Tag Archives: game design

The Case of the Cloned Game

This is a rare moment when I get to talk about two things I’m passionate about: game design and Sherlock Holmes!

One of the oddities of game design is the confusion around what parts of a game are protected by law, and what parts aren’t.1 For many years, it has been asserted that the rules and mechanics of a game cannot be protected, but the presentation can. This is why, for example, there are probably hundreds of platforming games where the character runs to the right and uses jump as a primary means of movement and attack, but very few of them (legally) feature a character named Mario.2 Similarly, any card game can turn a card sideways to express that it can no longer be used, but only games made by Hasbro (such as Magic: The Gathering) can use the term “tap” for this action.

In reality, the line between “rules” and “presentation” isn’t that simple. There has been a long history of video game cloning. It’s happened in the tabletop RPG space as well, and made even muddier by the d20 Open Game License and a number of successful “retroclones” that emulate previous game designs to various degrees of fidelity. Further, where public domain begins and ends is even more complex. And thus we get to the Great Detective himself.

Continue reading The Case of the Cloned Game

  1. I’m a citizen of the United States, so all my references to legality are US-centric, only because that’s the legal system I’m most familiar with.
  2. Digression: I’ve noticed over the years a certain “linga franca” in game design. For board games, references are usually to Chess or Monopoly. For role-playing games, it’s Dungeons & Dragons. And for video games, it’s Super Mario Brothers. At some point I should compile a list of “games every other game designer will assume you’ve played.”

Card Game: Tactical War

One of the advantages of a good vacation where you can really unplug is that your mind can focus on things you wouldn’t normally have time to consider. Naturally, as folks who work on games professionally, my wife and I think about games.

So on our recent cruise, when we had some time to kill, we bought two decks of cards and set about writing a new variation on the game “War” that didn’t suck as much. This new version (tentatively titled “Tactical War”) attempts to reduce the randomness of the original game, add a layer of player choice, and remove the “death spiral” design of the original. It’s been through a few iterations, but if other folks want to play it and give more feedback, I’ll be happy to keep this post up-to-date with the latest rules and clarifications.

Tactical War Rules


  1. Each player starts with their own deck of playing cards (two Jokers included.) Ideally, each deck has a different back, to make sorting the decks back out easier.
  2. The players also need some marker to show who sets the battlefield. The box the cards came in works fine.
  3. Before play begins, each player shuffles their deck, and presents it to their opponent to cut. Each player then draws a hand of five cards.
  4. The first player to set the battlefield is determined by random determination for the first round, or with whomever lost the last round.


  1. At the start of each turn, both players draw their hands up to five cards.
  2. The player who has the marker can decide if they want to “set a battlefield” for the turn. If they choose to, they play a card from their hand and declare what limits are on the battlefield.
  3. The “battlefield” is limited by the suit or color of the card played, depending on what the player declares — for example, a Two of Hearts can be played to limit the battlefield to “red cards” or “Hearts.” If there is no battlefield card in play, there are no limits on the cards for that turn.
  4. Once a battlefieldis played (if any), each player must try to play a card that fits within the presented limits. If they have no cards that fit within the limits, theymust play any card from their hand instead.
    1. The highest card played that fits within the limits wins the turn. If one card fits and the other doesn’t, the card that fits automatically wins.
    2. If neither card fits the limits, the highest value card wins.
    3. If the cards are of equal value, a second card is played that also fits the limits. If these cards tie, a third card is played, and so on.
    4. If both hands are emptied and the cards are still tied, the top card is revealed on each deck until a winner is determined.
  5. Once the turn is won, the winning player can choose to put their opponent’s card (not the card that set the battlefield) into their hand instead of putting it into their score pile.
  6. Any cards not put into the winner’s hand (including the card that settle the battlefield) are then put into the player’s score pile. The market then moves to the player on the left.
  7. Play continues until one player runs out of cards in their deck. All other opponents then put all their cards into their own score pile.


  1. The score piles are counted, and then the total written down. The decks are divided back out, and play continues until a set score is reached (typically 200). That player is the winner.

Player Skill vs. Character Skill

Recently I’ve read various games I own that fall into the vague class of “Old School Renaissance.” OSR-style play exalts the skill and intelligence of the player over that of the character. And it’s got me thinking about player skill vs. character skill. What do they mean? What’s the difference between the two?

“Player skill” refers to the player’s own abilities, not translated through a game mechanic. In a tabletop RPG, this is the player asking questions and trying to discern things. In a LARP, this is the ability of a player to sway a room purely through the portrayal of his character. In a video game, this is the player moving his troops based on his own strategy, or shooting someone with by testing their own reflexes.

On the other hand, “character skill” refers to the character’s abilities inside the game, which has little to no connection to the player.  In a tabletop RPG, this is rolling a die to see if your character asks the right question or discerns things. In a LARP, this is playing rock-paper-scissors to see if your character sways a room. In a video game, this is activating your character to see what strategy he enacts, or relying on random chance to see if a character shoots someone.

Arguments can (and have) been made for and against both kinds of skill. However, what interests me is that both sides frame the discussion as if the two kinds of skill are mutually exclusive. And yet, in my own experiences with a variety of games, I’ve found that every game requires some player and some character skill. In your tabletop game, some things are abstracted through dice, and some things come from player discussion. In a LARP, some things require mechanical resolution or arbitration, and some things are purely based on player personality. In a video game, some things are handled by computer code, and some things are handled by player input.

In fact, I would argue that any game that is purely player skill or character skill ceases being a game. Too much player skill, and the game becomes nothing more than a puzzle — there is no outside factor that changes the player’s input, and it is either solved or unsolved. Too much character skill, and it becomes a movie — the player simply watches, having no agency as the game plays itself to its conclusion.

Certain games can (and should) emphasize player skill over character skill, or vice versa. It’s good to know going into a game or going into your design what you want to emphasize, where, and why. But you can’t have one without the other.

5 Worst Ways To Ask A Professional For Help

I like helping people out. I really do. I often eek out time between projects here and there to check a friend’s game mechanics or read over someone’s manuscript. For my friends, I’m willing to do a lot.

The downside is that I don’t have a lot of time left over to help relative strangers. I try to post advice and suggestions to this blog and on my social media, with the idea that I can help a lot of people more generally. However, I still get requests for free business advice, uncontracted design suggestions, informal manuscript comments, and unpaid consultations. And for a while, I tried being a nice guy and help out, but this year I committed to cut down and say “no” more often, because it was becoming a huge drain on my time, energy, and ability to stay civil.

I firmly believe that everyone involved isn’t trying to be irritating. They’re just confused, excited, and a little unsure of themselves. I get that. But I’ve talked with friends of mine who are also creative professionals, and they struggle with this as well. Many of them have stopped fielding such requests altogether (and I’ve come damned close a few times). And usually it’s because there are some really big problems in how folks ask for favors. Here are five ways to quickly frustrate the person you’re asking for help.

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Beating People to Death in a White Room: Game Balance

Recently I stumbled into a conversation where my friend and colleague Matthew McFarland was lamenting the point of “white room balance” in RPGs. For those that don’t know, “white room balance” is the idea that if you make two characters in a RPG using similar points or levels or dots or whatever and put them into a blank room, they should beat each other to death on a relatively even basis. His point is that RPGs rarely present situations such as a white room because these are characters, not blocks of numbers, and therefore the whole point of “white room balance” is meaningless.

I would go even further and submit that objective balance in games, particularly in games in which humans are involved, is largely an illusion. It is, however, an important one.

To illustrate, let’s switch to card games for a moment. There is an entrenched idea that the first player in a card game is at such an advantage that it is hard to find a game where that advantage isn’t somehow neutralized. The method of determining the first player is randomized, the status of first player rotates, or the first player plays at some kind of disadvantage (such as drawing one less card to start). I expect some designers are so used to trying to address this point of common concern that they end up giving an advantage to the second and subsequent players, but you don’t often hear about how the second player is always winning. The reason is that going first feels like an advantage, whether it actually is one mathematically. In fact, there are a number of cases where “common sense” seems to fly in the face of actual math and tactics, such as the infamous Monty Hall problem.

So we go back to white room balance. Even if your RPG character is unlikely to be in a situation where she has to kill someone else in a blank room with no other factors, there is a feeling that this is important. If a game doesn’t address this, one of two things needs to fill the void: either the game needs to address this perception of balance in another way (such as pointing out other systems that address this perception in different ways, like Fate Points do in Fate Core), or it needs to address why the perception doesn’t matter (such as intentionally designing a game where the protagonists are destined to lose, as in Call of Cthulhu). The issue isn’t addressing the numbers, but rather addressing how the players feel about the numbers. If they have confidence that the designers have addressed their concerns, then they are more likely to be invested in the perception of balance or fairness.

The (Video Game) Death Penalty

My wife and I both work in video games as a career. While I am a writer and designer, she primarily works in QA. And yet, we both have very different tastes in video games (although we both skew towards liking older games). Recently, she’s started trying some newer games, such as Bioshock Infinite and League of Legends. And she’s dying. A lot.

Naturally, this has been frustrating. She feels like she is bad at video games, which seems a little crazy considering that she plays them regularly as part of her job (and actually won an in-office competition once!). But I’ve sympathized with her, because her frustrations have reminded me of some hard lessons I’ve learned over the past several years. As video games change and evolve, how we relate to character death changes, and how players perceive that death is something we as designers need to be reminded of.

“Video game” is a collection of sub-genres. Avid gamers know that first-person shooters like Bioshock Infinite have almost nothing to do with free-to-play social games like Farmville. And yet, from an outside perspective, we talk about them as a collective whole. Further, we often assume that affinity with multiple sub-genres is the norm, and treat “gamers” as a collective audience. And increasingly, I think this is a disservice. I’ve been playing video games since the 80s, and yet I’m still not very good at FPS games. Hell, computer RPGs are some of my favorites, but I’ve finished precious few of these 20+ hour monsters. I’m just learning about heavy PvP and “eSport” style games.

The reality is, it’s very hard to be good at “video games,” but many gamers are good at particular sub-genres. As a culture, one of the disservices we do by lumping all such games together is imply that skills should translate between genres, which it’s just not true. And yet we also do this to ourselves, feeling like because we did really well in The Last of Us that we should be able to do well in Saints Row IV.

This seems like a digression, but it’s important. Dying feels like failure, and the more we lump all video games together, the more that failure in a non-optimal genre stings.

Death is no longer a failure state, but a game penalty. Back in the 80s, once of the main video game outlets Michelle and I both had were coin-operated arcades. If you died, that’s a quarter gone (and, since we both were raised in lower income families, that quarter meant a lot). So when I die for the fourth time in your PS3 game, there’s a small part of my brain that’s wracking up how much imaginary income I’ve lost. My propensity for old school RPGs and adventure games hasn’t helped much — if you die, you better hope you had a save game.1

But in reality, this hasn’t be really true for a couple of decades. Nowadays, a lot of games use death as a measure of player education: there’s little to no penalty to trying again and again until you master a particular skill. In fact, games like Dark Souls and Ninja Gaiden take this to the logical extreme. Many modern games have autosaves and savepoints that are so close together that death is barely a bump in the road. Others (such as many MMOs) impose a “death tax” that is mainly just time — you have to wait for a number of seconds and/or return to your previous location to continue. These aren’t failures so much as mild penalties. And we can learn from penalties.

This is a hard mental block to overcome, and the nuance between “failure” and “penalty” gets lost when you’re playing through the same section for the sixth time. But for me, I’ve slowly managed to move my mindset from “Fuck this game; I suck at it” and quitting to “I need to take a break” and walking away for a little while.

The “death penalty” can and should changed based on genre. The intersection between the two then becomes interesting: character death and what kind of penalty it leverages can and should change based on what style of game you’re putting together. In shooters, the death penalty is mild but distinct, because you want to kill the other guy before he kills you. For single-player FPSs at least, you’re learning the skill to clear a stage or master an encounter before moving on, so death needs to be a firm slap on the wrist, but not so penalizing that you won’t reload the stage and try again. If you don’t get that design, though, it just feels like you’re getting murdered again and again, like a gory Groundhog Day.

Michelle has since moved on to Lego Lord of the Rings, and seems to be having a better experience. It’s a game about exploration and trying things. The death penalty is exceedingly mild — you lose some points and go right back to where you were — and if you get stuck, you can just go somewhere else. The game isn’t about mastering skills or patterns, but a more freeform experience. If it were a stronger penalty, the player would be less likely to try things that look dangerous, and much of the point (and fun) of the game would be lost. Certainly a kid-friendly license like Lego also implies a lighter “death penalty,” but games like the NES DuckTales was also very kid-friendly, and yet it had a much harsher punishment curve. (In fact, the misnomer of casual/social/kid’s game as “easy” is probably a whole different blog post.)

  1. In fact, one of my most traumatic experiences was playing Final Fantasy 7 on the Playstation 1. I got all the way up to the end, realized that I was too low level to actually win, and had saved over all my old save games so I couldn’t go back and level up. I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Final Fantasy games ever since.

RPGs: The Anthology Session

Original Photo by Laura Desnoit

A couple of weeks ago, I ran a different kind of RPG session, something I called an “anthology” session. Since some people online were asking me how it went, and because I believe Gamemastering is best viewed as a shared education, I finally got some time to sit down and write up the experience.

Like most of the experiments I do at the table, this came from necessity. In this case, I had been running a series of The Dresden Files, and I was left with a few extraneous scenes that didn’t really warrant a full session. I debated doing them in downtime between sessions, but part of the Dresden Files mechanics is a bit where other players can jump in by spending a Fate Point. In fact, much of the design of the system involves the players as audience as well as participants, and running sessions without that audience cheapens that (have I mentioned that the FATE system is very, very clever?) I started thinking about the metaphor of the game as a series of connected novels (in this case, I’m shooting for a rough “trilogy” of novels), and I wondered if the metaphor would extend. What if I did the scenes as a collection of “short stories”?

I decided that if I was going to do this, each person should be the star of their own scene. This gave me a chance to dig into each character’s backstory (via Aspects and the various brainstormed materials from the City Creation session) and pull out one scene that made sense for each. I then realized that there was a bit of a progression between each scene, as there were connections and references to a particular plot thread — the introduction of a new drug — over and over. I tweaked a couple of things in my notes to take advantage of that.

Then it was just a matter of setting the stage. I gratefully stole an idea from Matt McFarland of having the characters meeting in a bar and trading stories of what happened to them over the course of the previous few weeks. I gave each player a notecard with a number on the back for the order of the stories, and the rough first sentence of their story. The first sentences were designed to get the interest of the characters (and the player holding it), so it was things like “Well, I almost died a few weeks back” or “That reminds me of the time I had to meet the dragon. Alone.” I explained this all to the players, set the scene, and let them go. When they worked the story opening in, I started the short story.

Things That Went Well

Showcasing characters: The session went really well for making sure each character got their moment to shine. Only one character didn’t really have a whole lot of character development, and he and I agreed that we needed to sit down and dig into his background a bit more.

The notecards: Handing out the notecards ahead of time was a good idea. It helped me to keep things moving, and the players seemed interested in finding ways to inject the snippets of information into the roleplay.

Teaching the system: I somewhat intentionally structured each scene to have a key conflict. Partially this was because of my years working on the Storytelling Adventure System and identifying the key mechanical conflict in each scene, and partially because I felt the group (myself included) still didn’t quite “get” the game mechanics, and it was a good way to push that issue. In that respect, it worked great, and I think we all understand how the game works a lot better.

Things That Could Have Gone Better

The notecards: At one point, I had to change the order of the scenes, which meant I had to put the current story on pause and start a new one. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have pre-determined the order of the scenes and went with something more organic. I don’t have an idea what that would be, though.

Forwards and backwards in time: Which led to another problem — the constantly time-shuffling led to some confusion. The previous example had three different timeframes happening at once, and a couple of times players were afraid to take actions lest it cause the scene in the bar where they were trading stories to be invalidated. I think next time I’ll use a different frame that doesn’t require any predetermined continuity.

All in all, it was a really good experience, and a couple of the players want to try it again at some point (probably between the second and third “novels” in the series).