Some debate on the role of the designer

I have been having a conversation with @substituteadventurer that has strayed somewhat from beeptest’s question in “Reduction and Simplification: When is it ‘good’?” So, here’s a thread to continue that.

To recap somewhat…

@substituteadventurer:

To loop things back to the original question I think that complexity should be added when players want it and removed if players don’t want it. I also think that this is the in the purview of a DM as they respond to a particular group rather than the job of the designer in anticipation of an imagined audience.

@Shane:

Gonna toss a bomb in here: I think there is an assumption being made here that all game designers have access to people to test their games with before publication. Not all people who put out games have a table they can “design for/to”. Some can only design based on what they can figure out in their own heads.

Me:

Oh, sure, I’ve been doing that for a while because my depression/anxiety has made it difficult to play over the past year. To be honest I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, because my game design professor really drilled the importance of playtesting into me!

But, lack of access to playtesters is a practical reality for a lot of people, for all kinds of reasons. You’re probably right to raise it as something we should be more open about.

Aside from all that, I don’t really think it’s my job as the DM to cater exclusively to what the players want, any more than it’s the job of an artist to cater exclusively to what audiences want.

There’s an element of collaboration, sure, but part of the deal (for me) is that I get to do something that interests me on my side of the screen.

@substituteadventurer:

I think things probably change once you are a professional game designer. (By which I mean you rely on your rpg revenue in order to finance you and your families lifestyle.) When you are designing as a hobbyist your responsibility isn’t to consumers it is to you and to your friends.

So maybe you are designing a game even though you don’t have a regular group right now and also can’t get a playtest group together. If that is the case you are designing for your own satisfaction. Your audience is yourself.

If that’s the case the answer becomes “you should add complexity if you are enjoying adding complexity and you should simplify if you enjoy the challenge of being an elegant designer.” The idea of achieving some idealized design goal based on a particular play style should only ever enter the equation if doing so is fun to you in it’s own right.

But I am deeply opposed to the commodification of all hobbies. Side-hustle-ism is absolutely corrosive to any hobbyist scene. It’s cool if you want to sell your stuff but you have to realize that IF someone decides to actually play your game they very likely will not be doing so the way that you might have designed for them to do it… because as soon as the dice hit the table its THEIR game now and if they want to port some crunch from Burning Wheel or GURPS into your Into the Odd hack there is absolutely nothing you can do to stop them.

My other hobby is that I roast coffee. Most of it I drink myself or share with a few close friends and family members within that hobby scene. I roast the coffee that I like to drink because I’m going to drink it. Sometimes I give it as gifts or sell it at a very slight margin. Once I do I no longer get to get mad if someone wants to put pumpkin spice creamer in it or brew it in a cheap Mr. Coffee. That’s fine with me because I like roasting and brewing coffee for it’s own sake and, of course, I get to drink it!

Designing a game to sell to others for profit with no intent to play it yourself seems a bit like roasting and selling coffee that you have no interest in drinking yourself.

So I hope everyone is having fun making games, and if you can’t play right now my hope is that you can get back to the table soon!

Now, to reply…

My audience is most certainly not myself. People have been writing, painting, composing, etc. by themselves for hundreds or thousands of years with the ultimate intent of their work appearing before an audience.

I don’t think there’s anything inherently commercial about designing an experience (or, as it may be, a partial experience) for other people to enjoy whether you are in the room or not. It’s an age-old creative impulse.

I’m not a professional designer. I’m just making things for me and my friends… Things I intend to play, sooner or later, when I’m feeling better. At the same time, I have certain aspirations to share the things I make for me and my friends with a broader audience.

And, look, designers shape the experiences of GMs and players who they never meet all the time. There’s nothing sinister about that, it’s the foundation of the hobby—the publication of OD&D opened a path to new experiences for far more people than Arneson or Gygax ever met.

The GM and the players have the ultimate authority at any given table to interpret, revise, and repurpose the text of any given system, sure. But they’re still ultimately collaborating with the designer, in the same way that a reader collaborates with a novelist by interpreting prose on the page.

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I don’t think I disagree with any of this and after reading my post back I think I wrote far more stridently than I had actually intended.

The thing that I personally find interesting in games is the part where people are sitting around a table laughing and eating gummy bears. Ultimately the goal of any game should be to be played and enjoyed.

Obviously one or more game designers are part of that conversation but I don’t think the game designer or their text should have an elevated status over the text that is generated in play. If the goal of play is fun I don’t know how much of that can be laid at the feet of the game designer vs the GM or any other player at the table.

I also think it’s is important to acknowledge that playtesting is just play, and all play is playtesting. Game design and game prep can also be play. Solo play, but play all the same.

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Hey y’all! I’m interested in the topic - I’m never sure whether it’s useful to throw in my thoughts, but they’re different from the ones posted, so maybe this is an angle that could be interesting? Would love to hear what others are thinking!

My recent thoughts: the way some folx think about design (me, for sure!) is dated. We imagine that “designing” games means creating new mechanics, settings, and producing “books” that people buy. I think many folx also focus on the idea of making things for “gamers” - people who are into the hobby. I think that it’s absolutely true that many gamers don’t need “more systems,” but there are two places that seem like interesting places for clever and creative design: enhancement tools and learning tools.

I think one of the interesting things about TTRPGs is that there are so many experts in the space - by which I mean folx who’ve played and run so much that they are, in effect, pros. Do they need more or different rules? Nope - but sometimes they want them, which is totally fair and cool!

If you’re someone out there who has a setting or some kind of tool that people might really enjoy using to enhance play, there’s a market for that, and while I’m not down with “commodifying” a hobby, people being paid for their creative work when others find it of value (especially small creators) seems like win all over. I’ve been really impressed with a lot of the independent creator content I’ve seen all over Itch, and stuff like MOSAIC Strict rules offer little modular toolkits for pros to introduce creativity, depth, and interesting new elements to enhance existing games.

The other space where I see potential is in creating tools that help people learn or work on some aspect of their play. There are tons of folx out there who are learning to run or have never done so, which creates opportunities for tools that help with not just pre-written story arcs, but help coach storytellers on how to run a successful game. I’m a big fan of making things that help people build skills and confidence, making play more intuitive, easier, or more immersive. Not everybody needs that! But I’m very interested in how to democratize the hobby - I think RPGs are so wonderfully fun and educational, it’s hard to imagine that some people never have a chance to enjoy them; anything that welcomes more people to the fold is great.

One thing I find myself doing a lot is looking for nouns. “Game” seems like a very large term, and I keep using proxies like “tool” and “mechanic” and “setting” and “thing” instead. For me, that reflects a shift I’m trying to make in my thinking. I like making bits and pieces of games, but I am also in business. I’m not focusing so much on “whole new games” as I am in ways to use what I already know to come up with learning tools (I may work on enhancement tools too, but learning is my current focus!).

In any case, thank you both for the discussion! I love thinking about design and what end goals should shape - other than pure pleasure, of course! - creativity when you’re designing for others. One thing I LOVE about gaming is that it isn’t an “auteur” art - it’s fundamentally a collaboration. All written works are, of course, but TTRPGs have this wonderful aspect of being created to help people create - a sort of meta-language for helping others tell stories.

Ooh … that leads me down another rabbit hole. Design-wise, I feel like there’s been a trend away from classic “instruction manuals”/“programming language” approach in game design and towards a more literary one. The layout has shifted, too!

Interesting to think of TTRPG design as creating meta-language for collaborative creativity, and that it may be as modular and specific as “we need a new word” or “sub-routine” rather than “we need a whole new language.”

In any case, thanks for the topic, and would love to keep chatting. Cheers!

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I like the tools > system mindset. That’s how I have started to approach gaming. Little bits at a time.

I also like the mission of expanding the hobby. Personally it’s hard for me to think about doing that through a product rather than in person. But that’s also because I am a teacher and not really much of a writer.

Me too (teacher, but I do teach writing). I think the hard part is creating something familiar that does something new. I like trying to figure out ways to break my own expectations of “how to do the thing” in the interest of helping others enjoy it - and I suppose, because I see kids doing it all the time without coaching, I keep thinking we’ve gotten in the way of the thing and there has to be some middle ground.

I do think it’s a participatory sport (you have to be in it to get it, or see it played), and have been surprised and impressed at how well APs have brought folx into TTRPGs. I think I’m into figuring out how to do the same for smaller kids and their parents (we need all the tools we can get, and this one is so great I think many would appreciate it!).

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