Design Toward Rather Than Away
Remember this controversial essay? In it, I acknowledge that there are difficult players out there. A significant portion of my work on Your Best Game Ever dealt with them as well, or rather it dealt with dealing with them as someone gaming with them.
As a designer, the thing to remember is that poor players are the gaming group’s problem to solve, not the game’s problem to solve. More specifically, they’re not your problem to solve. Trying to design for difficult players is something I refer to as “designing away.” As in, “this rule will design away a player who would cause problems.” This is a rule that prevents or discourages a player from doing something that you’ve decided you don’t want them to do. You design a rule, for example, that prevents or discourages a player from turning on the other players. Or using a spell meant for peaceful mind melding to intrusively steal an NPC’s thoughts. Or wearing a ridiculous amount of armor in a swashbuckling game where the PCs are meant to be quick and acrobatic.
That’s not the optimal approach. Far better, I think, to “design toward” rather than “design away.” Designing toward means crafting rules that encourage a behavior rather than discouraging its opposite. So you don’t create a rule that prevents players from turning on each other and instead fill your ruleset with mechanics that encourage working together. In other words, if your goal is to make a game where the player characters rely on each other and work as a team, design rules that make it obvious that working as a team is the best way to go, mechanically.
I remember when we were working on 3rd edition D&D and were facing the problem that no one wanted to play a cleric. Specifically, it was clear that the group needed a cleric (which is a problem that we’ll examine down the line), so it wasn’t that no one was playing 2nd edition clerics, it’s that the person playing the cleric was often not always happy doing so. We joked that if you had to put a bet on who was the last player to the table on character creation night, safe money was on the person playing the cleric. (Obviously, this was a broad generalization—there were lots of people who loved playing clerics.)
So we set out to make clerics more fun to play. We tweaked how the spells worked and so on, and at one point we may have gone a bit too far, and clerics might have become overpowered. To an extent, however, we shrugged and said if one class had to be a bit too good, the cleric was a good choice. We designed toward encouraging people to play a class that was really vital to the group’s survival and success.
Another example from that same time included redesigning various second-edition rules that basically said “no.” These rules included wizards couldn’t wear armor, dwarves couldn’t be wizards, and so on. We changed all of the rules that were designed away to rules that were designed toward, simply making armored dwarven wizards challenging—suboptimal, but possible. It made it possible to have the D&D world people expected without putting up impassable roadblocks to players. (It’s all a progression, of course. Today, even some of those suboptimal choices seem overly harsh.)
The point is, designing toward—so the rules encourage the play choices that fit the game rather than forbidding those that do not—sets players up for success and fun rather than safeguarding them from failure. It feels more freeing to the players–and likely to the designer. Rules that say “no” seem restrictive or even punitive to those forced to use them.
It’s worth discussing, however, why you would design toward or away at all. Why not let the rules be “neutral,” neither encouraging nor discouraging behavior?
Mostly, because there’s no such thing. All rules encourage or discourage behavior in the game. That is, in a way, what rules do. Even something as simple as “roll a d20 to determine success” encourages, at its most basic level, doing things, and trying to succeed.
Another way to look at it is that rules don’t just tell us how to do things in the game, they tell us what to do and the best way to do it. And so ultimately, at this most basic level, this is why we design toward rather than away. Because rules should be constructive, not destructive. They should guide rather than block. They should move the play of the game forward, not grind it to a halt.