Review: Kobold Guide to Game Design Vol. III

I was recently offered a review copy of the “Kobold Guide to Game Design Vol. III: Tools & Techniques”. I’ve been wanting a chance to dig into one of these volumes for awhile but never pulled the trigger on ordering it. I immediately wrote back and downloaded my review copy. I’m glad to say this work is definitely worth the price of admission.

The target audience for this book is primarily aspiring game designers, but most of the material is of interest to gamemasters in general. I’m more of a game design tinkerer than an aspiring game designer, but I found plenty to love in this volume. If you are the type of gamemaster who enjoys the “Design & Development” series of articles in Dragon magazine, you will love this book.

The roster of contributors reads like a who’s who list of gaming rockstars: Wolfgang Baur, Colin McComb, Rob Heinsoo, Ed Greenwood and Monte Cook. Colin McComb’s comparison between tabletop and video game design processes was very enlightening. Rob Heinsoo’s article delves into the story behind the design process of 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. I never tire of those stories.

The bulk of the articles are written by Wolfgang Baur. I think most of the insights I received from this volume were while reading his articles. Even when he isn’t trying to impart advice, he ends up shedding useful tips. I almost slapped my forehead when I read, “Yes, usually the deadline is killing me, and I’m fighting very hard to keep everything together, to fill in all the “XX” place markers and all the “TBD” or “NAME HERE” stopgaps that I used earlier as shortcuts.” I can’t count how many times I have stopped in the middle of writing an adventure to come up with perfect name for a location or NPC – and ended up derailing my creativity for the night.

In Chapter 3, there is a great quote: “If something about a design bothers you, figure out why.” Skill challenges in 4th Edition D&D have annoyed me since launch and I finally realized why. The design doesn’t reinforce the right behaviors. To my mind, the design goal of the skill challenge is to encourage creativity and roleplaying. The problem is that the mechanics fail to foster that behavior. Players tend to use the skills with the highest bonuses ad infinitum, hobbling creativity. Well, that’s not exactly true. My wizard is pretty creative trying to come up with reasons he can use his Arcana skill in every situation, but again I don’t think this is the desired behavior. Also, when there is an opportunity to speak with an NPC, I’ve noticed players are more likely to ask to roll a diplomacy check than to strike up a conversation.

Baur’s words doesn’t always hit their mark. Several times, he implores budding designers to beat the reader over head with their NPC and campaign setting descriptions. His goal is probably to draw out more flavor. I like the idea of a super-saturated style, but I don’t think it’s a one size fits all approach to game design. I’ll definitely try to apply the technique and see if it helps me come up with something for the next encounter I write.

Another problem, I had with the volume is I swear I’ve read a few of these articles before, but I don’t know where. I’ve been a subscriber or picked up issues at the game store for a couple years. I’m not sure exactly sure how many of these articles are reprints – Monte Cook’s article was definitely in KQ #12. There is no indication of which articles have been previously published. In the future, it would be great if the publisher included a list of which articles were previously published and where.

While reading the articles in this volume, I had several flashes of insight related to game design and games I have run in the past. You can’t really ask for more than that from a text devoted to game design. It was a great feeling and I ended up plowing through the entire 87 pages in a single sitting. Many times, the book was validating ideas I’ve had about game design for awhile. I highly recommended this book to amateur game designers and hardcore gamemasters alike.

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  1. Wolfgang says:

    Thanks for the review, and true, we should have listed which chapters are reprints.

    As it turns out, though, only Monte Cook’s article has appeared anywhere else. All the others are original to this collection!

  2. Ben. says:

    Two points…

    Wolfgang’s last name is spelled “Baur,” and only Monte Cook’s article is a reprint. The rest are seeing publication for the first time.


  3. metaDM says:

    I fixed the spelling. Thanks for the catch. I have a friend with the last name Bauer that I think sounds phonetically the same.