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Game Design: Step by Step

The Envelope, Please...

by Gareth-Michael Skarka

March 29, 2000


Man, am I tired.

I'm writing this on the morning of Monday, March 27th.  The Oscars were on last night, and I stayed up to watch the whole thing, ignoring the fact that I have a 5:45 a.m. wake-up call on weekday mornings.  Sucker got over at roughly 12:40 a.m.---the longest Oscar broadcast ever, if my facts are straight.  Can someone explain to me how you can cut a bunch of dead weight out of a show (including the cringe-worthy and universally reviled interpretive dance numbers--something to cheer about there, at least), and still clock in at a little over 4 hours?

And I though our industry was self-indulgent.

Anyway--with my sleep-deprived mind still reeling with the spectacle of seeing a genre film like The Matrix bring home the second-largest amount of Oscars, behind the well-deserving and brilliant American Beauty (despite the fact that today's story in the New York Times doesn't even mention the number two Oscar winner until the 10th paragraph...no respect at all.), I thought it might be kind of fun to hand out my own little virtual statuettes in the field of Game Design.  So, without further ado, I bring you the Game Design Achievements of Merit (or GodDAMns).

Our first award is in the category of Best Dice Mechanic--and our award goes to Unknown Armies (designed by Greg Stolze and John Tynes for Atlas Games), which manages to take a new look at the simplest of die methods (the percentile), and goose it up to new levels of post-modern niftyness by adding gimmicks such as the flip-flop of the tens and ones digits on critical rolls.  They took an intuitive system, and still managed to make it provide surprises.

Before our winners can hit you with a rambling, over-long acceptance speech, where they thank a bunch of people you've never heard of, we'll move on to our next award:  Best Non-Dice Mechanic.  Here we have a tie, between the card-based Castle Falkenstein (designed by Mike Pondsmith for R.Talsorian) and the completely diceless (and appropriately titled) Amber Diceless Roleplaying (designed by Eric Wujcik for Phage Press).  CF uses a style of game play consistant with the Victorian era (cards, rather than vulgar dice), and integrates it seamlessly with a rules-light system, creating an environment for play that reinforces the very essence of the genre at hand.  Amber manages to make a system lacking any randomness, and yet still keeps the outcomes from being too predictable.  If, when all things are equal, your opponent will always beat you since his Warfare stat is higher, then it is up to you to make sure that all things are not equal...ever.  Bravo for making players and gamemasters alike look within for ingenious answers, rather than relying on the roll of the dice.

Our first Irving-Thalberg-esque congratulatory career achievement award is for Superior Achievement Using a 75-year-old Licensed Property....and the award here, obviously, goes to Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu RPG.  Still crazy after all these years.

Most Innovative Design, in the opinion of your humble one-man academy would have to go to the star-crossed Everway (designed by Jonathan Tweet for WotC).  The use of Art Cards instead of dice, and the encouragement to add and use your own cards was a true quantum leap in design philosophy...one of the first true efforts in interpretive narrative in a gaming environment.  I, for one, want to see more games take these kind of chances.

Of course, Most Innovative Design for 1980 would go to Lejendary Adventure (designed by Gary Gygax for Hekaforge in 199...oh.  waitaminute.  Er.  Never mind.)

Speaking of Old School, I'll dig back into the past for my choice for winner of the Best Performance by a Character Creation System.  The winner here would be the original Star Trek Roleplaying Game released by FASA in the mid-80s (designed, I believe, by Guy McLimore and Greg Poehlein--correct me if I'm wrong).  This system gave you a complete character, including their full Starfleet service history, by the time you were done.  The new version by Last Unicorn tries to do the same thing, but I have to give the edge to the original, since it used random rolls, making it possible to generate a really interesting character without having the whole thing mapped out in your head beforehand.

I'm going to go against my own work here, and bypass Hong Kong Action Theatre! for Outstanding Combat System, instead bestowing the honor on Robin Laws' excellent Feng Shui.  It kicks much ass, and does a great job of breaking players of the "I hit him" habit of describing their moves.  Honorable mention here (we'll call it the Indie favorite, even though it was released by the largest of conglomorates) goes to DragonFist by Chris Pramas, which adds a stunt system onto AD&D that manages to wake it up from its stodgy old medieval fantasy roots and bring it screamin' and kickin' into full wuxia action.

Most Controversial Performance by a Game Designer has to go to the brilliant-designer-yet-kneejerk-antireview-reactionary number by John Wick.  A great version of Jekyll and Hyde.  Hope to see more....if nothing else, it boosts the traffic on Pyramid, RPGnet and Gaming Outpost.

Best Special Effects is a walk-away win for Noir, by Archon Gaming.  The most complete dissappearing act ever performed in the game industry, hands down.

The award for Designer Most Likely to Get Himself and Everyone Associated With Him Excommunicated and Condemned to Hell is definitely reserved for Sean Jaffe of Synister Creative Systems, whose forthcoming The Last Exodus is going to piss off a lot of people, and, if there is any justice in the world, sell a lot of copies.

The Artist Formerly Known as a Game Designer Award goes to Micah Skaritka, of the Apophis Consortium.  The designer of Obsidian is a collection of many and varied talents, whose musical skills (with his band Cruciform Injection) on the game's soundtrack CD actually go a long way to make up for what many assume was a complete and utter lack of editing on the manuscript itself.

I think we'll draw to a close here with the biggie:  Best Game Designer.  This is a hard one, given that the field of candidates is fuller than the  Republican presidental race before the Primaries.  However, I have to come up with one, and so the award goes to Jonathan Tweet, not only for pushing the envelope with brilliant work such as Over the Edge and Everway, but for his work as Design Lead on the forthcoming D&D3E--which stands to completely restock the gaming market with fresh new gamers.  From what I've seen, Tweet and his team manage to add modern design touches to the venerable system, at once maintaining its integrity and recognizability, while at the same time pushing the envelope of design status quo.

There ya have it.  The first ever GodDAMns.  Note that some of the above awards are, in truth, jokes.  Which ones?  I'll leave that to you.  In fact, there are probably some awards categories that I've overlooked...Feel free to post your own in the forums below.

Next week, we'll take a look at genre emulation in game design.  I actually promised Lou Prosperi over at The Oracle that I'd write that one up for him, but I think it might go better as a design column.  I'm sure he'll understand.

Right, Lou?  .....Lou?  Uh-oh.

See ya in 7,

Gareth-Michael Skarka

Underworld, and all related terms and concepts contained herein are copyright 2000 by Gareth-Michael Skarka. All rights reserved.


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All "Step by Step" design columns

  1. Inspiration to Perspiration October 26, 1999
  2. Comin' wit da Nifties October 27, 1999
  3. Concepts Continued October 28, 1999
  4. Character is what you are in the Dark October 29, 1999
  5. Forces of Occupation October 30, 1999
  6. Forces of Occupation, Part II October 31, 1999
  7. Head Count November 2, 1999
  8. Subterranean Ass-Kicking, 101 November 9, 1999
  9. Next Stop, Rune Station November 17, 1999
  10. It's All 'Bout Da Merlins November 23, 1999
  11. Miscellany December 1, 1999
  12. Lords of the UnderWorld December 8, 1999
  13. Lucky 13 December 15, 1999
  14. Miracle Under 34th Street December 22 1999
  15. Gareth's December 27th 'edition' is a survey, on what you want for future Underworld columns.
  16. Statistics and Junk January 5, 2000
  17. Reality Slap January 12, 2000
  18. Once More Into the Breach... January 20, 2000
  19. The Mechanics of Mechanics January 26, 2000
  20. Junkmen and Soundtracks February 2, 2000
  21. The Iron Forestries of Hell February 16, 2000
  22. And Now, For Something Completely Different... February 24, 2000
  23. Confessions of a Language Geek March 1, 2000
  24. Flood of Ideas March 15, 2000
  25. A New Direction? March 24, 2000
  26. The Envelope, Please... March 29, 2000
  27. Generic Systems, My Ass! April 5, 2000
  28. Big News, and Magic April 12, 2000
  29. Big Guns, Razor-sharp Swords, and a Bit with a Dog... April 19, 2000
  30. What's the Story, Morning Glory? April 26, 2000
  31. And now for something completely different, Survey time! May 3, 2000
  32. The Fever for the Flavor May 10, 2000
  33. Random Acts May 17, 2000
  34. A Run Through Dark Places May 25, 2000
  35. Service Interruption June 1, 2000

Discussion of UnderWorld

Earlier Comments (Issues 1-7)

(Editor's note: I'll consolidate these when I get a chance)

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