LARP Design: Game Design & Monte Cook

This week’s column is thanks to a seminar I had a chance to attend at Origins this year. Monte Cook hosted a seminar where he spoke of the basics of game design. Granted for someone whose been reading and studying game design for years it was very basic, however it did provide positive affirmation of points which I’ve felt were key and in many ways have already discussed (Basics of design and Less is more).

Just a side note to keep in mind before jumping into the notes from the seminar, Cook used Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition as his primary example when looking at game design in relation to a game. This isn’t to say that what he shared isn’t relevant to LARP or a game with a different setting, au contraire. Much is, but that his examples are pulled from popular work he’s done. Because of the relevance this has to LARP game design I’d like to share the notes I took during that seminar.

Writing Style
When writing rules, you’re writing something completely different from all other writing. What you’re writing must serve two purposes:

  • A teaching tool – You need to teach people how to play the game.
  • A reference work – You need to be able to provide a reference work for those who know how the game is played

He mentioned when he and the design crew were working on Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition that they used the following formula: Provide an example -> State the rule behind the example, Provide an example -> State the rule behind the example, Provide an example -> State the rule behind the example, etc. He shared that the format explained above worked well because the example taught a person how a rule worked and the plain text of the rule beneath provided the quick reference capability.

Not that what you add or have in your rule should make it hard to play, but that you provide a good spread of items/details. It’s advantageous to have choices for other ways to experience the game as this helps keep the player coming back. These choices could be created by having different race and class choices (if you really must use classes), the way different skill trees are made up, the various skills, spells, other character abilities, or really any spread of choices that would allow a player to play the game again, but have a different experience through that play.

Player Choice
This one ties in with the above point on robustness as you provide player choice when you provide a robust system. These choices need to be meaningful and well informed choices. Meaningful choices means that when a player makes a choice to use a particular skill, spell, ability or what have you that it has an impact on the game rather than a choice which is purely trivial. Well informed means just that, that the player understands what impact their choice will have.

Cook shared that when designing an adventure and you come to a point where the players are presented with a choice to have three, maybe four choices. However it’s better to give too many choices than not enough, i.e. choice paralysis is better than railroading. When starting something new be it a game under a new system or a new adventure, start with a few choices and increase the number of choices that a player has as they become more familiar with the system or campaign.

When designing a game system, it’s perfectly okay to provide a plethora of choices since the player can often sit and mull over the rules at their leisure rather than have to deal with considering all the options available to them and then making a split second decision based on the information presented, which is what happens during the course of an adventure.

Player Expectations
Your rules set player expectations. The rules are not just about how to play the game, but how to play the game. If the game is a combat based game then the combat section should comprise a significant portion of the real estate in the rule book and be located further up toward the front of the book, otherwise it shouldn’t. You want your rules to stress what they really should stress.

Miscellaneous Points
After going through the main points above Cook made several good miscellaneous points. Some of them were the byproducts of answers or discussions from audience questions, but also some general points he made.

  • Reward players by allowing them to use their special powers/goodies rather than have things structured where they don’t have those options.
  • Use a reward system rather than a requirement system. Example: Rather than state that to be a fighter a person must have at least X ranks of a particular skill or stat, allow the person to play a fighter but that they’ll be a far better fighter if they have at least X ranks in a particular skill or stat.
  • Don’t base your design around weakness or limitations.
  • When you’re designing flavor, make sure it does not break the rules that have been set.
  • Adventure design: Keep in mind how many people you’ll be designing the adventure mod for and then build accordingly.
  • And to reiterate: It’s better to give too many choices than not enough, i.e. choice paralysis is better than railroading. Starting out with a limited number of choices that grows as a player progresses can help prevent both choice paralysis because of unfamiliarity with the setting/rules and railroading due to lack of choices. (Yes, a lot of time was spent on this topic particularly in relation to player choice.)

What are your thoughts on Monte Cook’s advice? Do you think it’s relevant to LARP game design? What other advice would you add?

Next week I’ll be sharing an essay on The Care and Feeding of (New) Players. As always I love to hear feedback and suggestions for further articles. Feel free to leave a comment here at (see the link below for this article’s forum thread), write Amber at webmaster [at] mortalisrpg [dot] com or visit the Mortalis Games site to see what else has been shared or leave a comment there.

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