I’ve been using a simple technique for game development lately that has paid off extremely well: scaffolding. Now I’m certain this is not novel and that someone smarter than me has already elaborated it in a more beautiful blog under a more euphonic name. Perhaps even in a book. But since you’re reading this now and I’m writing it now (whenever now is in this context) here’s my personal (re)discovery.

A rough sketch of a spaceship somehow evokes “scaffolding”. It doesn’t really but it’s a cool spaceship.

The idea is simple and predicated on two things that may or may not be true for you. They are true for me:

  • a piece of a game can be tested without the presence of the whole game
  • setting elements can be tested without any particular system

Now this isn’t an article that will claim that there is no such thing as an integrated system (where all pieces work together to create the experiences) and nor is it going to claim that setting and system are separate. Far from it. But I do think that you can reveal information about little bits in isolation from each other. Valuable information. The whole is necessary to create the final experience, but the bits can be tested individually and discarded early if they suck.

So I build scaffold games. These exist only ephemerally, and only to test something. I might take one and build it into a real game. I might not. But the principle is:


That is, game elements that haven’t got to the table haven’t been tested. You have to play. But how do you play when you have no game? Invent enough game.

So, for example, let’s say you have a cool piece of a setting idea. Giants with villages for heads. What happens when you encounter one? What do they want? How do they impact the rest of the world? You can invent this and hope it works. Or you can test it. The advantage to testing it is that not only does it get tested, but it also tends to get elaborated in play. Often in ways you would not have anticipated.

So go to the table with the setting idea, set up a scene, and just roll a d6 for resolution as called for. That’s your scaffold: that d6. It’s not your system, it’s just there to make the other element testable.

Conversely, let’s say you have a rough idea for a resolution method and no particular setting or them. Invent the barest, stupidest, most obvious setting and drop some players in the middle of it with only the new system (incomplete as it is; wing the missing bits) and drive the system around.

So go to the table with the system idea, set up an arbitrary scene, and get going. Hit the ground running. That stupid, obvious setting is your scaffold.

These events are scaffold games. They aren’t your finished product. They might not even turn out to be part of your finished product. But they let you talk about your development in terms of play rather than hypotheticals. It’s one thing to say (and believe) that this mechanism causes this, this, and this other kind of tension. It’s much more valuable to say it actually happened at the table. Or didn’t.

And you know what else you can avoid? Calculating odds. Deciding what odds you want and then contriving dice to make that happen has a missing premise that you should expose: the assumption that those odds are fun. Play will tell you whether the dice are fun without requiring that you do the math (or more likely fire up AnyDice). You can always come back to the math. But if it’s fun then you don’t really care.

So is that obvious? It wasn’t for me. Build a minimum game that plays to test the bit you need to test.

Digging’s hard work. But you gotta dig.

One side effect is that a scaffold can sometimes become a load-bearing structure. This is what happened with the Soft Horizon system and what will soon be Sand Dogs: the desert-dwelling dieselpunks were just a dumb idea to let me quickly test the core system. And I kind of got into it. Did some drawing. Liked the characters, as distinct from just their representation. So I kind of got a second game for free just by building the envelope around the scaffold.

And of course there’s something buried in here: I don’t really want to talk about design unless we can frame it in terms of play. This isn’t news. But it’s not a principle that’s used enough any more. The first response to “what do you think of my dice game; are the probabilities right?” should be, “well how does it play?”

Play your damned games.