The Tinker’s Workshop

As you may have noticed, I’ve broken my usual pattern the last two days, and that’s because I’ve been busy with the return to school and with hammering out some home brew rules for Dungeons and Dragons. The experience of making a set of rules, running them by friends, and rebalancing is quite a bit of work; when I went to put my home brew stuff online for feedback, I expected praise and constructive feedback. What I got instead was total rejection and mocking scorn. Let me unpack that process.

At my D&D table, we allow house rules. In fact, we allow quite a lot of them, from improvised incendiary devices to full-on never-before-seen magic items and modifications of the rules. We find this makes the game more fun, and we don’t mind rebalancing on the fly if things get out of hand. When I created a new Martial Archetype for Fighter, then, this is what I had in mind. I was soon reminded that not everybody plays that way, and in fact that most people don’t – especially the inexperienced or less creative ones. But that’s not a reason to quit trying. If people don’t like what you put out there, it’s time to go back to the drawing board, tinker and revise, and try again. That is, after all, how progress is made.

Let me take you for a moment to the Tinker’s Workshop. This is a place in countless stories where the eccentric Tinker has piled the walls high with oddities and gizmos, mechanical devices which the fantasy-era PCs cannot even begin to understand the function of. The Tinker may be the only source of gunpowder, or clockwork, or some other resource of value, but more often than not he is the object of ridicule and scorn, a man whose ideas are so far ahead of his time and so plagued by various malfunctions that he becomes at times a public laughingstock. And yet, he perseveres. Maybe the compound crossbow didn’t work this time, but with this tweak, or that, it just might. Maybe the helicopter backpack was a total failure, but at least his parachute worked, and that’s given him an idea. No matter what he fails at or who ridicules him for his failure, the Tinker carries on tinkering, and he does so because he knows eventually he will get to the right solution. In a lot of ways, he follows the design process used by modern engineers and game designers: iterate until you get it right.

What game designers and tinkers have in common runs even deeper than that. Like tinkers, game designers have to start from scratch. They often times don’t have existing technology that does what they need, and at the very least they have to combine that technology in new and interesting ways. Games that aren’t original don’t sell, just as tinker’s items that aren’t unique aren’t valuable to the PCs. If a game designer wants to truly become legendary, they need a combination of genius, training, and perseverance – and the last is the most essential. Game design is an inherently iterative process, and while each iteration will require ingenuity, it also requires testing, testing, and more testing – and only once you understand what’s wrong with it can you truly understand how to make it better. That’s something we’re taught as engineers; that’s something we’re taught as game designers. Whatever path you take to the top, it’s going to take a lot of time to get there.

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