- Gnome Stew - https://gnomestew.com -

Di’s 7 Swords of TRPG Design

Done by the wonderful Sketch [1].

Hello and welcome to “Di’s 7 Swords of TRPG Design,” a highly egotistic [proclamation] on Tabletop RPG design and gamemastery. What I mean by this is that I plan to declare my views and opinions on what I believe makes a good game – be it from the design angle or the gamemastery at the point of play. The two are intimately linked: the rules influence how the game master (GM) acts, while the GM always has the power to completely alter or abolish the rules outright.

The stances I take here will not apply to everything. They do not represent what necessarily makes a good game. Using all of them will not make a game automatically good, and many fantastic games exist and will exist without ever using a single one of these. These statements are meant to declare what I believe to make good games (both in design and play) and to challenge myself on my ability to defend these stances. If you agree on any of these, then thank you for taking the time to read my take on them. If you disagree with them, thank you for taking the time to read on them, feel free to comment and, hopefully, we can argue about them until the morning.

Also, because I’m using the whole “Swords” shtick, I’m likely going to randomly sound pompous and stuck up at times (I don’t know, I haven’t written all of these yet). This might come off as unnecessary, but I aim to capture my thoughts as closely to their essence and inspiration as possible. Sorry for that in advance.

Table of Contents

The 1st. Resolution Mechanics Must be Fast [2]
The 2nd. Endless Depth in Customization
The 3rd. True Strength Lies in Simplicity
The 4th. Dissociated Mechanics are Fine; Fiction is Cheap
The 5th. Agency is an Illusion; Slay It or Play to It
The 6th. Chase the Consequences to their Limit
The 7th. The GM is a God to be Slain.

Note: This list will be updated with links to the articles as they come up.

Why the Sword Metaphor?

A while ago, I was asked by a friend as to what I believe in when it came to tabletops. They had written pieces of their own manifesto – their own statement of what they believed to be good game design. While I had many ideas and beliefs, I had never penned any of them down. It was like being a blacksmith with the steel and dreaming what to make of it but never giving them true form and shape.

I had a very clear image in my head when I went to the Sword metaphor. I imagined a personal armory with Swords lined up and mounted on the wall. Each had a history to them and each was treasured–be it from their use on the battlefield, or by what they represented. Each was sharpened, honed at a smithy until they were as strong as they reasonably could be.

Swords, from what limited knowledge of weaponry I have, are ultimately defensive weapons (aside from using greatswords as clubs with the mordhau). Their cutting power is completely stopped by armor unless you aim directly for weak, unarmored points. They’re most powerful only in fantasy, where adventurers can swing them with enough power to cleave through platemail and dragonscale alike.

The Swords I’m laying out here are similar in that they only have real power in the fantasyscape of Tabletop RPGs. They’re only as powerful as you’re capable of defending yourself with them, and often unrealistically revered compared to every other weapon available. They are treasured, less for what they are or what they do, but for what they represent. I could find no better parallel to the sort of statements I’m planning to make.

An Introduction to the Concepts

‡ The 1st: Resolution Mechanics Must be Fast

When conflict rears its head and the players decide to solve it by rolling the dice, there must be as minimal of a time to the resolution as reasonably possible.

‡ The 2nd: Endless Depth in Customization

A player should be capable of creating as endless a number of mechanically diverse characters as the player can create campaigns.

‡ The 3rd: True Strength Lies in Simplicity

The game will always find ways to make a situation more complex and complicated for every factor involved. If you don’t build for simple and clear resolution, games will slow down to a crawl.

‡ The 4th: Dissociated Mechanics are Fine; Fiction is Cheap

Mechanics and information being non-related to in-world events and interactions are fine. It’s extremely easy to write in an in-world explanation for them. D&D 4e was fine, fight me.

‡ The 5th: Agency is an Illusion; Slay It or Play to It

Player Agency, in this current landscape of online tabletops, doesn’t exist as powerfully due to the abundance of plot armor. Either slay the illusion and give your players true agency, or ham it up for the drama and story.

‡ The 6th: Chase the Consequences to their Limit

Player Agency is only as free in the world as its ability to chase the player’s choices with honest and straightforward consequences.

‡ The 7th: The GM is a God to be Slain

As the GM you will lose almost every encounter, every fight, every conflict you come at the players with. That is the very nature of the role. But by damned if you can’t put on one hell of a show.


If you happen to have any comments, agreements, or arguments to anything I have to say, feel free to lay it on me in the comment section down below. Alternatively, you can hit me up at my Twitter (@DiceQueenDi [3]).

I want to be able to defend my opinions. If anything else, I’d like to also hear if anything I said resonates with you as well. Kind of as a confirmation I’m not some crazed wackadoodle just spewing bad opinions into the internet?

I hope you find something here to use.

~Di, signing off

[The 1st Sword [2]]: Resolution Mechanics Must be Fast —>

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "Di’s 7 Swords of TRPG Design"

#1 Comment By Beardedlizard On July 30, 2020 @ 9:37 am

I have the same principles when I design my own games and systems. I used to make really complicated stuff when I started, but with time and with my latest group of players (who are a lot more casual about the game), I learned to try my best to keep it simple.

Although, I must point out a kind of paradox I see with sword #2 and #3. I personally find there is a fine balance between complexity/endless possibility and simplicity. I think that often, games that have a very large range of character possibility and options tend to also be a lot more complex (And vice versa). I still think it is possible to have both, or at least a good middle ground, but I find it is very difficult.

I’m eager to see you delve deeper into each of your sword. I really love those game design articles, they are super helpful!

#2 Comment By Di. On July 30, 2020 @ 11:16 am

Oh absolutely. Part of my clarification is that Endless Customization relates more to the character creation side and all the choices you can make to have a highly unique character, while Strength in Simplicity is more about having clean and clear mechanics. You’re absolutely right that the games that have the most options due tend to be more complex. @ v @ I’ve (mostly) yet to find something that fully satisfies both.

#3 Comment By Michael Stengle On July 31, 2020 @ 10:52 am

I’m looking forward to the further exploration of each of these swords of design. It seems to me that game design involves a good amount of balancing conflicting values. So, understanding the nature and purpose of the game is integral to deciding how to set the sliders, so to speak, for these values. Some specific continuum come to mind:
* Roleplaying vs Game (or Story vs Mechanics)
* Player Characters affecting the Game Setting vs Game Setting driving PC decisions/actions
* Realism/Simulations vs Abstraction
* Designed Plot vs Emergent Story
* Triumph/Power vs Challenge/Meaning
To the extent that a game is designed as a game engine, to support a variety of different games, these decisions can be pushed down to the setting/campaign/one-shot game level, but the engine should address the how and why of making these decisions.

I’m particularly looking forward to #4 your defense of dissociated mechanics (I often find them jarring to my suspension of disbelief) and #7 “The GM is a God to be Slain” (is this related to the zen koan “When you meet the Buddha, kill him”?)

#4 Comment By Di. On July 31, 2020 @ 11:34 am

Oh ho! You’re definitely looking ahead at some of my points, yes.

I hope to look at some of the more practical aspects first, focusing on Game Speed/Pacing/Complexities, before moving into more abstracts like Meaning/Challenge/Agency. Early on it’ll be about some design elements I like to see in games/parts I dislike. I’m a bit scathing at times to D&D and PbtA.

You’re right in game design balancing a lot of conflicting issues. I try to explore that in my 2nd and 3rd a bit because, as Beardedlizard pointed out, simplicity and endless customization are two very conflicting ideas.

As for your excitement, I’ll do my best to not disappoint! (As for the 7th, I borrowed the form, not necessarily the point. :3c It touches on it most definitely. Good catch!)

#5 Comment By Michael Siciliano On August 1, 2020 @ 12:35 pm

“Player Agency…//…, doesn’t exist as powerfull4y due to the abundance of plot armor”

I have a hard time understanding that idea, and I suspect that it’s because you’re using ‘plot armor’ in some way I haven’t seen used before. In my experience the term is used to describe the safety afforded to the character by being a primary protagonist. Coincidence has tended to save them etc. When you use the term, what do you mean?

#6 Comment By Di. On August 2, 2020 @ 1:35 pm

I believe I’m using it in the same way you do. “Safety afforded to player-characters due to being a primary protagonist,” but perhaps in a more specific manner? Like, if an earthquake happens it feels like a given that all the players should be able to survive it and gather up to then decide how to handle it. But I suppose perhaps I mean the more specific “The contrivances centered around keeping player-characters alive.”

Like. In a couple games I’ve been in, I know the GM’s investment of the players into the story is so intense, they’ll do most anything to keep us from dying. Like how a monster never ‘finishes off’ a downed opponent and simply wanders off to the next one, or how an NPC or GM-PC will save us if anyone goes down. Or how they’ll fervently remind us about healing and push us to healing the downed character. Or perhaps some other plot device gets used to save the players, regardless of the plot holes it will make.

My investment in the story, as well as my character, drops because I know any bad decision I make doesn’t really have any major consequences I care about. I’ll explore this more in Sword 5/6.