Read and Play A Lot
Publisher’s Choice Quality Stock Art © Rich Hershey / Fat Goblin Games
If you like what you’re reading, check out, Burn Bryte, an original science fantasy TTRPG I helped create for Roll20!
I want to write about something many designers, including myself, find important to becoming a pro in the industry: reading and playing lots of games. Roleplaying games in particular if that’s what you’re designing, but you should also read the rules for and play board games, video games, word and number puzzles, and more if you can. It’s important to note that you do not have to read and play a lot of games to be a designer, but it helps a BUNCH if you’re able to do so. Having the time to play and read a lot of games and the money to buy them is not a luxury everyone can afford, and it is much better to jump into design if you’re thinking about it than let these barriers hold you back. If you do have the resources to make reading and playing various games in your life happen, let’s talk about why you should do that and how you might be able to find the time.
I am a busy guy, but I find the time to read new RPG products and board game rules while using a workout machine like a treadmill or elliptical, while on public transportation, and during any other time one might read while multitasking. Similarly, I play new games, including board games and video games, when I am hanging out with friends or at a convention. Not every new game you read or play needs the time commitment of the campaign your weekly game group plays. Simple one-shots with a few friends using the free or cheaper starter set version or rules that never gets played again still has a lot of value for you as a design experience. There are lots of great reasons to read and play as many games as you can.
Better Idea of Design in General
When you experience a lot of games, you get a better of how and why design choices are made. It’s like any other experience. If you watch a lot of basketball, you understand why and when a team might choose to run particular plays, how a player might execute or exploit a specific rule, and all of the little nuances in the sport that a more casual observer may not get. The more games you get to know, the more you become like Neo in the Matrix movies, able to see the ideas and philosophies behind the mechanics of a game that so often get left out of rulebooks. Playing lots of different games sharpens your skills overall and makes you better at designing the game(s) you choose to work on.For instance, let’s say you’re designing a Dungeons & Dragons adventure that is a murder mystery. D&D isn’t designed to be a fully investigative game. It makes things difficult when the characters miss all the clues because they’re rolling poorly. But if you pull some elements from the GUMSHOE system into your adventure, you might have an easier time crafting a fun mystery because you decide when the players fail an ability check to find a clue, they still find something, just not everything they might have found. You may not have had that idea if you never read a GUMSHOE rulebook.
Develop Personal Design Taste
Playing a lot of different games helps you identify what you like and dislike. You’ll be better at making everything from combat encounters to puzzles to narrative-focused games if you spend time getting to know how other games work. You get an idea of the options available to you when you go to design, and you also learn what gaps are out there that you can fill. My blog always does much better numbers when I present an idea that fills in a gap I’ve noticed in a game’s design rather than reinvent a system ten other people already created. Find what you think is missing by reading and playing other games. Odds are other people think it is missing too!
Inspiration (aka Stealing)
There is nothing wrong with taking inspiration from another game! You might adapt the idea of Dungeon World’s fronts for use in Shadowrun. You might use an initiative system inspired by Shadow of the Demon Lord for an RPG about bunnies battling giant ants! Inspiration is a good thing. It has given us incredible, updated editions of our favorite games, and given rise to new masterpieces like Blades in the Dark, which we wouldn’t have without Apocalypse World. The more you read, the more you have to inspire you.
Know Your Options
If you read and play more games, you get an idea of what your options are when it comes time to design. Got an idea for an over-the-top action game? You could design a new system, or it might use FATE or Genesys as its engine with you building the rest of the game on top. Knowing what’s out there gives you tools you can take or reshape. This applies to even parts of a game you are working on. For instance, don’t want create safety tools from scratch for your gritty horror game, but feel like it needs something? Then why not borrow the card system from Burn Bryte (which were inspired by those found in other systems)!
Knowing what’s out there also helps you better communicate with people in the RPG industry. You get to know the names of prominent creators, you can talk shop with more people in the industry, and you can engage in fun conversations on social media. Knowing your a variety of games truly helps expand your network of friends and professional contacts. Plus it is just fun to talk about games!
Playing and reading about games is a lot of fun! That’s why we do this, right? If you’re a workaholic like me, you can lose sight of that sometimes. Saying to yourself, “I have to relax and read/play this game to make myself a better designer,” is true, healthy, and a great time. So get out there and start playing!
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