Game Design 101: Arguments Against the Power 19

So last week I clearly gave a lot of the positives of how one might use the Power 19 and hinted at some of the negatives. This week, I am going to be looking at some of the opposition to the use of the Power 19. By default, this is also a rebuttal against the the Big 3 and Alternative Big 3.

Over the years, there’ve been some serious arguments about the Power 19. Most people either love it or hate it. It is a tool, and like any tool, how useful it is depends on what you are using it for. Some people feel that most of these questions should either be asked later in game development or not at all. Others feel strongly that some of the pre-supposition stifles creativity.

Most of the questions are vague, which for some makes them more useful, but to many makes them worthless. Games that don’t intend to have reward/punishment structures, aren’t character centric or that otherwise fall far afield from the more familiar styles of design can find only a little that might potentially help them here. Some designs would have to be heavily altered just to have a hope of even trying to answer these questions. New designers might stifle themselves trying to make use of this tool.

Let’s dig into a breakdown of the components, one question at a time.


The Power 19 Questions


1) What is your game about?
You might have noticed that when I answered this question in the the Big 3, I always answered with something that was at least a sentence in length. Far too many designers try to answer one or two words as if that tells you anything about what the game is really about. Much as saying Monopoly is about ‘real estate’, you gain nothing from the answer. Such brevity offers you nothing to really work with and is, in essence, a meaningless answer. Since the question doesn’t specify anything about the best way to answer, it is far to easy for designers to take the path of least resistance. This is true of old hands as well as new designers. Try to give a few sentences and this question is probably worth having around.


2) What do the characters do?
Another one that most people aren’t complaining about. It’s one of those questions that falls a little vague for some people’s tastes, but it wouldn’t take much tweaking to make it serviceable to almost any game. It might do better if we broke it down into two questions instead of one. For example: What is the role of the characters in your game? How are they at the center of your game? It is mostly a question of what the gameplay and mechanics will be centered around.


3) What do the players do?
Staying in the pattern, this is probably something no game can go without. I’d probably put this one above question 2 since you don’t have a game without having the players do something. In reality, this question is really all about the physical actions of the game. How are they interacting with one another? How are they interacting with components of the game? What is the value to this and why are they doing this for your game instead of something else? So far, we still have value to the questions being asked, but the value is improved by tightening up the series of questions quite a bit.


4) How does your setting (or lack thereof) reinforce what your game is about?
Here’s where we begin to have a stronger debate. Some people might benefit from a focus on the setting itself, but really this is just part of the question 1. Your setting and your basic premise aren’t really something you can divorce from each other. Many people feel that this question should be dropped entirely and that it adds nothing at all of any real value to your design work. Others feel that setting, while still a part of the premise, deserves special attention.


5) How does the Character Creation of your game reinforce what your game is about?
Most designers are going to say it is way too early to be worrying about the details of character creation. They will instead point you back to deepening your answer to question 1 and leave this for after you have the basics of how your game comes together before you bother here. Character Creation should likely spring from the design rather than being part of your initial conception.

For my way of thinking, this is a question that would do very well if it was pulled out and placed into a second set of questions. That second set would then be focused not on the initial design, but on ways to tighten up your design once you have gotten something basic created. It’s the sort of question that does well at asking you why your characters all have to work out their previous stock portfolio when the game is about undead overtaking the earth in a gritty post-apocalyptic setting. Winnowing away the chaff rather than a tool for building up the clay around the game’s bones.


6) What types of behaviors/styles of play does your game reward (and punish if necessary)?
Okay, well first let’s recognize that this already assumes that your game is indeed rewarding or punishing specific behaviors. Ignoring that for a moment, though, let us further consider that this is a question of mechanics. What do the mechanics of your game do to direct play in a given direction? When looked at in this light, the question is better asked in question 11. If your mechanics happen to include a reward structure, it is going to show up there anyway.


7) How are behaviors and styles of play rewarded or punished in your game?
So obviously much of what I said for question 6 still applies here. Sure, the question does matter if there is a preference for certain behaviors and styles of play. Well, that, and assuming you do indeed reward and punish actively at all. This again seems to fall into the category of questions better left for a secondary set. At the early stages of design, this is going to be somewhat vague at best and therefore, unhelpful in your larger design work.


8) How are the responsibilities of narration and credibility divided in your game?
Oh boy. The first part of this seems to center around asking who is in charge of the scenes. Is there a GM? Does that person stay the same throughout the game? Is there even really anyone leading the game at all? These are mechanics questions that are going to stem out of what the game is about and how to make play focus on what the game is about. Asking this at all may very well pre-suppose a GM structure.

As for the second part, many people can’t figure out quite what to make of ‘credibility’. What exactly does that even mean. I wish I could offer you an answer on that, but my eyes generally just glaze over when I read that part. My mind forgets it happened just moments after reading it. It feels like someone just needed a way to make the question sound smarter. Maybe it works for you, but a lot of people find it off-putting at best.


9) What does your game do to command the players’ attention, engagement, and participation? (i.e. What does the game do to make them care?)
Many people read this as “Why does your game rock?” and honestly, that is pretty much what it is asking. What makes your game awesome? Well, I suppose that is a good question later on, but when you are first working out a design, it is more likely to cause random additions that don’t help the premise at all. A game with a solid design based around the premise is going to already command the attention of those who enjoy that premise.


10) What are the resolution mechanics of your game like?
Finally, we strike on a question that is almost universally valuable to designers. What you’ll notice though is that it falls very low on the list. The questions that come before it hit on mechanics over and over. Now we address mechanics, but only after we are past the halfway mark. You might have noticed that when I did the Alternative Big 3, I had addressed mechanics right away with a focus on the mechanics that were going to be most central to what the game was going to be about.

Since this focus’ on resolution specifically, we might have been better focusing on general mechanics earlier and having this now focus on how the resolution mechanic specifically is working towards the game’s core premise. In this stage, it should still be pretty simplistic. You won’t be refining and expanding it until after the initial design questions are all resolved. This broad question is pretty open-ended and might have some designers way too focused on resolution long before the more important aspects are in place. I’d knock this question out entirely in favor of 11.


11) How do the resolution mechanics reinforce what your game is about?
A solid question focusing in on one aspect of your early mechanics. It points you in the right direction and isn’t so open-ended that you are going to be spending hours working out details on how to answer the question. At the same time, it isn’t as tightly focused as question 6, so doesn’t create any real pre-supposition to how your game must work. After all, even “cops and robbers” has a resolution mechanic of some sort or both children end up in an unwinnable argument of who shot who.


12) Do characters in your game advance? If so, how?
Let me just shuffle this over to that set of secondary questions to be answered after we get the basic game figured out. It doesn’t really matter how a character advances until after you have a game that works in the first place. Getting locked into some specific form of character advancement does you a disservice when the time comes to make some drastic change to how a character looks on the sheet in the first place. Not at all a bad question, but not really having a place in a series of questions that are supposed to help with your initial design work.


13) How does the character advancement (or lack thereof) reinforce what your game is about?
Like I said in my last post about Power 19, this is indeed important. As with 12 however, it is better left for a later time once your initial design is worked out.


14) What sort of product or effect do you want your game to produce in or for the players?
Many people feel like the only real answer to this is that the players are having fun. Period. This absolutely belongs on that second string set of questions. Arguably it belongs on a third string of questions meant only to help polish the setting and game after all of the other design work has been resolved.


15) What areas of your game receive extra attention and color? Why?
I like this question, but again as a later one rather than for early design. You don’t have a game yet or else it is still in the early stages. This question only holds value once you have something there at all. It serves two valuable purposes. First, it lets you recognize that maybe you put a little too much focus into something that isn’t at all important to the central aspect of the game. Second, it draws your attention to areas where you may need to expand further than you already have. There’s a lot of value there, but not on an initial design.


16) Which part of your game are you most excited about or interested in? Why?
All of it? Some aspect of it that drives you down the painful path of birthing a game? I and a lot of others don’t really feel like this question holds value to almost anyone. Maybe some person who was wavering on doing this without really knowing why they wanted to could gain something here. Most of us already know what we like about our idea or we wouldn’t even be bothering. If you drop this question entirely, I doubt you’ll even notice it missing as long as you adjust the numbers of the list. Where this question would hold value is if you needed to explain to someone why you are doing this particular game instead of working on another one.


17) Where does your game take the players that other games can’t, don’t, or won’t?
Um… something? This question only has value to someone trying to make a game solely to do something unique. Most designers do enjoy creating a unique game, but that springs from how we go about dealing with all the other questions. Making it a question unto itself assumes that A) you know how it is going to end up looking and B) you are actively driving to be unique for the sake of being unique and everything else is secondary. Absolutely a third string question for when all of the major work has been done and you are now just looking to polish the game into something more marketable.


18) What are your publishing goals for your game?
Here I will deviate heavily from some of the other critics of the Power 19. Most of them consider this a ridiculous question. Your goal is to make a game and once you have a game, then worry about publishing it. I feel this has some slight value because, as I said in my last post, you are going to design a free PDF somewhat differently than a hardback for cash. That said, I’d move it into phase two or three of the questions you are asking yourself. At this stage, everything should be planning and jotting on scrap paper. You won’t need this question until you begin laying it out into a PDF. If you think it is going to matter, just decide if it is going to be for you or others and if it is going to be for sale or free. That’s all you need for now.


19) Who is your target audience?
Opponents will often say ‘you’ are the target audience. That said, you are a unique being who isn’t limited to just one category. The game has to be a one you love, but it will still have a general audience you need to focus on. I waver on how valuable this question is. In the most recent Game Chef, this question was an absolute must on your game design.

I think it can help keep you focused on how you answer the other questions, but if that is true, it should be far earlier in the list of questions. Knowing that your target audience are all in the first grade may mean you aren’t making your mechanics overly complicated and mathematical. Knowing that your target audience is familiar with certain tropes may allow you to reinforce some of those to make it more familiar and intuitive. It might also allow you to more readily play against type to create something very unique within a given style of game.



So do I agree or disagree with the use of the Power 19? Both. I see it as a tool. There is a danger in the absolute of saying something is utterly worthless or absolutely valuable. I’d never use a chainsaw to cut my steak, but when I have to fell a tree you can be darned sure I am not reaching for the steak knives. To me, the Power 19 can serve several purposes.


It may help an inexperienced designer explore some aspects of their game they may not considered. When someone is still trying to express what their game is about, it can be a way to seek validation of the idea with others who have more experience. Most of all, it seems geared towards those who are at the mid-level stage of the design process. That is to say if you already have your initial design ideas and some basic thoughts of how mechanics will work, dragging your design through this could have value to you.


Very innovative and unusual designs seem to have the least to gain in the Power 19 while traditional games and heartbreakers seem to fall neatly into it without much effort. In the end, it is up to you to decide if you find any of the methods for designing and refining games to be valuable. You have a choice about what tool you are going to use. If it works for you, great. If it doesn’t work for you, then no worries. Either way is fine.


I’d love to hear your thoughts. So what sort of questions do you think should be added or removed? Do you agree with my overall assessment of the system? Let me know your thoughts below.

What are your thoughts?

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