Everything Is A Designable Surface

I’m reading through the larp design book that came out of the most recent Knutepunkt conference (Larp Design: Creating Role-Play Experiences) and right away Johanna Koljonen comes out and says


…and it is a very challenging and liberating idea. As game designers we’re building experience frameworks, and we are not limited to the traditional bits and bobs in service of that goal. In my own work I often think about ways to challenge accepted practice (“What if you made everyone sit in silence for an uncomfortably long time?”) but Koljonen is urging us to take the opposite approach, to look at every piece of interaction as something that we should consciously choose - or choose not to - design. I think this way of thinking is more prevalent in larp due to the wide-open affordances of the form, but it is equally relevant to tabletop design.

It makes me wonder what designable surfaces we routinely overlook. The category is vast. Few games, for example, care about player seating arrangement, but on the social level it is a huge variable that will impact play. The way you learn a game - the way you learn about a game - is designable.

Let’s talk about interesting designable surfaces.


I practiced with an early prototype of a LARP using distance between the players to reinforce the themes and fictional space of solitary confinement. During that playtest, we played with light/darkness and noise/quietness as well.

Some RPGs play with lighting like in 10 Candles. I know there are some RPGs where silence is included.


Hmm, here’s a few off the top of my head:

  • Character sheets. ie different ways to represent characters.Deck of cards. Chess pieces. IDK, go crazy.
  • Player-to-player interaction. Most games design for the “sit around the table” or other physical proximity things, but some games do interesting things with designing explicitly for online / IRC / Messaging-based games or even letter-writing games

Also, not to be a contrarian, but I think some conventions are conventions for a reason. I think I’m usually in the minority with this opinion, but I feel like some story games that go out of their way to be super-clever in their use of props, etc, do so to the detriment of the rest of their design and sometimes come across as limited and gimmicky.


I’d agree with this, although I think it has toned down gradually over time. I think there was a lot of pressure a decade ago to “innovate” in things like how to determine a random number, and that fever seems to have broken.


One thing I’d like to see less of is adding more stuff for the players to acquire. Having access to any dice, decks of cards and art supplies (anything beyond scrap paper and something to write with) is very much a gamer prerogative. I’ve tried having impromptu games at friends’ house where they didn’t have any “randomizer” handy. We usually end up playing Werewolf, which only requires a pencil and some paper.

So what I’d like to see is a shift from “let’s make this special thing part of our game” (and, thinking of a non-gaming person, chess pieces and tokens and cards count as special) to “let’s take this mundane thing and make it special by bringing it into the game”.

It’s a way of removing one of the many access hurdles of TTRPGs


That’s a neat idea. My first thought was “design a game that uses actual spoons from the kitchen to track emotional well-being / stress.”


Does anyone know of any games that use music in a way that makes it intrinsic to the experience of the game, in a similar way as Ten Candles and A Scoundrel in the Deep use light? Unfortunately the closest thing I can think of is when the Teenagers From Outer Space gamebook urges you to pick appropriate music to blast to get everyone into the mood/scenes, and that’s not exactly what I’m looking for.

I’m also trying to figure out a way to take the basic Ten Candles idea and flip it around, or at least toy with it a little, and figure out some way to use both decreasing and increasing light to keep track of the hope players have and give them a chance to actually succeed/not die in the end. I like the “candles = hope” thing, and I don’t even mind the “everyone will die, there’s no way around that” aspect of Ten Candles, but I’d love a game that uses a similar candle mechanic while encouraging more uplifting + hopeful feelings from seeing candles be lit/re-lit.


Two things that initially come to mind for using music to affect games are:

  • Ribbon Drive where all the players bring in playlists of music that get played throughout the game and influence what happens.
  • The Forgotten a LARP about living through a civil war that times the two phases using a repeating soundtrack to tell you when it is night and when it is day.

!! Thank you so much! I (somehow) hadn’t heard of either of those, and Ribbon Drive especially feels right up my alley… And of course it’s one of Avery Alder’s games; I’ve loved basically everything I’ve seen of hers. :joy: That idea of using music to play a huge role in a game about a road trip is perfect, too.

The Forgotten also looks really good; I’ll be sure to check out both of them! Ribbon Drive is 100% the type of thing I was looking for, though, and it already has me trying to figure out other concepts where music could play a similar role. Possibly a duet game where it’s about a relationship between two people, influenced by a mix tape or two? You could also probably do a sort of “musical episode” type game that works at least sort of similarly…


Now that’s a fascinating topic! Thinking this way seems like a playground of its own, and by chance a cool source of new game-ideas. So here’s two rather spontaneous ideas from me:

  • Let’s design gestures at the table. E.g. “I want you all to close your eyes. We’re gonna count to three and then everyone points their finger at the person, who is going to lead us into this darkness.”
  • Let’s design narrative time. E.g. “I’m gonna turn around the hourglass. You’ve got one minute to describe me what’s happening in the next… (rolls the dice) …10 years.” (Sounds like a world-building game.)

I’m gonna keep thinking/playing. :fairy:


I think that’s an interesting idea, although it’s easy to run up against some (often quite justifiable) resistance.

Many years ago in one of the Forge Game Chef contests, I designed a game where you played soldiers in the Second World War. As part of the character creation process, you had to paint a miniature of your character. It didn’t have to be good, but you had to do it yourself. The idea was to increase player identification with a likely-to-die character by involving a physical action and engaging some different parts of the brain.

Nice idea in theory, maybe, but it was maybe the most-criticised element of the design, for reasons you can probably guess:

  • Not everyone has figures, paints, brushes, etc.
  • What about players whose vision or other factors don’t make it easy for them to paint?

And those are all fair points!

I guess what I mean is that there are certain elements of design that constrict a game’s accessibility. In the case of Krasnoarmeets, it wasn’t necessarily that I had chosen design surfaces that were particularly limiting, but more like … every time you choose to design on a surface that isn’t one of the commonly-used ones, people have to make decisions about it that they’ve already made for other ones.

“This game uses dice” or “this game uses a pencil and paper” are choices, but they’re choices that, by the time they’re hearing about your game, potential players have already made.

The point about narrative time is a fun one. Puppetland does this a bit.


I played The Quiet Year for the first time recently and was impressed by the elegant simplicity of having players/participators take turns presenting snippets of the rules. Takes workload off the “facilitator” and empowers/makes everyone responsible. So the designable surface in this case would be “presentation of rules”.


Diegetic sound and using sound as a cueing/pacing mechanism is not as uncommon in larp. In my experience pacing and timing are the only non-diegetic function many games call for, and instead of adding a facilitator or pulling a player out of character to handle it, an audio track is often a good solution.

Music and musical cues can be so powerful as well. The larp Here Is My Power Button ends with specific audio cues and, combined with the game’s thematic content, they are just devastating. Deranged (about the life of Robert Schumann) gives the facilitator a mixing desk of Schumann’s music that sets up the emotional beats in individual scenes. It’s absolutely brilliant and amazing in play.

I’d love to see this in tabletop more. For some reason it is harder to implement. One thing I’ve mulled over is setting up a tabletop game with a dedicated audio engineer whose entire job was to mix sound to drive play. It’s a little luxurious but it would be extremely cool. I’ve played sessions that my wife Autumn DJ’d, which is close to what I imagine, but not quite.


I’m currently working on an RPG system designed to be played entirely in the minds eye. By using minimalism, redundancy, mnemonics, etc I’m trying to eliminate the need for any tools other than your mind and your voice. It’s meant to be played while hiking, stuck in traffic, or just impromptu when no tools are available.


I love that maxim, “Everything is a designable surface”. I think it’s true, but more than that it’s inspiring. Perhaps because I’m a Nordic Larp designer, applying this to larp has been much, much easier for me than to tabletop. In the case of larp, I’m not really a maximalist designer in the sense that the goal would be to design everything. Rather, the goal is to design exactly the things that need to be designed, and let everything else take care of itself. What those things are varies from larp to larp.

In tabletop, the main thing I’m struggling with is how to design the game as a social situation in a subtle, minimalist way. When running games, I notice that this involves a lot of minutiae, from how to talk about what we want to get out of the game to what’s the right amount of off-game talk before the game starts.


Could have a fun Game Jam about this… Dialect for social cues, gestures, proximity, conflict resolution?!?


I like this too. As much as I love cool rpg stuff, I’ve some of the most fun at a tabletop when we’ve dragged up LEGO sets, old action figures, and pieces of candy for use on the map.


That is a fantastic slogan by Johanna.

I have to think if some more parts of a game session’s structure could be considered as part of design.

We know that for rules introduction (as in The Quiet Year or more so in Gather). We have well designed end of session procedures (often around de-role and debrief but not only).

But I’m not aware of design around half into the session breaks. Moments when we leave the usual procedures of the game and are not in character. The obvious things you could do there are moments of reflection or even analysis of what has happened at the table. But possibly even more interesting are things like doing a yoga pose, switching seats at the table, telling a dumb joke, change the lighting etc.


One of the achievements I’m most proud of so far as an artist is writing a game that requires a literal onion.


I love the way that Og uses vocabulary restriction.

If you haven’t played it, it’s a comedy game about prehistoric people. You are limited to a handful of words chosen from a tightly constrained set of about 16 words like:

  • You
  • Me
  • Big
  • Smelly
  • Stick
  • Rock
  • Fire


One of the words is “verisimilitude”. In character, you may only speak to other players using the words you have selected. And gestures.

Hilarity, almost invariably, ensues. Real comedy is rare in RPGs where it’s the focus. My experience with theoretically funny games is that they are almost invariable forced, dull, and spectacularly unfunny. Not Og.

Additionally, it is one of my favorite games for breaking the ice in a new group. Because one barrier to the kind of play I enjoy is trust. You have to trust the group enough to be willing to play in front of them. To take risks, to make bold or dangerous or difficult choices, to follow your character wherever they go even if it might make you look silly, or vulnerable, or worse.

And once a group has played Og, they’ve invariably looked like idiots. All of them. In front of each other. It really helps break down the initial barriers and get to where a group can start to build some trust.