My thoughts on RPG Design
Ever wonder what thoughts go through the mind of a game designer when coming up with a new product? Wonder no more! This page contains an essay I wrote for a class project. The assignment was to make a webpage on the subject of our choice. I decided to do a page on my personal opinions on the subject of role playing game design.
Every role playing system starts as an idea. There are many ways to develop that idea, but the most important thing to keep in mind while making an RPG is design the game you want to play! I can't stress this enough. You will be spending many hours testing your system, so it is essential to come up with a system you enjoy playing. More importantly, if you get to the point where you are attending conventions to sell your product you need to be enthusiastic about it. How can you convince a prospective customer your game is enjoyable if you don't appear to believe it yourself?
Moving on to the topic of the product itself, let's talk about publishing. It is possible to do a mass printing through a professional printer, but that option can be expensive. Fortunately, there are two cost effective options available to a self publishing game designer: print on demand and online PDF sales.
From experience I can say online PDF sales is a safe bet and even the big companies do it (with a few exceptions). First, PDFs can be sold at a lower price and still make you money since there are no manufacturing costs. This makes PDFs a fairly easy sell. If you've never played a game before it's easier to justify spending $5-10 on a PDF than $20 or more on a hard copy.
Print on demand is a whole other animal. You need to worry about page margins and where the cutoff point is. Still, it is certainly easier and cheaper than binding books your self. Many PoD companies offer cover templates and marketing services. They also mail the books directly to the customer, saving you the trouble. Most PoD will give you a color cover, but when you do a full color interior the price can really go up. An online PDF on the other hand allows you to do full color without needing to raise the price.
Artwork is certainly important, but can be a bank breaker. In the old days you had to find an artist and negotiate a price. Depending on the artist a single black and white piece can cost $25 or more. Fortunately, the popularity of online PDF sales has led many artists to offer packages of royalty free stock art. The cost is low, from a few dollars for a single piece to a collection of several pictures for $10-15. Most artists will allow you to use the artwork in as many projects as you want and even make modifications. The downside is you don't get exclusive rights to the art, so you need to accept the fact that other publishers are free to use the piece as well. However, since royalty free art is fairly inexpensive its a great option for a small press company on a tight budget. I recommend Louis Porter Jr Designs and Cerberus Illustration. Both companies can be found on Drivethrurpg's website and offer a wide variety of color and black art at reasonable prices.
The first step to creating a role playing game system should be balanced between the character generation process (commonly shortened to "chargen") and game mechanics. The two are closely connected, and each must be considered when developing the other. But in any case character generation will be where many game designers start.
Chargen is important because most likely it will be the first thing a potential customer sees in your product. Players want to know what a character from the system can do. It is certainly possible a gamer might buy an rpg simply because the chargen process makes the system sound interesting. The chargen process can be broken down into several distinct sections.
1. Ability Scores
Also know as "stats," ability scores can best be described as non-learned abilities. Common ability physical ability scores include strength, endurance, and agility. Common non-physical abilities include intelligence, willpower, perception, and charisma. Most of the time these ability scores will have some sort of effect on game mechanics. For example, a character with a high agility score might be harder to hit and receive a bonus to dodge attacks.
The two most common ways to generate ability scores are random dice rolls and point distribution. Random generation involves rolling dice for each ability, such as rolling a ten sided die to generate a score of 1-10. With the point distribution method the player receives a set amount of points to generate his abilities.
Neither method is really superior to the other, but I personally prefer a combination of the two. The problem with random generation is bad rolls can make a weak character (or a challenging character, depending on your point of view). Point distribution allows more control, but can lead to min-maxing (trying to generate a character with minimum penalties, maximum bonuses) and "cookie cutter" characters. A combination method can still result in low ability scores from low rolls, but since the player has extra points he still has some flexibility.
2. Class based vs. Skill based
Now we move on to the topic of the character itself-does the character belong to a specific profession (a "character class") or does he learn whatever skills he wants?
In a class based system a character trains for a specific profession, such as a soldier, wizard, or thief. I've always felt that class based systems are best for beginners because the player doesn't have to worry about making too many choices. Everything is spelled out, so a class based system can certainly lend itself to faster character generation.
Skill based systems differ in that they offer greater flexibility. Want to be a wizard who knows how to pick locks, climb walls, and use a two handed battle axe? Just spend your points the right way and you can. That is part of the attraction of skill based systems-you can be whatever you want as long as you've got the points to do it. From my experience character generation for skill based systems tend to take longer because the player has more to consider.
Neither is really superior to the other. It all depends on preference. While I myself like the flexibility of skill based systems I personally prefer the flavor of class based systems.
3. Game balance
This step of designing a character generation system is critical when going with a class based system. There is always the temptation to make one's personal favorite character class a notch above the rest. For example, if a game designer enjoys playing wizards he might be tempted to give wizards in his system extraordinarily powerful spells that shift the odds in their favor. Another temptation is to design a "super class," or one that can do just about anything.
Both of these scenarios are bad for a game. One of the things that many players (myself included) like about role playing games is the teamwork aspect. In a way an adventuring party can be thought of as a football team. Each member of a football team trains for a different position. The quarterback needs to be able to analyze the field and make a rapid decision as to who to pass the ball to. Guards try to prevent the defense from sacking the QB. Tight ends and wide receivers try to get into a good position to receive a pass. Each member of the team needs to do what he is best at to win the game. Of course, there are times when a player might find himself in a situation he doesn't focus on (such as a defensive lineman who intercepts a pass and now needs to make a mad dash to the end zone).
Adventuring parties function in much the same way. This is one of the reasons I like class based systems. Each character has something to offer the party. Players learn to work with their own strengths and cover the weaknesses of their allies.
Achieving game balance isn't always easy. One way a game designer can balance character classes is by introducing certain drawbacks to a particular class. The more powerful abilities a class has the greater the drawbacks that should be enforced. A good example is the wizard of fantasy role playing games. In many such RPGs wizards can learn powerful spells. However, they often have severe armor and weapon restrictions and less physical stamina. This makes the average wizard vulnerable in hand to hand combat. Keep this in mind when designing character classes: a drawback should make a character class as unattractive as its abilities make it attractive.
Now we move into the rules of the game itself. As I said in the previous section a game's mechanics and chargen systems are usually developed hand in hand. When you come up with a character generation system you need to plan ahead as to how a character's ability scores influence game mechanics. For example, in many game systems a character's physical strength influences his melee and empty hand combat abilities. The rationale is that a person who is strong will be able to hit harder and faster than a weaker person. To break things down even further there are several elements to designing a system's game mechanics.
1. Rules light vs "crunchy" systems
First thing you might want to decide is how in-depth the rules of your system are going to be. Most games can be classified into one of two formats: rules light and crunchy (you could call a crunchy system "rules-heavy" if you want, but I personally like the term crunchy. I'll explain in a moment). Defining rules light and crunchy is kind of like defining art: we all agree it exists but can't always agree on how it should be defined!
First, crunchy systems can be defined as systems with rules for nearly every situation. The term comes from the two parts of an RPG as a whole: crunch and fluff. Crunch is another term for rules and things that directly influence a game session. Fluff is the stuff that is independent of the game system and has little to no effect on game play. A system's setting (also known as the game world) is an example of fluff. For example, let's say you are designing a role playing game based on the Harry Potter books. Rules used to determine which house a first year student gets sorted into, if he successfully brews a potion, or if he resists an enemy's curse are crunch. A chapter devoted to explaining student life at Hogwart's or the history and inhabitants of the Forbidden Forest would be considered fluff.
As mentioned before a crunchy system will tend to have a rule for nearly every situation you can imagine. Such systems tend to be more tactical in nature. In a way it becomes almost like a board game or a chess match. Players need to keep track of things like how far a character can move on his turn, the range of his weapons, and the area of effect for spells and superpowers. These systems tend to be closer to the war gaming systems that RPGs sprang from.
Rules light systems tend to focus on rulings, not rules. The game master is encouraged to determine the difficulty of an action based on how it would impact the story as opposed to what the rules say. These systems tend to be more flexible and encourage imagination as opposed to tactics and dice rolls.
Is either one truly better? That depends who you ask but in my opinion it all depends on the style you prefer. I personally like to shoot for the mid-ground. I like systems with a lot of flexibility, but I think there needs to be some guidelines. When you design your first role playing game I recommend going with they style you are most familiar with. If you aren't used to having excessive amounts of rules then stick with the rules light approach. Both approaches can create a great game if done correctly and a bad game if done poorly.
2. Determining damage threshold
There are a variety of terms used to describe this aspect of a character: hit points, body points, health, stamina, etc. All describe the same basic thing, and that is how much pain and injury a character can resist before dying. The most common way is a numeric value, from which comes the commonly used term hit points (HP). Another way to determine hit points is by adding certain ability scores. The first Marvel Super Heroes Role playing game by the now defunct TSR used this approach. Each character had four physical abilities (Fighting, Agility, Strength, and Endurance) that when added together generated a number between 8 and 20,000 for the character's health, with the average superhero having 150-200 hit points.
The common trend is to design the system in such a way that characters with more combative abilities will have more stamina. This isn't always the case but it does make sense. A soldier who is actively training for battle will probably be able to take more abuse than a scientist who spends all day in the lab at a computer.
No matter what method you use you will also need to decide what happens when a character reaches 0 hit points. Does he drop dead or have a chance at surviving? While having 0 HP characters die instantly is realistic many games work in some way to give the dying character one last chance at survival, and that is the approach I like to take. Players put a lot of work into their characters and it is certainly no fun to have one's 20th level archmage instantly killed by a lucky hit from a goblin!
3. Weapon damage and armor
While we're on the subject of damage let's take a look at what causes that damage. Two of the most common ways to determine damage is to have weapons do a preset amount of damage (such as 6 points) or have the damage determined by the roll of a die (such as 1d6 damage). Each has its own advantage. Preset damage is meant to speed up game play (in theory) by eliminating a dice roll. Some players might argue that using a die instead of preset adds a bit of randomness and challenge into the game. Another factor game designers like to figure in is the chance a weapon has of inflicting extra damage (a "critical hit"). I personally prefer having weapons do preset damage as I find it makes it easier to balance that against how many hit points a character should have.
There is also the question of how armor protects a character. The two most common ways game designers interpret armor is that it can make a character harder to hit or it can absorb damage. The reasoning behind the first method (armor makes you harder to hit) is stronger armor will have fewer weak points to exploit, and so an attacker will need a better attack roll to penetrate the armor. The second approach is to have armor absorb damage. The theory here is that if someone gets hit with a weapon the armor will lessen the impact of the blow. I tend to prefer the "armor absorbs damage" theory, though when using it I recommend having some sort of minimum damage rule. This is one of the faults of TSR's Marvel Super Hero System. If a character in that system has strong enough armor he can survive pretty much anything short of a direct hit by a nuclear weapon!
Similar rules apply to determining damage from spells and superpowers, though generally such attacks don't have rules governing critical hits.
4. Game mechanics
Finally, we come to the subject of the game's core mechanics. There have been a variety of ways game designers have accomplished this. The most common way is roll the appropriate dice, add any applicable modifiers, and compare the result to a target number. Other systems take this mechanic a step further by making two opposing forces make rolls against each other with the higher roll winning. Some designers have gotten even more creative by using playing cards, coins, and even the game Jenga!
No matter what method a game designer uses the goal is to introduce a random or strategic way to resolve situations, such as if an attack is successful or a bomb has been safely disarmed. Ideally, a game mechanic should be fast and easy to calculate but this can vary depending on whether the goal is to achieve a sense of drama or be more strategic. A game meant to be dramatic should use as few rolls as possible to keep the flow going. A strategic game should make use of "contested" rolls (where two characters roll against each other). Contested rolls allow each side to use skills and abilities to the fullest effect while they try to shift the outcome in their favor.
Common situations that need to be resolved with game mechanics include: physical combat, using magic or super powers, using non-combat skills, determining the order in which participants in a battle will act, and determining whether a character has been surprised by an ambush.
These five types or rolls are common in most games, though sometimes a game might have unique rolls based on the nature of the system. Many horror based systems have such rolls. For example, Call of Cthulu requires players to make a sanity check when faced with paranormal activity. This is accurate because the source material it is based on (H.P, Lovecraft's Cthulu mythos) often involves characters trying to keep their sanity when confronting the occult.
The third key element to creating a role playing game is developing a setting, or game world, for the system. This step certainly isn't mandatory, as there are systems out there that aren't tied to a specific setting. The first version of the granddaddy of fantasy games, Dungeons & Dragons, didn't have a specific setting. Some of the early supplements referred to locations, but it would be several years before these locations would be put together into a setting simply called "The Known World," and later Mystara.
Setting can be a major selling point for a game. If a setting sounds interesting enough a player might be tempted to pick up your product even if he never played the game itself. One of the nice things about a well written setting is that with a little creativity a game master can modify it to be used with any game system, even one that is vastly different.
When designing the setting you'll want to get a general idea of the type of "feel" the campaign should have. Many fantasy settings are patterned after the feel of Lord of the Rings, often leading new fantasy systems to be labeled as EDO or Tolkienesque at best and Fantasy Heartbreakers at worst. Sadly, these three labels are often seen as a mark of shame. The system behind the setting could be the greatest system ever developed, but the expectation of someone who hasn't played it is generally a "Dungeons & Dragons wannabe."
The term EDO is short for Elf/Dwarf/Orc and is sometimes called "high fantasy." Such systems often use many of the themes common to fantasy games: elves are treehugging archers, dwarves are grumpy and use battle axes, orcs are cruel and violent, humans are the statistically average and most numerous race, and so on. Common character classes include fighters, rangers, paladins, wizards, bards, thieves, and clerics. Magic is often flashy and includes staple spells like fireball and lightning bolt. The world is populated by classic fantasy monsters including goblins, trolls, ogres, giants, and of course dragons. Monster lairs are often filled with piles of gold coins and perhaps a few magic items. These systems are often labeled as D&D rip-offs simply because the incorporate many of the motifs common to the world's most famous fantasy game.
The line between Tolkienesque settings and EDO can be thin, though there are some important differences. Humans, elves, orcs, dwarves, and a hobbit-like race are usually present, as are many popular fantasy monsters. Magic tends to be more subtle. Throwing fireballs and summoning meteors is out of place in a Tolkienesque setting. Magic items aren't as commonplace in Tolkienesque settings as they are in EDO settings. While an EDO can be thought of as imitating D&D, Tolkienesque tries to stay true to the material made famous by J.R.R. Tolkien.
The term Fantasy Heartbreaker was coined by game designer Ron Edwards to describe the games published by many small press companies in the 1990s. He describes Fantasy Heartbreakers as games that were modeled after D&D, but often contained several traits that the author believed was an innovation. However, since they were published well after the creation of the RPG industry these innovations could no longer be considered original. The term often has a negative connotation attached to it, though Edwards does point out that most of these games "have one great idea buried in them somewhere." The problem is the reader often needs to dig through a pile of manure to find the diamond somewhere at the bottom. While Edwards' words might seem cruel, he does say that such games deserve to at least be given a look because more often than not they were created for love of the hobby. He ends the article by saying "Let's play them...Find the nuggets, practice some comparative criticism, think historically. Get your heart broken with me." You can read Edwards' full article here.
So what's an aspiring game designer to do?"
My advice when designing your first game setting is don't be afraid to be different! Try to do something that hasn't been done before or try putting a new twist on classic themes. Let me give you example. One of the first products I designed when I created Point of Insanity Game Studio was the Afterpeak systemless setting. Unlike most settings it was written with no particular game system in mind. It can best be thought of as a post-apocalyptic setting with a touch of fantasy and science fiction. However, when I wrote the system I intentionally avoided using the normal cliches of post apocalyptic fiction. Sorry, no nuclear blasted wastelands and mutants with three eyes and four arms here.
Afterpeak started with a simple (but realistic) question: what will the world do when it reaches Peak Oil? This is the point where oil production reaches a state of terminal decline. Naturally gas and oil prices will skyrocket and lead to shortages, and eventually war. But I added a couple extra twists. The survivors of the war and destruction will need to contend with demons and extra terrestrial creatures. Fortunately, there is magic in the world, which slowly replaces technology as humanity adjusts to the changing times.
The focus of Afterpeak is the breaking down of social order and how communities rebuild after global catastrophe. The goal of a game master running a game in this setting should be to give his players a world that is both alien but strangely familiar at the same time.
In many ways designing a setting should start the same way you design a system. Just like you should make the game you want to play make the game world you want to adventure in! Take a style you are familiar with and go from there. After you've decided what type of setting you want to make try thinking up a few things to make it unique from similar settings. Another example is my "Elemental Cross" systemless setting. I wanted to make a high fantasy setting, but I took some common fantasy motifs and modified them. For instance, I use orcs as a player character race, but instead of making them dim witted, violent brutes I have them as wise, compassionate, and in tune with the natural world.
The actual world itself will be the most time consuming process. This is where you come up with a map of the world itself, cities, natural formations, and places of interest. You'll also need to make nations, determine what the political situation of the country is, and decide how a country relates to its neighbors.
It's not necessary, but you should also come up with major heroes, rulers, kings, and notable personalities the players might interact with. The task can be a lot of fun but overwhelming at the same time. If this is a task you don't have a lot of time to devote to then you might want to consider starting with a superhero or modern themed game. These genres have the advantage of taking place on Earth, so it isn't necessary to write an encyclopedia describing national boundaries, politics, and the like.
The final thought: Just have fun with it!