How to Talk About Game Design: The Principles of Good Game Writing

Welcome to a new installment of “How to Talk About Game Design.” In my previous spiel, I spent some time on the ways active gameplay can change the assumptions of a system. Now, I’ll be delving a little into the other side of the equation, and talking about the concerns of designers instead of players. While it is crucial to account for players in your game design (and to remember that no one can really account for players, something any GM can attest to!), there are some other important factors every game writer must keep in mind, from a line developer to an independent freelancer. They aren’t specific checkpoints on a list of accomplishments, but instead ideals you should use to guide the writing process.

Be sure to note that these principles are not system-specific, or genre-specific, or any kind of specific at all. There is a whole slew of other considerations when you get down to design goals on that level, and they tend to shift a lot with the needs of the project and the intended style of the game. But since this isn’t “How to Talk About Gritty Trans-dimensional Cyberpunk with Significant Gallows Humor Elements Design” or anything like that, that stuff isn’t a concern at the moment.

The first (and arguably the most important) goal of effective game design is Clarity. It doesn’t matter how clever and revolutionary your ideas are if no one can understand them. This seems pretty basic, and in many respects it is. This doesn’t mean you should ever stop thinking about it, no matter how experienced you become. Now, I don’t advocate writing things to be dull and dry, and trying to cover every possible edge case for your rules is going to ruin any attempts at a reasonable word- and page-count. Those might seem like the easy ways out, but they are really a sucker’s game.

The key to clarity is perspective. Go over everything you write backwards and forwards, thinking about what you meant, what you said, and how likely someone else is to derive the former from the latter. A literary scholar does close readings of his texts, a game developer should do close proofreadings of theirs. After writing something, leave it for a while and move onto something else to clear your head of assumptions, then come back. And never, ever assume that a fixable problem can be left in because no one could be obtuse enough to think of it in those terms. It doesn’t matter how close your deadline is, this is a Bad Idea—especially because one reader’s obtuse can be another reader’s obvious. It all depends on perspective!

The second goal I want to talk about is Cohesion. Everything must work with everything else. This is as true for a system as it is for a setting. If you want to mash up wildly different assumptions (Cowboys with broadswords and rocket bikes! A dice-pool system where only one of your dice matters!), you need to abide by the same standards of integrity as if you were building one of those tried-and-true, peanut-butter-and-chocolate combinations (like cowboys and six-shooters, or a high-lethality combat engine with a fancy chart full of ways to mutilate the PCs). A good designer will always consider each element with respect to each other element, and see how they fit together.

Now, the specifics of how things may fit together is much less easy to discuss in universal terms, as it starts bringing in things like genre assumptions and specific system concepts. As such, I’m only going to be able to go over it in general terms within this article. Essentially, the goal of cohesion is to make it easy for a reader to fit the whole of the game in his head at once. If it is necessary to ignore one aspect of your game for another to make sense, you should go back to the drawing board. On the other hand, if your ideas flow together such that considering them all at once increases the appeal, then you’re doing it right! Don’t be afraid to shake things up, either. Toothpaste and orange juice can go quite well together if the context includes other elements to cleanse the palate between them. Assuming that two things can never be combined can be as much a problem for the cohesion-minded designer as sticking them together willy-nilly, because you are not considering them from every angle.

The final thing a good designer strives for is Functionality. As a game writer, you must make sure you are producing material that can be played as it is written. It doesn’t matter that many groups are not going to do this. If they want to tweak things, then that’s their choice. If you create an incomplete or flawed game, you are taking that choice away from them, and making such efforts all but mandatory. If you don’t deliver functionality with your game, you are essentially asking players to pay for the opportunity to do your job for you (unless your game is free, but that hardly places such punting in better taste).

For a game to be functional, it needs to be clear and cohesive, as described above, but also complete (what is it with these C-words being so useful, anyways?). Make sure you provide a full set of tools for your players. Make sure you give them everything you might have promised, whether in your advertising or in the design assumptions you started from. You can leave room for expansion later, but it should always be a new extension of the existing material, and never simply filling in a hole in your creation.

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About Jordan Goldfarb

I am a freelance writer working in the Role-Playing Game industry. My goal is to bring passion, creativity and intelligence to whatever I do, wherever I do it.
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