The kobolds are back with another amazing collection of twelve thought-provoking and informative essays from some of the best designers and writers creating role-playing game material today. The essays cover everything from the simple question of "What is Design?" to working through contentious topics of creativity, craft, and how to recover when things don't go well. Anyone who's tried to write professionally understands the power of the blank page, rejection, and the unforgiving and untapped potential of any great idea you can't quite find the words to express, but it's a rare treat to get advice from some of the stars of the role-playing game industry to address those problems. It's nice to know the kobolds care.
As someone who aspires to be a game designer and writer, I find that rules are hard for me and settings are relatively easy. So as I perused the pages of the guide, I found myself trolling for tips and tricks to simplify my rules process and make finishing projects more of a reality than a wish. With that in mind, I will avoid talking about each essay in depth and instead focus on a couple that I found particularly helpful.
Wolfgang Baur has worked on some of my favorite gaming projects over the years, from the original Planescape line at TSR to adventures for Alternity, Call of Cthulhu, Pathfinder, and a whole lot of D&D. He's edited the Kobold Quarterly, Dragon, and Dungeon magazines and is the publisher and founder of Open Design — a collaborative game design company. Oh, and in his spare time he publishes the Kobold Guide to Game Design series.
Baur's essay "What is Design?" tries to define a term that doesn't lend itself well to a definition unless you have context on your side. He defines design as "its own discipline, but [that] it always borrows and builds on other modes of creative work." What does that mean in terms of role-playing games (RPGs)? It means that there has to be a balance between rules and setting. When they are out of balance, you can end up with a less than fun experience for your gamemaster (GM) and his or her players, which may cost you fans or customers. Rules must exist in terms of the setting and the setting must keep the rules in mind at all times. It's a balance I know I've not yet achieved in my own games.
The other essays build on Baur's beginning, covering the similarities between designing RPGs for the computer and for the tabletop; the basics of combat systems; the power of a good design, hook and dastardly plot; and the fun and heartbreak inherent in collaboration and any creative enterprise. Additionally, as stated above, each essay is lovingly crafted by a master in RPGs today who knows what they're talking about.
The other essay that really got my attention was "Basic Combat Systems for Tabletop Games" by Colin McComb. As I said earlier, system design is my Achilles' heel. McComb manages to explain, in a Q&A format, what you need to know about attack systems, who attacks and when, how things like area of effect attacks affect a group of targets, how to measure the consequences of combat through permanent or temporary damage, and so on. He then lays out a sample system using his own rules (minus stringent playtesting) to show how the questions can help you come up with a working system. The practical aspect of the article provides a ton of hints and help to avoid the common problems that plague beginning system designers (like myself).
As for the other writers…
Colin McComb was involved in 2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons and helped create one of my favorite settings for that edition, Planescape. He even helped with two of my favorite computer games of all time — Planescape: Torment and Fallout 2.
Rob Heinsoo has been involved with the 4th Edition of D&D and seems to have written half the sourcebooks that have been published so far. He's the force behind the D&D Miniatures game and its first nine expansion sets. And if that's not enough, he worked at Daedalus Entertainment, Chaosium, and A-Sharp in the 1990s.
Ed Greenwood is simply a legend in the gaming industry. Not only is he the author behind the Elminster Series, including Elminster: The Making of a Mage and Elminster's Daughter, but he's written hundreds of articles about gaming and continues to GM his own campaign. Where does he find the time when he's typically writing three novels at once as well?
And Monte Cook… What can I say about Monte? When 3rd Edition D&D and the d20 system came out, he was one of the three principle designers behind the efforts. Since then, with his own design studio, Malhavoc Press, he's managed to create several award-winning products such as Monte Cook's Arcana Evolved, Ptolus, and the Books of Eldrich Might. In my opinion, he has one of the most unique voices among the game designers of today.
If you're a GM, a game designer, or a RPG player interested in getting into the design side of how to create your own games you can't find a better introduction than The Kobold Guide to Game Design – Volume III: Tools & Techniques. These 96 pages will provide infinite food for thought and hopefully save you some pain and suffering along the way. I certainly have a lot to think about now…
As a final note, I think that kobold on the inside cover is up to something… don't you?