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Names are hard. Except when they’re extremely easy. Some names just fly out of the ether and can’t be avoided (Microscope, Kingdom). But more often you have to sit and fiddle and poke and prod. So it’s always an important step in game design when a project gets a proper codename. A name that feels […]

Ben Robbins | July 18th, 2021 | , | 5 comments

Teaching Games

A snippet from the discussion section of the new edition of Kingdom: If you’re reading this, you are probably the person teaching everyone else the rules and how to play: what we call a “facilitator”. First of all, thank you! Learning and teaching other people games is a great public service. You are already a […]

Ben Robbins | March 30th, 2021 | , , , | 3 comments

K2: The Price of Overthrow

Game design journal time! In Kingdom, overthrowing another character and taking their role away falls into that most pernicious category of game rules, “things that rarely happen but are very important”. Which are, my friends, one of the trickiest species of rules. The rule is important, so it has to be robust and fulfill its […]

Ben Robbins | February 7th, 2021 | , , | 3 comments

Watering My Seeds With Tears

True confession: I hate writing seeds. Seeds, playsets, setting templates — whatever you call them, I hate it. I really do. Not because I hate making fiction (I love making fiction) but because, as a game designer, it feels wrong to be making *your* fiction for you. I want the people at the table to […]

Ben Robbins | January 21st, 2021 | , , | 3 comments

Nail Your Setup

One of my game design theories is that if you nail the setup, the rest of the game flows even if there aren’t a lot of constraints telling you what to do. Conversely, if your setup is wobbly, you can have all the structure in the world and it won’t save the game. You’ll be […]

Ben Robbins | January 18th, 2021 | ,

The Trouble With Touchstones

I am very happy with how the Kingdom second edition playtest is going. Kingdom has always been a fantastic game and the new version does a much better job of capturing that magic. But dear reader, let me tell you a secret: the Touchstone rules have been my cross to bear. A game design thorn […]

Ben Robbins | June 21st, 2020 | , , | 2 comments

Names Are Hard

Ever have a hard time coming up with a name for a great game because nothing captures the magic, stew about it for ages, then come up with a totally different idea for a game, think of a great name for that new game, then realize that name would be even better for the first […]

Ben Robbins | August 10th, 2019 | | 2 comments

Diminishing Returns of Random Fiction

We sit down to play a game that’s designed to introduce random elements of fiction. A couple rolls on a table and we have a smuggling ring, ghosts of the old war, and a questionable inheritance. Great! That’s all good stuff to get our game going. We can work with it. Now imagine we’re coming […]

Ben Robbins | July 15th, 2017 | | 2 comments

Forget It’s a Playtest

The worst thing that can happen during a playtest is that you play it like a playtest. Weird, right? The text below is the exact advice I give my playtesters. It was in the Chronicle playtest, the Echo playtest and it will no doubt be right there in the Follow playtest when it goes out. […]

Ben Robbins | May 2nd, 2016 | | 2 comments

Guilt Con 2015

“Let’s work on our games! Use the devastating weight of procrastination shame to jam it up!”–the Mighty CHOBBS Peer pressure makes good company. So this weekend, Marc, Caroline and I set the grindstone speed to “dangerously high” and leaned way, way in. We ignored the pretty-pretty sunshine, the chirpy-chirpy birds, and did the dreadful labor […]

Ben Robbins | May 14th, 2015 | , , , ,

Rewriting Your Game From Memory

@lamemage gives hard advice. Rewriting Downfall from memory suuuuucks.   There’s a thing I do when I design games — this is real secret squirrel, behind-the-curtain stuff — which is that after I’ve written a draft or two and playtested a bit, I take everything I’ve written and just put it away. Make a new […]

Ben Robbins | May 6th, 2014 | , , , | 5 comments

Meanwhile, at the Hall of Justice…

“Hey, you haven’t talked about Kingdom in a while. What’s up with that?” Good question, caller. Imagine a cave. A dark cave. In a swamp. Lit only by the intermittent glow of fireflies. Now in the cave put a figure. A figure facing a wall of rock. Solid rock. Rock from the heart of the […]

Ben Robbins | April 7th, 2013 | , | 1 comment

Pride Goeth

If I made a war game I would definitely give armies a stat for Pride. Pride isn’t the same as morale. Pride is a blessing and a curse. Winning increases your Pride and Pride lets you do bold things but it also limits your options. Pride won’t let you back down. Pride won’t let you […]

Ben Robbins | January 22nd, 2013 | | 2 comments

Musashi: Suppressing Useful Actions

The important thing in strategy is to suppress the enemy’s useful actions but allow his useless actions. — A Book of Five Rings (The Fire Book), Miyamoto Musashi The diametric opposite of role-playing game design. Informatively so. Game design acid test: if your rules block ideas the players want and you don’t have an excellent […]

Ben Robbins | September 5th, 2011 | | 5 comments

Competition Likes Precision

Here’s a simple maxim: Competitive games need clearer rules than cooperative games. The reasons should be pretty obvious: in a competitive game, the participants are motivated to interpret rules differently, because each person wants to interpret the rules in their own favor. In a cooperative game, the participants are motivated to interpret the rules the […]

Ben Robbins | May 10th, 2010 | , | 1 comment

Game Plugin: the Blame Game

Human beings crave cause and effect. When something goes wrong, we try to understand what happened so the same thing doesn’t happen again. It’s a good survival tactic. Taken too far, it means we look for explanations for even the most random events. We don’t want to live in a universe where bad things happen […]

Ben Robbins | July 11th, 2009 | | 1 comment

Solidifying Microscope

I’ve locked down the first playable draft of microscope. There are bits I know are missing and want to investigate later on, but this should serve as a starting point. Getting a playable draft was largely a process of elimination — I’d written lots and lots of stuff about how microscope could/would work, but instead […]

Ben Robbins | March 14th, 2009 | ,

Game Plugins: a Working Definition

Here at the lame mage skunk works we’re always coming up with new ideas. And drinking coffee. Sometimes both at once. Sometimes we come up with ideas that seem like they’d make great games, but making a whole game just to use one cool idea… well that seems like work. If there are already systems […]

Ben Robbins | June 12th, 2008 | | 10 comments

Hornblower: Red-Green Vote

We have this little thing we do. One of us says “y’know, I’d really like a game for genre/movie/concept X” and then someone else says “hmm, well, I’ve never even considered making a game for this idea, but how about this brand new idea I just thought of entirely off the top of my head […]

Ben Robbins | March 4th, 2008 | | 7 comments

My Indie Realization

I wrote the first draft of my first indie game (codename: hicks) on the plane back from GenCon 07. It was the perfect recipe for writing: post-con euphoria, extreme exhaustion, lots of caffeine, and complete captivity in an airplane seat. It helped that my partners in con-crime quite sensibly passed out so I was on […]

Ben Robbins | February 8th, 2008 | , | 2 comments

Flipping Coins: Dice for a Desert Island

If you’re like me, you’ve had those times when you’re at your Grandfather’s for Xmas, and your younger cousin who’s really curious about this whole “roleplaying thing” wants you to run a game for her, but you try to weasel out of it by saying you don’t have any dice, and of course she’s like […]

Ben Robbins | December 27th, 2007 | | 8 comments

Steal This Game

The other day I get an email that says (basically) “Hey, your ideas are great. I’m writing an adventure that I’m going to publish, and I’m imitating a lot of your stuff like Revelations and Action Shticks. Is that okay?” Okay? Not only is it okay, I absolutely encourage it. If I’ve come up with […]

Ben Robbins | May 10th, 2007 | | 1 comment

Playtesting Your Own Games

If you are going to publish an adventure (or whole game system), playtesting is critical. Working out kinks or conceptual flaws during playtesting means that allllll those gaming groups that run it later will have more fun at the table. It takes effort, but it's a huge multiplier of work vs fun: a single hour […]

Ben Robbins | April 24th, 2007 | | 2 comments

Art is Powerful

I’m not exactly breaking new ground when I say art is powerful. Sight is the king of the senses in humans (er, “us humans” I mean), usually riding roughshod over weaklings like touch and hearing — we don’t have both eyes on the front of our head for nothing. Unlike text, which requires an intermediate […]

Ben Robbins | April 19th, 2007 | | 3 comments