The Middle Path is Best

One of the hardest lessons for me to internalize as a game designer is that most people aren’t game designers. And as a corollary, most people don’t really want to be game designers. When I was young a game that had more rules was just better. Oh sure, I could make something up for a situation if I had to, but why should I have to? I paid good money for this game, don’t tell me that now I have to finish writing it for you! However as I’ve gotten older I have less and less patience for layers of rules that I’m never going to remember, and will probably just irritate me when I do. And it’s not just me, everyone I know is getting older too, and the farther we get from college the less anyone seems to care about spending 2 hours meticulously going through options. Let’s just roll the damned dice and get moving.

Too much rule-spew and a game is frustrating and impenetrable. Too little and it feels haphazard and incomplete. It doesn’t take much to write a game that I can run…it’s a bit harder to write one that some stranger can run and have something like the experience I intended. I’ve been trying for a long time to hit that sweet spot with my own designs, or at least close enough that the college version of me and the current cranky old bastard version could both play it without being enraged.

To that end I’ve been doing a lot with modular design. First work out a basic framework that you can play and have a good time with even without modifiers. Get the basic dice tricks to make sense and engage so you have a low entry barrier. And if a player is fine there…stay there. Sure there are modifiers a GM can throw out, or that the player can see and ask “hey, what do I have to do to get that bonus?” to encourage building a situation. A simple bonus for having higher ground can have a huge impact on tactics and engagement. Suddenly players might be looking for a high spot to defend, or trying to get elevation for an ambush. A player with a tactical background might ask about those details anyway, but people without that knowledge need the modifier to give them a push in the right direction.

Likewise maneuvers like sweeps and suppressing fire are really cool, but if you throw all of that at a player upfront they’ll likely hit it like a barrier. Just pick from this list of 35 things you can do! And that can lead to another dead end, where players start to think that if what you want isn’t on the list then you can’t do it. But if you use your character creation to unlock those sorts of things with bonuses then players can start customizing their play experience rather than just their character. If you don’t want to deal with the extra options, buy stuff that gives you passive increases or more brute force. If you do buy in, then you get crazy new options that make your character feel like an expert with more options. That kind of modularity allows players with different needs to still have a good experience, and keeps the system flexible enough that it can handle mods and hacks without fracturing.

That’s the plan anyway.