How do you imagine your game when you're designing it?

Hey ttrpg designers: when you are imagining a game in your head, before you playtest it, as you’re making rules and writing playtest material… how specific are your imaginings of what playing the game will look like?

Do you just have a vague idea how things might work, or do you imagine the session in detail?

If you write a question as a prompt, do you imagine an answer to the question? Multiple answers?

Do you imagine specific imaginary players playing the game step by step?

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I usually only have the vaguest imagining of how the game works while I’m designing things. If I write a question, I probably don’t have an answer in mind. At one point in my last playtest, a player asked “what did you expect to happen with this prompt?” and I didn’t have an answer. I just create an open space for interaction or people to fill with fiction, and then let them figure out what to put there.

But I’m really interested in how other people think about their game as they’re making it. I asked this question on Twitter recently, and all the answers were fascinating.

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I tend to work with existing core mechanics so I definately try to imagine players engaging with them at the table because it’s the the kind of game experience I want them to have that helps me work out how those mechanisms need to change.

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Some things are very specific! I think it through a lot. But then, lots of times, what I imagined happening in response doesn’t end up happening at all, and I wonder why I ever thought the imaginary outcome would happen, and I have to adjust. That’s always fascinating! Although I’m often reluctant to ask people to play an unfinished game, that’s the only way to pop my thought balloons and find out what my game really does.

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This is a good question. I typically envision a scene (usually from a drama/film) and play it out in the context of my rules. I follow ‘design for effect’ and so my rules are there to facilitate/enable/encourage a certain playstyle and outcomes.

But this is a small part of the design process compared to actual playtests. It is useful (more to have a clearer idea of why you have a particular rule) but nothing beats actual feedback from actual play.

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This is a great question.
I have a few images of tables, with people I have seen or heard play, or just know, including me, or mere archetypes. I summon their images first for the intended feeling of the game, then very little for the first system “pass”, then more and more for step by step game play and rules reading. I do little to no play test, so I have to imagine how it will go.

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I’d say that the more I playtest stuff the better I got at imagining the actual game, how things work and what could the gm/players do with them. I’ve made lots of design mistakes before and eventually learned that things that sound really good in paper may work poorly or not at all on the table… so now I think ahead on worst case scenarios or get platesters to help me discover those. If a mechanic survives that, then I optimize the game around that.

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I think my expectations revolve around the vague. I usually get a notion of a potential game or setup and generate some material to support it. Once I have that, I playtest.

I struggle with imagining a player or group response because, on a personal level, I struggle with the notion that anyone would want to play my game at all!

Nevertheless, a convention game provides me with the nearest I can get to an imagined play—more often than not, the players will engage because they know me. Thus, I can get a sense of game purpose and functional outcome without committing to anything more than a couple of hours.

Notionally, my day job does involve user stories and personas, but I’ve rarely had the energy to pollute my escape in game design with notions of that in my real life. At least, not intentionally!

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I think I have a pretty clear idea of what I am trying to do, however, it is most likely due to focus being on the setting, and having mechanics fit that, or disappear into the background. Nevertheless, I recognize everyone’s preference differs, even if only slightly, and thus have been trying to make it for a variety of rule sets.

Interesting. The more I playtest my games, the less specific I am in imagining the game ahead of time. I’ve developed a sense of what needs to happen in a scene, what things this sort of game needs, and a general vague sense where things will likely go if I put these rules together. Because I have that, I don’t need to think through specific moments of the game in great detail.

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I usually have a feeling of what I want, and then look at my list of player motivations (25 of them) to see what tools that I should pick from. I also think about what kind of uncertainties (from a list I made) that would be useful for that particular game.

Sometimes I just pick player motivations at random to combine them and wonder how that game should look like. This have made me create some games I had to learn to enjoy because I didn’t know if they would be fun while I was creating them.

Or I just rip a mechanic, and wonder what kind of setting it would fit to.


… but normally, it’s a combination of these three above, or I just go another way.

It’s important, for me, to not create enough from the start so the players can bring their own ideas into the playtest, and then I just iterate while adding more components. I constantly go back to my design thoughts, to either steer the game mechanics back to it or realize that what I got now is better than I imagined at the start.

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