Monday, January 3, 2011

What Is Your Game About?

In the interest of full disclosure, the question above is one that I have heard in many places, but the interpretation I am taking with it is put forth by John Wick in several of his books, and videos on You Tube. It seems like a simple and obvious question right? What is your game about? Seems like one of the first things you'd actually answer, and yet I've seen a number of people get it wrong when they were asked. In fact, even knowing the interpretation that you need to answer it with, I got it very wrong with my own game. So, what exactly am I talking about? Read on to find out.

Obviously, since I am claiming there is a specific interpretation of the question, that it is not as straight forward and easy as it may first appear. If you were to ask me this about, say, Legend of the Five Rings. The answer wouldn't be "It is about samurai in a fictional setting made by combining elements of Japanese, Chinese, and other asian mythologies into one." By the same token, Houses of the Blooded is not about "Nobles in a fantasy land, playing their games of power, intrigue, deception, and revenge". Sure, technically, that is what those games are about, but it isn't what they're really about. (Oh, if you're wondering, I am using John Wick's games because I know he uses this question, and it isn't hard to see the answer when you look and know).

So, what do I mean? Or, to be fair, what does Mr. Wick mean? He means one word. In one word, what is your game about? What is its core theme? The thing that the game, and its mechanics, is designed to give and show? What is the core element that should be used for stories told with that game? In other words, and as said, what is the game about? L5R in this light is about honor. Houses of the Blooded is about tragedy. So, what is your game about?

Now, what do you do once you know what the game is about? You need to build off of it. There are more questions to go with it, and I'll go over them one by one, but the core of the answer is you make that theme part of a core mechanic. The honor stat in L5R represents this, using your honor as the carrot and stick to guide people into playing out the game and the stories (sadly, with 3rd and 4th ed much of this has been lost and diluted, so to really see it you need to go and check out 1st and 2nd ed.) How you gain Style points in Houses of the Blooded is how Tragedy comes into play, you get to be cooler and more bad ass, the more you fail tragically, the more you hurt.

So, if you're making a game, or thinking about making one, take some time and think about what the game is truly about. What you want to be resting at the heart of the game system, and the stories told with it. And, hey, if you don't mind. What is your favorite game system, or your work in progress about?

For me, well, I already told you about Legend of the Five Rings and being about honor. Near as I can figure, Dark Heresy and the games in that line are about inevitability. Inevitable failure primarily, with mechanics set up so that you will fail at some point, it is just a question of when, how long you can push it off for, and if you'll survive it when it happens - or at least die well. Now, my work in progress is about sacrifice. This is where my mistake was made, as if you look back to the game design journals for m.a/c.c (nope, no links, sorry) I thought it was about commitment. Which, it is in a way, but the game's main theme is sacrifice.

How about you?


  1. Coincidentally, I'm working on a design (pre-production), asked myself the same question and gave a long answer.

    After giving it some thought I found the one word answer to be "momentum", which puts things in perspective and might've solved a few early snags.

    Great lesson.

  2. It can be a tough question, especially when you're in the early stages and the idea is just so...full of life and energy. Cutting it down to one or two words can be rough, especially with all the setting and other cool stuff coming into play, but you are right, it can solve a lot of problems.

    I have an idea for something I want to do with the theme, at least for combat, being 'Velocity' but haven't figured out how to work that in just yet.

    Momentum sounds like a cool idea though, good luck and hope to hear more about that project in the near future.

  3. This is an excellent article for thinking about design. I would give a word of caution. Being too single minded about theme can lead to a lack of depth. Games need wiggle room to have mini stories that the players can be interested in and that means having the depth that allows them to stray from the main story. However once a sufficient depth is reached a lot of times you need to look back at the theme to get back on track.

    That said, I struggled most of the way through the article to figure out my game's theme. I especially struggled to put it in a single word. I thought for a bit that the theme was "limits" the limits of the human mind, the limits of one's place in life and probing where those limits are. But that's not really it.

    The theme is "truth" searching out evidence and building a web of facts, testing limits and learning if they're really there. I give a lot of facts and supposition, legends and rumors in the game. Some of it is corroborated by evidence but I almost always try to throw the wrong spin on it according to the culture interpreting them to show that facts have to be put together to learn what the truths behind them are.

  4. You definitely need wiggle room, but this (and the other questions that I'll be going over from Mr. Wick) is for a starting point for your game. It is no where near the only approach, but it is an approach that can give you a solid foundation. Foundations are then to be built upon, and you get the entirety of your game out of it.

    Truth also sounds like it could be an interesting theme for a game. I like it. Good luck with getting it done, I believe you mentioned that as your goal for 2011, ne?

  5. The game itself has been done for fifteen years. I've just had too much fun playing with it to put it down for that long. There are three sourcebooks that add to the story, a second edition and a book length random encounter table. I'm working on a novel that's half done and there are two more sourcebooks that are under development. There is then one more sourcebook after that and I'm going back to revamp my first RPG.