The Designer in the Box

Last fall, I playtested a game at Metatopia, a game design conference. The game was Ross Rifles, an upcoming TTRPG from Dundas West Games about Canadians in World War I. Daniel Kwan, one of the game’s authors, did a fantastic job running the game. Daniel is an educator with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Canadian experience in World War I, and he poured that knowledge into the session, describing the guns, rations, and trenches in vivid detail. The game itself does a great job of modeling the tension and danger inherent in war, and the mental and physical toll it takes on everyone involved.

After the playtest, Daniel asked us for feedback. I praised him for the level of detail he was able to bring into the game, but added a caveat: “You won’t come in the box.” I loved what I played, but I was playing with a game master who had spent years studying World War I and crafting a game based on it. If I was the game master, would I be able to recreate that experience?

Daniel and his team, to their credit, have included a lot of historical background in their rulebook, character sheets, and other materials. I’m sure their final product will do everything it can to help players incorporate historical color in their roleplaying. But this gets at a larger point—a roleplaying game is not a static work of art like a book or a movie. TTRPGs are more like a script or sheet music: they must be performed, and that performance requires practice and skill. And just as an experienced musician can reproduce all of the subtlety in a work of music, a group of experienced roleplayers can reproduce a designer’s vision during play.1

If we accept that playing a roleplaying game is a performance, and that to experience a roleplaying game as intended by its designer requires skilled performers, why don’t we teach people how to perform? Composers need skilled musicians, and playwrights need skilled actors. Don’t designers need skilled players?

Robin Laws seems to think so. In his 2002 book Robin’s Laws of Good Game-Mastering, he argues that the work of the game designer accounts for, at most, 30% of whether or not a group has a good gaming session. The rest of the work, Laws argues, falls on the group itself. He continues:

If roleplaying is to grow creatively, game designers will have to continue to experiment and push the limits, just as painters, musicians and authors have done ever since their respective fields were bom. But if we’re to improve the quality of individual games and the overall popularity of the form, we need to look more closely at the other 70% of the experience, the part that arises from each group’s individual interactions.

It is my intention to do just that.

Welcome to Knowledge Check, a monthly series on the art of playing roleplaying games. I’m Sam Hotchkiss, a game designer and long-time roleplayer. I’ve spent years reading everything I can get my hands on about roleplaying theory and the art of gamemastering, teaching it, and applying it to my play and game design. With this blog, I hope to help you improve the way you play roleplaying games by exposing you to theories, ideas, and best practices from around the industry.

Next month, I will be exploring the Big Model, a way of understanding the act of roleplaying.

  1. Performers can also reinterpret the work in their performance, producing a new work with added meaning. This can be seen, for example, in opera, where most productions are of the same dozen or so works portrayed in a novel context. [return]
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