That’s how tiefling horns work, right? I’m pretty sure that’s how tiefling horns work. And in a very real sense, that’s how every design decision works in an RPG. (Ya know… Angle grinder notwithstanding.)

Here’s where I’m coming from. In my day job, I teach a class called “Constructing the Moving Image” at the local uni. The curriculum moves from comics, to film, to 3D interactive environments, and the tools of the trade are Maya and Unity. Now as you might guess from my troubles with Roll20, I’m not the most technical boy in the universe. I know just enough about 3D animation to get my kids up and running each semester, and I live in constant fear that they’ll find a bug I can’t fix. But the reason I’m qualified to teach this sucker—despite being a technophobe and an English major at heart—is my experience as a GM.

When the name of the game is design it doesn’t matter whether you’re using comic panels, a physical movie set, or real-time 3D rendering. It’s your job to consider all the elements. If we’re talking film, then the list includes shot composition, lighting, costuming, production design, etc. etc. If we’re talking about building a dungeon, then you’ve got other elements to noodle with. Your read-aloud text should be evocative without overstaying its welcome. Your map should flow naturally from one chamber to the next. You want to deliver snippets of lore through a mix of environmental storytelling, player handouts, and interesting NPCs, all of which contribute to a sense of discovery as the PCs move between chambers. Creature selection should reinforce motif, whether that’s “temple of ooze” or “dragon aerie” or “pirate ship.” And if you’re custom-tailoring a dungeon for your group, you’ll want to seed it with character-specific business as well, placing a clue left by Torbalt’s long lost brother as well as some interesting techno-loot for Whizz-Bang the tinkerer.

Now all that said, if you find yourself thinking, “But wait! He didn’t mention dungeon backstory! Or quest hooks! Or random encounter tables!” then congratulations. Your GM brain is doing its job. The list of relevant details does not end. But whatever elements you emphasize, the real trick of design is making sure that they work in harmony. Your choices should create a unified experience, with a cohesive tone and mood throughout. The same thought process works at smaller scales too. After all, there’s a reason that our demon-blooded Thief typically rocks the devil horns and not the I-love-nature deer antlers.

And so, for today’s discussion question, what do you say we talk about underserved elements of game design? What bits tend to get left by the wayside in your experience? Do you see GMs phoning it in on treasure placement? Maybe there are never enough encounters in the adventuring day, or too few? Maybe the environment is always well-lit, and your sweet dark vision never gets a chance to shine? Whatever the oversight, let’s hear about your pet peeve missing elements down in the comments!


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