I'm a passionate gamer living in North London and since my pre-teens I've been fascinated by roleplaying games. Not just the getting together with friends to roll dice and consume snacks whilst playing makebelieve, but how games are constructed. The world building. The narrative structures. The mechanics of risk and choice and consensus.

Systems are a bit of an addiction for me and my professional life revolves around programming, systems analysis and architectural design. It's been a good career that's allowed me to travel, to solve some fascinating and inscrutable problems, and support my passion for games. Having developed some deep analytical skills I now want to turn them squarely on the games I love and try to compile a handbook of game design using popular commercial game systems as examples.

The handbook is called Games With Brains, a name I coined in 1998 with the intention of starting a games company only to get sucked into two decades of consultancy and tech research.

The genesis of this idea lies in the introduction of the Open Game License in 2000. Before that date game systems tended to be tied to individual manufacturers and there were few systems where the core mechanics were explicitly open for reuse or modification. Since then the System Reference Document has become a staple of many role-playing games and a whole industry has developed remixing and modifying these core designs to capture the Old School feel many of us remember from our teens.

Another major change in role-playing has been the widespread adoption of PDF publishing as a way of distributing games and supplements. It's now possible to compile an enormous library of games in this searchable format, many times the number of physical books and box sets even the most dedicated gamer can find space to store. This makes it practical to study a wide range of game systems, and it makes it practical for any gamer with an idea about a new mechanic or a new play style to publish it to a global audience.

Like any experienced analyst I like to study a problem domain in depth before I start writing about it so since 2013 I've been compiling a sizeable collection of RPG materials, exploring the many different approaches to game design they embody.

Aside from understanding game mechanics I also needed to get comfortable with writing and find a platform for publishing. If you're interested in programming you can check out my other book A Go Developer's Notebook which teaches the Go programming language and is based in a decade of indepth experimentation. Like that the intention of Games With Brains is to provide a single living book, updated with new content as I develop it.

A living book is a digital book designed to never be obsolete and to only have a single edition. As a reader you buy a single copy and benefit from all future updates it receives. A Go Developer's Notebook also exists as a single volume but I see Games With Brains as the first in a series of volumes, the core rulebook covering principles and the most popular system designs whilst additional volumes will explore particular topics in greater depth.

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I'm a dedicated player of Battlemaster, a free browser game which has kept me entertained since Christmas 2007 as The Dubhaine Family.

Its successor Might & Fealty is an open world sandbox game which was briefly commercial and is now maintained by a team of dedicated fans.

The rest of my computer gaming is split across Steam and iOS. A special mention goes to Warhammer Quest which is the prefect way to kill twenty minutes on the move, most things published by Paradox Interactive and the entire corpus of work by the Black Isle Studios team including successors Obsidian Entertainment and Troika Games. We're particularly excited by InXile's Wasteland 2 and its planned successor..

My favourite RPGs include Traveller which was the very first game I bought a book for (The Spinward Marches when I was 9 or 10), the Tudor-era game Maelstrom, and Chaosium's Basic RPG systems Call of Cthulhu and RuneQuest.


My prefered choice of text editors are nano and TextMate. If you've never played with emacs then you owe it to yourself to give it a spin, though it's often overkill for simple editing tasks.

And if you're an iOS user you should check out Readdle Documents, Parallels Access and iSSH.

Games With Brains is written in Markua, a variety of Markdown developed by Leanpub specifically for eBook publishing. My favourite Markdown editor is Caret which works on Macs, Windows and Linux.


I mostly use Apple Macs as the build quality is excellent and MacOS X is a nice mix of UNIX foundations with user-friendly features. However as Apple still resolutely refuse to release a netbook I also have a an Intel NUC for gaming, a collection of handheld PCs from GPD, and an iPad Pro for drawing and note taking.

Eleanor McHugh t/a Game Design Analytics
1 Jubilee Crescent, London, N9 7NU