What is a skill that a first-time RPG designer might need to practice or hone? Or what is an important skill for creating an RPG?
This is a great question. Hopefully this answer is satisfying, because it may not feel like it at first.
I thought long and hard about what one skill would be helpful above all others. Easy answers would be writing proficiency, probability or statistical analysis, project management, budgeting… the list goes on. There are a lot, and I mean a lot of hard skills that game designers need to hone. That’s especially true for anyone who intends to publish their work.
In the end, it wasn’t a hard skill I settled on as the answer. Some people would argue it’s not even a skill, but I would respectfully disagree. This is something that can be learned and improved upon over time.
The most important skill for any game designer, in my opinion, is the ability to identify imperfections and know when to fix them versus when to let them go.
That’s a hard skill to distill into one single name and place on your personal character sheet. It’s hard to quantify. I assure you though, it’s something you can practice and improve.
When I first started designing games, I couldn’t stand the thought of releasing something into the world that was less than perfect. I paid keen attention to detail and wanted to make sure everything was structured perfectly.
I started out by designing content for Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition, a version of the game known for its crunchy mechanics. There were specific ways the game communicated mechanics, and I made it a point to learn all of them.
Feat names are capitalized. Spell names aren’t capitalized, but are instead italicized. Abilities are categorized in a specific manner and denoted with abbreviations.
This attention to detail was important for learning how the game works. It’s important for a game like D&D, because making something balanced requires knowing how all the pieces fit together, then coming up with some new content that fits the power level you’re going for.
Frankly, I nailed the D&D 3e style guide. Better than most other third-party content creators, I’d say (at the risk of sounding arrogant).
You know what, though? None of my 3e content ever saw the light of day. That’s because it was never perfect enough for me.
Every time I came back to my work, I noticed something I didn’t like about it. Something I wanted to tweak. Something that didn’t feel perfect.
Meanwhile, those designers who didn’t quite nail the style guide were pumping out content left and right. I still have a bunch of third-party content from other publishers sitting around on my hard drive. Some of it was good. Some of it was just good inspiration. All of it was available for sale.
Eventually, 3rd Edition gave way to 4th Edition or Pathfinder. My content suddenly had to be converted to another system to remain relevant. Rather than convert it, I just started working on content for Pathfinder.
Then I started working on content for Fudge, which around 2011 had quickly become my system of choice. I started working on Psi-punk and eventually fell into a similar trap.
Fudge was a much looser system, so it didn’t need to adhere to a specific style guide. By that time though, my own sense of style was starting to form and I had my own rules. More importantly, I had game mechanics that needed to be worked out from the ground up because I was building most of a system myself, rather than just playing in someone else’s sandbox.
I found myself writing and re-writing large sections of the rules. Sometimes they were good, but not perfect. Sometimes they were perfect for what they were, but not good enough for me.
It wasn’t until my wife encouraged me to just finish the game already that I finally knuckled down and put my mind to it. I realized that, until then, I had really just been tinkering. I had hopes of publishing someday, but I kept getting in my own way.
She helped me realize that perfect is the enemy of done. Once I understood that, I was able to finish my first draft and launch a Kickstarter campaign to fund its publication.
Psi-punk has many warts. I’ve talked about a lot of them in past issues of the zine. It’s not perfect.
But it’s done.
To this day, re-reading the core book makes me think “Oh, I could have changed this and it would have been better.” True as that may be, it’s also a trap. I have no reason to go back and continuously revise Psi-punk because the game is great as it is.
It’s not perfect. A lot of people enjoy playing it though, and so do I. It’s great.
Over time, I’ve gotten better about the perfection trap. I know that Survival of the Able isn’t perfect, but it is done. It’s out there, available for the world to enjoy.
Completion is more important than perfection. Yes, you must put your best foot forward. Your game needs to be well-designed, well-written, and fun. It doesn’t need to be 100% error-free.
In fact, chances are good that the only person who’ll notice small imperfections is you.
How do blind people interact with “theater of the mind?” Do you imagine things as they are described, or do you just hear the words that are described?
Blindness, like most disabilities, is a spectrum. It’s hard to generalize about what people imagine because the experience is different depending on the context of your disability.
When a GM describes a hellcat with razor-sharp claws, needle-like fur, and a maw that drips with fire, I can picture that in my mind. If it’s prowling silently, stalking its prey, and is rearing to pounce, I can picture that too.
It helps that I haven’t always been blind. My condition is degenerative, meaning it has gotten worse over time and will continue to get worse. There was a time, though, when I studied the Monster Manual and gawked at the pictures within. I also understand what a cat looks like and have seen them stealthily stalk and pounce. I can map that to my understanding of a hellcat and get an idea of what it must look like.
Not every blind person has that reference. If someone has been blind since birth, they may find the image difficult to conjure. Even if they know what a cat generally looks like, would that person understand how a cat stalks its prey?
I can’t speak to the lived experience of someone who has been totally blind since birth. However, as my own vision continues to deteriorate and I encounter new things for which I have no reference, I can get some sort of understanding.
Nowadays, there are things that come up at the game table (or while watching a movie, reading a book, or just experiencing everyday life) for which I have no visual frame of reference. For those things, I scan the recesses of my memory for the most similar thing I can think of.
If I fail to conjure anything, then I think about how the description of that thing makes me feel. I don’t necessarily need to know what a snarling monster looks like if it’s described in a way that makes me feel terrified. I’ll just sit with that terrified emotion.
Other players and Game Masters should describe more than just how something looks. It’s considered good storytelling in general to describe how something sounds, smells, feels, or tastes. It’s especially good storytelling when you’re describing these things to a blind person, because it lets us map more of our senses to the thing we’re experiencing.
Consider these two descriptions of the same creature:
1. “You see a silver-haired beast with six legs, two long-necked heads, and teeth the size of daggers. Its horrifying claws look like they’re capable of shredding anything that gets in its way… and you’re in its way.”
2. “You encounter a creature that could be straight out of a nightmare. Its breath from one head wreaks of its last meal, while the breath from its other head smells vaguely of sulfur. Its mottled silver fur stands in contrast to your gloomy surroundings. Three pairs of clawed feet make spine-tingling sounds as they scratch against the stone floor of the cavern. Perhaps most terrifying of all is the audible rumble its stomach makes as it lunges toward you.”
The second example is overly long and flowery. It’s not important to include everything all at once like that, but I wanted to illustrate the point.
This imaginary creature was designed right here on the spot. It’s not based on anything I’ve ever experienced before.
The first description gives me a vague idea of what it is—some kind of dog-like creature, but with two long-necked heads. The second description gives me a little more context. It feels more like some kind of foul beast that lives in the dark recesses of the earth. It stinks, and the noises it makes are horrifying.
One side note is that I wrote the first example specifically to highlight a big “Don’t!” when it comes to descriptions. It uses assumptions about the senses of the person perceiving the creature. It starts with “You see…” which assumes the observer has sight to begin with.
The second description is more neutral. It describes how things look sometimes (silver fur which stands in contrast to the gloom), but it never tells the observer that they see that. It’s up to the person perceiving the creature to decide what they do and do not experience.
By incorporating more than just sight into your descriptions, you can help a blind person experience a scenario in a way that makes sense. As a bonus, you tell a better story for everyone.
I’d love to hear other peoples’ thoughts on this, especially anyone who has been blind since birth or is totally blind. What do you experience? Would you agree that including other senses helps improve your immersion?
Leave your comments below. ????