#145: Prep, Thy Name is Game Design
And adventure, thy name is prep I guess
I. Dear Reader,
If you identify the beginning of tabletop roleplaying with the arrival of D&D (and you don’t have to), then the hobby begins with the idea of the game’s text being a “toolkit”. Basically, the book only has some of the parts of the game. You’re expected to piece it together yourself, making your own pieces up if need be. Eventually, you get a game that you can play.
As the hobby progressed, games might’ve stopped referring to themselves as toolkits, but they still relied on the diligent prep of a GM to be table-ready. And by prep here, I don’t really mean learning the rules, buying snacks, scheduling, and things like that. That’s preparation. No, no, prep is different, it is specifically the act of the GM gathering together ingredients to be deployed during the game session. This could be characters, setting information, introduction text, maps, and so on.
This didn’t really change with setting books and adventure paths. These had varying degrees of table-readiness. There were were obviously some adventures that felt like they had been designed to be played immediately with little extra prep required. And there were others where you could read a core book and a setting supplement and still go, “Okay, but what do we actually do here?”
If the difference between the two situations is design work, then it’s clear that all prep done by GMs over the course of history was game design. If they made dungeons, they were doing game design (or level design as the videogame industry might refer to it). If they created social scenarios or impending dooms or complex political relationships, that was all game design. This isn’t particularly controversial. A lot of people have said the same thing.
While lots of games over the last two decades have done things differently, there’s still lots of games that continue to rely on GMs and their prep - for lots of reasons, some people genuinely like prep, designing adventures is hard, and also inertia.
But I’m more or less allergic to prep. (I play games to play games and I design games to design games!) But as someone who seeks out and plays a lot of different games, this really comes back to bite me in the butt. Most games still run best when you’re willing to do not-insignificant amount of prep. In those situations, I really wish I had an adventure.
Now the games I’m talking about are non-OSR, modern, indie games. And for these games, the term is is a bit anarchonistic - adventures aren’t really a thing.
But I choose to see adventures as “prep that’s done for you by another person”. And since prep is game design, you could argue that… no, no, fine, let’s stay on track on here. If a game requires prep and an adventure is prep done by another person, then for every suck game, there is some form of adventure that fits it. It might not look like a fantasy adventure module - no itemized list of rooms, no bestiary, and so on. It’ll look like whatever prep you do for your game. If prep for this game looks like a series of NPCs with conflicting desires and affiliations, then that. If prep for this game is a one-paragraph mystery with a satisfying conclusion, then that.
Now, it has to be mentioned, maybe this one of those situations that the game designer or publisher can feel like they can’t win. Everyone preps differently, everyone plays differently - whatever you provide is going to be too little or too much for someone. I find GUMSHOE adventures too elaborate but I don’t want to write my own mysteries. Fair enough, I understand why other folks might want pages and pages. But let’s not say there isn’t space for some exciting work to be done in making games low to no prep no matter what the game looks like!
Yours un-prepped and unprepared,
II. Media of the Week
Couple of talks this week.
Storybrewers talk about how they create narrative in roleplaying gaming by analysing one of their small box games, Saltfish and Almanacs.
Fred Serval, who runs the Homo Ludens youtube channel, analyzes the “footprint” of various boardgames/wargames. Footprint is used here as a combination of scope and impact. It’s a long talk but there’s lot of interesting stuff there. And as a bonus, if you want a basic intro to wargaming, Serval’s channel has some good videos on that.
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III. Links of the Week
IGRC continues with its series of mini-reviews (Under Hollow Hills, Haxen, Traveler’s Ironsworn) and I think this installment is particularly good example of generous criticism.
Festive Ninja has an interesting article about what can happen if you’re lucky and get some hype from an article on Polygon.
Apropos for this week, on the mindstorm blog, a system of question-based adventure design. Great reading and some links to further reading.
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!
This newsletter is currently sponsored by the Bundle of Holding.
From Arc Dream, weird Lovecraftian adventures including Sleight-Hand-Man.
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