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On Designer Notes

I love designer’s notes. As sidebars, articles, blog posts, or podcast segments, I love when other designers talk about their games, their decisions, and why a system went one way instead of another.

Designer’s notes serve a few purposes. They can expand on the design by offering additional material or alternate systems that were cut from the finished product for some reason. They provide insight into the designer’s process. And finally, they are historical documents that record a particular moment in the evolution of game design.

In the designer’s notes for GURPS Powers, Sean Punch provides outtakes and optional rules that didn’t make it into the final book. A number of these were options suggested during the book’s extensive playtest process. Others, such as the system for pricing power talents, were legitimate outtakes cut from the manuscript. For over a decade, Steve Jackson Games released designer’s notes for nearly every GURPS release in their magazine, Pyramid.

In October 2007, Wizards of the Coast released the Rules Compendium for Dungeons & Dragons 3.5. The edition was ending — 4th Edition would be released the following summer — and this book collected all of the major rules systems, expansions, and notes from the entire lifespan of 3.5. But the Rules Compendium also included sidebars by designers, developers, and editors discussing how these rules came to be and why specific decisions were made. It’s a treasure trove for anyone struggling to understand the complex, interrelated rules of the d20 System.

In their d20-based fantasy game 13th Age, Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo present design notes in the core rule book. These include notes and advice directed at gamemasters or at players. But they also interject the designers’ personal views and elements of their home campaigns, even to the point of Tweet and Heinsoo arguing with each other on the page.

Some of the best designer’s notes include the story of how a game came to be. In support of the  Kickstarter for Unknown Armies 3rd Edition, Greg Stolze published a blog post on Atlas Games’ web site called “Unknown Armies: In the Beginning.” Stolze relates how he became involved with John Tynes in the creation of a game of modern occultism and horror. He contrasts the design goals of Unknown Armies with the cosmic horror of Call of Cthulhu. And finally, he expresses how both Tynes and he believed the other to be the far more influential half of the design team. This essay covers both the “insight” and “historical document” purposes of designer’s notes, and its a great read besides — typical for Stolze.

Returning to GURPS, we find a pair of articles from Pyramid magazine that cover the same event from both sides of that dual purpose. In “Designer’s Notes: GURPS Basic Set, Fourth Edition,” Sean Punch lays out the timeline of creating the current edition of GURPS, from the initial mandate by owner Steve Jackson, through collating a decade and a half of customer feedback on the Third Edition, to the final writing. On the other side, in "Designer’s Notes: GURPS Fourth Edition,” co-author David Pulver discusses more of the design decisions and breaks down which specific chapters he worked on, including Combat with its sometimes subtle but significant changes from Third Edition. Having two authors produce design notes on the same project is particularly illuminating.

If you’re a game designer, I’m not telling you that you absolutely have to release designer’s notes for your game. But I will say that they enrich the culture of design, they can increase engagement with a portion of your audience, and they establish an important historical record. Sure, it takes time, but consider writing designer’s notes for your next game.

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