It’s my birthday!  Happy birthday to me!

Also, I have blogged something every day for 90 days through this crazy pandemic.  I’m not certain I’ll be able to keep up that performance for the next 90 days.  I’ll likely keep blogging regularly since I’ve now spiffed the place up, fixed the popped nails, and cleaned up the detritus around here.  But it may go to either weekdays (M-F) since I have little to say on the weekends or a three day a week schedule (M-W-F) so I will have more to talk about.  We’ll see.

Back in the day when we were working on Elder Scrolls Online, we had Friday afternoon playtests.  The entire studio would stop and everyone would patch up to that week’s build and play the current weekly build on the internal prod server (which was not, in fact, prod) for several hours.  Then, we were required to give feedback.

This entire process made me squirrelly and it was because, at the time, the game was not fun.  It was a game, and it played, and you could cast spells and swing a sword and hit things and do damage but as a whole, it was not fun. And that led me to run around talking with game people about “what is fun?”  The result of those conversations led to conversations when making SotS with me saying, “Always do the fun thing and make the fun choice.”

One thing I believe in strongly when designing a game is that it must be fun and, fun is the #1 priority when making design considerations.  Creating fun is a selfless act — it’s the act of making design choices, based on listening to feedback, that might not be in your wheelhouse but will bring joy to N other people.  Your job is to make N other people happy.

What do I mean by fun?  When I’m talking about fun in RPGs, I’m thinking about:

  1. Is the game easy to understand and written in a clear, concise manner?  Do I have to expend a ton of effort to work through your rules?  Clarity helps get to fun.
  2. Are the game rules confusing? I call the time between reading rules, understanding rules, and applying rules friction.  The more friction the game has, the less fun it is.  By the way, that doesn’t mean that game cannot be complex or loaded with content.  Take D&D5, a low-friction system.  It has a zillion rules but it’s core mechanic of “roll a d20 and add to it for skill, attack, and saving throws” is shockingly simple to understand.  Friction is the killer.
  3. Are the rules engaging? What I mean here are they appealing and interesting enough that they make you want to learn more.
  4. Are the game rules flexible enough to apply to fun and creative situations?  Can the players bend, break, abuse, or misuse rules in creative ways and the game rules respond well?  We did horrible things to Blades in the Dark, but the roll your d6s and let’s see what happens worked well. The Dungeon World “succeed, succeed with consequences, or fail hilariously” mechanic also lent itself well to player abuse.
  5. Do the rules inspire storytelling or support storytelling?
  6. Do the rules support each other?  This one is not obvious.  The magic system must work with the combat system and must work with the skill system.  Back in Shadowrun 2nd Ed days — published gloriously in 1992 — the only thing the decking system had in common with everyone else is that it used d6s and use the power of 6 rule.  Decking might as well been its own game.
  7. Are the rules overly jargon?  Having actually written on White Wolf titles, I still can’t tell you those damn rules.
  8. Is the setting cool?  Is it engaging?  Does it even need a setting/ You cannot have Shadowrun without its goofy cyberpunk setting.  You can do Blades without Duskvol, but you’d need to run it in, say, Eversink.  Most games that are not a generic toolkit like FATE have some sort of setting or at least bring in an overlay on the real world.  Trails of Cthulhu is setting (real world) with Cthulhu overlay, while Nights Black Agents is setting (real world, future) with Vampires.
  9. Does the setting support the rules and vice versa?  Do they resonate with one another?
  10. And, the most important rule, do the playtesters enjoy playing the game and engage with the game during the playtest?  Are they having actual fun? Because, at the end of the day, the game is written by you, the game designer, but the only way to make it fun is through collecting as much feedback as possible and iterating your way to fun.

I’m going to give you an example which Kevin has mentioned in public a few times: the rewrite of the trap rules in Swords of the Serpentine right at the end.  I, myself, tripped over the original version of the trap rules.  You know what is rarely exercised in running a playtest?  Trap rules.  You know what you run over backward with a car, repeatedly, when trying to figure out how to make a dungeon encounter dangerous?  Trap rules.

The trap rules were really stodgy.  I’m not a super big fan of D&D5’s trap rules, either, because they reflect a 70s mentality and have to carry some ancient assumptions, and these were even less flexible.  Basically poison traps, magic, things that explode, that sort of thing.  I sort of wanted something, like, someone to touch a lock and then a ghost trapped in the lock oozed out and started chewing on someone’s face, but I could not figure out how to make that work.  And I had made an offhand, not particularly useful, playtest comment of:

“The trap rules are garbage.”

Because I am a terrible playtester and despite have a ton of playtest credits I’m really no help sometimes. If you ever playtest someone’s rules, don’t just write “X rule is garbage” because it’s not actionable.

The trap rules broke several of my rules above: Not engaging, not flexible, didn’t support storytelling.  My only clarification was: “Here we should do the fun thing.”  Luckily, Kevin had better playtester than me, and right before the manuscript was shipped, the rules were fixed and the traps are much better now.

I have read and do have a copy of Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun.  It’s a large essay in bound form.  I recommend people buy it and read it.  He wrote it way back in the day and it got spiffed a few years ago.  It’s useful to read.  But really, the way to understand fun is to design something, put it in front of people, and try to gauge their confusion.  You’re looking for:

  • Low confusion (friction)
  • High engagement
  • Flexibility
  • Supports storytelling

This doesn’t matter if the game is story-heavy, rules-heavy, rules-free.  It makes no difference.  It’s on you, the game designer, to hit those high notes and bring joy to someone else’s life.

Go make fun.


  • 21,933,301 completed tests.
  • 2,046,806 tested positive.
  • 115,104 confirmed dead.
  • 60,826 positive cases and  2,940 dead in MD.  (Looks like we’re finding them)
  • 1 out of every 140 people have it in Howard County shows the virus spreading in 15 states.  Stay safe out there.