Improvised Game Design

While it’s true that virtually every RPG you’ll ever play will require rulings or some other human judgement, there are a few games out there that require improvised game design as part of the play experience. Or at least make it fun as hell.

As I’ve written before, we’re in the midst of the Band of Blades campaign. Forged in the Dark games like Band have a terrific little game design system, which is its particular take on clocks. There’s also an ongoing open invitation to design little games each time you create missions for the Legion to go on. Each session, the GM is tasked with creating two or three scenarios. Each scenario should have three-or-so “obstacles.” And big, interesting obstacles are modeled in Band of Blades via some arrangement of clocks.

The simple, and to my mind boring, choice is to just name three obstacles and stick a clock on each one. Navigate through the forest: 8 segment clock. Defeat the monster: 8 segment clock. Defeat…another monster. Eight. More. Segments.

Sure, that’s fine. You can also reduce an obstacle to a single roll. And you can even reduce that single roll to a context-less risky/standard roll and forego the position/effect discussion. The game provides lots of tools and invites the GM to calibrate the experience based on the players’ tastes and the scope of your sessions. If I was running a lunchtime game, I might very well devolve a mission down to three simple risky/standard rolls and count on the rolls to generate complications along the way.

But I’m not running a lunchtime game. I’ve got four adults showing up on my doorstep every Tuesday and they’ve played a whole lot of games with me. Ain’t got time for good-enough gaming, we’re getting old.

Story Time!

Our session this week featured a social conflict for the Legion to figure out. They had arrived in Fort Calisco, the last bit of civilization they’re going to have before a final push over or through the mountains and their last stand against the Cinder King at Skydagger Keep. They’re also completely depleted upon arrival. No supplies. No food. The squads on the verge of deserting or, possibly, fragging their commanding officers. They’re balanced on the ragged edge, which is pretty great for a game largely inspired by the Black Company books. But they need to eat, so the Legion takes their case to the gathered commanders of the Eastern Kingdoms who are also hunkered down in the fort.

During mission prep, my first question is always: what does my understanding of the fiction say a reasonable set of obstacles to overcome would be? That’s straight out of The Rules. When I’ve identified the obstacles, then I start thinking about improvised game design for each one. What’s a good way to model the obstacle? What forces might be in tension? How costly do I think it might be? Is death on the line?

There are a lot of things to think about, but the bottom line is that whatever I come up with to mechanically structure a mission, I’ll only have one chance to test/use it. My instincts and experience in building clocks games is solid but I still tend toward conservative answers. My players are also wary of novelty, because they’ve figured out how to work most of the clock games I’ve come up with. But sometimes that’s irritating and presumptuous, you know? When they’re jumping ahead to mathing out the most efficient way to work through clocks that are likely to hit the table, that’s a planning fugue and they’re not really engaged with the fiction at all. So I need to throw curve balls, but not too curved.

Look at these glorious clocks. LOOK AT THEM.

Back to this negotiation mission. My solution, I thought before play, was pretty neat: four pairs of racing clocks, each four segments (short!), one for each of the four Eastern Kingdom commanders. Fill a “reject” clock and that commander tells the Legion to fuck off. Fill the “of course!” clock and they will. I also dropped a 6-segment “the alliance collapses” clock indicating that the Legion’s efforts (or being seen as pathetic, which is decidedly off-brand for The Legion) are so disruptive that the four commanders give up trying to work with each other as well! This setup is busy and novel, and I’m not sure I’d have been comfortable putting that on the table without lots of experience.

My improvised game design worked okay! But as with all game design, there were some unexpected outcomes. For one, I specified early on that all four commanders needed to be on board, otherwise nobody would help the Legion. So, really, I had four 4-segment clocks, any one of which would stop the whole thing, and one 16-segment clock visually broken up across four index cards. And a bonus 6-segment clock that would also mean disaster. Turns out that second “the alliance collapses” was a good place to dump consequences rather than ticking any one of the four 4-segment “reject” clocks hard and early. Also, since I made each commander a 4-clock, that strongly prompted players to scrape together greater effects, then either push or shift position for effect. Virtually every roll was desperate as a result, which was exciting and fraught and, at my end, a bit exhausting.

It worked out well in the end. A couple of the commanders got semi-pissy during negotiations but nobody pulled all the way out. The entire alliance was stressed by this but it didn’t collapse. It all turned out great and it all felt great. It was also a reminder that much, maybe most, of a Forged in the Dark game is illusory: the PCs are only in as much danger as the GM wants to put them in, since there is so much discretion in how much and how hard any given consequence hits. And clocks provide release valves that delay large-scale consequences. I’ve found that the more clocks I spool out, the less likely the PCs are to fail a mission but the more likely they are to end up completely wrecked at the end, mostly due to stress generated while resisting consequences.

If I designed this game and then tested it among several audiences, I’m not sure I’d have designed it how I did. There was something missing in modeling the fragility of the negotiations. (But maybe not! No way to know after one play.) If I had it to play again, I’d twiddle and tweak and it’d feel different. But the beauty of improvised game design is that you never have to play that game again.

Game Design Is Everywhere

So say we all.

Coming up with an interesting dungeon puzzle? That’s game design.

Creating a custom move? Game design.

Creating Aspects in Fate? Yup.

Working out the conflicts at stake in a conflict resolution game like Dust Devils? Very much game design. Discovering that opposed goals are boring is the lesson, agreeing to what is both achievable and credible in a conflict is the design work. And it’s hard! I think this is why conflict resolution games have largely fallen by the wayside.

Basically if you’re ever creating a system of resolutions that orbit an outcome, rather than directly resolving the outcome itself, that’s improvised game design.

How to Design a Game In Situ

My Band of Blades story is just one small example of improvised game design. I feel like it’s a different topic than how to design a full on game, but it shares some touchpoints. Some thoughts:

  1. Do you actually need to do this? If you just need to resolve a task/intent/scene, you don’t need to improvise a game. But if you want to model an ebb and flow of tension, with several stops along the way to make interesting choices and maybe generate new fiction, then you’re looking at improvising a game.
  2. What’s at stake? This means thinking about best and worse outcomes. In my negotiation game, I wanted not only the success or failure of the negotiations to be in question, but the very alliance itself. I was thinking about the big picture, the campaign. I also thought ahead to what running the fuck-off clocks looked like and whether that’d break the mission, or just send it in a different direction. The game will have more interesting tensions if there are both small-scale and large-scale implications at play.
  3. What is your minigame’s play cycle? Or, from 10k feet up: what patterns can the players complete? In the case of clocks, that’s literally just filling clocks. The visual impact of filling a clock is itself pattern completion. It feels good. I think this is why a circle full of segments is more visually appealing than just adding up hash marks. At some point the play cycle of your minigame will include the actual rules, which themselves will complete patterns. Your game has to exist within the larger game, and should leverage that rather than ignore or break it.
  4. Are there interesting choices? In my little Band minigame, the choices were how to approach each of the four commanders. But if you’re putting together, say, a custom move in Apocalypse World, you’ll want interesting results no matter what you roll. PbtA moves are probably the most difficult improvised minigames to design, largely because you do them in advance and you’re committed to however they play out.
  5. Where do the intermittent rewards appear? Completing a pattern is a nice reward, yes? In Blades it’s completing a clock, but it’s also the opportunity to earn XPs on desperate rolls. In Fate it’s earning Fate points. In D&D it’s those natural 20s. Games need intermittent rewards so make sure you’ve got your eye on those.
  6. Does your minigame fit the overall mood of the game? In other words, does the thing you built feel like it fits the game, or does it feel contrived? Some games can tolerate contrivances! There’s a certain kind of dungeon that already feels pretty contrived, for example.
  7. Is it too on the nose? If I improvise a bad game, it’s usually because it’s too on the nose and I should have just resolved a task/intent/scene (see thought 1!).
  8. Rely on your experience. Not every game design you’ll improvise will work with every table. Some folks don’t really care for all the extra tensions, or the time required to play through your game. Unfortunately, you probably won’t know if the game is fun or boring until you’re actually playing it.
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