Game Design and Openness

Hey there. My name’s Tracy, better known to some as Rolling20s. I spend a lot of time writing and talking about RPGs, and am very happy to have a chance to do so here on Critical Hits. My biggest project right now is my own personal game development, happening over at Sand & Steam. I’m a proponent of open game design, and the recent announcement of the new edition of D&D is a perfect reason to talk about such a topic.

How Did I Get Here?

I never thought of myself as a game designer until very recently. In fact, I only started working on my projects at Sand & Steam in June of 2011. I had always run campaigns and games for my friends, or more recently, at conventions. I never really thought that I made much of anything though, as my sessions were always highly improvisational. That changed when I ran a session for some folks over Skype. I wanted to introduce a friend to Pathfinder, and I came up with the idea for a ship voyage, one with gremlins on board. The destination was a port at the southern end of a vast desert.

As we played, my mind was chewing on the whys of such a trip. Why would people go to a port like that? Why would a port exist in the lone habitable spot between ocean and desert? The answer came in the form of a black-metal city, in the middle of the desert. Full of magical power and run by a cadre of evil mages. Kage was born, my metal, desert city. As the idea became more fully formed, I thought “Hey, this is cool. I need to do something with this.” Thus was born Sand & Steam. I had reached a point of enough self-confidence to try actually making something. The thing was, I knew that I couldn’t do it alone.

The Road to Openness

I do all of my design work at Sand & Steam openly. Every bit of what I do is laid out for everyone to see, warts and all. When I first started, I choose openness not because of any high-minded philosophy about information needing to be free. No, I did so for one very simple, very motivating reason:

I was scared.

The self-confidence that I used to start the project was a tenuous thing. When I started doing design work, my first thought was “I’d better share this stuff so people have a chance to tell me how badly it sucks while I still have a chance to fix it.” I loathe updates to published content. For me, once a work is published, it’s set. Errata in game rules drives me mad. I figured that if I put my work out in its pre-alpha form, people could find everything wrong with it, and correct me. It was designing with a safety net. It gave me the confidence to move forward.

As I kept writing, I noticed that I wasn’t getting many negative comments. I was waiting for the day when someone would rip my setting as lame, also-ran, or worthless. Maybe I don’t have enough exposure for it, but I’ve not gotten that, not even once. I’ve got to say, that helped build my confidence.

As time has gone on, the openness of my design process has changed from  a safety net to something that I believe in very strongly. Openness is almost not an option for me, as I’m a really open dude, but I’ve got the confidence now to develop any way I would like, open, closed, or otherwise. I choose openness.

Open vs Closed

It’s important to note here what I feel the differences between open and closed design are, as it pertains to RPGs. For me, the amount of openness is determined by examining how much access the public has, and the cost of that access. It’s also important to distinguish between the design of a game system being open, and the system itself being open.

  • Open Design – Design happens in a manner where the public can see early builds of the system, see the design process as it happens, and give feedback throughout, from the announcement of a new project, to the completion of the project.
  • Closed Design – Everything happens in-house, and the public sees nothing until the release of the final product.
  • Open Systems – The mechanics/setting of the game is available in a form that can be distributed at-will. New products can be made with the system with no restrictions on distribution or sale.
  • Closed Systems – The mechanics/setting much be purchased from the entity that made them, and all distribution is controlled by the creating entity. New products can be made with the system only with the express permission of the creating entity, often with a monetary fee involved.

Which one is better? Openness comes at a price. There is an inherent giving up of control of your content that happens when you open it, not matter how you make it open. There are benefits that come to openness, but there are downsides, as well.

Perks to Openness

  • The Hivemind – Many brains are better than few brains, and you can get a lot of great ideas from a large group.
  • Free Publicity – If people get excited about your game, they can share it without worry.
  • Built-in Community – An excited community can make stuff with your thing, and they don’t have to worry about your getting mad about it.
  • Accountability – It’s a check on your power, your ego, and your stupidity as a persona and designer. Openness means anyone can call you out.

Downsides to Openness

  • Fragmentation – Easy access to groupthink means that differing opinions can fragment things easily. Factionalism can happen in the blink of an eye.
  • Lack of Control – You made your thing, but it’s not yours to control. The public can do with it as they want, and what they do can reflect on you, for good, or ill.
  • Free Publicity – You might not like the ideas or the reputation of the person who’s espousing the merits of your thing. Get the wrong associations formed, and it’s hard to un-form them.
  • Accountability – Sure, you can be held accountable for your creation, but have you ever tried to hold an anonymous, faceless group accountable for its actions? Yeah, it doesn’t happen.

Perks to Being Closed

  • Singularity of Vision – No distractions, just you and your ideas, flowing forth and taking shape.
  • You Pick Your Partners – When you’re closed, you choose who gets into the Inner Circle, and who can influence your design/finished product.
  • Control – You control your message, and you can work to silence any voice that mars what you want to say.

Downsides to Being Closed

  • Only a Small Group – You could easily design yourself into a corner, and not be able to find a way out.
  • Error Magnification – If you’re in an echo chamber, errors can be compounded on, and not fixed.
  • Isolation – You can be so closed that you’re the only one who cares about your creation.

I don’t know of any design process, or game system that is completely open or completely closed. All of them are various degrees of open or closed. As well, some are different types of open. OGL products (like Pathfinder) can be made using all OGL-licensed mechanics, but not art assets, layout, etc. Also, the final product cannot be freely distributed. A Creative Commons-licensed product (like Eclipse Phase) can be freely distributed in its final form (art assets, text, mechanics, etc), but derivatives of that work can not be made for commercial purposes.

Also, it should be obvious that I have a natural bias towards openness. I need it. I crave it. If I’m not sharing, using friends and other designers as a sounding board, or checking my work with the public, I’d get my head so far up my own ass that the light of day would become nothing more than a memory to me. As I said before, I’m an open kind of dude.

Openness isn’t a cure-all. It comes with its own problems, as I listed above. That said, if you look at WotC and the things that happened to prompt them to look at D&D, you can see that they were dealing with many of those problems even though 4e wasn’t an open system, or designed openly. In fact, you could argue that, because the Internet is inherently open, they will face those problems no matter how they design. My question is this: if you’re going to face all of the problems of being open, and being closed, why not just be open and deal with only one set of them? It seems like that’s the direction that WotC is trending and I, for one, couldn’t be happier with it.



  1. TheMainEvent says:

    How early do prefer to ‘open things up’ in the design process? I would assume you wait until you’ve done some brainstorming and have something concrete to be critiqued and used.

  2. My first work on Shadows of the Collegium was posted after I had some concrete ideas, yes. I probably put the information up sooner than some would have, though, because I have a hard time waiting before acting. I always seek action when something is unresolved, and for me to have an idea, to want to share it, and wait to do so is almost impossible for me.

    However, I do a lot of my brainstorming in public as well. Just check my Twitter feed, and you’ll see that’s the case. The near-instant feedback offered by the lovely service lets me bounce ideas off of many other brains, and refine things as I go. I’m a very verbal person, and have to talk things out to really grok them. Twitter fills that need for me most of the time, so from that perspective, I do all of my design in the open, unless I actually can’t get the information to people. My first tendency is always to go public.

  3. My first published game was closed just because there weren’t the collaboration tools back then to do an open design. My new game is open and I made it available under Creative Commons with Attribution. So far I’ve got a lot of good input on the game.


  1. […] design is a tricky thing. So seeing Tracy “Rolling20s” at Critical Hits devote an entire article to open game design was terrific. Why did he open up the process? To alleviate his fears that the game sucked. The […]

  2. […] In my last article, I talked about some of the basics on open design. I’ve used those principals in my work with Sand & Steam, but recently I realized that what I’ve been doing has been a step beyond openness. I’ve been designing in public. […]