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Posts for Tag: Upgrade your design

Upgrade your design: Cross referencing rules

Just a quick post today since I am pretty busy. 

Cross referencing rules throughout the rulebook: Yay or nay?

By cross referencing I mean that each rule will list any applicable conditions and modifiers found elsewhere in the system. For example if you have a rule for smoke grenades that adds a -2 hit penalty, then you might add a note of that in your chapter on ranged combat or in the table of hit modifiers. 

As another example if you have a rule that figures that get hit might be pinned down, but androids and zombies are immune to this, you might add that to the section on pinning.

The advantage of doing this is that each rule becomes effectively standalone and comprehensive. If I check the rules for pinning, I can see all possible conditions and effects. This reduces the chance of me forgetting about it during the game, especially in cases where I might not otherwise be aware the secondary rule exists at all.

As such cross referencing can be tremendously helpful and is likely to improve the usability of your game rules (and remember game rules are utilitarian: They are intended to be used actively at a table). 

There are a couple of drawbacks however:

If your game has a lot of special rules and exceptions (such as is the case for many sci-fi and fantasy games) things can get out of hand pretty quickly. If your book has 20 different functions that can all modify the hit roll due to particular bits of equipment, rules, conditions or abilities, do you really want to list everyone? A common answer here is to limit yourself to either certain categories (so tabletop conditions and status effects might be in, equipment modifiers are out) or try to only pick out the most common occurrences (fog and night time modifiers are in, left-handed shooting of a medium sized firearm while balancing on a hoverboard is out)

There is also a significant amount of upkeep involved in establishing cross referencing and maintaining it afterwards, because the same rule is now referenced in multiple locations. I recently flipped through a rulebook that gave retreat distances as one distance in the main rules for morale, but in the movement phase summary of how units move when they have failed morale, the distance was different. The more items you try to cross reference the more you will run into this problem. 

You can alleviate this somewhat by using consistent terminology, so you can use cmd+f / ctrl+f to find all instances where a particular rule or term is mentioned.

A final concern happens when material is across multiple books such as expansions or army books. It can be helpful to have these elements referenced, but for players who are not using that expansion it can add to the clutter (not to mention irritating people who are not ready to purchase more content yet)

The upshot of it all is that at least some cross referencing is helpful to make your rulebook more accessible in play, but it does bear some thinking about how to do it.

That is all for today folks. If you like these types of posts, please consider supporting my Patreon at 

Upgrade your design: Separate flavour and rules text

Let me present you with two presentations of the same rule:

The Spell of Extreme Death is an ancient ritual that conjures up the shadows of the netherworld on a casting roll of 7+. Tendrils of evil shadow reach out to a range of 9" and the target must make a saving throw as the choking vapours of Blitterbops assails them. Due to the nature of shadow magickz they do not affect cybernetic units. Consuming a healthy breakfast of oatmeal will also provide protection from the dire perils conjured up by this forbidden arcanery.


The Spell of Extreme Death is an ancient ritual that conjures up the shadows of the netherworld as tendrils of shadow assailt the target with the choking vapours of Blitterbops.

Casting roll 7+, Range 9". Saving Throw required by target. 

Does not affect Cybernetic units or units who had oatmeal for breakfast (only)

Now imagine that the page has 9 more spells crammed in on it and you are trying to find the information quickly, because you are gaming with Bob and Bob never writes down the details for his spells.

I am also generally a proponent of reducing "colourful" commentary ("If they fail a saving throw, the target is vapourised in a shower of hot metal fragments") in games text, though this is strictly a personal taste. I just prefer keeping things tight and tidy. To me, the rules section should be clearly available on its own, because it is going to be referenced during game play and you want the player to be able to do soat a glance. 

Remember that a game rulebook is a functional text first and a book to be read for entertainment second. 

Upgrade your design: Who are you writing for?

The dark priesthood of the marketing cult will talk a lot about target audiences for a product: Who is intended as the buyer of the widget you are trying to sell? Obviously a commercial product needs to have some sort of audience that is willing to exchange money for goods and services.

With tabletop gaming the broadest possible audience is "tabletop gamers". In theory every person that plays a tabletop game is a possible buyers. (people who don't play tabletop games are also possible buyers but that is a lot less likely in the indie publishing sphere). 

Of course many tabletop gamers are not inherently going to be interested without some persuasion, personal interest or temptation. The RPG folks are not typically into hardcore naval warfare simulations and the euro board gamers probably don't want to make too many morale checks. Even within the miniatures gaming community your choice of theme or setting will narrow the field more. A WW2 game will obviously appeal primarily to people who are interested in that conflict (though converts can be had if you are clever or have nice presentation). 

Within that specialisation, things continue to break down in smaller groups: A game intended for beginners may appeal to a veteran that would like a more casual experience at times and will do better at drawing in interested, but inexperienced, gamers. A game that aims at experienced players will appeal more widely to people with extensive gaming experience in the period, but may find it more difficult to gain crossover appeal and converts (though not entirely: Some people know they want a hardcore experience from day 1). 

The rules themselves will also affect who might be interested. A lot of successful rules fall into what I call "one clever thing": The game rules are mostly very conventional but have one or two clever bits to make them stand out. Chain of Command fits this bill by having very conventional combat mechanics (roll to hit, roll for effect) but having a very clever turn sequence and patrol phase. 

Some games rely on strictly conventional mechanics throughout and while they will often not appear very exciting, they offer a solid experience that is easy to get into. Rapid Fire might serve as an example here which has remained a popular game at conventions for a lot of years. They also benefit from making it easier to adapt scenarios.

On the other end of the scale we have very "clever" games with unique mechanics such as Crossfire or my own Five men at Kursk. These games tend to attract very loyal audiences but because they are very radical in their assumptions they can also deter players looking for a more conventional approach.

Some settings lend themselves to a fair bit of tech nerd content (detailed tank lists, stats for 200 different variations of French line infantry etc.) which will appeal to certain gamers but overwhelm others. 

Even something as seemingly minute as the writing style might affect who gravitates towards your game. A more casual style may seem more welcoming but could also seem less professional. An abbreviated style appeals to those who prefer simplicity but may deter players who want thorough explanations. A "British" approach where things are left somewhat open to interpretation can act as both a selling point and a criticism depending on the audience.

These are all just examples and you can no doubt think of a dozen more. My point with today's ramble is that almost every choice you make during your design will influence how particular audiences and groups will respond to your game. That makes it worth sitting down and thinking about before and during the process. You might even write out on an index card (or on page 1 of your word processor file) who you are expecting to purchase it so you can refer back to it. 

Upgrade your design: Reviews, feedback, the internet and sucking it up

So you have written your game and you have gotten some play testers on board. Feedback is coming in, you have incorporated it and now you are ready for something resembling prime time. 

You put your book out there. Maybe its for money, maybe its a freebie. You do a little promotion and eventually someone buys it. People are actually playing it! Now is the time to go see what all these people say. 

You check your email, blog replies and a few forum threads. Most of them are enjoying the game or asking questions. There's some criticisms and you take them on board. Maybe you could have done a rule better in hindsight or you forgot something obvious. Maybe you straight up screwed up. All things to learn from. You keep a note pad with these things so you can work on them later.

Then there's the posts that make you pause:

This guy says the game doesn't have a rule that is absolutely in the book.

That guy says they changed a bunch of the rules and that the game is broken (because they changed those rules).

A third guy says that since the game doesn't do something it was never intended to do, its crap. 

A fourth guy just straight up made up a story about how you play tested the game by kicking bunnies. 

Guy number five says that "he heard" the game is shit, so don't play it. It's clear from the post he never even read it. 

Sixth guy is oddly obsessed that the game does not include a rule for different types of pontoon bridge and is disappointed that you left out such an important factor. 

Guy number seven points out that a rules term sounds like the word for a jihadist terror group and could that be changed? 

What do you do? 

You are a writer, nay a game designer! You can create worlds! You can wield the flaming wrath of the pen!

And you are going to sit your ass right down. 

Look up any established novel writer and they will tell you that the first lesson to learn is to not get into it with critics. You are likely to seem petty and aggressive (and if your self control is lacking you may very well be petty and aggressive) and to an extent, you are invading a space that isn't for you. When someone posts about a game they are expecting to talk to other players, not to have the writer looming over their shoulders. 

Unless you are a huge sales success you are going to trade on your reputation to an extent. The reputation of "googles his own name and then fights people over elf-games" is always going to be worse than the result of some guy who didn't like the game and was grumpy that day. 

Upgrade your design: Writing more

Todays installment is really more of a general writing tip, but it certainly applies to games as well:

The way to finish a game/scenario/expansion/product/thing is to start writing it and the way to start writing it is by typing on your keyboard (or other input method).

Don't get me wrong there is a lot that plays into game design: Testing, figuring out math, throwing out ideas that turn out to be bad, maybe some talking to players, research etc. But at the core of producing any written work is of course the writing. 

Writing can seem overwhelming, especially when you look towards the end result. How big of a book are you looking to produce? 

Renegade Scout was about 62k words. Five Men in Normandy is currently about 24k. A little 3 page Patreon piece I did a few months ago ended up at 831 words. 

Let's say you want something in the mid-range: A comprehensive game but not excessively so. You decide to aim somewhere around 30k words. Maybe you think you have about 25k worth of things to say, but you want to add a bit of extra allowance if you come up with something really cool. Or you make some allowance you can use up for explanations, examples and designer notes. However you expect it to work out, the goal is about 30k. 

Then you look at that number and say "I can't possibly do that, where would I find the time?". 

As long as people have been writing books, people have been writing books about how to write books and a lot of that advice is applicable to game writing too. This article is about two techniques that I have found to be really helpful.

First I find it really difficult to think at the keyboard. If I already know roughly how something is supposed to look, I can grind out the text, but if I have to create mechanics from scratch I find myself stumbling a lot. It helps tremendously to prepare even a tiny bit in advance. For me this is usually just a notepad with hand scribbled notes. I might sketch out the core mechanic I have in mind and then once I put that down on the page with proper explanations, I am on the right path and now I can start filling in all the surrounding space. 

I use keywords extensively. If I am working on the morale rules for something, I write down keywords and snippets. Sometimes they are short sentences, sometimes they are just a reminder. "-2 for outflanking" "Surrender?" "remove from play on second failure". Whatever gets you thinking. The same applies on a larger scale. The first thing i do when starting a project is always to name all the chapters and write in keywords for what I want to have in each chapter. If there is a "character creation" chapter and I want to have a "build your own class" option, I put a keyword for that. If you need help doing this, take a look at whatever rulebook you have lying around and look for what core features it (and any book) covers and what specific things it calls out. 

When I sit down to write the next day or next week or next month, the keywords help act as a frame work and I can start filling things in. The more structure you build up, the easier it is to continue working on it because the range of possible choices narrows. A blank page can have anything on it. A page that says "squad based shooting" can only have a few things on it. Use that to your advantage. 

It can feel extremely discouraging to realize you spent 30 minutes staring at the word processor without doing anything. Some writers say to just start writing anything and once you are "hot" then the material will flow. I sometimes work on a blog post or read over an old rules section to help get the engine running. You can try that as well.

Second I find that I benefit tremendously from scheduling. Obviously with a busy schedule you need to find the actual, physical time. I can't help you with that. However I usually set a word limit I want to hit every day. The number is not so important because once you are hot, you will almost certainly blow past it. However it can be very reassuring to be able to halt if you are feeling worn out that day. What should the word count be? That mostly depends on you. If you can write 1000 words a day, every day, you have your 30k book at the end of the month. If you can do 200 words a day, then that month still gets you to 6000 words. Thats a good chunk of your game and probably all of the core components to a point where you can test them.

Of course we cant always write every single day. So factor in 20% slippage and you won't be too disappointed but the point is to set a target and go for it. If your target is 300 words, then come hell or high water get on that keyboard and get 300 words on that page. 

This is all ignoring all the other time that goes into creating a game (testing, evaluating, balancing, tweaking and revising) but none of those matter until you have words on a page. 

There are a wealth of other options and resources for writing, many of which are applicable here but the above are some tips Ive used successfully.

Upgrade your design: May vs Must

A quick one today but I wanted to talk about being intentional with your terminology in rules writing.

I think game writing can benefit tremendously from being very clear about when a given rule or situation is a choice versus being a requirement.

Let's say your game has a saving throw in it: When a figure takes a hit, they get to roll a die to survive. Simple right?

What is the difference between "When taking a hit, the figure must make a saving throw" and "When taking a hit, the figure may make a saving throw" ?

In the first example the saving throw is mandatory. If you get hit, you roll to save. In the second example however it is not. If I "may" do something, it stands to reason I "may not" as well. Why would I not want to make a saving throw? While counter-intuitive I might want to be rid of that particular figure because they happen to be in the way of another unit or because that will put the unit out of charge range or any of a thousand other reasons. 

Are those reasons things you want to entertain in your game? Perhaps not, in which case the saving throw should probably say "must". But maybe you are making a game that is more abstract or competitive and the decision is in fact something that a player should be able to manipulate for success. If so, they "may" make the save.

For another example lets consider a unit moving into base contact with an enemy. 

A: "If any units are in base contact they will fight a round of close combat". 

B: "Units in base contact may fight a round of close combat". 

Again the meaning is clear: A has to fight while B can fight if they like. In this case there may again be reasons why they do not want to such as them just trying to slow down the enemy or adding bodies so another unit can attack and get a bonus for outnumbering. 

In B the range of tactical possibilities is greater. So is the range of strange situations that can occur. A resolves immediately (potentially) but it also means some interactions can't take place. 

Take a moment to look through your rules and see exactly what you are permitting a player to do. Does any of the rules produce a strange result if the player decides not to do something? If so, you may have to account for that or at least mention the possibility. 

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Upgrade your design: Options and defaults

Rule number 1 of tabletop gaming: You can always change the rules if you like.

Rule number 2 of tabletop gaming: Most people never do. 

Today we are going to talk about game options and game defaults a little bit.

Long time players know I love optional rules. I usually always put in some and I love designing alternate versions of rule systems.

Sometimes there were multiple ways to do something and at the end of the day you have to pick one, so including the alternative as an option is a nice touch. Other times I think of something later and it gets folded in as an option for players who want more/less/different detail.

Optional rules help players tailor the experience and by including them you can help players do so within predetermined confines. What that means is that you have the insights into the logic behind the system so the options you created will (hopefully) work with them. 

That doesn’t mean players should be discouraged from their own house rules of course, but they run a greater risk of accidentally causing a problem elsewhere.

As an example you house rule combat to be a little more deadly, but now units are also taking more morale tests and therefore running away too much. Sometimes a change can cascade through the game and it can take a bit to get a feel for how these things all link back into each other. 

Additionally options cater to a particular type of player who enjoy tinkering with the game and giving them a little bit of what they want can be extremely valuable. Over the years I find that most people who do modify the rules modify them very little. They might add a modifier for one thing and a sub-system for a specific type of action but its rare for people to do big, sweeping overhauls of core mechanics. 

This also makes sense for compatibility purposes: House ruling that units in cover get +1 to morale doesn’t require any big changes if I play with someone at the gaming club who wants to play the game as written (or conversely they are open to using my house rule). If I have replaced the entire shooting system, it is a much bigger challenge. 

The real risk is making sure that options stand alone. A particular pet peeve of mine is a game with “advanced rules” that are essentially required to play because other game rules feed into them. In my opinion an option should be truly that: An option. A choice the player actively has to make and they should not be left wondering if they made the wrong choice, especially if the book presents one option as the easy one and one as the difficult one. 

This brings us to default options. In software and video game design it is generally held that most people will stick to the default selections. I can attest that I’ve spoken to a lot of gamers who don’t really look through the appendix or advanced rules chapters at all. As such the game presented by the default setup should be as representative of what you intend the game to be like as possible. 

This is especially a stumbling block when we are talking about up front decision making. One thing I underestimated for a long time was the value of a starter scenario. Even if it is extremely basic (we each get 2 identical units and they fight) it gives the player a way to get to grips with the material without making any decisions at a point when they don’t feel they have the knowledge to make those decisions. 

Default options also provide a common base level for players to interact on.

It is fine if you have multiple options for how to do something, but in my experience you are almost always better off presenting one as the standard as one as an alternative instead of giving the player two options and saying they should decide. 

In conclusion: Think carefully about the options you present in your game, how you present them and what they are meant to do.

Upgrade your design: Cutting the chaff

I have occasionally shared various tips on game design here and I figured going forward they will have a specific title: Upgrade your design. That sounds very practical right? 

I think a common flaw of game design is including too much stuff. I don't mean content (though there is such a thing as too sprawling a book) I mean the little stuff: Modifiers, special cases, sub-cases, exceptions and so forth. 

Now this is not always a bad thing: Sometimes you do want to capture a special case to avoid silly situations. After all we expect a tank to act differently than a foot soldier and a particular rule may require a carve out to ensure that is the case. Other times you just want the game to be a bit more detail oriented overall.

Small details can be a trap however because they carry two risks:

The first is the obvious question of weight in handling the game. Players will quickly memorize 3-5 typical modifier situations or sub-cases that are logical but a list of 20 gets difficult unless you scan the list each time. And if players realize they forgot one, they will be hesitant going forward because now they feel like they may have screwed up multiple times. 

When evaluating weight it is useful to look at the overall impact on the grand scale of things. A sub-case that adds a +/- 1 on a D20 roll is probably not worth considering. Odds are you could go through an entire game without ever having a roll where that modifier makes a difference to a single roll, let alone the aggregate outcome. 

Take a look at your game mechanic and evaluate how many individual pieces do I need to keep in my head as a player? For a typical ranged attack I probably need to know the shooter, the weapon and if you are in cover. Do I need to check the range precisely or is it okay if I can eye ball that I'm definitely within range? How many conditions apply to the hit roll? Does the number of shots I get vary? Does it matter if I moved? Are there influences that carry over from previous turns or other actions?

As you can see each of these is individually very small and usually binary questions (did the target evade last turn yes/no?) but they can add up pretty fast.

There is not a golden formula for this, but try to take the shooting mechanic in your game and count out how many "things" influence the attack roll. If any of them require remembering something that is not immediately clear from the position of the miniatures (such as whether a figure moved or what actions the target unit took last) count it as 1 extra thing. If any of them require decisions on the players end (such as aiming at particular parts of a target) count it as 1 extra thing.

How many did you end up with? 10? 20? 30+? 

Now take a long, hard look at the those cases, decisions and sub-cases and ask which of these are integral to the mechanic and which are not. 

For example the skill rating of the shooter is integral because that might be our basic hit modifier or target number. A penalty for moving and firing is not integral as the mechanic works without it. 

For any items that are not integral, start asking yourself if they are worth keeping especially if they rarely apply or if they often cancel out another modifier. They may be but interrogate each in turn to make sure they are. A lot of small hit modifiers or "happens on a natural roll of x" conditions have a high chance of being something you can ditch without ever affecting the flow of the game, particularly with a big die type. 

Once you have identified a couple of targets for deletion, try playing through a couple of quick firefights without them. Did you even notice their absence? Did the lack of it affect the tactics that seemed useful? That will inform your choice. 

An added danger is that by applying a rule for something you may end up overemphasizing it. Let us say you are writing an ultra realistic fire fight skirmish game and you set up a rule that guns jam on a natural D20 roll of a 1. Guns jam in real life so it is realistic right?

Well, maybe. Statistics are hard to come by but some time ago I read that some model of modern military rifle had a failure rate of around 1-2% in typical conditions with limited maintenance. Lets just assume this is accurate. 

By assigning the malfunction rate to a 1 in 20 chance, we have raised the chances to 5% meaning that our shooter in the game is many times more likely to jam their weapon than the actual rate should be. 

This is a simple example and compound probabilities get hairy but I hope it goes to show what I mean: By assigning a mechanic you emphasize the chance of a particular action or event occurring even if it is statistically not very likely. For most games not having a jam mechanic at all is probably closer to the statistical reality than assigning a 5% chance per attack.

What do you think? What have you cut from your game? What do you wish you had cut in hindsight? What did you cut that you realized you actually needed to keep?