The Joys of Experimentation

Of all the ways in which one hones their craft, there is one method which I've found to be equal parts rewarding, enriching and just downright fun. It's something that I'm always surprised when I hear resistance to, and honestly pity anyone who doesn't find value and joy in. It's a sort of multi-vitamin that I advise all creators take regularly, which I'm going to try to pitch:

You (yes you dear reader) should experiment and make some new games, modules, cheat sheets, etc. with no expectation or obligation of it going anywhere or being for anyone (save for you). Throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks. Dance with your muse while no one is looking. Maybe you never playtest it, maybe you do. Maybe it sits on your computer for the next 10 years until you rediscover it and smile at whatever weirdness you came up with. Maybe it's a hack of something you want to love, maybe it's something new entirely. Earnestly, I believe the best thing for an artform and the artists creating in it is to let artist experiment more ~ So here's my own musings on what I do (and what you may be able to do) to experiment in the craft of tabletop games:

Step 1 Play

Back in 2022 I was running a lot of Dread. Well, not Dread per say (the actual rules text is pretty dry) but Dread's central resolution mechanic with my own spins: A Jenga tower sits at the middle of the table. Whenever players would like to do something (as I played it) they'd be asked to remove a number of bricks equal to the difficulty of the task. Whenever the tower fell, something bad would happen (a character would die, a seal of the apocalypse would open, etc). Additionally whenever it was rebuilt, a few new bricks were added from a second jet-black Jenga set. If these pieces were pulled there'd be minor consequences (The demons get your scent, an infection takes hold etc). And that was it. No character sheets, no GM notes (I would literally ask for a prompt at the start of the session of what it should be about so it was a LOT of improv), just some Jenga tower sets and whatever tunes I looked up on YouTube. In many ways it was very FKR with a more tense and strategic resolution mechanic than just coinflips, while still keeping with a deeply freeform and conversational practice.

Despite playing Dread thrice with this rules tweak, adding small wrinkles as I went, I never felt the need to formalize any of it and release it. The rules were simply play, and each session was experimentation through play. It served its purposed perfectly and no more was required form me or it. I learned a lot from GMing those sessions, especially in the realms of improv and playing off the results of a quite complex (yet deeply interpretive) system. It also helped hone in my tastes for what I enjoy in Ruleslite games, as well as the dials I have available to me as a GM. Most importantly though (as all artistic experimentation should be) it was a lot of fun!

If you follow my Design Exorcism blog you'll know I toy around with new systems all the time. Jiggering combat or resolution mechanics, grey-boxing[*3] new tools to bring to the table, etc. etc. Some of these works have been play-tested, others just lived in my brain for a few days. I think the act of play (especially when it comes to design) is not something tethered to a table of fellow players, and in fact knowing how to playtest your own systems while alone in the dead of night is a worthwhile skill to exercise for any game maker.

Truly the first step to improving your craft and experimenting more is simply to play! (Duh) Play your friends' games, run something weird and half-finished. Do a one-shot that goes nowhere, start and stop campaigns at your leisure and keep a bundle of notes of what worked for you and what didn't. All time is wasted time in art and games, so don't sweat the details. No matter how you define a tabletop game, play is crucial at some junction and so too is it crucial for experimentation.

PRO TIP : Not every player likes this mode of play, so pick who you do this with carefully (as with most things in games, different people have different tastes). Remember: Experimentation isn't playtesting for a market, experimentation is play to expand your own horizons and ideas. The single best thing you can do for yourself to improve your experimentation cycle and hone your craft is to build a gaggle of likeminded players and designers - People who will run weird experiments for you and who will gleefully play in yours. Much like the gold age of the New Wave Cinemas[*1], creating clusters of fellow creators to bounce ideas with and play amongst is the juicy fertilizer to accelerate any creative project.

Step 2 Experiment

If I was ever going to MKUltra someone I'd have their activation phrase be "What is an RPG?" - I loathe this question on so many levels, but the main thing here is that when you're experimenting you should emphatically not ask yourself this question, at least not in any way that ties you down to a specific way of designing you don't find eminently exciting. Certainly give yourself some boundaries if you'd like (does this use character sheets? Dice? Cards? etc) but unless your goal is to build something with general appeal for a mass market that you can easily advertise, you should not be boxing yourself into a genre or any preconceptions thereof. It's part of why what I run is simply "Tabletop Games" (a game played on a tabletop) and when people ask me the genre of what I'm running next I usually simply tell them it's "an experiment" - Labeling a genre comes later (if at all), on reflection, once the clay has hardened. Heck, if we went in with a genre in mind we'd probably end up copying things from just that genre instead of forcing ourselves to invent and play with new solutions or blend disparate ideas ((see also: accidentally stumbling on my personal ideal FKR game via messing around with Dread with no expectations)) or worse yet cutting out cool ideas because they don't fit the genre expectation.

I think people forget how deeply board-gamey a lot of accepted genre expectations of the so-called "RPG" are while simultaneously condemning bounded game mechanics in a free form game or free form mechanics in a bounded game. Untether yourself from all of this. Just make a game. Need a referee? Add one. Need a constant board? Make one. What's left to the Ref and what's left to the mechanics is up to you, but do it in service of the game and your own tastes instead of in service of a genre you're trying to conform to.

Inevitably you'll bump into stick-in-the-mud nerds who insist a thing must be a certain way, or that in breaking with a genre expectation the game is failing their expectations or pet problems and thus has become bad or a waste of their time and requires conformity. This is the one venue where it's spectacular to tell someone "I'm sorry you feel that way" and then promptly ignore them. Better blogs than me have waxed poetic about how a game can't fix issues at the table, and I myself have gone on at length about how no game is for everyone. Again if you're creating a mass market item, sometimes this feedback can be useful for honing your pitch and setting expectations. But frankly, if you're experimenting and playing, this advice is next to useless and is pretty much someone trying to dress up the very real complaint that they're just not vibing. Which is fine, but then they shouldn't be playing! So boot 'em out and get back to experimenting! ((Additionally : This is why cultivating that cast of fellow weirdo creatives is so pivotal for keeping a flow here - No one gets upset and the wild ideas keep flowing!))

Step 3 Fail

I think any artist in this field worth their salt probably has a stack of abandoned WIPs, games that went nowhere. Maps with no notes and notes with no maps, scrawled half ideas and cryptic misspelled midnight missives. Exceptions apply, but by and large the way you know you're succeeding in your experimentation is that you're failing. The trick becomes knowing how to learn from your failures to bring fresh ideas into your new projects (Failing Forward) and getting better at iterating and experimenting quickly so you don't feel like all you're doing is experimenting with the same few things (Failing Faster). Design Exorcisms are great for this! Get a half finished idea out there and see how people react! If people really dig it maybe you should go back to it one day.

But moreover, as you're experimenting steal from yourself liberally. Maybe that playtest you ran was just OK, but that one side mechanic absolutely sang. Steal that for something else. Fail Forward! Maybe you've been running a new campaign for 3 or 4 sessions and you're simply not feeling it. Games are leisure time and art suffers from becoming an obligation! Drop that shit like an ugly baby and get on to the experiment! Fail Faster!

If you're constantly afraid of failure or wasted time, then experimenting like this will be your worst nightmare. But if you're willing to accept that failure can be a beautifully fruitful thing, that the smoldering husks of your burnt out projects can be used to ignite new fires in you, then I can't encourage you to experiment enough!

Step 4 Put Yourself Out There

You should start a blog. Your cool ideas and half finished projects? They can live there now. It's like a little sanctuary for all the works of art you don't have time for, this way they can get a little more love and enrichment.

You should also consider joining game jams. Now a lot of tabletop game jams are ostensibly just filling out content for other peoples' systems BUT this can be a good exercise. What rules do you change? How do you make things your own? Gradient Descent is a Mothership module that completely recontextualizes the feel of that game and is a masterpiece for it - Think you can do the same?

The best jams to join though are the ones built around a theme - An igniter to begin the glorious bonfire of your experimentation. If you're looking for a good one Snow's just started a very cool Game Jam centered around things that are Lost, Broken and Unplayable - If this doesn't scream an opportunity for experimentation than I don't know what does.

Above all remember your experiments aren't about making big bucks or capturing some huge audience. This is about you and your craft! That said the people who do end up liking your experiments are the audience members you should cherish above all else, because those are the people who are on this wild creative ride with you!

And hey, if there's no jam right now? Do your own. Put on a silly hat and some tunes you don't usually listen to. Make a game before the next sunrise. You can do it! And even if you fail and you're left with a half-finished mess of notes and ideas, you succeeded the goal of experimenting fabulously.

[*1 : If you haven't already been exposed to New German Cinema, I strongly advise checking out the works of Rainer Werner Fassbinder - His most accessible film is probably The Marriage of Maria Braun, but pretty much all of his stuff is electric. It also features the same rotating cast of actors, writers and crew which allowed him to pump out a stunning 40 films in less than 20 years before ODing on cocaine because the man was a fiend for every substance on the planet -- Eventually I'll do a thing on why I think more games need to play with The Alienation Effect and Defamiliarization but that's another day's story.]

[*2 : SO Tabletop games have been with us forever. We used bones as dice, performed roleplaying rituals in the early eras of humanity, we practiced, we played, etc. The reason I call Tabletop Games a 19th Century genre is due to how much they (relatively) exploded and evolved post-WWII across the globe [this is a different topic for a different day, but the growth is exponential] - Not to mention how ubiquitous words like "Roleplaying Game" or "Wargame" are slowly becoming. And yet a lot of it is aggressively samey IMO, partially due to people clutching to genres.]

[*3 : For those who have never done video game development - Grey boxing is when you test mechanics only, with no art assets, just to make sure the thing works and feels good. The phrase comes from the fact that the player character may literally be a grey box (because no character sprite or model has been added) moving around an undecorated plane, but if even that feels good then you're on to something.]


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