At this point your game will probably not be perfect. But here’s the truth when it comes to that. Your game will never be “perfect.” At some point, you will have to cut off the playtesting, revision, and feedback. If you don’t, you’ll never publish the darn thing, and publishing your game will teach you more about the whole process than you can possibly imagine. Double check your spelling, grammar, punctuation, make an index and table of contents, get a cover, and do the layout. These are the last parts of revision you will pass through for your game. So the only thing left is the business stuff of publishing, and that’s a post for another time. :)
I hope that the process I use will be helpful to some of you out there also. I’m sure that many other designers have different and fascinating methods they use as well. Check into the processes used by designers you admire and see if you can adapt them to your style. As always, questions are always welcome here at Socratic Design :)