How To Design Games the Robin Laws Way
With the core book outlined, it’s time to tackle the question of the game’s core resolution system.
(The reality isn’t so linear; thoughts about the book’s structure generally arise in parallel to ideas about the resolution system.)
If you’re designing a new game based on an existing core rules set, the choice is simple—let’s use that one. It might be dictated to you by the publisher, or a decision that you make as a designer. In the latter case, you'll obviously be constrained to the core rules sets available to you. Most likely, you’re working with a rules set by the same publisher. Or you might be using one available through a license, open or limited. We’ve already talked about the process of fitting a new game to an existing rules set; you’re presumably doing the Game X take on Y genre/setting.
If, however, I’m working from scratch, I want to design a core resolution system that creates the emotional dynamic implied by the core goal. Dying Earth, with its rolls and rerolls, evokes the comical back-and-forth of the source material. DramaSystem emulates the basic construction of dramatic scenes and otherwise gets out of the way. HeroQuest zooms out to a broader emulation of story construction, including the pass/fail cycle I later refined in Hamlet's Hit Points. GUMSHOE asks why it feels cool when heroes gather information in a mystery story, and brings that to the gaming table.
I never start out with a novel or abstractly intriguing mechanical idea and then try to build a game around that chassis. It starts with feeling. The mathematical construct is secondary; what the players are feeling when they use it is everything.
Recently I had the experience of switching from one core system owned by my publisher to the other. Before digging into the research for The Gaean Reach, I figured it would be Skulduggery-based, with bits of GUMSHOE sorted in. After reacquainting myself with Jack Vance’s delightful source material, I saw how the structure of its stories differed from the superficially similar Dying Earth tales the core rules were originally designed for. The SF novels played were more about investigation with the occasional setback than the constant picaresque reversals undergone by the likes of Cugel and Rhialto. So I shifted gears, to a GUMSHOE core with appropriate Skulduggery elements grafted on. Again this was a matter of creating the right feel, whether or not the crossover between the two systems introduces brand confusion.