Writing Playbooks: An Approach

The Poet (art by Letty Wilson)

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I don’t design like most people. While there aren’t any formal schools for game design process per se, I tend to find myself designing very “seat of my pants”. That is to say, I make things up as I go, and try to avoid sketching things out in advance (unless it becomes useful to do that as I go). This means I don’t go into a game design knowing which playbooks I’ll be writing, and it becomes my job to discover them through creation.

Today I’m specifically interested in looking at Playbooks, my process for designing them, and what lessons you can take from it in order to apply to your own games.

What Is A Playbook?

A playbook is a term for the effective “class” of a character in a game. I first encountered it in Powered By The Apocalypse games, although it’s probably way earlier. Often it refers to specific archetypes that give you your skill set and moves, that you make choices about. While you can get pretty specific with your definition of playbooks, I’ll be using the term pretty loosely in this (encompassing more traditional classes, backgrounds, character sheets, etc.).

Some example playbooks from games you might’ve played include: The Ghost from Monsterhearts, the Beacon from Masks, the Torch from Dream Askew, the Ropeskeeper from Sleepaway, the Dancer from Wanderhome, or the Diwata from BALIKBAYAN.

Playbooks In Belonging Outside Belonging Games

Playbooks in games built on the Belonging Outside Belonging engine (or No Dice, No Masters) by Avery Alder and Ben Rosenbaum tend to have a very particular quality. In the “standard” BoB game, there are 6 of them, and they encompass the core archetypes that prop up the game. They play off of each other, and they exist to complement one another. That standard BoB framework is what I’ll be using as my guide (especially since I think 5 or 6 playbooks is the bare minimum a game needs, unless you design around multiple people picking the same playbook), but the mental framework I talk about here can be extrapolated to other games too.

When I sit down to write playbooks for a game, I mentally use what I like to call the Paradigm Model. This doesn’t get planned out in advance (and in fact, you’ll see why it doesn’t work to plan in advance) and might just not work for you if you’re someone who likes to think ahead. But I find it really useful to have an idea in my head of why I’m writing what I am, and what it means to make what I’m doing.

Illustrations from Uncanny (art by Sunny)

The First Playbook: Establishment

The first playbook I write is maybe the most intimidating (and yet, weirdly freeing?) part of design. It’s the “blank page” that resists addition. So I always start with a name — who is, in my head, the most archetypical character I can imagine for this game, and what is it about them that feels archetypical? So for example:

  • I wrote the Lifeguard in Sleepaway to be the baseline counselor, the character that holds tightest to the values of the game (care for the campers, struggling personal life, autobiographical). The Lifeguard was also directly based on my best friend.
  • I wrote the Dancer in Wanderhome as the most archetypical character in the game, someone who exists to embody that space wholeheartedly and find meaning in it. When I think of what it means to travel through the Haeth, I always picture a dancer by my side.

During this first playbook, I make a lot of bold choices. I decide what lists I want to write, how I want to frame moves, what I care about for this character. I don’t stress about whether anything I’m making fits anything else — this is the paradigm!

The Second Playbook: Tension

Oh boy here we go. If the first playbook is establishing the norm, the second playbook is about creating space from that norm. The first playbook gets to say “this is what I care about” and the second playbook gets to say “this is what we both care about”. It might seem elementary, but if you go back over the picklists for the Lifeguard in Sleepaway, think about my decision to keep gender as a thruline through the game, but not what matters outside of camp.

  • The Ropeskeeper was the second playbook in Sleepaway and serves as a more reserved counterpart to the Lifeguard. It establishes that there’s space for counselors who aren’t close to the kids, and also implies the existence of magic in the game.
  • While the Shepherd was the second playbook in Wanderhome, I view the Veteran (the third) as serving this function much more clearly. The Shepherd was a continuation of the themes of the Dancer, while the Veteran exists in aggressive counterbalance to the other two. It makes it clear that the Haeth is not all sunshine and roses, and that there is a tension here that goes beyond the peaceful wandering of the first two.

The Third and Fourth Playbooks: Variations

These playbooks inhabit the space created by the first two, while contrasting with each other. These two playbooks become a secondary tension — still within the environment of the first two, but deepening that space, chasing after loose ends left by the first two, and strengthening the game.

It’s around this point when you’ll start having a lot of good playbook ideas — write them down! Even if they just get bundled into other playbooks, more ideas is always better. Hell, I wrote 15 playbooks for Wanderhome.

  • The Crafter and the Athlete were the next two playbooks for Sleepaway. The Crafter deepened the care expressed by the Lifeguard into a more magical space hinted by the Ropeskeeper. The Athlete takes the aggression of the Ropeskeeper (and hinted in the Lifeguard) and provides a contrast to the Crafter by focusing on physical ability and forceful defense. Together, they make it clear that there are many different ways to care about the camp.
  • The Guardian, the Caretaker, and the Ragamuffin from Wanderhome were written at the same time. The Guardian and the Caretaker both foreground the value and worth of the various beings in the world, reflecting on the Shepherd. The Caretaker follows the same magical space outlined by the Dancer, while the Guardian weirdly becomes a foil for the Veteran in how the Ward’s life has been difficult. The Ragamuffin takes some of the weight of the Veteran and mixes it with the joy of the Dancer.

Additional Playbooks: Sub-Tensions

Not every game has more than 5 playbooks, but sometimes when working on a game I’ll realize (through writing a playbook) that there’s a lot more space I still want to explore. One of the playbooks above (or a playbook I thought would be the Fifth Playbook) will open a door for me that reveals more space for playbooks to exist. This doesn’t have to happen! But if it does, follow it.

Writing the Moth-Tender made me realize that I was interested in occupations in the Haeth, and how those invite traveling. I jotted down some concepts: Teacher, Scholar, Merchant, etc. It also introduced the mechanic where there’s two separate picklists that combine to form more options, which made me wonder — who else would function that way?

Writing the Moth-Tender made me feel like there was a need for a counterbalance, and I wanted someone with a bit more melancholy. Thus — the Exile! They reflect a more melancholy reason for travel, and remind the game about the importance of listlessness. They also introduced a new form of picklist, where you choose the natures for a place that is in your history. That opened the door to other playbooks invested in a place they’ve left behind — the Fool, the Pilgrim, etc.

The Fifth Playbook: Harmony

Note: When I say “Fifth” I mean the playbook you think is the last one. It might not literally be the Fifth, if you pulled a Wanderhome.

The fifth playbook is the moment you think you’ve said all you need to say. You look back on all you’ve created, and you add that final capstone. It’s when you’re Finally Out Of Ideas. Often for me it happens when I realize there’s a gap left by everything else, and I want to fill it in.

  • The Counselor was the fifth playbook written for Sleepaway. It was created to fill a gap — I had realized I had written all these playbooks to represent my friends, but there wasn’t any space for me. So I made that space. In hindsight, I think it’s the weakest and most insecure of the playbooks, because representing oneself so honestly in a game is scary work.
  • The Pilgrim was the second-to-last playbook in Wanderhome, and serves as a capstone to the concept of travel, and the relationship Wanderhome has with goals. I wanted a character with a definite clear end goal, that has a good chance of never being reached. I wanted it to feel unclear why they were even on that journey, and in that way they become a mechanism to embrace the very narrative framework of the game itself.

The Sixth Playbook: Conclusion

Note: Like the fifth, this might not actually be #6. But we still get to know which one it is.

You cannot write the sixth playbook immediately. I don’t know what you need first — show the game to some friends, playtest it a little, take some time away and think about it. But the game will need one more playbook than you think it does. This is the space where you look at the game and you reflect on the very nature of the game itself — whose perspective is missing, whose voice needs to be heard, even just what you learned through creation. I can’t tell you exactly what this playbook is, but we can imagine that if your game represents a space of possible existence, then this last playbook is a reflection on the space as a whole.

  • The Fresh Blood in Sleepaway was written about a month after the rest of the playbooks, after I showed it to some friends and playtested it. At its core, the Fresh Blood is an acknowledgement that Sleepaway is from my perspective. It is autobiographical, and part of it being autobiographical is that it leaves out other perspectives. To write the Fresh Blood I consulted with a few younger staff from my summer camp, and figured out how to make a space that I observe and remember but don’t currently inhabit.
  • The Poet in Wanderhome was the final playbook. The Poet is my self-insert into Wanderhome, or more accurately, it is a self-insertion of who I was in the moment I was writing Wanderhome. Wanderhome is a game that eerily lacks my own presence. It is full of the people I care about, but by writing it, I didn’t find space for myself. This is especially relevant as someone who is increasingly bedbound and who occasionally felt like the Haeth was a world without space for an agoraphobic crip writer. The poet is an acknowledgement that that’s not true — of course there’s space for me, and it was through the act of writing Wanderhome that I discovered that space.

Some Graphs

These graphs aren’t useful. I wouldn’t ever use them when designing a game, but it’s nice to lay out how my brain conceptualizes them and maybe they can be useful if this article was weird?

Inviting Others Into Your Space

A whole second article could be written about the process of inviting others to make playbooks for your game. They bring their own perspectives and worlds into the game, and riffing off of them invites even more playbooks. This will also happen if you revisit the game after a time — I just finished writing three more playbooks for the upcoming Sleepaway supplement, Uncanny! You can check out Uncanny here in order to get an idea of what it’s like to revisit a setting after taking a while to reflect on the space.

Conclusions

So uhh, yeah that’s my process! This is not a universal process by any means, it’s simply the rhythm I fall into when I create new games. You’ll have your own process that works for you, but I hope maybe this can help conceptualize an approach to playbooks that’s much more seat of your pants, while still giving you a path to follow!

I hope you enjoyed this article. If you did, consider supporting Possum Creek Games on our Patreon, or giving the author a follow on Twitter at @jdragsky. You can also check out Jay’s other work on the Possum Creek Games website here.

Game designer at Possum Creek Games. Gay trans. Has never successfully caught a ghost. Wrote Wanderhome, among others.