As a newbie game designer, I follow others new to the industry with a lot of interest, particularly those with experience in helping other’s games through playtesting, editing, or general fearlessness in play. So when I saw Kristin Firth, designer of Propalinal People, post about this thing called Game Chef, I asked her to give us a little inside peek at how tabletop games are designed, and what the experience has been like for her. Take it away, Kristin!

Say hi, and tell everyone a little about yourself.

Hi! I’m Kristin! I’m a former computer scientist / current law student / future (*fingers crossed*) psychology PhD student.

I started roleplaying regularly in 2009, playing a game of Zombie Cinema before going to my first Gen Con and diving into Games on Demand. I’ve gone to every Gen Con since and in the last couple of years have taken on a role as one of the organizers of Games on Demand. I’ve also started going to other conventions, like the Double Exposure cons in Morristown (like Metatopia).

Before I started playing roleplaying games I had been involved with improv theater for years, which has a lot of overlap, I think. My experience with performing, directing, and teaching improv has proven to be extremely useful as a player and GM for tabletop games. [It also led to me getting the opportunity to contribute to the Fiasco Companion in a chapter on improv and gaming.] Improv also has even more obvious overlap with Larps/Freeform games, especially with warmups and other facilitation tools.

Most recently, as of this March, I’ve self-identified as a game designer, which I’m very excited about!

Tell us about your latest game. Gimme all the deets!

It is a two-player storytelling game called Propalinal People that I developed for Game Chef 2013. The setting is a world where half of the population ages as we do, but the other half of the population ages in reverse, from older to younger. The two players start as characters who are the same age, but they end up aging in different directions. As the game progresses one character is getting older, while the other is getting younger.

I had only playtested Propalinal People once before. My friend Larry Spiel was also entering Game Chef that year and over a video hangout we did quick playtests of each other’s rough versions of our games. After that half-playtest I made a myriad of changes to the game, and submitted it to Game Chef, getting a lot of great feedback. I then didn’t look at it again until I was with friends in Boulder and one of them, John LeBoeuf-Little, insisted on playing it with me. I kind of begrudgingly agreed, because I wasn’t sure what state it was in or how it would work without more changes, but we created an intriguing world and created an amazing story together. I think what I posted on Google+ right afterwards summarizes my thoughts about it well: “It went really well! It was fun. It had heart punching moments, which I love. I’m happy with it! Yay!”

This experience of actually playing the full game (and having it go well) gave me the confidence to call myself a game designer. I declared it so on the same G+ post, so now it is.

Through going to conventions I now know a lot of indie gaming folks, and since my self-identification of being a game designer I’ve only received positivity from the gaming community. My friends in Boulder all signed a certificate for me “certifying” me as a game designer. I got a post card in the mail from another friend congratulating me. My G+ post calling myself a “game designer” for the first time had a large number of people +1 it, including those who have written their own very popular games. All of these things were incredibly touching, and made me feel so, so supported. I have felt completely welcomed into the game designer fold.

So what’s this Game Chef thing?

Game Chef is an annual competition to inspire the creation of brand new games. Playing of the idea of cooking competition shows, at the beginning of the competition the organizers announce a theme and a set of “ingredients” for use in designing a game. You then have about nine days to use these as inspirations to design a new game.

Once all the submissions are in every submitter gets assigned to review four other submissions (and their game in turn is reviewed by four others). Each reviewer gives positive feedback and constructive criticism to the designers of the games they review, and they recommend one of the games they reviewed to move on to the next level. A panel reviews the highest ranked games and choose the overall winners.

Although there is this competition aspect to it, the event is really more about inspiring creation and giving feedback to each other as a community. It is an amazing experience, and I hope to do it again this year.

What are the steps you take to start designing a game?

Well this is my first finished game, so I don’t have a ton of experience… The year that I developed Propalinal People, the competition had first opened up internationally and rather than words the theme and ingredients were black & white symbolic images. I was not sure if I was going to compete, but I was looking at the images and seeing what ideas they invoked. The theme image was of a person inside of an arrow pointing both up and down, which is what made me think of my setting of people aging in two directions. Once I had this spark of an idea my hesitation was gone and instantly replaced with a wave of inspiration. I didn’t know exactly what it would look like immediately, but I was in love with the idea and knew I had to make this game.

I initially wrote a lot of brainstorming rough notes. I had to stare at the ingredient pictures for awhile to eventually get ideas about how to incorporate them. The biggest hurdle was getting started for “real” on the first version of the game text instead of just thinking about ideas, but having the very short timeline helped a lot with providing motivation to do this.

What’s your next project?

I still need to finish making some final edits to Propalinal People and create an updated character sheet before releasing it as a PDF online. I would like to try to compete in the 2015 Game Chef because I find that the deadline and promise of feedback is really helpful for me.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to make their own game?

First I would say if you are thinking about it and wondering if you can do it, you definitely can.

I would also say, just like many creative endeavors, the first step is just to get something created, even if it’s not perfect. I struggle a lot with this, being stuck in my own head looking for the “right” answer to something, but if I can convince myself to start writing/doing the ideas flow more easily and everything is, of course, editable later. The setting for my game stayed the same, but my first ideas to the final version are very different.

Game Chef 2015 starts on June 13th. Will you be designing this year?