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Making a Game in 200 Words



I recently submitted an entry to the 200 Word RPG Challenge organized by David Schirduan and Marshall Miller. The concept is simple, yet challenging. Design a full role-playing game in under 200 words.

This kind of challenge really tickles me as a game designer since it really makes you take a step back and think about EXACTLY what you need to make a game. There’s no room for anything frivolous. Here’s my list of what I ‘needed’ to make an RPG.

  1. A mechanic that doesn’t eat too many of my 200 words

  2. A setting that the players explore

  3. Michael’s Secret Stuff (or, more accurately, a hook to make my idea stand out)

Here’s what I submitted, titled ‘Minutes to Midnight’. My goal was to create a game where a feeling of mistrust plagued the players who still needed to begrudgingly work together. I doubled down on the tension by adding a ‘time limit’ and a haunted house/spooky dungeon theme.

You awake to the sound of a scream. Was it your own? It's dark, but slowly your eyes adjust. You and your friends are in a dark basement. A thick wooden door lies before you. You find a rusty key. You'll need their help. Work together to escape before the clock strikes midnight.

One person is the DM. Get a deck of playing cards and take out one joker. Shuffle it into the top X cards where X is the number of players. Deal each player 3 cards. Players holding jokers are corrupted.

DM picks a player to face each obstacle.

At each obstacle:

-           Everyone draws one card (Time ticks on)

-           Player announces method to tackle obstacle

-           DM announces difficulty

-           Player selected asks for help (But who can you trust?)

-           Player and helpers discard any number of cards (Jokers can't be discarded)

-           Add the value of all cards discarded vs difficulty (Face cards count 10)

o        Success: Player and Helpers draw a card

o        Failure: Discard cards from deck by amount of loss

-           Helpers exchange one random card with player (Corruption spreads)

If the deck runs out, the clock strikes midnight and all players lose. Only non-corrupted players who escape win.

I’m happy with how it turned out as a whole, but let’s review how I fared in hitting each of my design requirements.


1. A Mechanic That Doesn’t Eat Up Too Many of My 200 Words

I used 145/200 of my words on my mechanics. Numbers-wise, not great. On the other hand, it’s less than 200 which is a plus. I was able to save a bunch of space by relying on player’s existing knowledge of RPGs and Playing Cards. Here’s some things I didn’t spend space on.

One thing I lean into is the understanding that rpg’s are dictated by a dungeon master (or DM) coming up with obstacles that the player must overcome. I don’t explicitly define the DM role. I think it’s ok for this particular contest, but wouldn’t do it if I had the space to be a little more technical.

Using a standard deck of cards means i don’t have to define how many of each card there is or what types players can expect to see. Players will already know that there should be a total of 2 jokers in the entire deck and what they can expect to draw on their turn. An extra bonus is that it’s something players would have readily available to them if they wanted to play.

So what did I use up space on?

I added a lot of words to make sure one player started as corrupted by shuffling the joker on the top of the deck. I went back and forth on including this, but I think it’s important to show the mistrust early and I worried that an early failure may discard both jokers from the deck and no one would be corrupted over the course of the whole game.

The core of the game is putting pressure on the players with the amount of cards they have, and pushing them to need to work together. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get playtesting in before the contest deadline, but my goal is that the players would continuously have a fairly low amount of cards in hand to encourage partnering but still draw enough cards to put a time pressure on escaping before the deck runs out.

I had a few rules drafts that ‘technically’ worked but were difficult to understand so I expanded out the turn order a bit to make sure people could play it. There were 2 or 3 less items listed in ‘at each obstacle’ on my first few drafts. I think using space to ensure clarity was worth it.


2. A Setting That the Players Explore

I chose to do a haunted house setting primarily because it helped reinforce my goal of creating tension. There are a lot of other scary/spooky settings, but I wanted to go with something that was fairly trope-heavy so that the DM has familiar ground to work with.

What did I not spend space on?

Describing the Genre. I don’t need to tell the players that dark basements and screaming are part of a spooky area. I’m able to use that space instead to do a bit more of a narrative to try to get the players to FEEL the setting rather than just read about it. Leaving out specific details also opens up the DM to build their world a bit more freely.

So what did I use space on?

I felt a few of the ways I was trying to use my mechanics to reinforce my theme were a little loose or a bit subtle to see on a first read. Next to my bulleted steps you can see tie-ins for theme purposes like “Corruption Spreads” which highlights that if you work with a corrupted player, you might end up being the corrupted one. I added “the clock strikes midnight” to the loss condition of the deck running out to emphasize that the deck represents time passing.

The introduction. The first 50ish words have absolutely no rules meaning. But, I think it’s important to include it so that it draws the reader in and sets the stage for what the players are doing and what kind of experience they can expect. I imagine the rules choices I made may look quite bizarre without the intro reinforcing them.


3. Michael’s Secret Stuff (or, More Accurately, a Hook to Make My Idea Stand Out)

The Monstars may win this Space Jam, I felt this is where my design ended up being weakest. Some previous winners of this contest really stood out with novel concepts like using burning matches or melting ice as part of their games. Mine admittedly treads some familiar ground with cards and that makes it a tougher pitch.

That doesn’t mean I can’t sell my idea though. The success of my game will lie on how well I’m able to express my theme and how the mechanics make it something powerful. Quality over novelty is my byline here.