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Natirasha's Guide for Amateur Game Designers

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Original Publication: January 4, 2009 by Natirasha
Revised: January 10, 2009 by Mr. Flay


So, I've reviewed a bunch of games lately by new mods and I've come to a few conclusions. So I decided to post them here.

Most games I've reviewed are all overly-complicated and didn't think of anything in terms of balance. So, to all the new mods/game designers, here are a few steps to help avoid the basic pitfalls that even experienced mods sometimes fall to.

The Sliding Scale

In the media world, there is a scale called the Sliding Scale of Cynicism vs. Idealism. The idea is that depending on where the setting sets on the SSoCvI, it determines the type of hero the protagonist is and how the world actually looks. A cynical world's protagonist is generally a grizzly misty-eyed stranger with a dark past. The world is desolate, generally after some sort of apocalypse. An idealistic world's protagonist is a teenager, with big eyes who believes in the goodness of people almost to a fault. The idealistic world generally has a "world behind the world" a baddy hiding behind the façade of something good.

In mafia, I believe that something similar exists. I'd don't have a good name for it, but it's a scale. The farther left on the scale you go, the more cynical, the more bastardly, the darker the world is. These games generally have some sort of form of "outguess the mod" attached to them. They are very role-based, with tactical night actions being more important that tactical day actions. These games are typically swingy, with both sides having a high chance of success. The epitome of these games are Tarhalindur's Mind Screw Games. However, not bastard mod games. Bastard Mod games lie outside the scale, since it's debatable if those are really actually even games (NOTE: I do not count cop sanities as bastardly, or even hidden powers if they are hinted at in the Role PM). The farther right on the scale your game is, the more important the day game is. If these games have "special" mechanics, they generally involve voting or scumhunting. These game focus on the player's wit and at finding scumtells. If there is a nightgame at all, it is usually minimal, with only average roles being used. Newbie Setups are pretty much the definition of a right-sided game. Generally, these games are much more common and, due to that, they define the meta. These games are also, as a rule, more balanced, due to the less likely of strange role interactions(however, there are exceptions to every rule). So, to me, I think mods need to decide where they want they're game to fall before they even start developing. Most new mods try to go to the left side, but those games are the hardest to design. Generally, the games I always see come down to one or two uber-powerful roles that could generally just say "Win the Game", to the point that the game isn't even swingy. Swingy games are ok, but as long as all sides have a chance. I think new mods should start off trying to design a good right-game first. It took me three games of designing before I could try to design my first Left-Game, Mind Screw Gaiden(shut up).

A side note about Serial Killers: Yes, they have a harder time winning. No, that doesn't mean they deserve to be a NK-Immune Investigation-Immune Mason who instantly wins if he goes to ELo. That's just overpowered (unless, of course, all the factions are that powerful).

Disenfranchise yourself from the flavor

This is the single greatest pitfall you could possibly face, and I've even seen experienced mods fall to it. Of course, I'm only speaking about theme games here. Flavor is important and of course the theme should guide your design, but don't get carried away. I personally battled this a number of times on both of Serum & Steel and Into the Aurora (which you guys haven't seen yet...). The original S&S was kinda like this: 1 SK vs. 3 mafia vs. 8 town.

All players started off with specific roles, and had to use serum to gain extra powers. Players started off with a specific number of serum and could gain more through other means. However, each player had to pay a number of serum to "upkeep" each day. If they didn't have enough, they died. The more powers they had, the more serum they needed to function. Additionally, everyone was either "metal" or "flesh". Metal players were unkillable in any way. However, every metal player had a "Metal meter". Each time they were eliminated, they lost 25% of their meter. Each time they imbibed serum, they lost 10% of their meter. At 50% metal, they could be eliminated. Roles typically looked like this.

  • Pontifex//SK: (25 serum, upkeep: 0)flesh, kill.
    1. Level 1 (5 serum, upkeep: 5): Becomes metal & Mason with Oro.
    2. Level 2 (5 serum, Upkeep: 7): Gains second kill, becomes mason with Althas.
    3. Level 3 (10 serum, Upkeep 10): Converts both Oro & Althas to create Second Mafia.
  • Althas//Mafia RB: (5 serum, upkeep: 1)flesh.
    1. Level 1 (1 serum, upkeep: 2): Gains roleblock.
    2. Level 2 (10 serum, Upkeep: 5): Global Roleblocker (except for mafia Kill).
  • Oro//Town Mason:(0 serum, upkeep: 0)flesh.
    1. Level 1 (3 serum, upkeep: 1): Becomes Mason with Memnarch(Mafia GF), does not know he is mafia GF.
    2. Level 2 (3 serum, Upkeep: 2): Becomes Mason with Slobad(town InventorDoc).
    3. Level 3 (3 serum, Upkeep: 3): Becomes Mason with Glissa(town Metaleraser).

Obviously, if I had continued on that route the game would have--probably--failed miserably. Thankfully, after my Mini Normal, I came to the realization that the sheer number of role interactions and micromanagement I would have to do would be insane. So I came to the conclusion something was amiss. Then I came to it: I was basing my game off the Mirrodin Books, not the actual card set. And that no one would understand the flavor. And I won't even go into "Broken by Massclaim".I mean, not many people have read the novel series following a card set in a game most people consider "nerdy" (Magic the Gathering). So I came to an impasse: I wanted to stay true to the flavor, but I also wanted to have a game that was possible to mod. I eventually decided I had to ignore the books to a large degree and work with what was written on the cards. That worked. So, pretty much, just use the Source material as guidelines, it's not the bible. Don't treat it as such. Don't get caught up in the flavor to the point that the gameplay suffers. And, if you are making a game where there are "ordinary" people and heroes, make sure you include to ordinarier people either. Not every player has to have a name in their role PM.

Have only a few mechanical themes

Two or three is generally a good number. If you try to have everything, the game just gets convoluted, harder to mod, and ultimately, harder for the players to understand and play(which, I would argue, would lead to lurking, but that's for another thread). Instead, take only a few themes and flesh them out. Going back to Serum & Steel(Sorry, but it's just such an easy game to use as an example, since I designed it), after deciding to fix it after flavor, I decided I had to look through the file. Immediately, I realized I had a few major mechanical themes.

  • Masonries
  • The Metal Mechanic
  • The Serum Mechanic
  • Misdirection

Immediately, I realized that if I kept all of these themes, then something was bound to either break the game or make it very unfun, despite the flavor being slightly better. During this time, I'd been reading 1984 and thought that it would make a great mafia game. One of the themes (at least I would argue) of the book is that of "chasing shadows". And you know what goes great with chasing shadows? Misdirection. And masonries work, too (to help find which shadows are the right ones). So I moved those off(if you want to see an alpha version of the 1984 setup, go look in the Theme Test Market, I put it up there so I could help balance it). That left me the serum & metal mechanics. These two mechanics were, by design, complex. Then I came across a nice little quote.

Veteran Players like Simple Games.

So I decided that, if I wanted to continue developing the game, maybe I should decrease the complexity. It was around this time I started development on Into the Aurora (What? I get bored. If there was no modding limits, I would be modding at least 5 games at a time) and one of the major themes was(and still is) double-voting. So I decided that, maybe I should make "Screw with voting" one of the overarching trilogy themes. This gave birth to the idea: what if the town controlled the serum? They could vote on it each day. However, then that made me have to change the serum mechanic to work with that. Instead of amounts of serum, what if it was a fixed amount that gave extra powers? Or wouldn't it be fun, if they had to use serum to get powers at all? I mean, having vanilla townies makes every game more balanced. However, the serum is addicting. Even in the cards they mention this. So I allowed a rule to be set in place: if a player was serumed twice, they had to continue to be serumed or they die. I think this did justice to the flavor enough, while still simplifying the mechanic enough to be more fun. It had the added effect of making thee power roles be more judicious with their use. The metal mechanic was much simpler. It stayed the same, but since serum was no longer a problem, the metal meter could be eliminated.

However, that led to a problem: how to kill metal players. I will get to that in the next section.

Generally, what I'm saying here is that focusing on two or three mechanics makes you think about their consequences far more than if you thought about a large number, plus it most likely leads to less work on the minds of both the players and yourself, which is generally a good thing.

Have failsafes

Have failsafes for failsafes. Make sure that there is no "breaking strategy". For a great example of a game that shows what happens when your failsafes are not that great and/or non-existent, look again at Tarhalindur's Babylon 5: Severed Dreams (Note to Tar: No Offense). The radial placement of scum among the 7 races meant that it decreased the players that might be a scum to just 1 in three, as opposed to 8 in 24. Also, the lack of failsafes with races led to one race, the Minbari, which had a radial untargettable vig, an incredible setup breaker, and the Mafia Godfather to generally kill off the other races, allowing those three(and the neutral survivors, who had kills) to have a landslide victory.

I had to walk this line a bit in Serum & Steel. First, I had to ensure that the metal players could be killed. I did this in two ways. The first was the Mycosynth vote each day, which removed metal from a player. This gave the town a way to kill metal mafiates, allowing me to open up new design space. The second was that I wanted to punish players who did a mass metal/nonmetal claim or players that were eliminated, but were metal and not killed. I added Arcbound Ravager for this reason. He was an SK who could only eat metal players and won if he ate 2. The failsafe for that, since it was an easy WinCon really, was that if he won, the game did not end.

The second time I had failsafes was that I wanted the town(and mafia) to gain powers, even if they had someone who had to continue using serum or die. I accomplished this by adding a Serum-Giving role. The serum giver gave serum and, if the town was going to let someone die from serum deprivation, then he could save them. Or if the town was going to continue to power someone, he could give them another power role. Really, the whole idea of this is that make sure that your game isn't broken. And if you find it is broken, either remove the mechanic/role or add a punisher for the type of behavior that breaks the game.

Have a Back-Up Mod

Preferably a reviewer in addition to that. Really, the who point of this is that if something happens, you want someone who knows the setup, any twists, and the roles. Additionally, if you need advice handling a situation(if say a player is on the line of role PM quoting) they are always there. They can also point out corner-cases that might happen and how to deal with them. Finally, a back-up mod/reviewer(since, most of the time, they are one in the same) makes sure that everything you've done up to this point wasn't in vain. A second pair of eyes is usually all it takes to see any breaking strategies that might happen. And even the best of mods might have breaking strategies that might be avoided with a back up mod.

Well, I'm honestly not sure why I posted all that. I mean, it took a good hour to write. And I don't like tl;dr. But, well, I hope it helps someone.