I. Dear Reader,
This newsletter is late because I’ve been down with the flu this whole weekend. I could’ve sent it out without this opening section but last week, a lot of people had commented with suggestions and I felt like I’d rather be late but maintain our flow of conversation.
Okay, so we were talking about conceptual models. I had quoted a definition from Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things:
A conceptual model is an explanation, usually highly simplified of how something works. It doesn’t have to be complete or even accurate as long as it it useful.
Now, conceptual models are in our heads. But I wanted to specifically talking about diagrams that help us build these head-models. There are a lot of conceptual diagrams in RPG books already. The most famous of these is the humble dungeon map. The dungeon map is a simplified diagram of the dungeon that helps us visualize and understand the space.
But I was interested in the use of diagrams as a way of representing the rules of the entire game or at least a part of the game. This is a tricky thing to do because like the above definition captures, the designer is always trying to balance accuracy, completeness, and usefulness.
(Some people mentioned the Mothership character sheet which is a great piece of design but I think people miss some key aspects of it. I’ll do a whole issue about that character sheet alone. Maybe next week!)
So here are some examples from your suggestions:
Blades in the Dark: This is a diagram of the game’s high-level structure. By default, you are assumed to be in a state of Free Play, but when you choose a target and a plan, you get into a Score via an engagement roll. And so on. The information it is trying to convey, i.e., the game play loop of Blades in the Dark, is something that players have to hold in their heads.
Ironsworn Starforged: I’m a big fan of the first Ironsworn as a text. I recommend it to people all the time. Alongside all the other things that Shawn Tomkin did, it feels like a great playbook for designers to follow. Couple of readers specifically pointed out that Starforged, the new version, has some good diagrams. This is the first diagram in the reference guide. And it’s a good example because it’s trying to model the logic of Starforged at the highest possible level. The rules of the game slot into this model gracefully - adding complexity, contributing suggestions, and so on.
Apocalypse Keys: Rae Nedjadi and Evil Hat did a great job with this book. It has a similar goals to the previous two diagrams. In fact, it’s an interesting bridge between the very macro level of the Blades diagram and the very micro level of the Starforged one. It’s referencing micro-events like making a move while also situating that within the macro-flow of every adventure. One question to think about: why do some nodes come with description and some just have headings? It’s the classic information design question and if you’re thinking about making these charts, it’s one you should be asking yourself as you look at all of these examples.
Now, the success or failure of these diagrams as teaching tools lies in their usefulness. And that’s not something I’m qualified to arbitrate. If you have personal experiences with these games, sound off in the comments! The important thing for me is that they’re trying to give you, the reader, this high-level picture of what play looks like. And that’s extremely useful.
It can be a tool you use to troubleshoot why something feels off. It can be something that aids your understanding the text. Or it can be something that convinces you that yes, you have grasped what play looks like and yes, you are ready to run this game.
Yours designed with a hierarchy of colours, shapes and text,
II. Media of the Week
This week, I’ve got another fun recommendation which is My First Dungeon, a podcast that does something very exciting. It has three parts. In the first part, the designer of a game gives advice to someone who is going to run their game for the first time. The second part is an actual play of the game being run. And in the third part, the GM discusses their experience of running the game for the first time.
They’ve done a bunch of games so far. But I’m enjoying their Ten Candles series: here’s the episode with advice from designer Stephen Dewey, the actual play, and then the post-facto discussion.
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III. Links of the Week
The TTRPG Bundle for Trans Rights in Florida has raised over 160k in donations. The donations are matched so this could even equate to 320k. You get to help out and get like 500 games for as little as 5$.
Good week for prep advice.
TTRPG Factory has an article about campaign/session structures and how they connect with pacing.
The wonk over at Cannibal Halfling has a good system for prep as well, talking about stuff like “the problem space”.
On Fail Forward blog, a look at the pleasure of wacky - dare I say it, avant-garde - games and rules.
The Soloist newsletter has some advice from folks who ran crowdfunding campaigns in ZineMonth as well as interesting points about starting a actual plays of solo games.
Pandion Games have shared their project template for their game design work.
There’s A TTRPG For That shares a list of heavy metal games and it’s a fun list.
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez writes about Subversion, the Shadowrun-esque RPG from folks who love Shadowrun but you know, also wanted a different game.
IV. Small Ads
All links in the newsletter are completely based on my own interest. But to help support my work, this section contains sponsored links and advertisements. If you’d like your products to appear here, read the submission form.
Nothing this week! So I thought I’d pay myself ten dollars and plug a sale of all my games. Celebrate my birthday and get some of my games for 30% off.
This newsletter is currently sponsored by the Bundle of Holding.
Two quick deals. Knights of the Dinner Table, the famous comic about tabletop roleplaying, has a new volume up for sale.
Also, a collection of Pathfinder adventures to raise funds for designer Owen KC Stephens’ medical bills.
Hello, dear readers. This newsletter is written by me, Thomas Manuel. If you’d like to support this newsletter, share it with a friend or buy one of my games from my itch store. If you’d like to say something to me, you can reply to this email or click below!
Thanks for shouting out My First Dungeon! I’m super proud of our 10 Candles season and I’m really excited for more people to hear it.
Excellent as always, with so many great resources. And happy birthday!