Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Game Design vs Level Design

This is a mistake I've seen many people make when discussing rules and content and stuff like that. Here it is: game design and level design are two different things. There's a lot of overlap, to be sure. Strong game design can go a long way towards shaping the level. And creative enough level design might involve some intrinsic game design, too. But don't confuse them.

Game design is when you make rules and procedures. It's answering the "how" in how things work. It's the description of how skill checks work, or how combat works.

Level design is when you make content with which to use those rules. It's answering the "what" in what the players are doing. It's the adventure module that tells you which skill checks to roll, and the encounters of monsters and battlefields where combat will be happening.

When Super Mario 64 came out in 1996, it was a smash hit and a breakthrough in gaming. It was the perfect 3D game, seamlessly translating the 2D genre of platforming into a 3D context better than any other attempt to do so. And trust me, the other attempts failed hard. It was an exceptionally tricky and ambitious design goal to tackle, but once they got it right, it blew the doors wide open for the future of 3D gaming. And you know how they did it?

First they designed the mechanics for Mario's movement. That's it. That's the only thing they focused on initially. They created the little minigame of chasing down the rabbit and catching it, so they'd have a way of testing their system. But they worked their asses off to make sure, above all else, that it was fun and easy to control Mario. That merely having to run around and jump on stuff and use your different moves was strong enough on its own. Only after they nailed that down did they begin to design the courses that would be in the final game.

First they nailed game design. Then, when it was so good it could be fun just by itself, then they poured their hearts and souls into making incredible levels. But the point is that these are two separate steps, and two separate goals. So I want to talk about the role that each one plays in tabletop design.

Monday, May 17, 2021

The Points Don't Matter!

That's right, the points are just like True Strike in 5E.

People like being rewarded bonus points. Behold below and see the evidence of my claims! And then see my own method of serving this base, vulgar, hubris-laden need.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Hollow Advice

[This post is inspired by this comment]

Heard joke once: Man goes to RPG forum. Says he's confused. Says rules seem intimidating and contradictory. Says he can justify multiple interpretations of a mechanic in a system that's vague and uncertain. Forum says, "Ruling is simple. Great clown Dungeon Master is in charge. Go and talk to your DM. That should clear it up." Man bursts into tears. Says, "But forum... I am Dungeon Master." Good joke. Everybody laugh. Roll on snare drum. Curtains.


Monday, May 10, 2021

Not All Crunch Is the Same

A lot of people put all games on a simple spectrum of "less crunch" to "more crunch," where the amount of crunchiness is measured roughly by "the number of discrete rules you can point to in the game." The more rules a game has, the crunchier it is, and that's that. While it is good to have an idea of whether you're the kind of gamer who generally prefers more crunch or less crunch, I see a lot of shallow and misleading discussions happen where people are turned away from games they may have otherwise quite enjoyed. And that tends to happen because the game was reduced down to "too much crunch" when that's just a dishonest way to represent what it's actually like.

I am definitely guilty of this, in case anyone wants to call me out.

Look, there are lots of ways in which a game can be made complicated. Rules can play many roles. The devil is in the details. It is genuinely worth it to sometimes take a moment to look under the hood and see what kinds of rules are in the game before dismissing it.

Some games have lots of rules but they're fairly intuitive (once you know how spellcasting works in Ars Magica you can start using it quite naturally). Some games have relatively few rules but they are difficult to master (Burning Wheel famously takes at least half a dozen sessions before you even get a grasp on it, they say). Some games have lots of rules but they're all built using the same core ingredients, so once you learn the "Rosetta Stone" mechanic then everything else falls into place (most universal systems rely on this, like Savage Worlds or FATE. I would argue D&D 5E does it pretty well. It's very "rulings over rules" friendly). Some games have a ton of rules that are all disconnected and are each a subsystem that you have to learn separately and it's a pain in the ass (sigh... Fantasy Craft).

However, I want to put the spotlight on very specific types of mechanics that, yes, are all more rules than you would ordinarily need if you were just running something like B/X D&D, but aren't necessarily all equal in how much they truly complicate or restrict the game.