Ken and Robin’s Axes of RPG Design

On the Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff podcast we recently wrapped our series on the various axes or oppositions that distinguish tabletop RPG designs. For future reference, here’s the list:

A game has Elegance if all of its subsystems work in the same way, stemming from a central resolution mechanic, or is Ornamented if its many subsystems work in different ways.

A game has Width if it supports play equally well over a long progression of power levels, or Focus if it works best at a narrower sweet spot.

A game can have Directed Emotion, stemming from rules that lead you to feel a certain way, or Emergent Emotion, in which the reactions of players and GMs stem from the story content they introduce.

A game has high Applicability if it is designed for a single highly specific player character core activity, or Versatility if it supports many possible core activities.

Games that focus on Simulation resolve events as they would unfold in a causal reality, or engage in Emulation, so that events unfold as they would in a movie or book, to keep the narrative running in a satisfying manner.

When it comes to handling cost, a rule or game can be a Harmonica, simple to operate and in output, or a Violin, requiring more work from the GM and players, which in a strong design is justified by the enjoyment it brings.

A game favors Ease when players can pick it up and run with it right away, or Mastery if it presents complex or elaborate rules or setting material, favoring those who take the time and brainspace to learn it.

Designers build Abstract rules for their mathematical or formal attributes, or Emotional rules when they grow out of the feelings they are meant to evoke at the table.

When it comes to setting, a game oriented around Canon presents a detailed setting with a set continuity meant to instill the same suspension of disbelief we apply to SF and fantasy worlds in traditional media. Open settings arise from the authorship of GM and/or players, with plenty of room to make stuff up as you go along.

A game or system dependent on Randomness uses die results to work out what happens. A game that privileges Choice has players and GMs decide.

Some of these oppositions shade into one another. Rather than an ironclad taxonomy of games and their elements, they provide a list of considerations to keep in mind as we design, refine, redesign and describe the games we play.

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