Rodney Thompson has been designing games professionally for over 15 years. He has worked on some of the industry’s most significant properties, including Star Wars, Dungeons & Dragons, Lords of Waterdeep, Tyrants of the Underdark, and Dark Sun. He’s currently a designer for the Destiny franchise at Bungie and develops his personal projects at Scratchpad Publishing. This episode has a detailed deep dive into building worker placement games and roleplaying games. If you love these games, you’ll love this episode.
“A lot of the digital play spaces like Tabletop simulator or Tabletopia, that allow you to load in your own assets and everything, I have actually found that prototyping, for me, goes faster.” (4:00)
We start by talking about game design during the pandemic. Tools like Tabletop Simulator have allowed us to iterate more quickly and share the game with larger numbers of people, allowing us to get more regular feedback.
“Looking across other big milestones in my career, almost all of them have been cases where I was like, ‘I’m just gonna do this thing.'” (19:00)
Here we talk about Rodney’s past, starting at Wizards of the Coast. He talks about how making connections with the companies and designers he was passionate about allowed him to step into the industry. He talks about how Lords of Waterdeep was a passion project, designed on the side out of a passion for the concept.
“The key tension you want to craft with a worker placement game[…]is you want the player to feel a tension between the missed opportunities, or competition over opportunities versus also feeling like you have plenty of real choices.” (27:00)
Lords of Waterdeep is one of my all-time favorite worker placement games, so I wanted to dig into what Rodney’s choices and what lessons he learned when designing this game. Fun fact: Another name for a worker placement game is an action drafting game!
“It was one of those games that sort of came out of, ‘I want to do x, and someone else wants to do y.” (58:00)
As someone who’s been building deck-building games for over a decade, Tyrants of the Underdark is a really impressive game with some exciting design concepts built into it. Here Rodney talks about the experience of creating this game and some of the difficulties in development. I point out a few of my favorite mechanics in the game, particularly putting a positive spin on banishing cards from your deck.
“I’m really focused on getting to the expected experience quickly. Getting to the point where players are experiencing the genre that you’re aiming at without a lot of start time or set-up.”
“The story of a roleplaying game isn’t what’s in the book or what’s in your character sheet. It’s what happens at the table.” (1:07:00)
Rodney has worked with the biggest roleplaying games in the world. Here we discuss Rodney’s approach to building, designing, and expanding roleplaying games. Rodney discusses how his beliefs have changed in his long career with RPGs. This section is full of incredible lessons about developing a variety of different roleplaying game styles.
“The thing I lacked was the experience of failure.” (1:17:00)
Finally, we discuss his transition from tabletop games to video games with Bungee’s Destiny franchise. Rodney talks about how it was intimidating, but many of his tabletop instincts and experiences carried over. One of the early issues was not having experience failing in this medium. He says there were many mistakes made and corrected by others who’ve been in the industry longer.
Rodney shares lessons about working with big teams of people on massive AAA games and how they are iterated and tested. One of my favorite lessons is when Rodney talks about how these games are built on paper first, just like any other game, before they’re brought into a digital place.