You Are Already A Game Designer
I mentioned this parenthetically in my big ol’ D&D Next post, but it deserves more: You Are Already A Game Designer.
The whole idea that game designers are different in any way from the average game player just needs to die. You are already designing games, and your work as a game designer isn’t fundamentally different from your work as a gamer.
There’s a certain temptation to set game designers apart, phrasing the divide between designer and gamer as alike to that between an author and reader. In fact it’s more like a composer and a performer.
Composition is just performance codified and transmitted, like game design is play codified and transmitted. The moment a performer becomes a composer is when they write down a performance so others can do the same. They haven’t really done anything different except learn to communicate how to perform, instead of just the performance itself. We can draw the artificial performer/composer-player/designer line based on having actually codified and transmitted the idea, but it’s a technicality at best.
When you sit down to play and you try to create a certain experience at the table, as a GM or a player, you’re designing a game. Sometimes that game is indistinguishable from the one transmitted in the rules, like a performance that doesn’t embellish the score. Sometimes the game is actually something entirely different than the rules ostensibly being used, like an improvisation based on a familiar tune.
Setting design is game design. Adventure design is game design. Coming up with a plot hook for the game tonight is game design. Making a cool encounter is game design. Figuring out how to present the cool encounter from a book is game design.
That isn’t to say that every game designer is good at it. The game designer is passing on insight, just like the composer, and the quality of that insight plus the ability to communicate it is what makes a great designer or a forgettable one. Making an NPC that everyone loves is certainly game design, but it’s probably not worth codifying and transmitting. The process for making an NPC that everyone loves, though, might be more useful. It’s the difference of insight between “this one works” and “here’s how to make your own that works.”
Thinking of the designer as just another player sharing something with you creates a better atmosphere of play. It’s easier to take the rules as written as a shared insight from a fellow gamer, not a declaration of how games shall be. We’re all in this together, let’s not have any pedestals or us v. them.