How I curate my ideas

It is fashionable in game design circles to say that an idea is worth zero dollars. This is meant as a rebuttal to people who try to sell you their brilliant idea for a game. Which, fine – those people can’t really sell you an idea anyway, so that is indeed worth zero dollars. But that doesn’t mean ideas are worthless. On the contrary, an otherwise well-implemented game that lacks interesting ideas probably won’t get very far.

The thing is, ideas are ephemeral. Until you write them down, they’re just this slippery thing in your head. You can come up with dozens of them in a day – on the toilet, in the shower, while you’re trying to get to sleep. But most of them are lost.

In fact, they’re worse than that in many ways, because while you’re busy losing them, they distract you. They stop you sleeping because your brain won’t stop thinking about them. They stop you implementing your current project because you get excited about a different one. This is not good.

And you really don’t want to be at the mercy of your ideas. That way lies a trail of unfinished projects, each abandoned in favour of the latest shiny th- SQUIRREL!

So it is important to curate your ideas. To find a way to capture them before you forget them, and get them out of your head so they don’t distract you. And this, it turns out, is fairly simple: you just write them down.

Here’s what I do:

  • I write a simple one or two sentence summary of any idea that captures my attention for more than a few minutes and add it to my ideas list. In my case that’s a sticky on my laptop, but a notebook would be just as good.
  • I subdivide my ideas list. At the top are things I’m working on now. Then there’s the things that are next in line to work on. I break them down into small games and long games, and non-game things like articles or events.
  • I keep it updated, moving stuff in and out of each category. If it becomes clear I’m not going to finish something (at least not now) then it goes into the back burner section. Abandoned but not forgotten.
  • Because I know what I’m meant to be working on now, and I know I’m not losing the other ideas, I can focus on my top priorities. I’ve always got an idea of what I want to work on next, so if I have to take a break from my current projects (e.g. because they’re out for playtesting) then I can pick up something new right away. My subdivisions enable me to easily choose something small that I can do in a spare day, or something longer, as appropriate.
  • I take breaks from working on active projects to review the list and see what looks good. What has sustained my interest and what now seems less brilliant than it initially did. Which ideas might need to be merged or dropped. So the list isn’t just a dumping ground, it’s a breeding ground for my next project.

Sometimes, an idea is so compelling that even with the above discipline I can’t get it out of my head, I write a concept document. This is a half-page document where I write down:

  • The elevator pitch
  • My design goals – the things I’d want to achieve through it
  • A short summary of how I think I might implement those goals right now.

That goes in a dedicated folder of ideas, where I can easily pull it out again if I need it. Again: I’m getting it out of my head, and written down, but I’m limiting its ability to dominate my creativity and draw me away from what I’m meant to be prioritising.

Of course, sometimes having written a concept document, it’s not enough. I want to flesh out the ideas. I’m struck by passion for this new idea! That’s ok. Sometimes I give myself permission to do this. I might even end up writing the game. But for the most part, the structured process above ensures I retain sustained attention to my current project. I get to keep all the ideas that constantly fly into and out of my brain without letting myself chase those ideas fruitlessly.

How do you manage your ideas? Let me know your top tips!

Designer diary: Last Fleet

I’ve been getting quite a bit of feedback on my current WIP, Last Fleet. In case you’ve missed hearing about it, the game is about the last surviving members of the human race, fleeing across space from an implacable inhuman adversary. The players are brave pilots, officers, politicians and journalists, struggling to keep the fleet – and themselves – in one piece, under immense pressure.

As you might gather from the above, a key theme in Last Fleet is pressure. The core mechanics revolve around gaining and losing Pressure, which acts like hit points and mission/team pool all rolled into one. Crucially, players can gain +1 to any roll, after rolling the dice, by marking 1 Pressure. This means players tend to push their Pressure up of their own accord. Your Pressure track has room for five marks, after which you have to mark and perform a Breaking Point action whereby you do something risky or irrational. Eventually when you’ve marked them all, the (presumably) last Breaking Point action is to die.

Side note: if this sounds quite a bit like Night Witches system of Marks, that’s no coincidence. I’ve drawn inspiration from that. And as you’ll see, I think the lessons from playtesting are pushing the design to being more similar to Night Witches than it currently is.

A significant issue in playtesting has been getting the balance right between being under too much pressure versus not enough. There are lots of variables which can affect this:

  • How often the players make actions that allow them to erase Pressure (social stuff, mostly);
  • How much space the GM gives them to do that;
  • How much the players have to roll the dice;
  • How serious are the consequences the GM puts on the line;
  • How much players work together to min-max their rolls and apply maximum bonuses from assists; and (not forgetting)
  • How well the players roll.

So the system puts the players under pressure, but getting it at the exact right level to avoid either crushing them or leaving them feeling totally relaxed, seems to be a bit of an art. But I’m currently feeling that the system itself makes it too easy to reduce Pressure, while leaving the consequences of bad rolls insufficiently terrifying to prompt the players to increase their own Pressure all that much.

So where is that leading me to? Three (or maybe four) things:

  • I’m toughening up the consequences of bad rolls, including on a 7-9, to increase the stakes of failure. In turn that should mean players wanting to spend more Pressure.
  • I may reduce the overall statline of starting characters, which currently start with +2/+1/+0/+0/-1.
  • I’m reducing how much Pressure is erased when Pressure-reducing moves are taken.
  • I said maybe four. I’m considering whether players trust each other too much. The initial relationships set up tend to push things towards distrust and conflict, but I’m not sure if I’ve taken it far enough. Something to think about.

What’s interesting is that the stories people are coming back with from playtesting sound like exactly the sort of play I want to see – so while people may not feel sufficiently pressured, the game is fundamentally working ok. It needs tuning, perhaps even some significant redesign of individual components, but the overall shape of the design seems right.

If you’re interested in Last Fleet, get in touch! I’ll be doing more playtesting later in the year and I’m always keen to have more playtesters.

Is it ok to fudge rolls?

I was bodding about on Twitter recently and I came across this:

Reading through the comments I saw a lot of pushback against point 2. People saying “But it sucks if some random roll means I get killed by an orc in the first encounter.” “Some players don’t like it when they die, it isn’t fun.” “It’s ok if I got the threat level wrong, so I’m just correcting my mistake.” “You shouldn’t have rolled the dice if you weren’t ready for that outcome.” And so on. This got me thinking about why people fudge dice rolls at all.

Now as I see it, the answer is pretty straightforward. People fudge dice rolls because their chosen game isn’t giving them sufficient discretion in decision-making. They rolled the dice, and what they rolled means they are forced to either implement a fictional outcome they didn’t want, or fudge the roll.

When this happens, it is probably because the game is premised on a simple linear process:

Someone makes an attack -> roll dice -> inflict damage (or not)

See how that works? As soon as the GM picks up the dice, they’re committing to possibly inflicting damage on you. Maybe it will kill you. But that’s all that can happen. They can’t knock you out, they can’t take your stuff and leave you tied up. They can’t leave you beaten but humiliated. And that’s just thinking about possibilities relating to us fighting. We haven’t even got started on how they can’t reveal a terrible secret that will leave you crushed and sobbing, or have a totally different threat raise its head.

My point is, I think a lot of people are playing games with what you might call ballistic mechanics. You get to choose whether to pull the trigger (i.e. roll the dice) but once you’ve done that, you have no choice in where the bullet hits (i.e. what the outcome of the dice roll is). You can solve the problem by cheating – by ignoring the die roll – or by using a system that fires smart missiles instead of dumb bullets.

There’s plenty of games out there which continue to give you choices after you’ve rolled the dice. A failure doesn’t have to imply a mechanically fixed outcome. If you’re reading this and wondering what games I mean, one good avenue to google is Powered by the Apocalypse or Forged in the Dark, both of which give real, hard consequences to dice rolls – but in a way that gives you interesting choices rather than automatic pre-defined outcomes.

Even D&D (which I assume is what we’re all thinking about here) doesn’t need to be implemented like that. I mean, come on. It isn’t like you haven’t used house rules or not-technically-RAW “roll a d20 and I’ll tell you what happens” for umpteen other things. So why be a stickler about the attack roll? Why not say that on a hit, the orc disarms you, then headbutts you into unconsciousness. You wake up in chains. Hard consequences that generate more fun, instead of snuffing out interesting possibilities.

So if I’m so keen on interesting outcomes, why not just fudge the roll and do it that way? Well, like the Tweet said, this is about social contract. If you’re playing in a group where the expectation is that successful attack rolls lead to hit point loss and hit point loss leads to death, then you’re playing with fire if you don’t enforce that. You’re essentially saying “your choices were meaningless; you thought you were risking death to achieve your goals; you thought there was a point to me rolling these dice; but you weren’t and there isn’t. You might as well stop recording your hit points and stop rolling the dice because the real decision-maker is me, the GM, and I’ll ignore the dice when it suits me.” The whole point of systems with dice rolls is to create risk and drama and make choices meaningful.

The same applies to games where hit point loss and death aren’t automatic consequences of a roll, by the way. Just because I can opt to have you KO’d and captured by the orc instead of killed, doesn’t mean its all just arbitrary GM fiat. I have to abide by the fact that the dice were rolled, so something bad happens. I can’t just shrug my shoulders and say “nothing happens”. If I do that, I’m equally guilty of denying you the fruits of your decisions as the GM who refuses to inflict those hit points because they think it wouldn’t be fun.

But I think that a lot of groups in their heart of hearts don’t want a social contract like the one we see in D&D, RAW. Dying at an arbitrary moment because of bad dice rolls is not everyone’s idea of fun. I think that’s why we see so much fudging going on – because people don’t actually like what the rules tell them they must do. The point is, you’re breaking the social contract if people thought hit point loss and death was a possibility but it actually never was; but you can have a different social contract if you want. You have to ask yourself in advance whether you want arbitrary death or not. You have to talk to your group about how you play the game, and get their consent.

“Hey, I’d like to play some D&D, but I’m not really into the whole ‘one bad roll and you die’ thing, so I’m using a different set of rules. Ok?”

If you do that, then you’ll get the outcome you wanted – you remove arbitrary “un-fun” death from your game. But you get it without having to cheat people out of meaningful choice, and waste time rolling dice when you have no intention of enforcing the results of your rolls. Everyone can engage with the encounters you present, knowing what’s on the table and what isn’t.