A design should spring from some role-playing experience that you want to pass on to other people. Maybe you have an idea that come from a book or a film, or maybe from some other game you have played, or it could be that you want to explore some moral dilemmas or thematic issues, or maybe you are thinking that some weird situations or interesting player interactions could create some fun play. And you think it would be interesting if other people could have this experience through your game.
This is properly why most artist create. They want to pass some experience on to the audience, so why should RPGs design be any different. Where other artists use paint or music or clay as a medium to communicate this experience, the RPG designers uses a very special medium that is somewhat unlike the ones used in other art forms, and that is rules. The reason why this is a special medium is, that it is not the rules in themselves that give the experience, but what the audience (the GM and/or players that play the game) create by following these rules.
Just to prevent a lot of disagreement, here will be a good place to define what I mean by "rules". Rules are the written instructions in the system. They can be hard mechanical rules, like when a die roll is successful and when it fail, or they can be procedures for what you do when, or just guidelines and recommendations to the GM and the players.
The process of trying to form the rules to communicate the proper experience, can be very hard. The reason for that is that the medium - the rules - are very indirect. The job of the rules is to motivate interactions between the GM and players, that will create the imaginary gaming space where the experience will take place, and sometimes it may even be the actual interactions themselves that create the desired effect, by focusing in on the social level of the game. Lot of this can be very hard to predict, so when you sit down and try to mould the rules, you always have to go back to actual play and ask yourself what happen when you apply these techniques to a game. In many cases you have to play-test the game to find out what interactions the rules provokes.
So what to do then? You are properly reading this because you are interested in actually designing a RPG, so how should you proceed. I split this into two steps:
- Make very clear what role-playing experience you want to communicate, and then split it into easy manageable parts. You can think about it like: What concepts do you want to be strongly present in your game.
- Then find the rules that will give you this experience, and be careful to get all the rules necessary, and then no more. You can think about it like: Find what gaming techniques that will support the concepts in your game.
These two steps are not necessarily easy, but they are really not too hard either. I will not go into too much detail now - I will leave that to future articles. Here I will just mention some of the most common pitfalls in this process.
The reason why it can be hard to find the core of what you want to communicate, is that most people design games out of frustrations. They will talk about what they do not want in the game, and things they want to fix that other games do wrong. This is a read flag. If you do this, and follow it to its conclusion, you will properly end up with a game that look a lot like the game you try to fix, just with a few differers here and there. What you should do, is thinking in terms of what you do want to have in your game. Ask yourself what you game is about, instead of what your game is not about.
Another thing with frustrations is that they make people blind, so they can not see what really bugs them. For example a frustration like: "XPs leads to power gaming, because all the players will only think about killing monsters so they can get more XPs. Therefore I don't what XPs in my game." This properly come from a GM who wants to run a political game with a lot of social interactions, and then see his game go down in flames because the players resolve all problems with combat. This is properly due to two things in the game: The rules motivate killing, because it is where you get your XPs, and there is only rules in the game to handle physical conflict, not social interactions. So obvious the players are motivated by the rules to go the killing course. The solution for this is not removing XP, but instead give XPs for engaging in political intrigues, and handing tools to the players that enable them to make social interactions. But because the GM have put his frustrations on the XPs, he is not able to see the real issue.
A lot of people begin to fiddle with systems because they think that they can do it better. Maybe the combat system can be made more realistic? Or maybe the skill system can be made to better reflect how humans learn? Related to this is is the fascinations of systems, where the designer use a long time to play around with some weird detail just out of interest. Mostly these people use years to work on the game, but it will never quite get there.
The common problem here is that the designer do not focus on the role-playing experience. They are blinded by problems and frustrations that have very little to do with what actually makes the game. Of course these things can be a great motivator to get into RPG design, which is good, but they should only be the starting point. When you have encounter something in a RPG you want to change, you should immediately go down to the root of the problem and say: What is it in this role-playing experience that is a problem for me, and what experience is it I really want to have.
The second step is the process of forming the rules. Again, here it is possible to be blinded, especially by habitual thinking.
First, you should never think that a RPG should have certain element to be able to function. Things like certain stats or attributes, or even a combat system, are not necessary at all. Do not be fooled by what most other games do - you are not designing other games, you are designing your game. So you should not take anything for granted, but try to seek into what your game need.
Be very aware of what the different elements of a RPG do. Do not include or exclude some rules before you know what they do and what you can make them do. For example, instead of thinking about XP as something you get when you kill monsters, you should look at it as the more general idea of a reward mechanic, that gives feedback from the system which motivate or discourage certain behaviours. Does this sound weird and abstract? Well, it is really not that hard, but I will save the longer explanation for future articles.
Another problem is to know the difference of written and unwritten rules. Unwritten rules are interactions the gaming group do, when they play a RPG, that are not written in the rulebook. Mostly the unwritten rules are used without anyone are thinking to much about it; it is just how we always play! But if you design a game it is important that you can keep the written and unwritten rules separated. You can not take anything for granted and believe that all other people surely play RPG the same way as you do. This is simply not so, a lot of behaviour at the table is properly unique for your group.
The thing you should be aware of is that there can be a lot of interaction at the table, that the game depend on, which may not be in the rules. Some of the rules that makes the great role-playing experience in your game could be the unwritten rules, and these rules will not be transferred onto another group, and therefore no one, other than your group, will get the same experience. So if it is some of your unwritten rules that make the game great then make sure to actually make them into written rules.
- Try to find into the core of the experience you want without being sidetracked by frustrations and wrong ambitions.
- Be aware of what different rules and gaming techniques do, so you can pick the right ones for your game.
In this article I have talked a lot about what not to do, and normally I try not to do that, because I think it is much more productive to talk about what you should do. But I just want to give some warning if you are heading in the wrong direction.
I'll promise that my next article will be more productive by going into the technique and methods of actually doing RPG design.