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Despite the well-known enmity between gnomes and kobolds — AKA scaly halflings — the Stew hearts Kobold Quarterly. Why? Because it rocks.

KQ is the brainchild of Wolfgang Baur, one of the most famous game designers around, and among the many other irons he has in the fire he publishes the Kobold Guide to Game Design series. Volume III came out in print last Friday, and Wolfgang asked if I’d like to write a GMing article about this volume, which is subtitled “Tools & Techniques.”

There’s a lot of crossover between GMing and game design, and, expecting great things from the KGGD3, I was happy to take him up on it. He sent me the PDF, and I tucked into it.

If you’re interested in game design, whether as a dabbler, a Forge-style indie designer, someone trying to break into the mainstream RPG industry, or for other reasons, you’ll enjoy this book. It’s a good book — and on top of that, it’s also a good book for a reason entirely unrelated to its title or primary focus: It’s got a lot to say about good GMing.

So Game Design = GMing?

Well, no — but they do have a lot in common. GMing nearly always involves an element of game design, whether it’s creating or vetting house rules, coming up with new mechanics, creating an adventure, or building up the storyline behind your campaign. And game design, with its combination of art, craft, and science — the exact three terms I usually use to describe GMing — is a discipline that bears a lot of resemblance to game mastering.

So although writing an article about a game design book from the perspective of applying it to GMing is bending things a bit, it’s the same kind of bending things that GMs do every single day during prep and at the gaming table.

Design Is…

Right up front, Wolfgang spells out what game design is, and it’s hard not to read this list and also think about GMing. Here are some highlights that apply equally well to game design and GMing:

  • art
  • geography and history
  • the building of a field of play
  • a fusion of exploratory play and mastery over time
  • the study of player psychology and the conscious manipulation of behavior

A bit later on, Wolfgang says: “Go big if you can.” This is another design/GMing parallel: When it comes to GMing, going big and just seeing how things turn out is almost always the right thing to do.

Similarly, there’s a solid section entitled Heightened Play Experience that discusses ways to punch up the gaming experience through design, but reading this as a GM, I found myself nodding.

Wolfgang highlights conciseness (saying a lot with a little, often by showing), escalation (making things that matter tie to other things that matter), and saturation (pulling out the stops and avoiding subtlety) as key ingredients of good game design, and I’d say those are three great guidelines for writing an adventure or running an improvised session, too.

So: I think this is also a GMing book, and an excellent read from that perspective.

Great GMing Advice

Every essay in KGGD3 isn’t directly applicable to GMing, of course. Some, like Colin “Planescape: Torment” McComb’s piece entitled “Designing RPGs: Computer and Tabletop,” are interesting reads without being easy to port over and apply to GMing. (Which makes sense, since despite how applicable a lot of KGGD3 is to GMing, it’s not technically a GMing book!)

So which ones stand out from a GMing perspective? Here’s some of what jumped out at me (apart from the opening essay, “What is Design?”):

  • The Process of Creative Thought: Thinking about how to think, at least when it comes to a craft like GMing in which being reflective features heavily, is surprisingly productive. Considering the origins of creative ideas (the topic of this essay) is one good way to do that.
  • Creative Mania & Design Despair: Another one from Wolfgang, this essay looks at how the design process changes over time. What stood out for me was the piece on adapting to new demands: When your exquisitely crafted campaign actually hits the table, meets your players, and becomes something you weren’t expecting. This is awesome, but can also be tough to deal with.
  • Seize the Hook: Rob Heinsoo lays out how he designs games, and again there’s a great snippet here for GMs: matching the mechanics to the experience. Considering the ways in which game mechanics dovetail with the things I enjoy about GMing has made me a better GM, and discovering the mismatches — for me, those games where the mechanics don’t dovetail with roleplaying at all — has helped me become better at choosing which games to play and run.
  • Crafting a Dastardly Plot: 1. Ed Greenwood. 2. Seriously, you can tell from the title that this applies perfectly to GMing. 3. Ed Greenwood. From a GMing standpoint, this seven-page essay alone is worth the price of admission.
  • Location as a Fulcrum for Superior Design: Wolfgang looks at how important location is to adventure design, something I’m often bad at when it comes to designing my own adventures.
  • Myths & Realities of Game Balance: Monte Cook on social contracts, roughly: Everyone is responsible for everyone’s fun, and the GM should deliver a fun, balanced play experience.

This was my first look at the KGGD series, and it made me want to go back and check out the first two volumes. If you dig game design, adventure design, productive self-reflection, or learning about non-GMing topics to make yourself a better GM, I highly recommend this book.

It’s only 96 pages, but man does it pack a lot into those pages.

You can find the print and PDF editions of the Kobold Guide to Game Design, Volume III in the Kobold Quarterly store.

About  Martin Ralya

A father, husband, writer, small-press publisher, former RPG industry freelancer, and lifelong geek, Martin has been gaming since 1987 and GMing since 1989. He lives in Utah with his amazing wife Alysia and their awesome daughter Lark in a house full of books and games.



6 Responses to The Kobold Guide to Game Design, Volume III: Thinking About Design Can Make You a Better GM

  1. I tried my hand at game design several times, just as an expansion of what I’d been doing as a GM. I’ve come to realize that I’d rather play other people’s well designed games that subject my friends to lots of playtesting… but I think designing your own game is something many GMs have thought about or tried.

    To the people I subjected to my incomplete thoughts: sorry! It sounds like there’s a good tool out there if you want to do it right.

  2. I actually love the idea of game [world] design and creation, but I never do it. Games are so much more fun when you know nothing about the world. Case in point: In my Burning Wheel game, the players were coming up on City X which straddled the only known pass through the mountains they had to cross to get to Nation Y.

    “What kind of city is it?” one asked. I shrugged and smiled. “Okay, I’m rolling City-wise to determine that it’s friendly with Nation Y where we’re trying to go to rally military support.” Failure… what do you know? They’ve been in a trade dispute with that nation and things are fairly tense. Good luck bringing Nation Y’s troops through the mountain pass and through City X without some wrangling or clever thinking.

    Over the course of a few rolls (a failed Circles test and a failed Rule of Law test), they found out that the city determined a good number of legal affairs (and affairs of honour) via duels and that the son of the lord of where they wanted to go was held hostage by the lord of the city (and the lord’s son was a hostage in that nation in a good ol’ fashion hostage exchange).

    I couldn’t possibly have come up with all the little nuances of what they determined in 3 rolls (and more that came out over the course of the session). Of course… Burning Wheel makes this possible, to a large extent.

    All that said, I’d be interested simply because the authors know their stuff, and compilation works like this are so much better than single-author guides, especially when the subject is so… well… subjective!

  3. Kurt "Telas" Schneider

    The more I read of their stuff, the more I think these Kobolds are on to something.

    They’re still stinky, nasty, little dog-lizard-things, however.

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