Advice for First-Time Game Designers

Welcome to the first-timers’ series, in which I ask a panel of seasoned gamers and experts from the US and beyond to advise newbies on a variety of larp-related topics, from running a first game to organizing a convention. It’s not easy to try something new, but with the right advice, maybe it’ll be a little easier.

Today’s advice is for first-time game designers and larp organizers.

Geoffrey Schaller reminds us that there’s nothing new under the sun. And that’s OK:

New ideas are rare.  Don’t fool yourself to think you’ve got something no one else has thought of before – rather, do it better than everyone else.  There’s a dozen CCGs [collectible card games] out there, and hundreds of fantasy RPGs [roleplaying games].  The measure of success is not how original your idea is, but how good the finished product is.  The car has been around for 100+ years – but new, and better – ones are still being made.


Anna Westerling advocates working smarter, not harder:

Do what you want. You have a vision and work to fulfill it.  But don’t make it too complicated. If you want a larp set in a castle, it might be enough to find a nice room and a nice table setting to help everyone pretend. Use a video before the game begin to show the castle if that is very important to your story. Minimize your labor — think about what story you want to tell and cut away the extras.


Emma Wieslander has a hundred-point method:

Ask yourself: What’s most important. Clothes/Props, Drama/Story, Fun/Mood. Divide a 100 points between them and then use that as a guideline for procentages when it comes to all strategic decisions (what demands on costume, how “correct” the setting should be, how much effort to make characters, comfort, methods etc).

Don’t forget that cold, hungry players that haven’t been able to go to the toilet, generally are uncreative, grumpy and less likely to comply with your great vision of what the game should be.


It doesn’t have to be Shakespeare, says Claus Raasted:

Lower your ambitions enough so that you’ll actually produce something. I don’t care if your first larp is a five-person game that lasts 30 minutes and is about five mercenaries eating a meal. I don’t care if it’s just you and four of your friends eating a pizza in your living room while pretending to be characters discussing something from a fictional game world. As long as you DO it. The reason we don’t have more organizers in this hobby is because people usually let their ambitions run wild, while their time/energy/dedication/skill/experience stays put.

“Mona Lisa” wasn’t Leonardo’s first piece. Every time you DO something, you get better at it. Even if it sucks. Don’t be dazzled by organizers who’ve done two cool larps and then called it quits. Be inspired by those who’ve had the courage to keep on trying, even though they fail from time to time.

So my advice is simple:
Lower your ambitions.
Actually do it instead of talking about it.
And learn something that you’ll use next time.
But most importantly. Make sure there’s always a next time.

And remember that the easiest way to avoid failing is just to do nothing.


Think critically about other games, says Amber Eagar:

Play, a lot. There’s nothing that beats experiencing a game first hand. Get out and nab as many rule books from different larps as you can (many larps offer them as free downloads). Read them. Make note of what you like and what you don’t like about them and then ask yourself why and what you would do differently. Chat with others who design games and ask them their view points and debate (and I mean debate, not argue about) design theory. Lastly, respect those who have knowledge and are willing to share it with you. Their view may not be exactly as you see something because larp design here in the US is a budding field (and everyone will have their own opinions about things), but respect them for helping to pave the way for you and provide you a groundwork they may not have had.


Play-test outside your group of friends, Avonelle Wing suggests:

Actually, my advise for game designers is much the same as my advice for GMs.  Prepare, research, explore, playtest.  play to your strengths – if you’re lousy at graphic design, engage a graphic designer. If your sense of color brings you around to Avocado, Harvest Gold and Pumpkin EVERY TIME, get an artist involved.  And remember that somebody who says “that’s isn’t how it’s done” really means “my imagination can’t stretch to conceive of your idea.” Never hear it as “your idea is no good.”

Always go outside your social group for playtesting. My experience is that shared experiences lead to shared assumptions when rules are executed.  You want to make sure that a wide variety of folks read–and execute–your rules similarly and without frustration.


Michael Pucci recommends planning for the long-term, and learning to love criticism:

If you aim for where the ball is now, it will be gone by the time you get up to speed.  Aim for something that will be big a few years down the line and you will reap the benefit of being ready to strike while the iron is hot.  Also, understand you will not be able to do this project all by yourself.  Choose your co-workers carefully and by product instead of familiarity.

Understand that the baby you are making is going to be turned over to other people, and in your best interests, they are going to rip that baby apart.  Thicken your skin, accept not everything you do is perfect, and consider all feedback… even if you don’t use all of it.


Check out your competition, Aaron Vanek advises:

Research! Know the games market, and the strengths and weaknesses of each part of it: video games, board games, card games, role-playing games, larp games, ARGs, and hybrid combinations between them.
Study every game you can. Not just the ones you love, but the ones you hate. Why is it a bad game? What are they doing wrong?


And if you’ve done your research, you can follow Juhana Pettersson’s advice:

For tabletop, I like to stress simple, clear concepts and the importance of making things that nobody else is making.

Geoffrey Schaller is a gaming gypsy, having wandered into and out of tabletop RPGs, Collectable Card Games, Miniatures, larp (WoD, boffer, and other), Board Games, MMOs, and countless other forms of gaming, as a player, play tester, demo-runner, author, and staff member.  He still dabbles in all of them when he gets the chance. He is the Technical Director of Double Exposure, Inc.

Anna Westerling is a larper, larp-producer and role-player of the Scandinavian larp scene. She has organized larps as A nice Evening with the Family, and produced Knutpunkt and the book Nordic Larp.

Emma Wieslander has been a gamer and larper since the late eighties and served as a front figure for the Swedish national gamers association during the times when role-playing was still under suspicion. Emma’s more notable larps explore love, gender and how we construct these norms. In creating these games, she invented methods to enable play around these topics. Her most known contributions are the frozen moments and the Ars amandi method.

Claus Raasted (32) claims to be the world’s leading expert on children’s larps, and so far nobody has challenged that claim in earnest. He’s the author of six books on larp, is the editor-in-chief of Denmark’s roleplaying magazine ROLLE|SPIL and has been a professional larper for nearly a decade. He also has a past in reality TV. But these days, who hasn’t?

Amber Eagar is a long time larper and game organizer, who edited the academic books put out in conjunction with Wyrd Con in 2010 and 2011 (Journeys To Another World and Branches of Play). She is a former columnist, and maintains two mailing lists, called LARP Academia and International LARP Academia, for those in the USA or those around the world who like to take a more academic look at larping.

Avonelle Wing is the Senior Vice President of Double Exposure, Inc. Along with her partners and a team of friends, comrades and co-visionaries, she works to produce two full-sized gaming conventions and a variety of other gaming related productions each year.  She is a larper at her core – collaborative storytelling is her art form of choice.

Michael Pucci is the CEO of Eschaton Media and the creator of multiple larps, tabletop books, scripts and gaming-related media.  He has more than twenty years experience storytelling for larps, tabletops, and convention games, and spent five years in the business side of the gaming industry. He proudly holds the title of ‘Zombie Lord‘ while looking for more inventive approaches to modernize gaming.

Aaron Vanek has been playing, designing, running, and thinking about larps for 25 years. His larp publications include the illustrated essay “Cooler Than You Think: Understanding Live Action Role Playing“; “The Non-United Larp States of America” in the Talk Knutepunkt 2011 book, “Predictions for Larp” in Journeys to Another World, the Wyrd Con book, and the blueprint for “Rock Band Murder Mystery” in the Do Knutepunkt 2011 book. He hopes for at least another 25 years of larp.

Juhana Pettersson is a Finnish journalist, tv producer and game designer. He has published three books and been translated into five languages.

Got a hot tip? Is there a first-timer’s guide you’d like to see? Leave it in the comments!

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