Ronin Round Table: Cross-Pollination in Game Design, or, the Myth of the Designer Knife Fight

Last time I mentioned cross-pollination is game design, or taking ideas from other gaming systems and experiences and using it in other games. This is a common practice and one that I sometimes feel not everyone realizes or expects. Check out some of the more tribalized corners of the internet and there’s this idea that designers and consumers of various games and companies are in some sort of weird secret war. The great Toon-Cyberpunk Massacre of 1994 aside, this isn’t true. I can say with confidence that I don’t get together every weekend to battle other Chicago area game designers with knives for whose design is best. Especially since Greg Stolze is a master of the kris and I heard Allen Turner once killed a dude with a spork, so no thanks. We also play a lot of games. Not just ours or even other games that seem similar to the ones we do, but a number of different products.

When we come back to the design side we beg, borrow, and even steal ideas that work from other games and use them in new and hopefully interesting ways in our own work. For example, when designing the organization rules in Dragon Age I definitely looked at how other systems treated PC run organizations and factions. In this particular case, I looked at the Evil Hat’s Fate system and what they call their "bronze rule", which states that you can treat pretty much anything that acts on the PCs as a "character" within the rule. And Greg Stolze’s company rules in his RPG Reign, which represented everything from a theatre troupe to a nation using the same rules. Not the best or ideal approach for everyone, but when looking at a group of characters and resources that make up a cult or mercenary company or other organization is seemed appropriate.

Now this isn’t a new idea to me. I remember telling Mike Underwood (now the author of the urban fantasy Geekomancy series but at the time a teenaged kid playing in my 7th Sea campaign) that I tended to view everything in games as either characters or set pieces. The saucy barmaid who throws your PC a wink when she drops off your drinks? Unless she does something more than that she’s just a set piece. The coach holding the only witness to a terrible crime that teeters precariously on the edge of a cliff? It’s basically acting like a character whose trying to dive off the cliff and take your valued witness with it. This need not be the only way to look at things, but it’s worked for me. Combining that old idea that I said in one clever moment and combining it with the ideas of someone who actually bothered to put it into an RPG, I started to think about organizations in Dragon Age.

Taking those experiences I realized organizations could use similar rules to grow, battle, intrigue, and plot that characters use in many ways. And they could and probably should be represented in distinct ways from characters but they should be as compatible with those rules as possible because it presented the shortest learning. Also, it makes mixing organizations and character actions easier for GMs to rule on, since both have abilities that roughly map to physical or military force, knowledge or information resources, or mystical power and lore. And that’s the base idea I used to model those rules, which we’ll be seeing in Dragon Age Set 3.

Oh, and astute readers will note I named dropped liberally in this piece. That wasn’t an accident or just me showing off. It’s meant to reinforce that there’s no grand inherent animosity between the majority of game designers and other geek-based media. Those folks I mentioned, and many more, form this wonderful web of inspiration and support that help us make fun well-designed games, even if they aren’t always directly working with us on a project.