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Games That Make You Think: A crash course in TTRPG design

a collection by Takuma Okada · last updated 2019-08-31 07:29:44

I need to put a disclaimer first: Many of the designers of these games are my friends. I don't know anything about a vast number of TTRPGs on  It's a subjective collection, and I am in no way claiming that it is not. But I sincerely hope that others will find some of these games helpful in learning how to design. 

I specifically chose PWYW games to make narrowing down my options a little easier, as well as making the whole thing accessible to new designers, especially marginalized ones. But if you can, when you can, please go back and pay for these games. Pay more than the minimum if possible! 

One last note: this collection is by no means set in stone! I want to keep adding to it as I get to read and play more games, a living document of what's happening on Itch. 

Other, non-game, TTRPG related resources:

I DIED AND IT WAS GREAT: TTRPGs often have different forms of failure. This manifesto challenges our preconceptions, and explores the joy and the many possibilities of failure. 

The RPG Design Zine: A cut-and-paste zine about TTRPG design, using examples from many different games, by Nathan D. Paoletta. 

An online 7-minutes-in-heaven hack

As more and more tabletop games are played over Discord, it makes sense that games designed to use the app's functions would be developed. Seven Minutes is a really cute, super simple party game that makes excellent use of Discord voice channels and emojis, with optional rules for roleplay. Abe Mendes has been really thought-provoking for me when I've considered PbP and Discord focused design, and I'm really looking forward to their upcoming work.

a series of small reminders

Surprise, this one isn't about game design at all. Well, sort of. Listen is a collection of incredibly important reminders. These are practices for being a better person, and by consequence a better game designer. 

A lot of it is also applicable to navigating Twitter and other social media spaces, crucial parts of the indie tabletop scene. Challenge yourself, especially if you're cis/het/white, to read this and to put it into practice as much as you can if you aren't doing so already. 

A handy-dandy generator/prompt for making micro-RPGs

This is a great call-out of current indie tabletop games, but it also just like, works? You really could just roll on these tables and have a great idea for a new game. A loving satire if you will, an homage in the style of Edgar Wright. 

If you're the kind of person who needs homework to learn, try rolling on this and making a quick game based off it.  

a game about child abuse

Massive content warning for child abuse. The game doesn't mention it at all. Technically, there really is no triggering material. Except the entire game makes me feel sick. 

I don't think the improvisational nature of tabletop games makes them well suited for tackling complicated issues. It can be done, certainly, but very rarely is it done with the proper care. Of course I can't speak for anyone but myself, but I do think this game is one such example of the proper care. It helped me. 

A 2 athlete story told through numbers.

This game not only helped me understand sports better, but it helped me understand why my friends love sports so much too. It does one of my favorite things microgames can do really well, which is taking one core aspect of a thing and making it playable. 

A heist game where you count as a small gang

So you take one of the most popular PbtA moves and very literally turn it into its own game. Which also makes it instantly relatable to anyone who's tried to sync up audio via claps or counts. Throw a Magic 8 Ball in there for good measure. It's all ridiculous and yet makes total sense, really. Again, if you want to try writing a comedic TTRPG you should definitely read some of Cure's. 

An adaptation of 4'33" into an RPG

I think a lot of "comedy" TTRPGs aren't really that funny. That, or people misrepresent certain games as comedic. Cure has written some of the funniest games I've ever read, and I couldn't resist putting two on here because they're such a delight to read. 

Become a Napkin Witch! Create subtle spells, tiny wishes and small blessings.

Napkin Witch is adorable and reminds me of Kiki's Delivery Service. It's got a fun format too! Portable games, that you can have on a postcard or little business card or trifold pamphlet and hand out, are really cool to me. They're a great way to think about layout differently!

A game of naked mole rat revolution

Eusocial Unrest is only a page. But it says more about revolution, player safety, and game design than other games do in many more. It integrates a safety tool in a player focused fashion, which is frankly too rare in other tabletop games, explicitly forbidding harm to come to the player when activated. Eusocial Unrest acknowledges the cost of revolution, while emphasizing its persistence. 

A 2 player game about rivalry, success, and the power of friendship

REV YOUR ENGINES is a great example of taking a simple game that everyone knows, tic-tac-toe, and using it as your core resolution mechanic. It also, for me at least, captures the spirit of toy-based shounen anime/animated shows such as Gundam Build Fighters, Yu-Gi-Oh, and Beyblade really deftly. A lot of designers will say their game or idea is "so anime", but few actually really get it. This game does. 

a brief troubleshooting primer

Sasha Reneau is probably best known for Spindlewheel, which is a fantastic game unlike anything else which you should also check out. It's just not exactly on itch, although I do highly recommend the Spindlewheel Microgames collection which is. 

Games can be many things. Sometimes (and not often enough), they can be very kind. The unique framing of this self-care guide, of yourself as a mech, of hard work and loving maintenance, is really perfect. 

we understand the power of that which came before us

Yes, you should go get i'm sorry did you say street magic. I would have included it in a heartbeat if it was PWYW. Luckily, there are names, its sister game, is. It's a great example of a generator, a game in its own right. Its prompts are brilliant, and there are so many. All the sights and smells and sounds of a city, all the fascinating people and poignant moments. Caro Asercion has such a strong voice and is one of my favorite designers, and I think we can all learn a lot from them. 

A one-player game of restoring ruined icons.

Paper can be used for so many things besides writing. Many of those uses can be part of a game. Effigy really began to expand the ways in which I considered the paper we play games with. Plus, the paper doll you labor over, the stand-in for a ruined mech, is a really cool thing to have at the end of the game. 

A game of memory and staying alive

I don't want to say much about this game. I don't want to spoil it. It's only 300 words. Heed the content warnings, it's heavy. Just experience it. Then read it again. 

a game of animal adventure

Who doesn't love the premise of woodland creatures going on adventures? Unfortunately, not a lot of games actually tell those kinds of stories well, or are needlessly complicated. Bell Songs is a concise 20 pages of rules and a masterwork in hacking together only the essential parts of other systems to achieve your design goals. It's a brilliantly designed campaign game, and it totally works as a one-shot as well. 

A two player game about intimacy and fear, in the ruins of a dead world

I'm slightly adjusting my initial joke tweet. Shelter isn't from this past year. But I love it and it's very important to me so it's going on here. The example choices to setup questions are fantastic. The narrator using their own fears to create obstacles is just so good. Again, it's a fairly short game and you can just absolutely go for it in that hour and get an amazing story out of it. Shelter was also what got me thinking about touch, and how it can enhance a game. For more on that, check out Our Radios Are Dying by Aura Belle.

200wordrpg. The things you break will break you.

An entry for the 200 Word RPG contest, and a great lesson in compact design. You Will Destroy Something Beautiful asks really interesting questions for  world and character creation, can be played fairly quickly, is a blast to replay, and has the feel of a boxing match with both sides trading blows and whittling each other down.