My favorite problems

October 27, 2023 Problems Game Design Links

Read this interesting post on the author’s 12 favorite problems,” which is a callback to something physicist Richard Feynman talked about.

Most people look for solutions. But few seek out problems.

There are exceptions. Physicist Richard Feynman, for example, liked to keep a list of his dozen favorite problems. These were big open-ended questions that could guide his life’s work.

Every time you hear a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say, How did he do it? He must be a genius!.’”

Feynman realized that genius is not having all the answers. Everything starts with asking the right questions.

There really is something to this and as a game designer I think it’s especially important to be struggling with questions that take you somewhere.

It’s tempting to brandish about solutions (e.g. “system matters”) rather than move deeper into the questions (e.g. how? Why? To what extent?). But it’s a fuller life to struggle against the answers.

I don’t know that I have twelve but here are the questions that keep me up at night:

Is there such a thing as a horror tabletop game?

I don’t mean horror as a theme or as a setting. I mean a game you’d be scared to play (the way I am scared to play certain video games or watch certain movies). I’m sure we’ve all had scary experiences in role playing. But none of them have made me scared to say ever play call of Cthulhu again. The games just aren’t scary. Only the encounters. And only potentially.

How do we get players to care enough to play long campaigns?

This is the brass ring for me. You ever read about these decade long dnd games where the players built castles and have grand ambitions about the dungeon and its logistics etc. I want that. Does that depend solely on the players? Was there something the referee did? Or was it just luck and scheduling?

What is the perfect dungeon?

This is something I basically go to bed thinking about 3-4 nights a week. The dungeon itself is the question. A place of eternal mystery that always has enough answers to keep you going.

What’s the best balance between directed and undirected narrative in a game?

There’s a lot to be said for organically developing a story just by looking at what the players did and just saying well that’s what happened. But even the most extreme pawn stance player I think would like a good story if there was one to be had. The question for me is what is the best way to get there. I’m sure there are organic evolving narrative campaigns that are wonderful and amazing and I’m sure there’s a lot of games that are like you stepped on a rake and died” which suck. What’s the difference between them?

How do you maintain a career out of this industry when people have fewer hours for tabletop and even fewer slots for new systems?

Is the answer develop one game after the other until you find a hit and then mine that vein for the rest of your life? Is it a stamina game and you just keep doing your best hoping other games die or become unsupported? What are you asking of your audience if you release a new game every year or two? How big is the audience even? How do you maintain work life balance in such a frontline industry that demands more material to stay on top? Can you develop a devoted following that can pay for you and your coworkers to have livable wages or do you have to find a way out of the industry at some point? Do you need an exit plan?

What makes rulebook good? What makes a rule good?

Is it layout and art and writing and editing? Is it a curation of novel rules with clever mechanics? Is it elegance or is it maximalism? Is it about curation or creation? How few rules do you really need to run a game? Or how many?

This is some of the stuff I struggle with every time I sit down to work. I come back to these questions over and over again. In ten years I expect I’ll have answers to some but I hope to spend a long time on the others.

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