"What is your game about?"
Quickly followed by...
"How do the mechanics support that?"
Going through the #AprilTTRPGMaker questions last month I saw that there seem to be three distinct schools of thought (and a few others less prominent).
- A few designers develop their ideas first, then shop around for systems that match what they're trying to do (often limiting themselves to a range of popular game systems like Fudge, FATE, PbtA, Savage Worlds, d20, OSR to keep their game marketable).
- The other school of thought takes a system first (often PbtA), then modifies it until it does the kind of things that been envisioned for the game.
- Then you get the designers who work from the ground up to create a dedicated system to the experience they are trying to present to their players. The downside among many of these latter designs is that they can end up as "one trick ponies" that can only really produce a single story regardless of what the players do, and often because the players and characters are restricted in what they can do according to genre conventions or ritualised conventions.
I don't want to say these options are the Gamism, Narrativism, and Simulationism of design. They certainly aren't mutually exclusive, and there are plenty of designs that have been developed by combining these methodologies, but on the whole they seem to gravitate distinctly toward one of them. None of these is wrong, even if the first two do strike me as hacks and therefore fit in the category I generally consider to be lazy game design. I guess that determines where my game designs fit in the scheme.
My original incarnation of Walkabout (available for free over on RPGNow) was based vaguely on my FUBAR engine, and felt like a good fit within the constraints of the Game Chef contest that year. There were always things in that game system that worked great for one off games, but sequences, series, and campaigns struggled.
A second iteration of the game moved from rolling dice to drawing from a pool of coloured tokens. Part of this shift was to reflect a post-apocalyptic vibe of collecting pieces of the past and making the best of the situation. Another part of the shift was a desire to create a game that didn't need a table for dice to be rolled on (or a dice rolling app), which would mean the game could be literally played while on a walk through nature, as a means of connecting the to players back to the natural world in the same way that the character's are trying to harmonize their world. Certain elements of the token system just didn't seem to be working, so that just had to be left behind.
Recent years of putting the game aside while I've more thoroughly done my anthropological, sociological, and ethnographical research have led to a number of refinements and outright changes to the underlying game system. This changed the FUBAR system to the SNAFU System, which I'm using in The Law (also available on RPGNow). I'm happier with this as a core foundation for games because it does a lot of the stuff that FUBAR did well, but it facilitates the development of character's in a better way, while also refining certain elements of play.
So now it comes down to working out a good way to present the themes that drive the setting, and a way to infuse those ideas into the mechanisms that drive play.