Getting started with game design

A slice of my journey from game player to game designer

I can’t remember what happened in the first game of Dungeons and Dragons I ever played, except that our friends made fajitas together, and my friend Harith’s goblins were the funniest version of Harith. We were playing with the 4th Edition Red Box, the starter set meant to help you get to grips with D&D. Harith had no experience of being a Dungeon Master, definitely didn’t understand the rules, and was only really doing it because I had asked him to. I think to this day it’s still the only game of D&D he’s played. I couldn’t tell you why on earth I wasn’t DMing. I definitely wanted to, but I think I was holding myself back, unwilling to try something I wanted to be really good at because I was scared at failing (a pattern that definitely never repeated itself in my life ever). We played a single session, had a good time, and never played again. I had spent months hanging on every episode of Geek and Sundry’s TableTop, but at that stage I think I just didn’t have the courage to lean into my passions and accept being the person that I wanted to be.

I spent my early uni life intimidated by the people in the TTRPG and gaming societies, desperately wanting to be like them but not feeling like I had enough knowledge, like I could only participate once I knew enough that I didn’t look like an idiot. I joined the Zombie Society, which involved termly games where ‘zombies’ would try to infect players by touching them and players would attempt to kill zombies with nerf guns, but I was put off by a dominant environment of toxic masculinity. Instead, I resigned my nerdiness to obsessively watching the PAX sessions of Acquisitions Incorporated, marvelling at these idiots playing this wonderful game. I tried a few episodes of the then-new Critical Role and couldn’t quite get into it. When Titansgrave came out in 2015, I couldn’t wait for each new episode. And then, of course, Stranger Things happened, D&D 5th Edition exploded, and a plethora of third party content, actual play podcasts and Twitch streams began to dominate the gaming landscape. It slowly became cool to play or talk about D&D or TTRPGs more generally.

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And still, I didn’t play or run a game of D&D.

A book cover. The background is red. The top says "Dungeons & Dragons" in a styled serif font. The picture on the box shows a knight fighting a menacing dragon.
The Dungeons and Dragons ‘Red Box’ starter set. Technically this isn’t the 4th Edition one, but most of you wouldn’t have known that if I didn’t say it, would you?

Lessons from ‘modern’ board gaming

In 2018, I finally discovered ‘modern’ board gaming. I had moved to the North East and was visiting York with my partner Chloe, and we happened upon a shop called Travelling Man (completely oblivious to the fact that I had walked past Travelling Man in Newcastle on my walk to the station that day). We spent some time perusing the board games in there, and we both decided to buy one: Chloe bought the modern classic Pandemic, and I bought the bloated deck-builder-turned-RPG that no-one has ever played, Apocrypha. Clearly one of us made the better choice.

We played Pandemic on the train back, quickly getting to grips with an incredibly cleanly designed game systems ever. Each turn, you have four actions that you can use in one of eight ways. Your character has some special modifiers that makes them better at one or two of those actions. At the end of each turn you draw two cards and then infect the number of cities indicated on the infection tracker. If you draw an epidemic card things get worse. If you manage to cure every disease, you win. Everything about Pandemic captivated me and made me realise I was hooked on a new hobby. That year I bought a plethora of games and played Pandemic with a lot of people.

The board of the 'Pandemic' game. It is a map of the world with different cities noted with circles, and lines joining them. Coloured cubes representing diseases are placed all over the map.
A completed game of Pandemic. We cured everything!

Apocrypha couldn’t be more different than Pandemic. Where Pandemic was clear and effortless to play, Apocrypha was like walking through mud. I admit, I was partly drawn to it because it was big and expensive, and I was trying to become comfortable with actually spending money on myself. I loved the tone of it—gothic magical realism, oozing small town Twin Peaks vibes. But the game was a mess. Every meme you’ve ever seen about your friends introducing you to a new board game was true about Apocrypha. It was so confusing the designers released supplementary rules for it online. I’ve played it a handful of times, primarily alone. But Pandemic and Apocrypha together taught me a clear lesson in what game design could be—and what it shouldn’t be.

A game of Apocrypha in progress. I can't even tell you what's going on. There are SO many cards.
A game of Apocrypha in progress. I have no idea what’s going on.

Later that year, I picked up Fantasy Flight’s Edge of the Empire starter set, a Star Wars RPG focussed on life outside the mainstream Star Wars world, of crime, bounty hunters and droids. I ran a few sessions for my housemates at the time, and we had fun, but I still had this sense that I absolutely didn’t know what I was doing. I think in part I just didn’t understand the larger mechanics at play, why the game worked or how to develop an interesting and immersive narrative inside of it. I guess I was still scared of D&D—with its huge and expensive core rulebooks—so I went to Star Wars, because I knew and understood Star Wars, at least.

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That year, I took some of my learning about games and applied it to my MRes project, based around understanding how to design digital peer support systems for young people with experience of homelessness. I made a pretty terrible design fiction, loosely wrapped a world around it, and imagined that somehow that could be considered a game. It couldn’t. I had to pivot my project and ended up running workshops where participants would work through a workbook I had created—where they created a character/persona from several positive or negative characteristics, and then worked through a series of prompts based around events that happened to that character that year. I didn’t have a good enough understanding of game design at the time to recognise that that was much more of a game than my design fiction had been. This could probably the bones of a pretty decent solo journaling RPG.

A messy table in a workshop. There is a person wearing a striped jacket in the foreground. In front of them, there are cards and snacks on the table. The cards show characteristics about a person. There is a journal in front of them flipped to a page that reads "October 2018".
The journalling game in progress.

After (the) Pandemic

Throughout the pandemic I was living with Chloe and our friends Nat and Rachel. We spent a lot of that year playing games to pass the time. Ironically, one of our main pastimes was Pandemic: Legacy (Season 1). Legacy games are linear campaigns of a board game, in which players work through a variety of scenarios and their actions in one session live on to the next session. Eventually we had to stop playing because it got a bit too real (“we need to set up exclusion zones over there or the virus is going to cause a string of outbreaks!” didn’t feel quite the same anymore), but I couldn’t ignore the itch anymore for wanting a longer term narrative game where actions had consequences. I spent some of the pandemic building an idea for a Star Wars homebrew setting using D&D 5E, but abandoned it because I still didn’t understand how story, puzzle design, game design, and level design all come together.

The missing piece of the puzzle came in 2022 when my friend Paul gathered together a group of first-time players who really wanted to start a D&D group. The missing piece was ‘seeing someone else do it’. So in July 2022, the Stonehill Six came together in a campaign of The Lost Mines of Phandelver. Over about sixteen sessions, we bonded together as a group, found a new pattern for our Tuesday nights, and built some semblance of a community. Every Tuesday, we knew we were going to eat together, spend time together, and play in our stupid made-up world together. My first time actually playing a full campaign of D&D was everything I imagined it could be—a way to build community, to deepen relationships, to care for each other, and to confront the monstrous ghosts of your past when you accidentally name someone in your backstory Agatha (who shares a name with the Banshee in Phandelver). I became a little bit obsessed, obsessing over optimal character builds, spell synergies, and multi-class opportunities. My highlight of that campaign was still the moments we were trapped in a Agatha’s house, desperately trying to escape from the spectral form of the Banshee, when I decided that I was the person that had led the party there, so I was willing to die for the rest of the party to get away. Luckily, I didn’t have to. But the desire—and the immersion—was there all the same.

In the intervening years, I’d developed a much richer understanding of games design. Of course, I was already a designer drawing from a lot of different disciplines (interaction design, service design, experience design and visual design chief among them), but from 2018–2021 I’d spent a lot of time honing my skills, playing board games, and developing a few games of my own. Mostly these games were for research. These included It’s Our Future, a gameful way of helping people who have never met each other before to identify issues in their lives and imagine and build shared futures, and fractured signals, a playful self-reflection tool using tarot cards. Neither of these really scratched my itch for a game that felt like a game, though.

Paul got a job in a different city earlier this year and our Phandelver campaign came to an end, but we were all firm that we wanted to keep our Tuesdays the same, though, and so in March of this year I started DMing my first D&D campaign. After ten years or so of wanting to run a D&D campaign, I was finally embracing it. I had been building a world in the background for the past few months and started to create an adventure within it. I was knee deep in every video about how to DM for the first time—which honestly, I didn’t need to watch but it becomes a bit of an anxious habit sometimes, consuming content to avoid being vulnerable. My players were dropped into the continent of Eschator, a place that was in a tentative peace in the aftermath of the wars in the Crowlands between the Crowtouched—a religious group who warned of an oncoming change that would shake the world—and the Coinstewards, a profiteering hyper-capitalist ‘utopia’. Eighty years ago, massive climatic shifts had affected the dwarven homeland and the entire population were made refugees. Some fled north, into the Lazaran Mountains, and continued their path of mining and resource extraction to find a way to reverse the freezing of their homeland. Some fled over the water, to the south of Theladria, and developed new technologies to harness the power of the waves and live more symbiotically with nature. Yes, it’s a very thinly veiled attempt to do climate and capitalism in an RPG, but sometimes these things die through subtlety, you know?

The party was The Storm Commission, a group of people who had responded to the Queen’s call for people who were willing to investigate the recent wild magic storms that had begun tearing their way through the continent. Over another sixteen weeks, the party investigated the cause of the storms, how they might stop them, and most importantly—who was behind them and what they wanted. It turned out that one of the leaders of the dwarven settlement in the Lazaran Mountains was approaching the end of his life and wanted to see his homeland of Bastion restored at any cost, and so was attempting to open a portal to another plane of existence to secure the help of Fire Elementals to melt the ice in Bastion. He didn’t care about the cost to anyone else to see the dwarven homeland restored. Little did he know, he was being manipulated by forces far outside of his control—the presumed-dead wife of one of the player characters, trapped in another plane and desperately trying to return. We decided to run our campaign in arcs, and there’s no rush like ending a four month arc of play with the players stuck in another plane of existence, one betrayed by their wife, another finding out their memories had been wiped thousands of years ago, another embracing their magic with the help of their ancestor, and the last finding out that they hadn’t accidentally made themselves a cyborg years ago, but they were chosen by a god to be their champion

A number of stone tiles placed on a wooden table, to create a battleground. Several characters stand on a portal in the foreground, cut off from the portal in the middle of the room by a wall of fire represented by orange dice.
The final battle of the first arc of the Storm Commission campaign in progress.

I had a lot of chances to find what worked for me and what didn’t. A lot of how I thought I might want to run D&D (or another TTRPG) turned out not to be what I wanted. I loved building intrigue and suspense for my players, and dangling puzzles in front of them to solve. I loved making physical props, using my design skills to give them a piece of this world. I loved seeing them theorise and try to work out what the hell they should do next. And I loved nothing more than seeing how they would do completely chaotic things, things I never could have planned for in a million years. In our sixth session, one player used a magical item I had developed for them with a random effect and caused the entire continent to shift its terrain, causing earthquakes, severe weather events, and mountains to spring up out of nowhere. The rest of the campaign was marked by this—people displaced, helping one another, or capitalising on the crisis. I realised, though, that what I enjoyed most about this was developing mechanics, finding new ways to play the game itself.

What’s next: getting started easily

My love of making new games mechanics has translated into TTRPG design that goes outside of D&D, finally. I’m currently working on a couple of games that I hope to release in the next few months. These all started life as things that I did for our weekly Tuesday TTRPG night, but I began to realise that they were being held back by D&D, not improved by them. Right now, I’m working on an as-yet-untitled-teen-slasher RPG, which I’ll be running for the first time this Tuesday. It started life as a hack of Dael Kingsmill’s Teen Slasher 5E classes, and drew upon elements from the games Kids on Bikes, DIE RPG, and Ten Candles, but I’m trying to give it life outside of each of these now. This game is trying to find a satisfying way to create a one-session slasher RPG that feels genuinely scary, which embodies the feel of the slasher genre, and which facilitates players to quickly make characters and a world together that can be played in immediately.

A number of stats are described for an RPG, with a space for the dice that will be used for them on the right. The stats are 'physical', 'weird', 'book smarts', 'street smarts', and 'presence'.
The initial design of the stats for my teen slasher RPG.

Perhaps because of my own journey of wanting to play RPGs for so many years but never quite feeling like I could get started, this is one of the things I’m most passionate about as a games designer. I want to make games that people can get started with easily. That’s not to say there isn’t a place for huge, crunchy, or complex games—but more to say that in the age of one page RPGs, the return of RPG zines, and a wealth of cheap or free content on—there’s such a space for games that people can pick up and start playing in seconds, or hacks which make other games easier to get started with. We’re also doing this at fractals co-op, where we’re using our games design skills for clients, helping them to think about how to build closer relationships, tackle complex problems, and create shared understanding through games.

Besides my slasher RPG, I also have two games on the backburner that should take centre stage in the next few months. One is a heist-themed RPG, based around an obsession I had earlier this year with heist movies and their incredibly specific structure of planning, flashbacks, and complications—and the other is a fuller game, a simple RPG that uses tiled cards to build a town. I’m calling this last game “Starting Town”, and the idea behind it is that it would be equal parts “my first RPG” and town generation tool for a longer-form RPG using another system, if you wanted. The three of these games each represent a different approach to doing TTRPGs to me. The slasher and heist RPGs are two genre-heavy pieces that seek to replicate a particular kind of mood and draw a lot of inspiration from movies, whilst Starting Town is a take on a traditional medieval fantasy setting, hopefully making it easier for people to start with something like D&D, Pathfinder, or even an Old School Revival game like Dungeon Crawl Classics or Shadowdark (though I think they’re a lot easier to start with anyway). You’ll be hearing more about these games as I hash them out over the next few months, and I’ll talk you through some of the way that I make decisions about them, charting some of my journey in designing them. For now, though, I’m going to get back to writing the slasher, so that I’m ready to run it on Tuesday.