“Fourth edition sucks! New Vampire isn’t as cool as old Vampire! I’d play Serenity if it were based on Firefly! If they tell you the GM can change rules, they’re just admitting they can’t write good rules! Money-grubbing game designers keep releasing new editions because they couldn’t write a good edition to begin with! Games from the 80s had so much more soul!”
Blah, blah, blah. We’ve heard it all before.
If you know what would make a better game, why don’t you make your own? I know, you don’t have a studio full of people at your beck and call. You don’t have a ton of free time to burn writing something for your group of friends. RPG books are written by people. You’re a person! Your friends are people! Sure, you don’t know how to write games. But that’s where I come in.
Not only that, but I’m going to take the labor out of it. We’re going to turn the process into a self-contained night of entertainment. So, get your friends together. Get some pizza. Print out the following steps. Assign someone to take notes and moderate. Let’s make an RPG.
For each step, I recommend 45 minutes. These times work out to a four hour evening, with a little time to spare. Clearly, these times are mutable. But I’d recommend keeping roughly the same ratios. Time is important. If you want to design a complete game in a single sitting, you need to have a stopwatch or timer. When time’s up, you have to move on to the next topic. You can go back later and fix things later, but for now, you’re shooting to have a rough draft ready for playtesting. I’ve been through this process dozens of times. It can be done in an hour. If participants are dithering, stop and move on. Sometimes, a lack of good ideas means that there aren’t good ideas to be had, or at least that night.
For each section, have your note taker read the italic text to your group. Then, you start conversation. Keep it civil – voting by show of hands is a quick way to resolve arguments. If the group comes up with enough material before time is up, move on. Save the time for the end, when you can tweak things and clean up your ideas.
Step One: What Is It?
This is the most abstract part of the process. The goal is to come up with a foundation to build on.
What kind of story do we want to tell? Are we going for sci-fi, fantasy, Victorian drama, horror, comedy, feudal Japan, space western or pirates? Let’s come up with three things as a foundation for the setting.
Coach the group through determining those three game elements. If two or more of them seem odd together, don’t hesitate to ask how they’d work together, and don’t hesitate to cross something off the list if the group determines that it wouldn’t work well. Replace it. If you have three setting elements, you have enough room to make the game unique while staying within time constraints. This section often leaves time to spare. If the group runs into roadblocks, try to come up with examples from pop culture. That helps to refine topics.
Step Two: Who Are We Playing?
We have a basic idea for the game. Now, who are we playing? What types of characters would tell the types of stories we were just talking about? How can we build variety amongst the characters? How can we keep their goals similar?
This is probably the hardest part, but easily the most important. RPGs are about the players, and the characters they’re playing. You want to determine what the standard group of player characters is, as well as what motivates them in loose terms. Without a general motivation for action, the best characters in all fiction fall flat.
As the players discuss, keep a mind to versatility. If the characters are too limiting, it probably isn’t very playable. But you have to maintain a balance between restriction and variety. Remember, you have a limited time to design a playable game. Openness can shoot you in the foot here. “People in 1890 AD” is far too open for this exercise. “Members of a secret society in Victorian England researching the truth behind a library full of occult knowledge” is narrow enough to work, while still leaving a lot of room for differing character types.
Step Three: What Stands In Your Way?
Now you have a fundamental setting, and an idea of what the player characters are. Now, you develop the struggle, the antagonist.
The next step is the antagonists and conflict. We have our motivation, what stands between our characters and their goal? Let’s come up with a list of seven ideas.
These might be actual antagonists. They might be setting elements that drive plot. You want some variety here. The purpose of the list is to come up with a few good ideas between all of them. Discuss a little. Debate a little. Once you have a nice, solid list, rip it apart. Pare it down to somewhere between one and four things. You don’t want the final product to be too complicated. But keep the noted ideas. If you flesh out the game later, you might mine some good ideas out of the list.
The most important note here is to keep things general. Avoid specific, named villains unless it’s absolutely to the setting you’ve established. Leave room to develop later antagonists based on the types and organizations you’re creating here.
Step Four: Making a System
You have the basics of plot. You have a setting, you have protagonists, and you have antagonists. The foundation is there. But for the full pen and paper RPG experience, you need a system. The easiest way to go about this section would be to adapt another game’s system, and there’s nothing wrong with this, but working up your own core mechanic can be very fulfilling. We’re going to assume you’re going homebrew. Also, for simplicity’s sake, we’re going to assume dice will be used. This is one of those things that can be edited heavily in post. Right now, you just want enough to tell the stories developed in earlier steps.
Now we make a system for resolution. What do we want to represent with the system? Gritty realism? High drama? Action? Horror?
The most important goal in game system design is making the system represent what the rest of the game material expresses. High adventure isn’t well-suited to a system where one-shot kills are commonplace, for example.
What are the core elements most important to what our characters can do? Let’s pick five.
Five is an arbitrary number. The goal here though is to encourage the group to make a comprehensive group of base traits. Due to the limited time available, you’ll have to work with those five traits for your simple resolution mechanic. You want to be able to cover everything your characters should want to do.
Now, how will we use these traits and the dice to resolve challenges?
Let this part develop. There aren’t any hard or fast rules. If the group isn’t coming up with anything they seem to like, suggest something simple, like a target number system where each trait has a number rating, and a roll of a die is added to that rating, if the target is achieved, the task is successful. But this should be an organic development. It’s important you come up with a mechanic, it’s not important that the mechanic is good. When you play the game, when you see your mechanic in action, you’ll be able to change it from there. But you can’t evolve a good system from nothing, this creates your jumping-off point.
Step Five: Selling It
You have the basic game. There’s a good chance that by now, your group is excited about the premise, the characters and the potential stories. This last section finalizes the past work.
We’re almost done. Now, we have to take everything we’ve talked about tonight, and we have to wrap it up into two things: A name, and a sentence describing the game. The sentence should be able to sell the game. It has to be descriptive enough to tell people what the game is about, while not being long and boring. We want something that, if someone heard, they’d say, “I want to play that!”
This last section cleans up the mess on your note paper. You’re making sales text. You’re coming up with the true premise for the game. Once you’re done with this, that’s it. Now, you get your group back together to playtest and tweak things.
Congratulations, you now have a game.
David A Hill Jr is a freelance writer in the pen and paper and MMO RPG industries. He dedicates his career to opening the hobby of gaming and the craft of game design to new audiences. You can find more on him and his material at http://www.machineageproductions.com/.