A banner with lots of dice and the words 'Button Kin Games'

Button Kin Blog

5 tips for beginner game designers

Aug 18, 2023

Getting started is hard. If I told you how many minutes of my newsletter writing time are spent trying to dream up an opening line you would… well, you would nod and remember a time you had to write something more substantial than a text message. Beginnings feel audacious. One minute there’s nothing, the next there are words on a screen. We want to ease the shock of their arrival. So we ramble. “We”.

Endings, meanwhile, can be so sluggish that they’re hard to mark, like pouring honey off a spoon. The “end” of my first Kickstarter campaign feels this way. I may have officially announced that Drama Llamas is done, but the reality isn’t so clear cut. There’s still one holdout backer who hasn’t given me their address for postage, and there are still stacks of books in my office ready for convention stalls, and I’ve still got that nagging feeling that I ought to be promoting it more. Call it less of an ending, more of an evolution. The thing I made is in the world now and it’s my responsibility to give it the best, most fruitful life I can.

Back to beginnings, though. I just finished something I’m proud of and naturally find myself reflecting on how far I’ve come. I’m still a beginner by any sensible definition, but no longer audaciously so. I found myself talking about this in an interview recently and thought “huh, I actually sound like I know a couple of things.” So I figured I could write them down in case they’re useful to you. Yes, the subtitle of this post is classic clickbait. I’m willing to boldly state that I do, in fact, like it when people click on my newsletter. Gross, I know. There is “content” incoming though, as promised by the bait.

5 tips for beginner TTRPG designers

Tip 1: you don’t have to be “ready”

I’ve been interviewed a handful of times now. Naturally most interviewers start by asking how I got into games and how that led to me writing my own. I’m an honest soul so I invariably confess that I hadn’t been running games for even a full year before I wrote my first TTRPG. The reaction is always surprise, and I think not always the good kind. I remember one interviewer following up by asking in a not unkind but somewhat baffled way: “and what made you think you should write a game, being so new?” To which I shrugged and replied “I just wanted to, so I did.”

And that’s it, really. All the qualification you need to make any kind of art and put it out into the world is that you wanted to make it and you wanted to share it. There will always be people who know more about your chosen discipline and there’s always more to learn, so if you wait to feel like an “expert” you may never do anything. You’re ready to start as soon as you have an idea you like and time to play around with it.

A gentle caveat to this is that you should probably start small. If you have enough cash to and decide to go straight to producing a big budget book with lots of words and lots of art you’ll likely stress yourself out and fail to finish. Even if you do succeed in getting something published your presentation will almost certainly outpace the quality of your content, which, if you’re planning on selling things for money, is unfair and misleading to your customers. Publishing something zine-sized, short, sweet, and reasonably priced is a good place to start, in my experience. Don’t be ashamed to lean in to some of the DIY nature of a beginner’s project (hand drawn art, simple layouts, etc). People will be charmed and supportive, I promise.

Tip 2: you don’t have to be “original”

Execution beats originality every time. Tattoos are a good example of this. I have several and some are large and visible, so sometimes people start conversations with me about them. “I’ve always wanted one,” they’ll say, “but I can never decide what to get.” My advice is to them is to find a style and an artist they like and go from there, because with tattoos I truly believe that in most cases what you get is less important than who’s doing the work. There are notable exceptions, of course, but barring offensive or personally ruinous choices I stand by it.

Case in point: roughly a billionty-one people a year get butterfly tattoos. Most will be naff. A lot will be fine. Some will be good. A much smaller number will be so good, so brilliant in their colours, so inventive in their composition, that when you see them they forever change what you picture in your head when you think of a butterfly tattoo. Yes, butterfly tattoos will still be kind of a cliche, but when they’re done well you’re reminded why people gravitate towards them.

Similarly: so what if there are a million games about wizards? Your game about wizards doesn’t exist yet. And so what if someone did your weird niche idea before you thought of it? Your version based on your ideas of what would be fun for you and your group is going to be different. In fact, you should totally play that other game and see what you like about it and what you’d do differently. If you like most of it but want it to be a bit different then good news: you can make that without being a shifty plagiarist. There’s a fine tradition in the indie TTRPG-sphere of releasing “hacks” which refer to an existing game and its rule set, give credit and don’t reprint that content, then expand on the theme with extra rules or material, or even an entirely new setting.

In fact, hacking a popular game or releasing additional content for a game you love is a great way to get started. It’s not the way that I personally have gone about things, but I see plenty of my peers having success with it. It’s an especially useful approach if you’re looking to build community - something I’m aware that I could still stand to get much better at, not being a natural joiner.

Tip 3: seek out other beginners

If there’s a TTRPG scene where you live, even if that’s “online”, there’s going to be a handful of known and respected figures within your extended acquaintance. Maybe they wrote something influential that gets name checked in game reviews. Maybe they’re a publisher who releases a lot of innovative indie titles that you love. Maybe they run a successful podcast and get to meet all your game design heroes. Here comes the science bit: your monkey brain, the bit that evolved to see other, larger monkeys as a source of succour and protection, almost certainly wants you to get that person to (a) like you and (b) help you.

It’s only natural. It’s lovely to be respected by people we respect, plus art is hard and it often feels like a person who is further in their creative journey could wave a hand (or share a tweet) and solve a lot of our problems. Sometimes that pesky monkey cortex (science!) is so fixated on this point that it keeps you from noticing the other monkeys all around you. They’re about your size and you have a lot more in common with them, plus they have far fewer other monkeys clamouring for their… bananas? Fleas? Whatever it is the big monkeys are hoarding.

In short: build your own TTRPG crew. Find people whose games are just as cool and obscure as yours and then find ways to collaborate. Even if you’re all beginners you’ll come to this with different skills. Maybe they’re good at layout and you’re better with words (if you are good with words please do get in touch, as you can see I need help). You’ll have things to learn from each other and you’ll get the joy of watching each other grow.

Tip 4: jam early, jam often

There are lots of ways to meet other game designers. Maybe you have local gaming events, or an established meet up, or you’re a committed convention attendee. Maybe you’re like me, though, and don’t always feel like engaging with the brave outdoors or the direct eye contact of your peers. Hello, fellow introvert! Have you tried game jams?

For the uninitiated: a game jam is when a bunch of designers sign up to create games in a short amount of time, often sharing a particular theme. You can find a bunch of these on itch.io, although most listings are for video game jams so read the rules carefully before you join.

Jams are great because the theme is a handy prompt if you’re struggling to come up with an idea and the limited time frame means that there’s no reasonable expectation that you have to produce a polished final product. Also, if you’re jamming right then when the deadline passes you’ll go and look at each other’s work and leave comments and reviews. Comments and reviews are to game designers what sunlight is to a plant.

I can say without hyperbole that I wouldn’t be making games if it weren’t for my early jam experiences. True story: Bumbling is, and likely always will be, my most successful game release. It was written for a “cosy” game jam on itch.io, where the remit was to write an uplifting game for people to play during lockdown. It took a few hours to write, a little time to test, and a couple more hours to layout. It was the second thing I ever wrote and it ended up getting reviewed in magazines. I don’t think that would’ve happened if my fellow jam participants hadn’t shown up on that first day of release, checked it out, and left kind reviews, bringing the game to the attention of itch’s algorithm. It’s a good little game and I stand by it, but man, I did not anticipate how much people want to pretend to be bumble bees. And I never would’ve thought of it if I hadn’t happened across that jam.

Tip 5: play test your games

As much as I recommend embracing the DIY life and keeping your first projects simple, there are some corners that you do yourself a disservice by cutting. Play testing is one of these.

In theory you should ask other people to play your games and then have them report back on how that went, then tweak the rules to improve them and go again, and again, until you’re happy with what you have. However, I’ve found that in my position, as a near total newbie with limited gaming contacts, I’ve had to just run these tests myself. I have tried other means, honest. I’ve had many a friend promise to run a game for me only for them to never find the time. I’ve reached out in friendly discord communities and got mostly crickets. I even tried paying strangers on the internet to play test one of my games. It didn’t really work - out of five promised play tests only one came back. I certainly aspire to do things the right way once it’s possible for me, but in the meantime I’ll be running my own tests. And really if you don’t want to run your own game then that’s test number one. Time to figure out why not. If you can’t convince yourself how in the hell are you going to convince anybody else?

On a positive note: I love play testing. I can see how some might find it an intimidating prospect. I did too the first couple of times. Now that I’m able to sit through the vulnerability of asking people to engage with a thing I created for multiple hours, I find the whole process really fascinating. I love seeing how the rules I write facilitate or hinder the flow of play, and how I can tweak them to subtly change the experience.

Look - the worst case scenario is that your game is truly broken. But even in that case you can find a way to have a good time, because people by and large want to have fun when they’ve come to play a game. They’re looking for any excuse. And if your rules don’t work you have the enviable freedom to start making new ones up on the spot. I’d even call that out in the session: “Okay, looks like this way of scoring is really swingy in a not-fun way, so do you mind if we switch that up?” Players can then give you feedback based on which version they liked better and why.

I recommend play testing with all different kinds of people as well. It’s tempting to just pick the strongest communicators you know, or to choose people who think the way you think, which of course means they “just get” what you’re trying to achieve. However, I learned a lot by running for people who are very different from me or who don’t excel so much at verbal communication. Mostly about which areas of a game aren’t clear or don’t encourage less extroverted people to engage, or how strongly a game brings out tones and themes I might have thought I could take for granted. Less verbally gifted people might not write the most eloquent feedback answers but if you’re observant you’ll get a lot of useful feedback by watching them.

I have an example. During Drama Llamas play testing I found a lot of players weren’t sure what to do with their Deep Dark Secrets. Initially the game worked by having them write down three and send them to the GM before play. People struggled to come up with things. Most commonly they weren’t sure how to make things shocking and juicy but also comedic as per the tone of the wider game. After a couple of people came up with actually problematic secrets that played on some harmful tropes of the reality TV genre (think Jerry Springer’s best hits), I decided to change the game to give players ten customisable secrets right on their character sheets which they can check off as they use them. It’s a much better approach, in my opinion, and I never would have thought to do that if I were playing only with my close circle of friends, most of whom would implicitly share my boundaries around that kind of material.

Yikes, this went long. TL;DR: write games. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not ready, or that your ideas aren’t good enough. Pay attention to people who are doing the same and be kind to them. Look for collaborations. And play test, play test, play test!

Thanks for reading! If you want to hear from me monthly you can subscribe to my substack. If you already subscribe and you're enjoying these posts, please tell your friends!