I’m corresponding with Steve Hickey about Left Coast, a game about sci fi authors in 1960s California, and how they deal with paranoia, hallucinations, alien incursions and bills to pay. Superb premise, but the system isn’t quite there yet.
Last year, I did an online course called Game Design Concepts. Most of the course was angled towards videogames, but lots applied to RPGs. My favorite topic was iterative design. Design something good, then test it to see what’s bad, then feed that back into design changes. Cycle that a lot. Weekly. Daily.
After all, you shouldn’t aim to write a a finished game. You can’t do that, so don’t worry about it. Just produce something that works enough that your band of intrepid and generous playtesters can poke at it at the table and see where the system skips.
As an example, I’m developing The Hammer Falls with the creator, Pooka . He was terrified he’d produce something that wouldn’t work… so we got a playtest about 6 weeks after he started designing. If he lost 6 weeks investment that’s no big deal. Lots worked, lots was confusing. Pooka was too necessary an ingredient for it to be a finished game. So the design gets tweaked.
(It helps hugely that the mechanic allows for lots of changes. We’re using playing cards for resolution, and one of the mechanics ramps up the difficulty by adding cards together. Initially, you added the values together. Now, it looks like you’ll add the number of cards to the first card drawn as it took too long to add more than two cards. Glad we chose cards where it’s easy to do that).
Hell for Leather is another one. The designer, Sebastian Hickey, playtested the game about 3 weeks after he first put pen to paper. Lots sucked. Lots worked. But because the premise of the game was enjoyably nihilistic, you could at least paper over the system cracks with fun roleplaying.
Left Coast seems to be in a similar boat. It’s got such a strong premise that I’ve no doubt charitable groups would give it a shot and paper over in a similar way. Then, when you look back and see that you motivated your character to do something, but that perhaps the system should be doing that instead, you can design towards a system that matters.