Gen Con: The Building Blocks of System Design

As many of you know, one of my major initiatives is to make game design accessible to anyone who wants to design games for any reason under the sun. Often, when we talk about game design in our community, it’s with an eye towards getting something published, but that’s not the only reason to design games. Sometimes, you just want to put together a quick system to tell a story in a world you enjoy.

Sure, you could use any number of generic systems or hack something to do this, but it can be a rewarding and fun exercise to put together your own system. It’s really not as intimidating as it sounds, and you basically use the same skillset as hacking a game, but with more control over specific mechanics that can really define what your world is like and the kind of things characters do there.

To help make that happen, this year at Gen Con I ran my first system design workshop: The Building Blocks of System Design. This was a women’s only event that took place over two hours. There were twenty women, so I had each of them draw counters from a sack so we’d end up with four teams of five.

Once everyone was settled in their team, I asked the groups to quickly collaborate and come up with an elevator pitch for their game world. Nothing more than a quick idea about what the world and game was going to be like. I set a timer for five minutes, and prepped the next section while I listened to the groups.

At the end, the groups came up with four distinctly different ideas:

  1. “Mad Maxine”, a post-apocalyptic world that involves lots of combat driving.
  2. “Noir Ghostbusters”, a paranormal detective agency run in the 30s solely by women.
  3. “Big Bag O’ Loot”, a game about collecting loot and keeping it from others.
  4. “Snowpocalypse”, a wintery apocalypse where the gods and magic have awoken.

The next step was to boil down the main point of the game into a single sentence. It’s through this sentence we’ll find the core mechanics necessary to develop a Minimum Viable System.


What’s a Minimum Viable System?

The term is taken from the Lean Startup movement called an MVP or Minimum Viable Product. It made a pretty big splash in the business world, but it boils down to a really simple idea: You should get your product in front of customers as soon as possible. This may mean doing everything by hand, or simulating a piece of software as a human.

A famous example from the book involves a startup that wanted to write an app that made suggestions on healthy meals to cook. The app needed to learn what a family liked to make appropriate suggestions depending on their favorite meals, the time of year, what’s in season, and a bunch of other factors.

Designing and writing even a simple version of the program would take months of labor and a whole lot of money. In the end, the consumer might not even like the app at all. Rather than take a chance that could end up in a whole lot of wasted time and a difficult time changing directions, it’s more efficient to try out the product in the simplest form possible, then move forward in iterative steps.

This isn’t always the right approach, and I generally loathe startup culture, but there’s some wisdom to this, and it puts it in a nice, succinct phrase.

To find our Minimum Viable System, we use this formula for writing a sentence:

In my game, characters <do something> <encounter conflict> <gain reward>.

One of the things I neglected to do (that’s now on my list to do next year) was to write down what each group’s sentence was. If anyone out there has notes, please leave me a note in the comments and I’ll add them! Ideally, I should write it down somewhere they can see it. I used giant Post-It notes to brainstorm ideas on, and that worked pretty well.

Here are a few examples of games using that sentence.

D&D: In my game, characters explore dangerous dungeons in far away places while fighting strange monsters for loot and glory.

What’s important? High mortality rate, ability to make new and exotic places each time, a world to place it in, combat, loot, and prestige.

Vampire: the Masquerade: In my game, characters struggle against the loss of their humanity in a dark, twisted world while navigating the complex social and political dynamics of vampiric life for power, prestige, and some semblance of being human.

What’s important? A grimdark urban setting, consequences for losing control and losing humanity, well-defined political dynamics, the ability to quantify success in titles or through some other measurement of power, and complications from the human world.

Shadowrun: In my game, characters fight against oversized corporations bent on their own self-interest while fighting off their overzealous security teams for money, glory, and potentially salvation.

What’s important? A dark future setting filled with megacorporations, a well-defined, crunchy combat system focusing on heist-like activities, and ways to measure success in prestige, skill, or money.

Each group’s sentence neatly laid out before us what sort of work we had to do. From there, I followed a pattern of discussing a section, then giving the teams a timed period to come up with their ideas for that section.

To make it workable in two hours, I boiled down designing a game to Attributes, Skills, Abilities, a Conflict System, and Character Generation. There are, most certainly, way more ways to create games than this, but I feel these are the basics. With these, you can make a nearly-infinite number of systems.

We walked through setting up each part of the system by talking about the individual sections. We went in a specific order (as below) so that we could build off each one.

I’d introduce what we’re working on, talk about some general ideas that pop to mind on mechanics that might be applicable to the various themes around the room, then did a short brainstorming session. Everyone in the room, regardless of group, threw out ideas for statistics and mechanics based on the elevator pitch previously given.

I took notes on giant post-its, then gave the groups 5-10 minutes to work on solidifying what kind of stats or mechanics they would add to their game. Once the time was up, each group did a mini presentation of their ideas, we refined them down a bit together, then we moved on to the next section.

Attributes: Stats all characters have regardless of any other part of their makeup. These tend to be physical or genetic in nature… how smart, fast, intelligent, charismatic, tough, and anything else that’s fitting to all characters.

Skills: Stats that can be different between characters. Unlike attributes, which measure raw ability, skills measure what you’ve actually been trained to do. A really smart guy can’t program a computer just because he’s really smart, for instance, he needs a skill to match that up.

Abilities: Abilities are shorthand for ‘special things your character can do’ whether that’s reading minds or having contacts in the forensics unit nearby.

Conflict System: A conflict system is the system used to resolve pretty much anything in the game from punching someone in the face to opening a locked safe. The only difference between using skills and combat are in the details.

Character Generation: With stats and mechanics in place, it’s time to figure out how these stats get set up at the beginning of character generation.


How’d it Go?

First of all, I want to say that having an all-woman group was a great experience. At first, everyone was quiet and kind of huddled in the mini-groups they came in… as happens. Once we got the individual groups set up (randomly), though, everyone started working together immediately without hesitation.

The group opened up in stages, some earlier than others, but by about halfway through the workshop, everyone was fully engaged and the room was abuzz with energy. Even the more reserved women in the room came out of their shells, and had terrific ideas. As the facilitator, it was a stressful thing to do (especially as it was my first time running a workshop), but not nearly as stressful had the group been mixed.

The overall group came up with four unique Minimum Viable Games. They had theme, setting, statistics, and character generation. Had we had more time, we could have easily sat down and had four playtest sessions. The timing was just a bit off, though. I ended up having to rush through the last part of the workshop to make sure we finished on time, and I’d have really loved it if everyone could have playtested their games.

All in all, the workshop was a complete success. There are many things I took out of it to improve for the next several times I’ll be running it.

  1. A worksheet for the groups to fill out as they go along.
  2. Make sure I get a room with tables (and a whiteboard when possible).
  3. Add one more hour (upping it to 3) to make the initial session three hours. We could’ve used more time to spend on damage, and additional game currencies, plus we didn’t complete as cleanly as I’d want to for a playtest.
  4. Add another session to allow for playtesting. I was thinking of doing this all in one workshop, but I think we’d get a better experience if we did the playtesting the next day or at another time. Let people clear their heads, step away, let their ideas gel, then come back and pick someone from the group to run the game.
  5. Get everyone’s names and email addresses, and provide name tags a bit more visible than convention badges, and other logistics.
  6. Change the name. When I first set the workshop up, I was thinking of it more lecture-based, but then I got some good advice on making things like this interactive. So, the name should probably reflect that we’re building a system, not just chatting.



Will There be More?

The workshop was such a success that I realized I want to keep running it whenever I get the opportunity. I’ve got some potential conventions and other events coming up where I’ll be able to run the workshop again, possibly for mixed gender groups. I’ll be adjusting the format and specifics as I go, so hopefully at the 2016 Gen Con, I’ll have 3-4 more sessions under my belt to get the whole thing down pat.

I highly doubt I’ll be running any mixed gender sessions at Gen Con itself, however. The women’s only version was very rewarding, and I just don’t have enough time to handle two versions of the workshop. Sometime in the future, I may find someone else to run one or the other, making it much more likely and possible, but for now I just don’t have the time.

I will, however, be running mixed version of this workshop online via Google Hangouts. It won’t be quite the same, but hopefully it’ll still be fun and work out well. Instead of working with a large room of people and having multiple groups, I’ll run the workshop for a single group of five on air so others can watch. Some collaboration will be missed, but I think it’ll still work well.

I’m also volunteering to help out with advising the RPG club at the high school where my husband teaches drama. As it’s connected to the drama department, I hope to be able to get together a group of kids and do the workshop as a bit of a game creation jam.

In the meantime, you can take a look at the document I provided at the workshop. 20 pages of examples, jargon, and a shared language for creation - plus the outline for the workshop. I’ll be editing, revising, and probably expanding this document as I run it more as well.

I’m really looking forward to continuing facilitating this workshop. I think it did a wonderful job of highlighting how easy it can be to build a basic system all your own. Keep an eye out here at the ConTessa blog for more reports on workshops as well as information on where and when I’ll be running it again. Also, don’t hesitate to email me at with any questions or comments. I love to get mail!

Stacy Dellorfano is a web developer, writer, art director, project manager, game developer, and sometimes graphic designer. She founded ConTessa in 2012, and continues to lead the organization. Stacy also writes at her personal blog, Frivology, and frequently talks about gaming on Google+.