The Games I Want To Make

I’ve been thinking about this for some time now, so I thought I would pitch to you the sort of games I want to make in the next couple years. It boils down to this: small, setting-rich, focused on doing one thing really well, pickup-able.


When I initially read Don’t Rest Your Head, shortly after it came out, it was the first RPG book I read cover-to-cover in one sitting. Lady Blackbird‘s form factor is nothing short of inspiring — what John Harper did in a few pages is, well, I’ve talked about that before. And the game that really brought this idea home was Joe MacDaldno’s Gun Thief, which is a 16 (I think) page staple-bound book he did up through a comic book printer. The form factor’s really interesting there. And even with all the problems that In A Wicked Age has as a text, the form factor’s pretty hot.

Recently, reading Shelter in Place, Dungeon World, Remnants, and others, those have all hit home that form factor thing. Working on Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple also reinforced this.

Small means tight focus. It means demonstrating (and thus learning) how to inspire both color & confidence quickly. And it gives room for people to take it, hack it, and make it their own. You don’t need to be all things to all people anymore — if you inspire, people will run with it.

Some games will feel right at 16 pages — and that’s all it needs to be. Some at 64, maybe even 96. That’s what I’m looking at.


I want the games I make to feel like they evoke feel and flavor. I want games that give you enough of a platform that you can stand on it, without overwhelming you with details that lack traction.  I will again point to Lady Blackbird, but also thinking about the alternate history games like Day After Ragnarok or secret world games like Don’t Rest Your Head.

Sometimes setting is expressed by presenting interesting facts and opinions about the world. Sometimes it’s expressed by the tone of the text and art. Whatever inspires play, be in information or tone, is setting in my book.

And that’s what sells ideas: inspiration. People do care about cool mechanics, especially in indieland where that’s particularly fetishized (speaking as someone for whom that’s an accurate descriptor).

The trick is balancing that. Setting is good, but too much setting — especially when you talk about the history of a place disconnected from its current situation — is weak sauce. It can work in a larger game, but in a small game that’s death. So the richness must be about inspiring players with character and situation ideas constantly. And that’s a challenge I want to meet again and again.

(Edit: There’s also some comments below about setting mastery, and how I don’t want that to be required for these games.)

Focused On Doing One Thing Well

I’m interested in making little games, so I’m not going to try to make a game that handles many situations. I want a game to feel like one particular thing, so I’m going to stick to mechanics that only support that feel. Mythender is about killing myths and trying to retain your humanity around mortals. It isn’t about drowning and falling.

This is where I feel like I repeat myself, because “small” and “setting-rich” reinforce this idea, and in turn this reinforces that.


We live in a cool time when there are loads of games you can choose from. There are games where you can get in to it and explore for years to get mastery, like Burning Wheel. Those aren’t the games for me. I’m more likely to run a convention game or one-shot than a home campaign (though I’m finally getting to do that with Aethertide). So the games I want to make are the games for folks like me, who run one-shots and are interested in trying new things to play.

And Other Stuff

All said, this doesn’t mean it’s the only sort of thing I’m interested in. I like making hacks. I like the idea of writing in large books — if I’m on a team or have a partner. I like more complex, spanning designs…again, if I’m on a team or have a partner. But for the stuff I want to make on my own, I’ve pretty much outlined that.

Of course, all things change. This feeling is partly from working on Dresden, and liking the challenge of what I can fit into a small space. (Hence the 500 word challenge last week — still reading!)

– Ryan


7 Responses to The Games I Want To Make

  1. Amen, and amen once again. Me playing Burning Wheel aside at the moment (which is only happening by the grace and kindness of Judd, who offered to run it), those are the games I’m interested in playing and creating as well. They fit my life situation now perfectly.

  2. Colin says:

    Your point about “secret world games like DRYH” is really well made. Having a kind of Masquerade, so the setting is the world we all know plus X, allows us to smuggle in a rich world without having to write a million words about it, and to give the players latitude to bring in the things in the world that matter to them.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Yeah. This idea was hammered home when playing Ashen Stars the other week. It’s not a secret world, or an alternate history, or based off of an IP, so getting into the fiction was hard.

      On top of that, it’s an investigative game, so the lack of traction hurt quite a bit. I needed to be told not only the clue, but why it mattered to the setting that that was a clue.

      All that’s fine in a long-term game where everyone’s read the book and gained setting mastery. In the games I’m talking about, I don’t want to require setting mastery to play it. (Which I’ll edit to amend.)

      – Ryan

  3. Ezra says:

    Now I’m wondering what would happen in a game of “trying to retail your humanity”.

    Is it about robots selling human slaves? Then “killing myths” could be a useful step in breaking their morale.

    Or maybe you play a radical plastic surgery company, adding enhancements like prehensile tails to your customers, while dismissing “myths” that your surgeries are harmful tools of the devil.

  4. Lon Sarver says:

    Would it be a fair understanding to state that small game setting should (or at least, may most efficiently) be conveyed through the presentation of a strong, grabby situation? Where this could be laid out (on a cheat sheet, maybe, I wouldn’t write the text this way) with the Situation described in one (or maybe two) sentences, with three to five bullet points of setting information that support the situation?

    I’ve long thought that, if you can’t describe your setting (in an attractive, grabby way) in a Star Wars-like opening crawl, you’re getting too complicated.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Yeah. Really, looking at Lady Blackbird or Don’t Rest Your Head as models. Or any small game with setting that’s been a great success.

      Elevator pitch + inserting setting into character choices & game text, that’s where to go.

      – Ryan