Maybe it’s because I recently had to try and map out a way of making TTRPGs for a recent game jam, or maybe it’s because The Fatality Force (my The Suicide Squad-inspired game) was a very different writing process than most of my games, but I wanted to get down how it came together.
The Fatality Force is a game where it’s unusually easy to trace how the starting point shaped *everything* about the game’s design – that starting point being the idea of trying to get as close as possible to gameplay feeling like using a superpower rather than just describing using one. Travelling home after seeing The Suicide Squad, I began picturing Polka-Dot Man’s polka dots streaming out from him, overlaid on top of a player rolling dice, with the mechanic and the in-world action mapping on top of each other.
So, step one: creating as many different, distinctive ways of generating success/failure results as I could (all with a 50% chance of either result – having multiple mechanics with more nuanced outputs than this made the core idea too tricky to realise). I tapped out at nine – enough to feel like a group with 6 players still had some choice as to what they played, and not so many that the options were becoming too similar.
Step two: translate these mechanics into superpowers – so that I knew that the ‘different mechanic for each character, reflecting their power’ idea actually worked. It also helped to have an anchor for the game’s tone early doors. (The game’s written in a much more casual, subjective, in-world voice than most of mine are, so having this helped a lot.)
Step three: write up combat mechanics. Now, The Fatality Force specifically has social, strategy and combat rules but it had to start with figuring out combat since that’s where I was imagining most of the powers being used, and the kind of action I associated most strongly with the game’s core (supervillains forced onto a potentially fatal mission). The rules were basically defined by the fact any act could only have success/failure results (not degrees of success/failure), that death had to be fairly likely, and that the characters’ powers were descriptive, not prescriptive, in how they worked. This all led to a very description (rather than mechanic/calculation) heavy, fast-paced and free-flowing set of combat rules.
Step four: decide what happens in the case of death. I don’t want to make a game where a player’s character can die early in a session, and just leave them with nothing to do. So there are three possible outcomes of death in The Fatality Force – all that allow the people to keep playing in some way. But that was pretty essential to have in place.
Step four: write up social and strategy rules. Okay, maybe this is less directly from the initial design starting point of the game and more about the media that inspired it, but it was clear that the fun in this kind of role-play is just as much about the downtime between the characters and verbal sparring during heist-like missions as it is the over-the-top combat. I still wanted the powers to be meaningful, and the existence of unique mechanical items for player characters really shaped the social rules in a big way.
Step five: formalise the GM’s role. Now, I hadn’t been totally oblivious to what the GM would be doing so far (and had known throughout there would be one) – thanks to the initial inspiration, there was a clear in-world parallel to a GM (Amanda Waller, the character giving The Suicide Squad their orders from a safe, remote control centre where she can hear and see what’s happening). But possibly the hardest thing I personally find about game design is making sure to write something so that someone else can pick the game up and run it. It’s one thing getting enough info so that I can run a game; it’s a different thing altogether giving someone what they need to do it.
In the case of The Fatality Force, some of this was merely being explicit that the game favours the descriptive over the prescriptive, and a lot of space is given for players and GMs to just chase what’s fun for them. The other major thing for GMs was giving them a) a structure to lean on if they wanted it (basically a map of social, combat and strategy beats to play out a mission) and b) a list of potential boss enemies, to provide a clear endpoint and tonal springboard for GMs.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, these two aspects were the ones I found the toughest whilst writing up the game – the structure because you’re trying to find a good balance of information and prompts whilst avoiding being restrictive, the boss monsters because creating distinctive, surprising monsters with fun identities and abilities is hard. (And I didn’t have the benefit of something pre-existing to spring off from like with the player characters.)
Step six: fill in the holes – the connective tissue. In some cases this was finishing off loosely-written sections, like giving the social rules a bit more structure or the strategic rules more payoff; in others it was simply thinking through what the GM would need to know; in others it was just making sure each player character option had a decent, unique backstory.
And that’s basically it. I was also experimenting in trying to be less precious about writing and making decisions a bit more instinctively, rather than agonising about certain choices and trusting what felt like the most fun option, which definitely shaped the design process. Starting from ‘what are the players physically doing‘ was really interesting for me (having only done something similar in in zero-materials games where a player’s surroundings and body give them all their prompts) and I think going to reshape how I approach a lot of games in future.