An Independent Project in Game Design

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In 9th Grade, Tovey decided to do an independent project in game design instead of one of their other electives. We sat down together and I wrote up a rubric for their project, so that (a) Tovey would have goals and standards to hit, and (b) Tovey’s teachers, who aren’t roleplayers or gamers, would be able to see what they were looking at.

I thought you might be interested to see it too!

The school’s outline for projects boils down to two sections: “course standards,” meaning skills and knowledge, and “projects & products,” meaning gradable work. Here’s what I came up with for Tovey’s project. My explanation of the course standards follows, and then Tovey’s finished project as an example of the projects & products.



Rubric

Course Standards:

Please list 3-5 standards that name the skills and knowledge your work will address.  What will you know and be able to do as a result of your project?  

1. I can analyze a game for its elements: medium of play, core question, core tensions, meaningful choices, and gameplay cycles.

2. I can explain the elements and gameplay cycles of a game I’m developing.

3. I can develop the elements and gameplay cycles of my game ideas into specific player roles, actions, and objectives.

Projects and Products:

Please describe the specific projects you will do, including a description of what passing and exceeding your standards will entail (you may attach a rubric here if you wish). Also, indicate how you will demonstrate mastery of the standards that you have proposed.

1. Develop a game introduction & design statement, including fictional content, player positions and objectives, and gameplay overview.

Exceeding: Multiple iterations to further refine the text.

2. Develop 3 distinct sets of player options and starting positions, including meaningful long-term choices.

Exceeding: Multiple iterations to further develop the design.

3. Develop a set of 6-12 core player actions.

Exceeding: Multiple iterations to further develop the design.

4. Prepare all documents for page layout, with particular attention to information flow and user experience.

Exceeding: Learn basics of Affinity Publisher and do the preliminary page layout myself.



Explanation

Elements of a Game

This is a system for analyzing and developing games. Some games describe themselves explicitly in more or less these terms; others don’t. In some games, like many video games, there’s not a rule text at all, so any analysis of them in these terms is necessarily a matter of interpretation.

This system’s specifically intended to apply to ttrpgs identically as to other games. It holds that ttrpgs are interesting and unusual games in their specifics, but that they have just the same core elements as any other game.

Medium of Play

A game’s “medium of play” is the simple physical or social space in which it plays out.

Uno’s medium of play is its deck of cards and its playspace: the ordered circle of players, their hands, the draw and discard piles.

Chess’s medium of play is its board and pieces. Its clock too, if you’re using one.

Super Mario Brothers’ medium of play is your NES and TV.

Many ttrpgs play out primarily in the conversation of their players, with reference to other play materials like character sheets, dice, random tables, and so on.

Core Question

The “core question” or “core conflict” of a game is what you’re playing to find out, the object of the game, the goal of the game, what you’re hoping for or trying for, or just what you want to see. It’s the question that the game implicitly or explicitly poses.

In some games, answering it means ending the game. In Uno, for instance, the first player to empty their hand wins. Posed as a question — who’ll be first to empty their hand? — answering it is the act that ends the game.

In some games, the endpoint of the game is more arbitrary. Something ends the game, and you consider the question answered then. In Hearts, for instance, you play until someone reaches 100 points, and then, the player with the fewest points wins. Instead of answering the question to end the game, as in Uno, you end the game, and ending the game answers the question.

In some games, the endpoint of the game isn’t even predictable or determined by gameplay, it just happens. In Eat Poop You Cat, for instance, you pass your papers around until you run out of time or run out of space to draw, then gather the papers and look at them together. You’re just playing to find out what you made: Where did our prompts take us, and how funny is it?

Some games have no certain endpoint. Like in other games, the core question permeates play — you’re always answering it — but there’s no moment at which you end play and consider it finally answered. Many ttrpgs are like this. In some versions of basic D&D, for instance, the object of the game is to see your character prosper against whatever the world and the DM throw at you. The question is ongoing: Is your character prospering? You can look back through the course of the game: When did my character prosper, and when did they not?

Core Tensions

The “core tensions” of a game are the features that make the core question’s answer uncertain. They’re what make its core conflict a contest, not foregone. In Chess, for instance, if you could move any of your pieces however you like, you’d win on your first turn; it’s the fact that the pieces are limited in their movements, and that you have to take turns with your opponent, that make the winner uncertain.

In games with explicit objects or goals, you might be able to phrase it like this: “The object of the game is to [core conflict], but you might not be able to do it, because [core tensions].”

The object of Uno is to be the first to empty your hand, but you might not be able to do it, because you have to take turns, you can only play certain cards on your turn, and the other players can force you to draw cards or otherwise make play harder for you.

Your goal in some versions of basic D&D is to see your character prosper, but your character might not prosper, because the world is full of monsters and dangers, and your resources are limited.

In games without competitive or cooperative goals, you might be able to phrase it like this: “In this game we want to see [core question], and what makes it interesting is [core tensions]”.

In Eat Poop You Cat we want to see where our starting prompts take us, and what makes it interesting is that we can’t communicate our ideas directly, they can get garbled and lost in funny ways, and funny new ideas can come in that nobody intended.

In Apocalypse World:Burned Over, we want to see what our characters make of their world, and what makes it interesting is that we can’t always simply do what we choose: we have to prioritize, compromise, fight and win, and do our best in challenging situations.

Meaningful Choices

A game’s “meaningful choices” are the decisions its players make, toward answering its core question.

In simpler games, you can think of your meaningful choices as just the things you do on your turn, the decisions you make and actions you take in order to play the game. Things like playing a card or drawing one, rolling the dice and moving your pawn, playing tiles and counting up their value, capturing an opponent’s piece, pushing right on your joystick, describing your character’s actions in a ttrpg.

In Uno, for example, you play cards, which both moves you toward emptying your hand, and sets the stage for the next player, to their advantage or disadvantage. You also draw cards, which moves you away from emptying your hand, but still moves the game toward answering the question of who’ll empty their hand first.

In Minesweeper, you choose which little square to click, and whether to expose it or mark it with a flag. If you choose correctly, you move toward identifying all the bombs; incorrectly, you move toward losing the game by blowing yourself up.

More complex games, naturally, have more complex systems and cycles of meaningful action.

Because a game’s meaningful choices are oriented to its core question, in a game with a complex, unclear, changeable, or even missing core question, it can be correspondingly more difficult to establish or understand the meanings of your choices.

This isn’t automatically true of ttrpgs. Many roleplaying games have, in fact, straightforward, even simple core questions. In Apocalypse World:Burned Over, for instance, “what will these characters make of their world?” In some versions of Basic D&D, “can you survive and prosper despite what the game world throws at you?” In these games, while the players may have uncountable actions available to them at any moment of play, and wide latitude in choosing which actions to take, establishing and understanding the meaning of their choices is correspondingly straightforward.

“Okay, I’m going down into the Long Dark to meet with the Cult of Waters. I’m hoping we can come to some arrangement about our resources without too much more violence, but I also need to check in on Mice and make sure he’s doing okay down there…” It’s a complex position, in the midst of a complex series of actions and decisions, but its orientation to “what will you make of your world?” is easy to see.

As an aside: In most games, taking meaningful action means making meaningful choices. In Uno, you choose which of your cards to play. In Eat Poop You Cat, you choose how you’re going to illustrate “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” In some versions of basic D&D, you choose with your friends whether, when faced with a monster, you’ll attack, retreat, or approach it peacefully.

This is why I’m calling them “meaningful choices” here.

In Candyland, however, drawing your card and moving your pawn is a meaningful action — it moves you toward answering the game’s core question, “who’ll be first to the Candy Castle?” — even though you have no choice in the matter. In Tic-Tac-Toe played between adults, the answer to the core question is foregone, but making a move is still a meaningful action, because you can’t reach that foregone conclusion unless you do it.

Even in games ultimately defined by meaningful choices, meaningful actions that aren’t choices remain commonplace. In Chess, for instance, when you’re in check, you might have only one move remaining to you. Making that move is meaningful, even though you don’t choose it. In Uno, when you can’t play a card, you have to draw one, a meaningful action even though it’s obligatory. In D&D, a die roll, not a choice, might tell you what happens next.

Gameplay Cycles

A game’s “gameplay cycles” organize its meaningful actions into turns, phases, sequences, and timeframes.

In Canasta, a game consists of a number of hands, each of which consists of a number of rounds, in which each player takes their turn — and in your turn, you always draw, then play, then discard.

In Chess, a game consists of alternating turns, but you might play a series of games, alternating black and white, to determine who’s won overall.

Many ttrpgs have complex, branching and interacting gameplay cycles. In Apocalypse World:Burned Over, for instance, a game consists of, first, a setup phase in the form of character creation, then a number of sessions, each of which begins with a certain set of actions and ends with a different set of actions. But also, each player has their own character’s personal arc, consisting of cycles of escalation and resolution, and cycles of development and improvement: an experience cycle, a harm cycle, an Hx cycle with each other player, cycles defined by their particular moves and resources.

Some ttrpgs include a larger adventure or mission cycle, where an adventure or mission might take a number of complete sessions to play through. Some versions of Basic D&D do, for instance.

Summary

The core elements of a game are:

  • Its medium of play (the physical and/or social components and spaces it plays in);
  • Its core question or core conflict (what we play the game to find out);
  • Its core tensions (the features of design than make the core question interesting to answer);
  • Its players’ meaningful choices and meaningful actions (deriving their meaning from its core question); and
  • Its gameplay cycles (organizing its meaningful actions into phases, turns, rounds, etc).

Some games define these explicitly, but in many games, they’re up for interpretation.



Example

Projects & Products

Developing a game is an iterative process of design, testing & experimentation, and prototyping.

These projects & products represent a particular stage of the process of developing a PbtA game, early in its design: a written summary of the work leading up to the first prototype.

Here’s Tovey Baker’s 9th-grade independent project in game design, “Into the Fray.”

Into the Fray

1. Develop a game introduction & design statement, including fictional content, player positions and objectives, and gameplay overview.

In Into The Fray, you play a power armor pilot. You protect people all over the planet while also coming together as friends and as a squad.

Your character is a Catalyst, stationed on an alien planet (whether that’s Ourollos or a world of your own design).

“Catalysts” are people who pilot power armors called “Suits”. A Catalyst can be a person of any gender identity, sexuality, age, species, homeworld, etc.

You have been contacted by The Catalyst Program, and asked to join the fight and help protect those who cannot protect themselves. You have been trained to fight well in a certain type of Suit, and you’ve been given a custom, personalized suit, custom weapons, and have found yourself part of a Squad. Now all that’s left is to put that training to the test.

“No matter who you are, when you put on the Suit you become the change, you become the Catalyst of hope.” -Captain Otaiaska, at the end of The Xaizeith Fracture War.

Main conflict

“If you pilot a suit out into the fray, you’re a hero. If you bring it back in one piece, you’re a legend.”

Main tension

  • Your enemies
  • The elements / hostile environments
  • Can you depend on your allies?
  • Do you cross ethical lines?
  • You have to build success from the outcomes of your moves

Cycles of play

  • The whole game
    • Character creation / setup
    • Missions / sessions
      • Challenges
        • Moves

Meaningful choices

  • Choose your player options
  • GM creates the missions
    • Players can usually accept or reject missions
    • There are different kinds of challenges
      • Some are chosen when the GM makes the mission
      • Some come up organically
    • Players choose how to use their moves to face challenges & complete missions

2. Develop 3 distinct sets of player options and starting positions, including meaningful long-term choices.

GM: create missions

The GM creates the missions by choosing what’s in play:

  • Enemies
  • The Landscape
  • A Hostile Environment
  • A Physical Barrier
  • Security Systems
  • Dangerous Wildlife
  • Civilians
  • Assets / Objectives
  • The Players’ Mission Priorities
    • Set by GM at beginning of mission
    • Players can change them during the mission

Player option 1: The Juggernaut

Name/Pronouns:
Suit Name/Squad Name:
Species/Origin:

Industrial Strength:
The Juggernaut model of suit was designed for heavy lifting, so you’re even stronger than the other suit models, and your attacks get the Armour-Breaking tag when you make unarmed attacks.

Choose 1:
_ Indestructible: Armour-Breaking attacks have -1 effect on you.
_ Enhanced Stability: Only weapons with Impact can push you out of position.
_ Shield Reserves I: When you get below half health, you get another five Shield.

Player option 2: The Spectre

Name/Pronouns:
Suit Name/Squad Name:
Species/Origin:

Dark-Weave Cloak:
A hooded cloak made of a lightweight material that, when activated, makes anything behind it invisible. Gaps and holes will let people see through to your body and the black interior of the cloak.

Choose 1:
_ Invisible: You deal +1 damage when in stealth.
_ Solitary: You deal +1 damage when on your own.
_ Hunting Pet: You have 2 personal drones, you hear what they hear, and see what they see. Give each drone two tags:
_ Dark-Weave Plating: your drone can turn invisible, and gets 4 shield.
_ Weaponized: give it a melee or ranged weapon tag from the Spectre weapon tags.
_ Micrograv Thrusters: your drone can move with more precision, and makes no noise.
_ Scanner: your drone can quickly scan an area for vitals, atmospheric composition, etc.

Player option 3: The Striker

Name/Pronouns:
Suit Name/Squad Name:
Species/Origin:

Hyper-speed thrusters:
High-speed, low start-time thrusters let you fly much faster and for a longer time than other suits, and let you arrive and leave places much earlier than others.

Choose 1:
_ Momentum: Every continuous success lets you add +1 to any roll, until you roll a miss. (stacks, maximum of +4)
_ Concussive Sprint: Running right by things knocks them over, and stopping abruptly acts as an area effect of Impact 1 coming from you.
_ Supersonic: At full speed, your footsteps and thrusters make no noise.

3. Develop a set of 6-12 core player actions.

Basic Moves

The Take Suite:

Take Position

Always say where you are, then roll. Strong roll: Choose 3. Weak roll: Choose 2. Miss: Choose 1.

  • I’m on the move
  • I have cover within reach
  • I have a shot at [x]
  • I’m in position to protect [x]
  • I’m in position to do [x] action
Take a Shot

Reaching – Super Far range

  • Roll damage
Take a Swing

Melee – Reaching range

  • Roll damage
Take a Blow

Your enemy rolls damage, plus…

  • You must take cover
  • You lose your footing
  • You break concentration
  • You have to give ground
  • You drop what you’re carrying
  • You have to break formation

Social Basic Moves:

Threaten Someone

Roll.

  • Strong roll: They have to choose to back down and give you your way, or else stand up to you and fight back.
  • Weak roll: They can stall, plead their case, or pass the buck instead, if they want.
  • Miss: Be prepared for the worst.
Ask Someone for a Favor

Roll.

  • Strong roll: If they do it, you don’t owe them much if anything, but if they don’t, they owe you big.
  • Weak roll: If they do it, you owe them, but if they don’t, they owe you.
  • Miss: If they do it, you owe them big, but if they don’t, they don’t owe you much if anything.
Give Civilians Orders

Roll. Strong roll: They follow your orders, but you choose 1. Weak roll: They follow your orders, but the GM chooses 1. Miss: They don’t follow your orders, and you choose 1.

Always choose 1 that makes sense, given the circumstances.

  • They panic.
  • They freeze.
  • They don’t agree with each other what to do.
  • They get it wrong.
  • They yell and throw bricks.
  • They need more from you.

Understanding Basic Moves:

Read a Person

Roll. Strong roll: Ask 3. Weak roll: Ask 2. Miss: Ask 1.

  • What are they in position to do?
  • What are they keeping their eye on?
  • What do they need from me at this point?
  • How far are they prepared/willing/able to go?
  • Can I believe/trust/rely on them?
  • Is there anything that they’re not saying?
Read a Situation

Roll. Strong roll: Ask 3. Weak roll: Ask 2. Miss: Ask 1.

  • What should I be on the lookout for?
  • What’s my best way forward/in/out/around/through this?
  • If I were my enemy, what would I be doing?
  • Where am I vulnerable right now?
  • What is my gut telling me?

Dealing with Stuff:

Do something dangerous, difficult, risky, or under fire

For rolls that aren’t covered by any basic or playbook moves.

Before you roll, tell the GM what you’re trying to do. Ask them what you can do on a strong roll, what you can do on a weak roll, and what you’re risking on a miss.

Roll. It comes true.

4. Prepare all documents for page layout, with particular attention to information flow and user experience.

[Tovey shared a draft layout with their teacher.]

Author:

He / him.

3 thoughts on “An Independent Project in Game Design”

  • Lovely Post!

    I find it incredibly awesome that Tovey’s school was open to engage him in this process. Very cool!

    I really like your proposed system for analyzing games! I see it as an evolution from all of the theorizing you did back on your anyway forum, which I’m quite of familiar with, and it has heavily influenced my own way of seeing and understanding all kinds of games. In truth, I have found it to be a far more useful system to develop my own analysis, than some of the more heavily theoretical treatments of game design, such as the ones proposed in books like Art of Game Design or Rules of Play.

    

I have a few questions, feel free to answer some, all, or none:


    Does your own thinking when analyzing and developing games differ from what you put for Tovey’s independent project? My instinct tells me no, that this is a game design philosophy that is shared by your family, but I’m curious to know if there was anything specifically altered for this presentation?



    While I see this as a direct evolution of your own musings in anyway, I’m curious if you drew inspiration for your model from a different source. Does you’re thinking with regards to seeing a game as objects and tools, questions and tensions, follow from a theoretical source I perhaps have not encountered in my readings?

    

When you perform aesthetic judgements of games (do you?), do you use these same categories as a medium where your thinking occurs? Does your game criticism start from this perspective? 



    Thanks!

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