The Math Will Fuck You
In face-to-face game design (pen & paper RPGs, card games, etc.), I have a mantra:
Don’t design around math. The math will always fuck you. It will distract you from the point: designing around experience.
(And I say that as a software engineer that almost double-majored in math.)
I first suffered the “joy” of learning this lesson years ago, when trying to design a game about Catholic special ops vs. True Evil RPG (which perhaps one day I’ll revisit, maybe). My friend Mike & I were GURPS fiends, but we weren’t big enough to get a Powered by GURPS license, so we wanted to make our own system. Plus, hey, build a system.
We decided that the d8 didn’t get enough love, so we started building a system that revolved around rolling 2d8, adding a number, and comparing. Then we added another dimension, where at times you could roll in another d8, but you still added the highest two. We did all sorts of Excel charts and figured out what point we wanted to set our “we’ll assume a competent characters will roll this amount” target numbers.
We played the game. It was meh. We went back to the math to see why. We moved target numbers around. We added and then removed dice. We kept tinkering. And eventually, after not being jazzed about it, we put it away. It had some cool moments, but they didn’t overcome the overall meh factor.
What I realized much later: I didn’t care for rolling d8s all the time. It was a “cute” experience, not one that felt natural, but needlessly novel. That’s not something the math can tell you. But it’s something looking at the experience of play — the whole damned point of game design — can. Unfortunately, many of us are math nerds, so we want to solve problems with math (not unlike how computer programmers often want to solve with software user issues that are outside of what software has contact with).
This was not the last time I looked at the math and was lead astray. It took several failed attempts at design to finally come this: I only look at math when I recognize a problem and know that’s what it needs. Until then, I look only at experience. Otherwise…
The math will distract you.
The math will tell you things that are unimportant.
The math won’t tell you how a system is experienced.
The math will fuck you, if you let it. Use math to double-check an idea, not as a design criteria. (Unless you’re making a video game, or maybe the next D&D.)
(Oh, and I find it kinda amusing that if you pay too much attention to math in game design, it’ll fuck you. But if you don’t pay enough attention to it in publishing, it’s also fuck you.)