Design Stew

Jan 10 2010

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Not long after D&D 4th Edition appeared, Saalon pointed out during a chat that the basic D&D 4E system would be ideal for an RPG simulating giant robot combat, like Gundam or Robotech. It could emulate the feel of those shows, with rapid action and cool powers.

This idea so inspired me that I grabbed my laptop and wrote a few pages of a system just like that. To my surprise, not only did I enjoy writing it, more material came easily. Soon enough, I had a player’s guide several dozen pages long.

Fortunately, I also had a group of role-players who were interested in the system, and they were willing to playtest the game. So we played it, and I collected pages of notes.

And here’s where things got dicey: I started incorporating those notes.

As I incorporated notes, the game diverged from D&D 4E. That helped the system insofar as it removed elements that didn’t fit into a mecha war universe. However, D&D 4E’s design is surprisingly tight. Rules reinforce other rules. Adding new elements—or removing existing ones—can easily unbalance the game.

It’s like making a stew. Anyone can throw a lot of ingredients into a pot, but the results may taste terrible. Testing helps determine what works. But a knowledge of flavor balance ensures a good soup (and game) every time.

I don’t have an easy answer to this. I’d like to think the key is a relentless focus on the kind of game one is trying to play. It’s not that simple, though — some rules are more true to the mecha experience, but ruin other parts of the system.

Games must be very carefully designed. I’m realizing, increasingly, that there are no easy answers.

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