COG Game Design Guidelines

Today we’re sharing one of our internal design guideline docs with the COG/HG forum community. This is the doc we send to potential authors to use as a guide to outlining a game for us. The focus is on mechanics like stats, branching, choices, and what we call end-states, i.e., the various ways the game ends. At the outline stage we ask authors to keep chapter summaries very short–an outline is not a blow-by-blow account of the game, it shows us the game’s overall shape and design.

We’d like to share this document with you and hear what you think. Does it match your experience playing our titles? If you’re a Hosted Games author or have a WIP here on the forum, do you find this interesting or useful? Our design guidelines may go against your experience writing–we want to hear about that, too.

If you’re a COG author, this doc may look a little different from what you’ve seen in the past, as we’ve revised it recently. Take a look at it now and share your thoughts.


Guess I’ll bite the bullet then :sweat_smile:

Yes, it does. There are very few official titles that seem to deviate from these guidelines. (Haven’t played all of them though.)

This was an interesting read, and it feels like it helped me get a better idea of what you’re looking for in a game, which is nice to know. On the flip side it also made it pretty clear to me that I will probably never try to write a game for COG’s main label. I don’t think my stories could reach their full potential when having to conform to this many restrictions.

Now for the more generic remarks on these guidelines.

Warning: Nuance isn’t one of my strong suits when it comes to some of the issues mentioned below. This counts especially for the remark regarding inclusivity.

My thoughts on the COG Game Design Guidelines

  • I do not like all the demands for what stats you absolutely need to have. While for me it would work as a guideline in its current form it feels to me like it forces people to adopt the exact same game mechanics for every game they (and others like them) write. (Short summary: I’d like to see some more variation in game mechanics. If you always follow the exact same pattern for making a game it will get repetitive after a while, regardless of the actual content of the games.)

  • Note for the Inclusivity part: Orientation =/= sexuality. This may sound a bit weird to people who haven’t been exposed to this concept before, but one of the things that has bothered me in pretty much all games of the COG label this far is that it in pretty much all cases seems to be assumed that orientation = sexuality. In most cases showing interest in a character will lead to the MC having sex with that character, very often without the player ever making a conscious choice to do so. This annoys me a lot because it does not take into account asexual people who do experience romantic attraction, and in this way often makes it impossible for asexuals to pursue a romance in these games. (To the point where it feels like it is assumed that asexual people/characters will simply never choose to pursue a romance.) I guess that if desirable this might need a special mention somewhere.

  • I do not mind binary choices in games, unless they force me to choose between two extremes in some sort of ideology. For example, if you have to choose between black and white I’d want to have at least one gray option too. For everything else only having two options doesn’t bother me in the slightest.


We also strongly encourage authors to think outside traditional binaries of gender and orientation: ie, to include the option for the PC to be bisexual, asexual, genderqueer, transgender, etc.

People get confused enough about the difference between orientation and gender, so I’d suggest switching around the order so you have the orientation options listed first.

We also strongly encourage authors to think outside traditional binaries of orientation and gender: ie, to include the option for the PC to be bisexual, asexual, genderqueer, transgender etc.

There’s also something else feeling slightly off about the phrasing but I’m not quite sure if I can put my finger on it. I think it’s the suggestion that transgender people are always outside the binary of gender, when most aren’t, and they identify as male or female. I think I’d suggest switching the word binaries to something else.


Interesting. I think the variety of authors we work with creates a good deal of variety in the game mechanics they create. I’m thinking primarily of secondary goal stats here. If your secondary stats are just: wealth, reputation, and like . . . rank or # of kills or something, you don’t get a very dynamic set of end-states. I find getting more creative secondary stats governing gameplay is often a place where I need authors to think hard about the story they want to tell and what’s at stake in it.

It’s more the way it feels to me than anything else, to be honest. It might just be that I’m so used to seeing the variety of approaches of game mechanics in WiP’s and Hosted games that in the ‘official’ games the mechanics just feel repetitive in comparison. (And I’m not a huge fan of skills and skill checks in general.)

Now that you mention the various end-states, I had something to say about that as well, but forgot to do so :sweat_smile:

  • I like it when there are multiple different ways to reach a particular ending, in which you might or might not have done some things that aren’t necessities to reach those endings. What I do dislike is if because of the focus on this topic the ‘epilogue’ of a game reads as a list of things you have or have not achieved during the game. I was there, you know, and my short term memory isn’t that bad. The only things I would like to be acknowledged at the end of the game are decisions that actually altered the course of the story, not if I for example decided to eat a cheese sandwich for breakfast rather than waffles, and romances, preferably even if they did not last to the end of the game for whatever reason.

I didnt see anything about Fairmath, is there a CoG preference one way or another about its use?

I feel like a lot of where I see games struggle with balance is that by end game, faithmath makes going above about 80% wonky, and like with the Heroes Rise series I could swing my stats hugely if I was in the middle. (Which while run to produce rediculous combinations ruined the narrative)

I know this isnt meant to be a “how to code your game” sheet, but, I feel like it would be worth addressing that the way in which you set up your stat balance is important for internal plot consistency.


You’re right that this doesn’t refer to FairMath. That is a coding issue, which comes after the pitch/outline is approved.

That said, I am curious about your concerns. What stats are you referring to in particular?


In the last HeroesRise book I had played as teamplayer focused character the first two books, was able to drop down to like 10% and favor solo but I still had all the allies because along the way to dropping my stat that low they still liked me.

It lead to this weird inconsitancy where although I didnt want anybody to help me, the whole team was still there.

There was also an inconsitancy where I dropped my lawfullness stat low enough to kill Victon but the epilogue praised my commitment to the law.

Another example is in Mecha Ace, if you split the middle on some of the stats you can get inconstant reactions from Hawkins.

Well, w/r/t Heroes Rise, that’s not a problem with FairMath. It is an example of why I don’t like solo vs teamplayer stats in games. Though, admittedly, it did work better in Prodigy and Hero Project; Herofall, on the other hand, was an ensemble piece whether you liked it or not.

I can’t speak to Mecha Ace. Sounds more like continuity bugs that could be worked out.

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Well, I have been wanting to make a first post for some time now and this seems like a good place. (Gather courage)

The guide lines generally does match my experience with playing expect for one area. I do think that cogs many times fall into the keep choosing the same stat. In my experience if you don’t you get punished in the end, because you don’t have a stat high enough to win at the end. Likewise fairmath and opposed pairs sometimes cause me to be afraid of choosing differently because you really get punished for choosing against you stat even if the situation call for it.

The other is the hate for passivity or opting out/asking the npc. I think that more often than not rpgs (and cogs too) forget how satisfied it can be to choose (and it is still a choice) to not do something. Either because it the PC is played as not caring about this particular conflict or because they really do not want to help.
Example. In dragon age Inqusition there was the character called Vivienne and boy did she and my dalish elf not get along, but through some kind of weird instance Vivienne actually ended respecting my little elf enough that she offered up her personal quest.
Now her quest was designed so that you could aid/sabotage her, but there also was an option to simply decline doing the quest. Of course it meant that I got less content, but it was so satisfying to simply go. “Nope, not my problem”. Towards this woman who my dalish really did not like. - Don’t underestimate a good opt out, is all I am saying.

As for the NPC. While I whole heartly agree that NPC should never automatically take a shot at something the PC should have the option of doing, we should be able to ask them if we know they have the skill ( or stats) that our PC don’t. Espically if we are suppossed to be friends/or a team. Not having the option of doing so make the NPCs seems like jerks that do not care about the PC or (depending on the stakes of the game) the whole damn world. I really do not understand the whole. Let’s not have the choice of asking the NPC to do stuff.


This is a great document and I wish I had access to it earlier!

I think it’s pretty accurate and it matches my experiences playing COG/HG titles. There are, however, some games I’ve played where those common problems are really apparent.

@DreamingGames - I assume they mean that the choice should be ‘Ask Friendly NPC to Do Something’ with a chance of it being successful or failing based on previous decisions (for example, if Friendly NPC likes you/has been trained in the right way of Doing Something) and not a flat out ‘no’ on delegating tasks. The player is the star of the show, in that sense, and they can lead or delegate but they shouldn’t be overshadowed.

@Rhodeworks, Honestly, I think so too. But I think a weakness of the general cogs games (as oppossed to hosted games) often are the NPCs. I don’t know why, but they often come off as having less content and thus less time to be fleshed out than in hosted games and so I thought it worth mentioning.

Actually, there’s one thing that I’m surprised not to see here because I think it can be a huge flaw in interactive fiction.

Essentially, it’s that choices don’t just change what the player does, they change facts about the gameworld - usually to make the player always wrong or always correct. It’s like a combo of Gotcha! and No Way Out but all the more galling because it nukes my suspension of disbelief in the process.

For example, there’s a starving bandit on the road. If you choose to help him, he gives you five gold and tells you his name is Jeremy Irontooth. If you don’t, it turns out that he was really the evil Necromancer Grimskull Murderfeet and now he’s out to get you because you wouldn’t give him a loaf of bread! Okay, so you go back and kill him on your second run through, but he’s just ol’ Jeremy again and he has a photo of his wife and kids and pumpkin patch in his wallet and now Grimskull Murderfeet calls you a monster.

Another flaw that I felt was so bad as to be structural in a certain COG release was questions that asked me how I felt in the aftermath of events as opposed what I wanted to do now that something had happened. It was robbing me of agency while pretending like I had it by offering me choices.

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I don’t agree that this is always a flaw. It doesn’t automatically nuke my suspension of disbelief, because I see the IF reader’s role as inherently co-authorial. It’s relatively rare for IF to only offer choices that are limited to ones a character in the world would face. More typically, you choose your identity and emotional response in ways no one gets to do in life; and the reader is often given choices that (in order to give a certain shape to the character’s history) define other NPCs and characteristics of the gameworld too.

The example you give would be terrible IMO because it’s there to serve a cheap “gotcha” moment, not because it changes a fact about the world.

A purist IF that does only give you the choices you would face as a character is a worthy project, and I’ve got no objection to it; but it shouldn’t be held up as the only legitimate way to write an IF, Dogme style.


Remember, they are guidelines not hard and fast rules.

I was really glad to see that the design document does mention they strongly encourage people to consider allowing the PC to be asexual. It’s also something that can be brought up during beta-testing, since a lot of authors probably don’t even think about it, or realise how important that sort of inclusivity can be, or. even be quite certain how to implement it.

What I loved about Choice of the Dragon was how different the stats were. They were simple, interesting, and not the standard RPG stats. They reflected personality as well as the physical.

I’ll admit I find things like ‘strength’ as frightfully dull stat-wise and this is my frowny face :frowning2: at the idea that strength’s considered a good stat to have.

That’s something I dislike as well. I’d rather be engrossed in the story, picking the choices that feel realistic for my character, as opposed to worrying that I always have to pick the choice reflected by the same stat because otherwise I’ll fail to get a decent ending.

Sometimes I’ll want to do something that goes against previous choices because it’s dramatically appropriate, but I feel like we’re often discouraged from that.


This is very helpful. Thank you.

The more information you make available to us the more we can anticipate and prepare.

May I suggest useful documents like these be hosted in a single space on the website or listed on a single thread. (Much as I respect the forum search function, I find centralising this kind of information is a boon for people doing their research)


I was just saying this in a WIP thread… If you’ve got to keep “clicking your best stat” to win, it’s not really the player’s choice, so much as it is a test set by the author. And that’s not fun.


This. The guideline - “There should never be an option for the PC to do nothing, or to ask an NPC to make the decision instead.” - is something I also have to count as a serious limitation on creativity, both in terms of story-telling and the player’s freedom of choice. That guideline really needs a comma and a qualifying unless… on the end.

@DreamingGames provides an excellent example of a particular situation in which being able to choose to do absolutely nothing was extremely satisfying to that protagonist. In other cases the player may simply feel that none of the other options on offer suit the character they are playing, so instead resulting in feeling railroaded into doing something they really don’t want to do or get involved in (a big enough problem as it is in these games, let’s be honest).

While I do appreciate the reasoning behind this particular guideline (that doing nothing is simply “not as much fun”) - and I don’t doubt it came about and was included for a very good reason - I do believe it should be able to stress the point it’s trying to make while also acknowledging that there may be perfectly valid exceptions. Maybe it’s the word never in there, denying as it does any such possibility.


A lot of it comes down to philosophy of game design, I think. Whenever I write a situation where I think a player would want to opt-out of - because it’s morally difficult, involves something murky, or the player might not think it is there responsibility - I’d always give a ‘no thanks’ option. And there’s been a lot of games where I’ve wanted to ability to say no to certain situations in games I’ve played.

However, there’s a difference between a considered yes/no option and phrasing options in a yes/no format (and then adding a ‘but thou must’ if they pick no). My personal opinion is that without a choice to say no then the meaning behind the player’s ability to say yes is severely curtailed. If I can’t say no, then I don’t care if I get half a dozen yes options.

After all, whenever you’re examining moral philosophy (which, really, a lot of IF games do), the choice to choose to do nothing is an important one. Take the famous trolley problem - you can switch the lever either way, or you can choose to do nothing. But choosing to do nothing doesn’t absolve the player or their avatar of the responsibility that they eschewed - so, saying ‘no’ can lead to a lot of interesting consequences.


Yes, very helpful! I have been growing curious about this, so your post is timely. There is certainly a lot of useful information packed in there! I appreciate the gesture of sharing this with the community.

And I can see the uniformity in the standards, but also how some authors have played with the boundaries in their own ways.