Questions for Game Designers: Chris Chinn

Questions for Game Designers: Chris Chinn

Chris is a sharp guy who I met on the interwebs.  He’s written for RPG.Net and regularly drops knowledge on his blog Deeper into the Game.  He has exquisite taste in both RPGs and hiphop, and speaks truth on matters pertaining to tabletop games and inclusivity. If you don’t know him yet, you will. I’ve gone through some of his playtest material and there is great stuff there. Check out what he has to say about RPG game design.

When is a roleplaying game successful, from a perspective of play?

What should an RPG do & how do you know you’ve done it?

(I’m putting both of those questions together with this answer)

A game should consistently produces unexpected, yet “perfect” events.  What I mean by perfect is something everyone at the table is excited by, that it’s the perfect thing to happen at that moment, in that game, that really just fits.

And to do it, over and over, multiple times in every session of play.

That’s the equivalent of that Halo design philosophy about making a fun 10 seconds and trying to have it recur regularly.

In a roleplaying game, it feels like magic, because good design guides multiple possible choices and outcomes into “being perfect”.  So at the end of the session, you all look at each other wondering how it was “so perfect” when it all seemed like it could go every which way… and it did.


When does an RPG fail (if ever) as a system? What are common problems as you see them?

If at any point, I have to become a game designer to get the rules to work- that is, I have to ignore or add in stuff, to get the core experience to happen?  That’s a failure.

The second is a social issue.  Here’s a quote from the Introduction to Exalted, first edition: “Rules exist to prevent bitterness between players.”

If the shining virtue of this game you put forward is that your friendships WON’T slide into a poisonous morass of betrayal most foul, well… it’s like measuring the success of chess tournament by how FEW of the players were shanking each other in the kidneys.

And I put that as a design concern, actually, because we’ve got 30 years of games giving advice like, “Don’t actually talk to the player, just punish their character until they figure it out”, which, if you transposed that to a relationship communication model…would be all the signs of passive-aggressive non-communication that destroys relationships.


What is your favorite game you’ve designed? What lessons did you learn building it?

Since I’ve got nothing completed right now, I’ll just talk about one of the bigger lessons I picked up.

An earlier version of The Emperor’s Heart, I had a rule called, “What If?”, where anyone could ask anyone else at any point, “What if?” and interject an possible idea to shape the setting or background.

Problem was, it quickly took over the game.  Instead of using it to round out things, some people would “pre-play” a scene using only What If, back and forth…  It also destroyed the general feel of the game, because people would simply abandon even the loose dictates of genre the game asked for.

Games that use direct player input like that, such as 1001 Nights, Universalis, Polaris, or Apocalypse World, these all structure the process- to keep it from spilling over the whole game, and also, often enough, to channel the input into focused things that help play.


What is your favorite game that someone else designed? What do you like most about it? What one thing would you change (if any)?

My group’s been playing Matt Wilson’s Primetime Adventures for the last 2 years.  PTA does this amazing thing of standing at a crossroads.  It shows you exactly why you’d want rules, instead of just playing freeform, and it shows you how little rules you need, to make complex things happen.  It’s a game I think everyone should play through a whole campaign (which can be as short as 5 sessions).

If I would make one change, it would be to allow the GM to also reward players with Fanmail.


When is an idea/concept good enough to turn into an RPG? What makes something “gameable”?

My guess is probably anything -could- be made into a game.  There’s some kind of thing you want to explore, the question is whether you can put together a way to organize that in a way people find fun and compelling.

And, it has to take advantage of the strengths of roleplaying- group creativity (yes, you can be creative in dungeon crawling or tactical games), otherwise, why not go watch a movie/play a videogame/write a fanfic?


Tell us about something great you’re working on.

I’m working a few things, but the one I’m working hard on right now is “Red Echo Falling” – a sci-fi space opera game, deeply inspired by the “wander around and fix the galaxy” sort of thing Mass Effect does.

One thing I’m trying to do different, is to make most of the setting fluff be something the group comes up with as they play.  I love reading senseless setting fluff like all the info in Mass Effect, or the Battletech Technical Readouts, and stuff like Star Wars wikis.

That said, I’d rather have groups create their own rather than produce a massive setting text which, frankly, only 1-2 people will read then the other folks will have no idea what they’re talking about.  My hope is that when this is complete, what I’ll get to hear is many groups’ versions of their galaxy and what goes on there.


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