This is the beginning of a new series of blogs, focused around exploring the ideas around how games feel in active play, and how we can design for a game feel that is closer to the action of the game itself. During this series, I will likely say disparaging things about your favorite game. This is not to imply anything negative about you or your choice to play that game, but rather to examine how these games frame the play experience and how that framing does not always match up with the desired impact of its rules.
This series operates under a few axioms which are assumed to be true, and which I will not be arguing throughout the rest of the series.
First, mechanics shape play. This should be fairly self-apparent, but it bears repeating that the rules in the text of the game will have an impact on the way that the game feels in play.
Second, a complete text should provide all the tools required for play. This is to say that if you pick up a copy of a game or download the pdf, all of the procedures you need to run a session should be explained within the text. The need for outside tools such as dice or cards should be explained up front, even if it is outside of the context of the game to actually provide them.
Third, not every game has to be fun. While play is often strongly linked to the idea of “fun,” it can serve a variety of functions, ranging from education to ego-formation to self-expression. Fun absolutely can be a primary factor in a game, but it does not have to be. Instead, it is much more important for a game to be engaging, that is, that the participants desire to see the end of a session. An engaging game also encourages in-the-moment interactions with the emotional and mechanical content of that game.
Fourth, player safety is the most important factor of any game. This includes both physical and emotional safety, and is non-negotiable.
Fifth, physical tools outside of dice, playing cards, and tarot cards are often expensive or inaccessible. As much as I love Dread and Star-Crossed, not everyone can play Jenga, and thus some people cannot play those games. In that spirit, none of my design ideas in this series will involve any physical tools beyond dice and cards. It is okay if your designs include other tools, just know that in using them, some players may be excluded.
There is a sixth axiom that is vital to this series, that I intend to spend the rest of this article arguing for. The feel of the mechanics in play should have resonance with the actions described by that play. This one is a bit more difficult to explain, as you might guess.
It might be best to explain via examples. The first and foremost example of this lies in Dread. The way that each pull from the Jenga tower ratchets up the stakes, the tension, and the uncertainty mirrors the way that the narrative grows more perilous as the characters progress through it. Indeed, the tower itself generates that tension through each block pull. The collapse of the tower then offers a reset and relief of that mounting tension as it finds an outlet in a character’s death.
To provide a counter-example, rolling a d20 and adding a series of modifiers to it, then comparing that result to a derived target number, and then if that first roll is successful, rolling another die and applying modifiers to determine the impact of that role does not particularly feel like a raucous battle. That mechanic could be used for carefully aligning a cannon or sniper rifle for a precise shot, but takes too long to be used as a mechanic for a faster paced experience.
Unless the player has done the math ahead of time, there will be an extra step of calculation that slows things down. And the math will change from target to target, making it all the more difficult to keep up with the pace.
If you wanted to represent an energetic but chaotic fight sequence using the base of that mechanic above, some tweaking could go a long way. First, make the d20 roll be aiming for a static or semi-static target number. For example, against opponents of equal skill, a player would need to roll a 8+, against weaker opponents, a 5+, against stronger opponents an 11+, and if that opponent has a particular defensive specialty, increase that by one step (up to a 14+ for a tough, stronger opponent).
Then have damage be a static value on success, based on the character’s stats. For example, instead of rolling 1d8+3, a successful attack might just do 8 damage for that character. Tough characters could have more health or damage reduction, but that would be handled on the back end, away from the action at hand. With these tweaks, the math is easier, the action is faster, and the results more direct.
Now, adjusting the game like this would also require alterations to the character creation and advancement systems and to all other kinds of mechanics. This is why it’s better to design for gamefeel from the ground up, rather than trying to apply it later.
Why This Matters
This of course raises the question of why this matters. It’s a good question, and not one with a simple answer. I could go to my philosophical principles, but I think that in truth, stronger gamefeel creates more interesting games. I feel like core mechanics are slow to change and while designers are doing wonderful work with those existing core mechanics, that there is still a vast possibility space out there to explore.
This series aims to explore that space, to see what new and strange things lurk on the other side, in those unexplored spaces. This likely sounds pretentious of me, and it probably is, but I’ve been living TTRPGs as my core passion for over thirty years now. I have put the work in and I hope that my discoveries will help those designers reading to have a brand new toolkit to use in their games. And if I’m lucky, maybe I’ll encourage some folks to do their own explorations.
To clarify, there is nothing wrong with not following the design principles written in this series. A game does not suddenly stop being a game just because it doesn’t fit within these precepts. It may not have what I define as good gamefeel, but that has nothing to do with the validity of the game or its value to the designer and to its players.
That said, I do believe that strong unities of gamefeel and action create a greater degree of engagement with the text and with the game. It results in a stronger emotional reaction to the material and allows for a greater catharsis when used safely.
Next time on Designing for Gamefeel, Modality.
In the meantime, please answer the following questions in reply to this post either here on the blog or on social media:
Which games have elicited the strongest emotional responses from you?
Which games have felt the most distant from the action during play for you?
What kinds of experiences and feels are you interested in seeing further explored in this series?
Mids Meinberg is an independent games designer, theorist, and consultant. Thon can be hired to consult on your design or to help create mechanics for your game, no matter where it is in development. E-mail thon at MMeinberg@gmail.com for more information.
Thons first kickstarter is currently live on Kickstarter. You can purchase Mids Meinberg’s games at itch.io and DriveThruRPG and follow thon on twitter @meinberg13. In addition, thon is available to appear on any interested podcast.