What I learned when I copied another game.

I broke down and bought a copy of Scythe by Stonemaier Games. I’ve played it all of 4 times now, and 3 of those times I played solo. I can’t get that stupid game out of my head. I’m obsessed with it. So obsessed in fact, that I decided to make a new board game that is highly influenced by it. By the way, did I mention how much I like Scythe?

A previous post of mine was a setting entitled Liberty Boys, wherein I felt led to create a setting for a game in the Revolutionary War era after obsessing over the TV Show Turn (I’m obsessive, sue me!). But, after I discovered Scythe, I realized that I must, absolutely must, create a board game set in the American Revolution. A weeks long mental samurai fight ensued as I hashed out a prototype that I will be bringing with me to MenCon this coming weekend (8/4 – 8/6). I’ll let you know how it goes.

I’m an indie game developer, so my stuff relies heavily on thegamecrafter.com, which means I’m limited to what they have on the shelf when it comes to making my games. More often than not, this limitation is good and helps me make tough decisions. My recommendation for any of you would-be game designers is to put constraints on your projects. This will help you to cut out wasteful things and give you a tighter product in the end.

Put constraints on your projects. This will help you to cut out wasteful things and give you a tighter product.

Playtesting your game solo is something you should do a lot of. And when you’re done doing it, do it some more. There is a very cool board game simulator that lets you add and test your own games for free called Tabletopia. Once you catch on to the interface, it’s pretty easy to put a digital copy of your game online where you not only test it yourself but spin up a room and invite friends to help you out. This was the first time I’ve done this and it was so worth it.

Playtesting your game solo is something you should do a lot of. And when you’re done doing it, do it some more.

I’m not sure how well Tabletopia, or any online simulator, will work for blind playtesting, but I surely couldn’t hurt. I’ve been terrible at blind playtesting my games, and the few times I’ve done it I’ve received some very valuable feedback. Don’t fall victim to the “I’m too shy to show off my stuff” or the “It’s super secret so I don’t want anyone to see it till it’s done” syndromes. Either one of these attitudes are OK for the hobbyist, but if you really want to get into making great games you need to get over shy or proud self and let people tear your games apart. All growth comes from pain and your games will be better…strong…faster.

Don’t fall victim to the “I’m too shy to show off my stuff” or the “It’s super secret so I don’t want anyone to see it till it’s done” syndromes.

Here are a few snapshots into my brain as I worked through the process of bringing another game to life:

Liberty Boys Prototype Board

Liberty Boys Prototype Board

Storytelling off-the-cuff

I’m always torn between running a pre-created story in my roleplaying games and running a story off-the-cuff.

Pre-Made Adventures

On the one hand, I have small children and lots of family and work obligations that severely cut into my game preparation time. So, choosing a to run a story that’s already been created really reduces my prep time. And there are some really good adventures and full-blown campaigns out there to choose from. However, there are a couple of things that really nag at me when I’m running a pre-made story.

Going Off Path

A pre-made story has a much higher chance railroading your players (that’s when the players don’t really have any free will in where the story goes, there’s a plotted end that must be reached by a finite number of options.) You can always have a few side quests or encounters ready, but this only increases the time you need to prepare for a game, plus you can never guess what exactly they will do when they jump off the path.

Story-Driven vs Character-Driven

Stories that are pre-written have no knowledge about the characters that will be playing in it. They don’t know anything about existing relationships or character history, thus you have the added onerous to somehow connect your players with the story in a meaningful way that invites them to buy into it. Many pre-made adventures will come with plot hooks that are intended to help the game master with this task, but they’re usually not that great. You can always come up with some on your own that are rooted in your character’s history, but again, you’ve just increased your prep time.

Create While You Play

On the other hand, crafting a story while are playing allows almost no preparation time at all, and allows you to tell a story that is deeply rooted in your character’s backgrounds. But, it’s also intimidating. Really intimidating. What if you can’t think of a good story? What if things start out great and just deflate into a big jumbled mess? What if my players are board? What if … ? What … if?

First, storytelling off-the-cuff can make it really fun for the game master, after all, you have no idea how the story ends. It’s a complete mystery and it is way more fun than it should be to see your players trying to figure out what you’re up too when you actually have no idea what’s going to happen next.

So, if you want more fun as a game master and almost no prep time, here’s a few ideas to help you along.

Adventure Seed

Don’t come to the table with an entire story prepared, but just an idea. There are a lot of websites and physical tools that can help you out with this (Rory’s Story Cubes or Donjon to name a couple). This is OK, but even better, is to look at the character’s backgrounds and pull something from there. This creates instant buy-in from the player’s as it’s directly related to their character.

Be A Guide

This is probably the most important part of roleplaying. Game master’s, listen closely. Stop trying to tell the story all by yourself. You have a table full of creative players who came over to Roleplay. If you stick them into a pre-made story then they are just along for the ride instead of driving the car. Instead, guide them into a world full of imagination where they aren’t just participants in some already grand story, but where they are the main characters who are unfolding an adventure that has yet to be written.

Don’t tell the players what’s going to happen next, ask them what’s going to happen. When they ask you “what’s in the room”, you respond with “you tell me what’s in the room.” And for the love of Pete, when they tell you what’s in the room, don’t correct them or try to fix their answer. Use some common sense of course, but resist the urge to take back control of the story. Trust me, it’s fun and you’ll start having many more of those “remember when …” moments when you reminisce about the days of yore.

Final Details

This only works if you have gamers at your table who are interested in telling stories. If all they want to do is hack n’ slash then, by all means, let the story simply be a way to move from combat to combat. That can be fun sometimes, too!

If they are interested, then make sure you help them come up with a fun, imaginative background. A character background is a potential story waiting to be told, so it’s important.

With a short recap, I bid you adieu.

  • Characters need background stories
  • Bring an idea to the table
  • Be a guide, not a dictator
  • Ask questions
  • Have fun

Narrative is hard

A few years ago I learned about the Fate roleplaying system and I have had a long, sordid love affair with it ever since. I’ve tried and tried to get my friends interested in its simplistic intricacy, but alas, this mistress has eluded the grasp of many a suitor.

What’s so great about it? It’s built for storytelling. Right down to the core of who your character is, you are writing bits and pieces of a story that give your game inherent hooks that are really important to the player’s because they don’t just describe your character, they are your character.

Want to be a flying lizard wizard with a knack for exploding baddies with a massive arsenal of spells? Done. I mean that literally. With that one sentence, you’ve essentially created a playable character and told the story of your world. Let’s break it down:

  • Flying – You’ve established that humanoids can fly. This could be by means of magic, or technology.
  • Lizard – You’ve established that creatures other than humans are evolved races that populate the world.
  • Wizard – You’ve established that magic and spells exist.

Great, we’ve done a lot with just one sentence and Fate sounds cool. What’s the problem? The problem is, it takes a lot more brain power to roleplay in a world where you are expected to come up with story on-the-fly. Especially after a long week of work and dealing with crazy kids. You have so much freedom in a narrative driven system that it can be overwhelming. There is something nice about having limited options, or a specific list of powers to choose from because you just have to think less. And, let’s face it, after a long week, sometimes all you want to do is kill $*#@!

What can we do then, to help support narrative play in a game? It is roleplaying after all, and the story is important whether you’re using a crunchy system like D&D or a not so crunchy system like Amber.


Every character needs a backstory and a name. I shouldn’t have to tell you to name your character, but you know who you are. Stop right now and put a name on your character sheet!

A backstory is a way to create some fall-back narrative that invests your player and your character in the world. When you’re running short on ideas, pull an element from any characters background story and inject it into your session. If your players like combat, call in an enemy and have them attack. If your players like mystery, have someone important to a character go missing – or get murdered. A solid backstory only needs to be a paragraph of text, and it can really help jump start a session when everyone is feeling the creative blues.

Let the Players Participate

Every roleplaying book introduces two groups of people: the game master and the players. Right away, the game master is set apart as the person who does all the work to present and drive the story. This is a terrible idea that has been propagated over and over. Roleplaying is a group storytelling activity and the players should participate as much as the game master when it comes to the narrative. Your players will have a vested interest when you empower them to be more than a passive participant in the story.

The next time a player asks you what’s in the room, turn that question around and let them tell you what’s in the room. When they score an epic critical strike and take out a bad guy, ask the player to describe the action as it unfolds. It’s exciting to tell stories.

Make failure an option

Failure is usually viewed as the end of the action, but what if a failure was actually the beginning of something interesting. Conflict drives a story and keeps us interested. There’s nothing more boring than a story where everything goes right all the time. Think about it. When is the last time someone told you an awesome story about how they woke up and everything just went swimmingly? That’s the most boring story ever. You tell stories how your car was stolen or you made a harrowing drive during an ice storm and you thought you were going to die at any moment – or maybe you even crashed and lived to tell the tale.

Stories need conflict and bad stuff to happen to make them memorable and interesting. We spend way too much time trying to figure out how to succeed and not nearly enough time trying to figure out how to handle a terrible failure and turn it into something awesome.

Know Thy Combat

You: You enter a dark cave, your torchlight slowly creeping across the floor to fall upon a pair of huge, green feet. As your light ascends the figure, you see a two-headed troll-

Roger Rogue: I crit-strike him for 500 damage.

You: You see the bloodied, crumpled remains of a troll on the floor…

We’ve all experienced the horror of a sweet critter getting taken down so fast we don’t even have time to get a single attack off. The players, of course, revel in this, and you try to roll with the punches and pretend like it’s no big deal. But, inside, you’re pretty damn bummed.

Balancing combat is a hard thing to do, and it’s not something you can do doing preparation alone. You need to be able to do it on-the-fly and be adaptable. A few things can help with this during your game prep:

  • Know thy system
  • Know thy enemies (PCs)
  • Know thy options

Know Thy System

Whether you are partial to D&D, Fate, Dungeon World, The one Ring, or what have you, you need to be intimately familiar with your system of choice. This knowledge will provide you information about your options when things go south. Think of it like playing a piano. You need to understand you have 88 keys and you can mix and match them without ever venturing outside them.

It’s important that you get comfortable with adding game elements during play that you had not originally intended to add. It is no more dishonest to add elements during the game than it would be to switch octaves during a song, especially if it makes things more interesting.

If the monster goes down too quickly, have more baddies rush in and attack. Make the enemy a straw-man who looked tougher than he really was and send a second one (although, the players may not like that one, hey, I’m not perfect here) or have the baddie be the pet of something even worse and make the players pay the piper later in the adventure. Revenge is a dish best served cold!

Know Thy Enemies

Enemies?! You can’t think of your players as the enemy! Yes. Yes, you can. Because in this moment of combat they are your enemy. If you treat them otherwise, then everyone loses out. You lose out when they wipe the floor with your baddies because you were afraid they might be too hard, and the players lose out on the opportunity to be pushed to the limit of their abilities and pull out a last minute victory that will go down in the annals of your gaming history.

The number one thing you should remember is the end result of losing does not have to be death. Maybe the monsters take the downed fighter and use him as a bargaining tool to get the PCs to back off. Or, in a TPK, the party wakes up tied to some maniacal contraption that will be used to sacrifice them to the gods. Remember, there are much worse options than death. You need to learn to be creative in the moment.

Know Thy Options

You recall I said there are 88 keys on a piano, but let’s not forget that great musicians can go off-keyboard. How about banging the key cover against the body of the piano to create a beat or drumsticks along the top, or maybe even use those little peddles at your feet to change things up.

All this is to say your options are not limited to your current system. Just because there is no specific ruling in your game of choice that covers a specific course of action by no means requires you to say “That’s not possible”, let the players try and make up the ruling as you go. You’re smart, I know you are.

The best thing you can do is to explore other gaming systems and borrow big concepts from them and retrofit them into your game. No one system is perfect.

I know, I know. The purists out there are aghast right now. Get over it, your system isn’t the perfect one and you know it. The sooner you admit it, the more fun you and your players will have.