Game design diaries: The Two Why’s

Ask “why”. And the ask “why” again.

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of RPG books, ranging from small indie releases to AAA products.

I started this “literature safari” to gain deeper understanding about RPG design. My goal is to read and analyze several different games, and to understand what makes games work. I can also highly recommend this method to anyone!

My original idea came from Juhana Pettersson, but unlike him, I’m not reading the books from cover to cover. Instead, I try to find answers to certain specific questions I have in mind.

Right now I’m concentrating on two questions: Why would anyone play this game? And, why are the characters doing what they do?

I have named these two questions to be “off-game why” and “in-game why”. And yeah, I’m sure this two “why’s” have some sort of correct game design terms, but naming them like this helps me to easily analyze almost any rpg.

So, when I’m reading a RPG book I ask myself these questions:

“Off-game why”: Why would anyone grab this game and play it? What kind of value or content it provides that separates it from any other game? Why would anyone buy this game instead of something else?

“In-game why”: Why are the player characters acting and doing stuff in the game world? Why don’t they just call the police and go home? What is the relationship between player characters and the world?

Example #1: The One Ring RPG (Free League)

This is a AAA level game that just raised almost 1,7 million euros on Kickstarter. Several hundred pages, etc.

Off-game why: Well, it’s the only Middle-Earth game on the market. That’s probably enough reason to buy this game. In addition to the setting, it also has amazing art and very good, “tolkienish” rules.

In-game why: This is trickier! As is reads in the new alpha rules: “These are restless warriors, curious scholars and wanderers, always eager to seek what was lost or explore what was forgotten. Ordinary people call them adventurers, and when they prevail, they hail them as heroes. But if they fail, no one will even remember their names…” So, basically, the characters are adventurers who want to do… adventurer stuff. This means the players really needs to understand their characters and what inner motivations they have. Not always the easiest task!

Example #2: Sins of the Father RPG (Third Eye Games)

This is an indie game with low production values and it’s something like 80 pages long.

And this time, let’s start with the “in-game why”: Your parents have done a deal with the Devil, and your soul was the merchandise. So, either you do as the Devil tells you, or your whole family will burn in hell. So yeah, that’s pretty straightforward, no-questions-asked kind of approach! I like it, I like it a lot!

Off-game why: Ok, trouble. There’s nothing wrong with the actual product, but there’s nothing great either. The book is a small black and white product with generic art. The “in-game why” is a fun idea, but is it enough?

The Big Conclusion

In order to game to be GREAT, it needs to have crystal clear answer to both “why’s”. Why would anyone buy it, and why are the player characters doing what they do?