How is game design like packing a toolbox?

I found tabletop games only a few years ago, and quickly went from playing, to running, to creating my own. I found in tabletop games something I had been unknowingly wanting from the moment I stopped playing make believe as a kid. I found the magic of improvised storytelling, and the beauty of creating something truly unique with my dear friends.

Now I design my own tabletop games, typically ‘lyric games’ (that’s its own whole other post) and ‘storytelling games’.

For the latter, my focus is always the story. What sort of story do I want players to be able to build? Is it a story of heroics? Of small, fleeting moments? Of a journey that will change you? This forms the core of the themes, mechanics and any lore I will write.

If we think of a story as something we build together through collaboration and joined creativity, then the game we play is the toolbox to help us.

As the designer of that toolbox, I think ‘What tools do my players need? What tools are irrelevant?’

Players are curious and clever, so if they see a tool, they will use it. Only include what is needed, not what you think you have to have because other games do.

For example, let’s say you’re writing a game about chaotic high schoolers getting into teen drama. Funny, light hearted stuff with some real warmth. (I did do this in fact, link at the end). This is not a game about fighting or killing. So don’t include Hit Points. Don’t include combat mechanics. These are tools that players will use if given. If combat rules are a hammer, don’t put it in your toolbox if it’s only going to knock down the story you’re building. You don’t need it! And that’s ok!

Continuing with this example of a game of dramatic teens, make sure you do include the tools you do want used. What you do include in the mechanics of your game are invitations and guides for the players on how to build their story together. For this game I wrote, I wanted players to care about creating emotional relationships between the characters, from friends to rivals to romances.

To do this, I had a mechanic whereby players would ask each other in-character questions like ‘Did I impress you this year?’ and ‘Do you think I bettered myself this year?’ The more ‘yes’ answers they received, the more benefits their character got. These questions encourage players to engage more deeply in character relationships, and for their characters to really care about getting to know the others. If I want players to paint their story colourfully, I have to include a paintbrush.

These are just two examples from one of my own games, but every mechanic, every character option, every sentence, every word, is a tool in the toolbox you hand to your players.

And this goes for any instance of creating an experience for others to engage with. Any time you are creating something for others to interact with largely on their own terms, the final experience may be up to them, but you can guide them to the experience you want to share by curating your toolbox with care and purpose.

I may do a follow up to this around how every word matters when writing games, not just word with mechanical effects. Stay tuned!

Preparing for Paris, the game I alluded to in this article:

This post was written on Wurundjeri land. I pay respects to Elders past, present and emerging and acknowledge that sovereignty was never ceded.

All images from First article image by Barn Images. Second article image by Elena Mozhvilo.

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