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In the workshop

Blog 2 – Importance of constraints

As many people, most of my initial game designs were nothing more than house-ruling – taking what was present and adding a wrinkle or 30 to make it more unique to the experience we wanted (and more complex). But the first game I remember designing from scratch was based on a love of my youth – pro wrestling.

Now, before you get on me about how it’s odd that my 12 year old self created a game simulating a fake sport, let me get a few things out in the open.

  1. I knew it was fake. I didn’t care.
  2. Movies are fake. Stories in comic books are fake. Television shows are fake (especially the “reality” ones).
  3. Like I said, I didn’t care (and still don’t). Real life can suck, and it’s cathartic to scream at the bad guy and cheer the good guys comeback to pay the villain their comeuppance.
  4. Roddy Piper got on my last nerve as a child.
  5. Mister Perfect was my hero. I mean, who didn’t try to spit their gum out and slap it across their yard (only to step in it later that week)?
  6. It was Mister Perfect until he fought Hulk Hogan live near my hometown. Even I had to cheer for the Hulkster.

Points 4-6 really don’t matter to the rest of this, but I thought I’d throw it out there.

With that said, let’s talk about my first wrestling game. It was D20 before D20 was a thing. Now, I didn’t have saving throws and other elements of D&D, but I did have weapons doing a set amount of damage (and in wrestling, the weapons are acrobatic or powerful wrestling moves… along with a steel chair). I rolled a 20-sided die for success, with the 20 doing double damage and a 1 being a catastrophic failure.

And I had every move in the history of professional wrestling represented with its corresponding damage. All in my head. I had every possible situation mapped out. All in my head. I had pro wrestler characters with stats that impacted the game. All in my head. I had friends trying to one-up each other with the most powerful moves available. And when I would go all Calvinball on it and the rules would shift in my brain, they wanted to knock off my head. Until they stopped playing it because, ya know… it sucked to be playing a game with no constraints.

Then, it was just my dice and me, and that particular game went to the graveyard to be rightly sacrificed on the altar of “try harder next time”.

Fast forward a bit to being an adult caught up in the “Attitude Era”, remembering the fun of having a wrestling game, adding the desire to make a go at it again, and that’s what led to my next attempt. I’d soured on dice running things, largely due to the SAGA system (Wizards of the Coast RPG system) where you used cards from your hand and their corresponding number and suit to impact the game. I simply enjoyed the idea of holding everything in your hand and deciding how much to risk and when to use it. Of course, SAGA used a devoted deck, something I wasn’t able to produce (at the time). Then it struck me, I could use a deck, a regular, poker, bridge, even GO FISH deck of cards. It was in that moment that the idea went from an idea to something viable – I could use the symbols to decide moves, damage, special actions… literally everything.

10 years later, I put Modern Day Gladiators – Wrestling Game on DriveThruRPG. Why 10 years? Simple – having the constraints of only a normal deck of cards interacting with my game’s system was challenging. The basics were there (move selection, damage), but the theme created other opportunities that I needed to support via this mechanic. How would I handle a different match types (like a cage match)? How should going outside the ring work? What about cheating? Each question made me look at the cards differently, force me to work within the existing framework of 54 cards (because I love the Jokers). And it was staying within that framework that makes the game work. Each decision point had to come down to what card could be played/revealed. This constraint led to a higher degree of creativity as I adapted MDG to solo to multi-player counts, with my favorite creative splurge happening in how I could use the idea of the wrestler’s feeding off the crowd (as a way to involve people not directly involved in the match). Those constraints led to a tighter, more streamlined experience.

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