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GM, Thou Art Not A Game Designer!

I’ve been working on my own RPG system for years now. How hard can it be? I’ve played RPGs, and I have GMed RPGs for over 15 years. Plus I’m good at RPGs. Really. I can run kick ass home and convention games and I am diverse in the systems and genres that I run. My players like my games, whether they are long time friends or total strangers that just bought an event ticket.

So I decided to take the plunge and to write my own RPG. I have since learned that just like being a great race car driver doesn’t make you a great mechanic, experience with running and playing RPGs does not make you a game designer. Setting is one thing but combining setting, mechanics, unique qualities, and overall purpose together into a fully functional RPG that people will want to play? That my friends is something completely different.

And yet I’ve met tons of GMs like myself who think that they could design a great RPG. That may be possible, and the point of this article is not to convince anyone not to try, but I’m just letting you know that your experience on either side of the screen only prepares you for a small part of the overall experience of game design.

As GMs we tend to focus on what doesn’t work in a game when creating house rules, or on creating a setting that is more to our own liking. We are also usually very successful in these attempts, because we are not designing a game but instead are customizing an existing game to our own tastes.

This is the difference between adjusting the engine and adding a sweet body kit to your automobile and designing a new vehicle from the ground up. Yes you may have tweaked the engine to give you better performance where it matters to you, and you might turn some heads because of the unique body style, but you probably never thought twice about how to run the electrical system so that it complied with government safety standards or how thick the gas tank’s seals are. These are incredibly important details that engineers and designers have to consider while those who customize their cars look more at whether or not the vehicle meets their own personal expectations. We GMs sometimes miss what it is that the designers did right when we complain about a game system, because we tend to focus on the parts of the game that do not match our own personal style of play.

And you don’t just buy any car to customize, but instead you buy one that already offers you the majority of the features that you desire. The same is true with RPGs. You play the systems that you enjoy, and tweak them to enhance that which you enjoy even more. That is a great thing to do, but that doesn’t mean that the game was “broken” before you modified it to your own liking. If the game is truly broken and has no merit whatsoever you probably will stop playing it. If you spend hours customizing it though that just shows how much you must really enjoy the game to begin with.

Being on the other side of the pen/keyboard has given me a new found respect for game designers. I’m willing to play the rules as they are written for a longer period of time now before creating house rules. I also tend to question myself more before I change something. Is the system actually broken, or am I desiring something else from the game other than what the designer intended the game to deliver? I find myself tweaking the games I play less and less, and I find myself improving my own interpretation of the rules more and more. All because now I start by questioning my reaction instead of questioning the game’s design. And when I do tweak the rules now it is with a much clearer objective and much better results.

Yes, there is always room for customization. Just make sure that you understand why it is that you feel the need to customize your game. Sometimes it is not because the game is flawed at all, but because you and your group just need it seasoned a little to your own unique tastes.

That is my opinion on the matter, so what is yours? Leave your comments for others to read and share your own experiences with me and other members of the Gnome Stew community. And no matter what happens, don’t forget that the GM is a player too! Have fun with it!

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "GM, Thou Art Not A Game Designer!"

#1 Comment By Rafe On September 29, 2008 @ 7:11 am

This is so true. I’m an editor by profession and a long-time writer by leisure and it is ALWAYS easier to correct or modify that which already exists. Starting from scratch can be tough going.

My approach is to find a “core mechanic,” so to speak, that works for me and my group. Light-hearted, fairly simple fantasy? 4e. Grittier, more dynamic fantasy? Iron Heroes with a bit of Black Company thrown in. My approach: Choose the best fit so you’re in a position of minimal modification.

#2 Comment By Cole On September 29, 2008 @ 7:50 am

Most people will not know their limitations until they try. If a person has the imagination, the perseverance, the time, and a group of friends to help them, by all means, they should go for it.

[1] and [2] are examples of game systems developed in the manner described above. Both of them have given us high quality game systems that are available free of charge to everyone.

#3 Comment By nblade On September 29, 2008 @ 7:58 am

I think you have hit on something true. Your comment about taking longer before making any house rules is an interesting one. I think many GM, I include some things I’ve done in the past as well, forget that some game features are in there for a good reason. We sometimes talk about a broken feature but fail to take into account the greater picture. That is not to say that we shouldn’t tinker, just don’t expect your rules to be perfect. Hell, no game system is perfect. A game at its core is model. No model is perfect and so no game can be perfect . In making changes to the rules (model), you face what has been called the “the modeler’s delimia”. It basically goes like this. The more complex your model, the less likely you are to get any useful information out of it. Which roughly means that the changes you make may make the model usable.

OK enough of my mindless rant. Again Nice article.

#4 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On September 29, 2008 @ 8:36 am

I would definately say that, in general, being a GM (or a player) makes you MORE qualified to be a game designer than someone who is not, in the same way that someone who only ever walks or rides a bike may, all else being equal, be LESS qualified to design your car than someone who drives one. It’s simply a matter of being familiar with the demands and features of your system and the output you need. Does this mean that everyone who plays or GMs a game is qualified to be a designer? Of course not, but it’s a start. In my experience playing, tweaking, building, etc… RPGs for 20 years or so, I say with 100% confidence, that game design and the correct approach and mindset for game design is a learned skill. As you start to wear the game designer hat, you’ll start to become interested in things that make games tick. You’ll be more interested in playing a crappy game with an innovative system to see how it works and shakes out, than a phenominal award-winning game with a system you’ve seen before. You’ll start to see how certain mechanics and modules effect flavor, effect other mechanics and modules, effect fun at the table, etc… These are all things you don’t pay all that much attention to until you put on that hat.

So, if you want to be a game designer, DO IT. If your game ends up sucking (and be objective, and listen to your testers. When they tell you it sucks, they’re trying to help. LISTEN, do NOT get definsive.) try again. Alter what you have. Start again from scratch, solicit more feedback, and then:
PLAY. Play your game. Play other games, and keep your eyes open for new perspectives, ideas, and ways to apply what you’ve learned.

#5 Comment By Patrick Benson On September 29, 2008 @ 9:06 am

Thanks for the comments everyone!

Rafe – Spot on. Editing can be difficult, but it isn’t writing. They are complimentary skills and not substitutes for each other. Just like GMing and game design.

Cole – I agree that people should try their hands at game design if they are interested. But the point of the article is that being a GM does not make you a game designer. It is a different set of skills that you need to develop alongside your GMing skills.

NBlade – Good point about the modeler’s dilemma. You have to acknowledge the limitations of the medium that you work with. With RPGs that limitation can be complexity. Too simple and the game isn’t fun or challenging, too complex and the game isn’t fun or is overwhelming. You need to find the sweet spot for your own tastes.

Matthew J. Neagley – Yes, again, if you want to be a game designer go do it. All I’m saying is that while test pilots were the best choice to be trained as the first U.S. astronauts they still had to be trained as astronauts. Being a GM will make learning the skills of a game designer easier, but recognize that they are different roles. And writing a crappy game is better than never writing a game at all. You can always fix it after getting in good play testing with your system.

#6 Comment By Scott Martin On September 29, 2008 @ 10:52 am

I’m happy to be a lazy consumer in almost every field– and I’m OK with it. In high school I was certain that I could make a better game system (after all, I’d read like 15 and played something like 7), thought maybe I’d be a writer, etc. As I’ve grown up, I’ve come to realize that while maybe I could try out those professions… I’d rather spend my time reading good fiction written by others, or playing neat games that someone else has already playtested and debugged.

Of course, if the bug bites, I may have to disavow that cool reason above and take the plunge. I’m just enjoying the huge breadth of game systems and experiences out there at the moment.

#7 Comment By Alan De Smet On September 29, 2008 @ 10:40 pm

For anyone considering dabbling in game design, a note: do people flock to your game because you’ve written a great game, or because you’re a great GM? After all, a great GM can take a mediocre game and make it shine. This is the down side of all too many small press games; they only work when the author is running them.

Even if your game is brilliant, it is extremely difficult to take all of the knowledge, wisdom, and cleverness in your head and get it onto paper so a complete stranger can read it and get similar results without ever having met you. It can be done, but it’s a hard road.

#8 Comment By Tommi On September 29, 2008 @ 10:41 pm

If by designer one means someone creating a game for others to play, then the post title is very true.

If by designer one means someone making games themselves and their friends to play, then I’d argue that most game masters are indeed designers; the difference between building something from nothing and tweaking something existing are matters of scale. New things are built by re-using bits and pieces of older games.

#9 Comment By Raf Blutaxt On September 30, 2008 @ 1:47 am

Interesting points by all posters above me.
I think however, that bein a GM makes you a better game designer than not gming at all.
In my experience most GM’s dabble in game design at some point, it’s probably our nature to think that we could do much better if we only tried. Mostly however I think that GM’s design new settings and tweak their favourite systems to fit them. And I think for creating new settings, no one is better suited than an experienced gm.
Creating completely new game mechanics is a different pot of stew. For that a designer needs different skills, most gm’s don’t have by default.

#10 Comment By szarkel On September 30, 2008 @ 7:18 am

As a survivor of really bad DM created games and homebrew campaigns I tend flinch when I hear these words. I often ask these bold wannabe designers, “why do we need another game”? Usually their answer is “I can do better.” A DM friend of mine has been working on a game for as long as I have known him and he has spent 17 years telling me about it. So far all we have done is make characters and talk about how he envisioned game play. Still another DM took the rules of several different games and mixed them up to play the ubbergame! Perhaps my favorite DM creation was gentleman who made a Highalnder game for each indivdual game system (Highlander for D&D, Highlander for World of Darkness, Highlander Cthulhu, we held our breath for Highlander Paranoia but it never came). I can not deny that the industry will always need creative people to save it. I think before a DM or anyone should inflict their new game on anyone they should try some of these rules out. It seems like a logical progression for a would be game designer. Start working on another game expanding that before recreating the wheel. Think you can make D&D better, then make it better in your home campaign. Once you have a proven track record of good rules design then make the jump. Shane Hensley worked for Wizards and West End, Mike Mearls worked for Monte Cooke and others. Spontaneous game creation (if it has existed at all). is a myth everybody, was influenced by somebody. And finally please don’t tell me about your new game unless I am actually going to play or help design it. I do not want to discuss your genius I want to pick up some dice and roll them.

#11 Pingback By Random News Table for October 5th | UncleBear On October 5, 2008 @ 1:23 pm

[…] GM, Thou Art Not A Game Designer! – Gnome Stew, the Game Mastering Blog I have since learned that just like being a great race car driver doesn’t make you a great mechanic, experience with running and playing RPGs does not make you a game designer. Setting is one thing but combining setting, mechanics, unique qualities, and overall purpose together into a fully functional RPG that people will want to play? That my friends is something completely different. […]