Lots of words have been written on the concepts of game design in the last few years and there's a lot of wisdom to be found using a search engine. Game design has become one of those multidisciplinary fields that has people reaching to apply their own lenses to make sense of. This book provides a clearer lens than most, provides a concise overview of the field and touches on design specifics, organising concepts and collaborative working among other things.
Token Disclaimer - This review is based on a PDF provided by Open Design.
Review: 4 kobolds. The scholarly air gives this book gravitas. Some conclusions may provoke thought and discussion among your theorist and designer pals who will thank you for this as a present. Hardcore Open Design fans may recognise some elements.
Now I've got that out the way, let's roll. Apart from the cover art, there was no internal art. This gives the book a scholarly feel and it's fitting as the tone of the book speaks from experience - contributors include known faces like Ed Greenwood, Monte Cook, Rob Heinsoo and Colin McComb as well as Wolfgang Baur - all of whom have had hands in classic RPG material.
Chapter 1 is an overview of the concept of design. Wolfgang Baur acknowledges the role of diverse designs and notes the impact of story games like Mouse Guard and interesting design decisions around the current system market while pinning the tail on the donkey of good design in tabletop games.
Chapter 2 takes on designing RPGs for tabletop and computers. Colin McComb (who gave us Planescape: Torment and the Complete Elven Handbook) takes on the dichotomy of detail and human interaction and leans to the former as the future while hoping both are served well by their designers.
Chapter 3 engages with creative thought, Wolfgang Baur offers a model borrowed from Borrowing Brilliance (David Kord Murray) which itches to be tried on a couple of stalled projects I'm working on. This chapter is something that will kindle future gaming products and is one of the high points of the book.
Chapter 4 handles the high and low of creation and design, Wolfgang Baur revealing the dark truth that behind every finished manuscript is a lot of hard work. Punches are not pulled and personal demons are hinted at with the wisdom that execution makes the difference between pipe dreams and product.
Chapter 5 deals with mechanical ruminations but could be applied equally to setting. Rob Heinsoo, design lead for 4E and the sublime Underdark shows subtle craft in taking design cues from both the classics and the innovations of peer systems like Agon to create your own unique snowflake with teeth.
Chapter 6 takes on combat systems. Colin McComb demonstrates aplomb in providing a simple percentile system for a modern system that looks naggingly familiar. This chapter is good for those who love hacking system mechanics and provides a thumbnail sketch for further exploration.
Chapter 7 is about weaving plot. Ed Greenwood gives a lesson in plotting that draws on the roots of good and evil while showing the value of weaving multiple plots, using deception and finding those hot buttons to push so that players will keep choosing to face the peril.
Chapter 8 takes on location. Wolfgang Baur exhibits the significance of setting as the spice for the meat and potatoes of adventuring. Considering what makes a setting distinctive, credible and deserving of attention in concise ways makes this another powerful chapter.
Chapter 9 handles game balance. Monte Cook explains how system may not be enough to ensure balance, takes on providing face time without having to hobble participation and touches on the wisdom of being a good participant. It's been said before here (and expanded on) yet it's value hasn't diminished.
Chapter 10 covers the Old School darling of sandbox design and event-driven activities. Here Wolfgang Baur reveals even the most anarchic sandbox has boundaries, order need not mean oppression and is sometimes necessary for rewarding play, reinforcing the wisdom of Chapter 7.
Chapter 11 handles collaboration. This is perhaps the most powerful chapter of the book and Wolfgang Baur reveals the human frailties tied to collaborative design with a deft and compassionate hand and some tactics to use if you want to succeed and still be respected in the morning.
Chapter 12 deals with failure and recovery. Churchill defined success as the ability to move from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm and Wolfgang Baur rounds this off with pragmatic hints on how to deal with the 'oops' moments of your designs and how to honour mistakes, defend decisions and get out the way.
This book is efficient. While I disagree with some of it's conclusions (subject for another post) it presents it's arguments efficiently and where possible with examples. I've been critical of game designers bemoaning their lifestyle in the past yet this book avoids that trap even in Chapters 4, 11 and 12 where the temptation was strong. The real virtue of this book to aspiring designers is that it has a healthy dose of reality without falling in the "You're all doomed dreamers!!" pundit trap. While there's a summertime malaise in effect, this is a shot of design adrenalin. It won't cure a hopeless case but will give a kick to get you off off the operating table and we will be seeing the ripples caused by this book for some time.
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