There comes a moment in a role-player's life when we think we've seen and played through enough that we can come up with our own take on things. This comes in a couple different categories: settings, and dice-chucking systems.
This is the first of a two-part mini-series, dealing with system creation, to begin with.
Beware. Here be personal DOs & DON'Ts, your mileage may vary greatly.
Especially since I drive a Diesel.
1. Do Your Homework.
Nobody walks into this hobby knowing everything.
Time, precious commodity as it is, is even more important for understanding what makes you tick as a role-player and what makes a system run smoothly. Spending copious amounts of time playing through or running various systems is a necessity when you’re developing your own.
This isn't to say that some people aren’t just born with it, and may manage to come up with a solid system with no prior experience. Some join pen and paper role-playing from video or board gaming, some may just have that math-inclined mind I'm desperately wanting to rent, or even a knack for putting two and two together.
That being said, often, practice makes perfect.
So make sure you perfect your practice before you practice perfecting your pen and papering product. I... think that makes sense.
2. Do... IT!
No amount of reading, gaming, more reading, or thinking about putting something together will ever replace actually doing it. Once you think your homework's done, and you know what you want to get out of your system, grab your pen, pencil, tablet, keyboard, blood of your enemies or Ouija board of choice and start creating!
Start small, don't think about too many special rules/skills – main character attributes, dice, mechanisms that players use to influence the story, etc. – JUST START!
Try not to overdo the research part, find your niche and stick with it – you're realistically never going to be able to know everything that has come out over the years, experience every take on the genre that's out there, or even know about most systems on the market.
Which is why you should pop by the Role-Playing Gems article series, and give those a look sometime... #shamelessplug
3. Do not be afraid to retcon.
Alright, so now you know what you're aiming for, and have actually started work on it, you come across something that helps you see things in such a light that you want to either fix, erase, or simply exchange some aspects of your system.
You've been working on this for what... A few weeks, give or take?
Pretty sure Rome wasn't built in a few weeks either.
If you end up flailing and failing you can always roll everything back. You don't have a budget you're supposed to justify to anyone. You'll gradually see your system heading into new territory as you get more acquainted with what you can do as a world-builder, and what your finished build can actually achieve. Early stages are always filled with variant rules, different dice sizes, character points, plot twists, explosions, and most likely your brain imploding.
If your system's first version is what you end up calling final, you're either a genius or doing it wrong. Always be prepared to put new things in or take stuff out when it seems like it's not working. Hitpoints to combat, fantasy to sci-fi to horror, and back into fantasy - these can all be changes you make over time.
Experimenting is the mother of all ulterior cock-up preventions. That being said...
4. Do Not Be Afrad To Fail.
We fall, we curse the jackass who tripped us up, we get up, we start over.
Failing will definitely be a part of the process. Big, small, it all hinges on your own abilities, workrate, and set goals. You'll either realise your dice sizes don't convey the experience, limiting your skill spread. Maybe that character sheet layout you've been working on doesn't fit with anything anymore, or maybe the main rolling formulae you've based your work on doesn’t scale well to higher levels.
This falls into the previous point a bit, but hammers home the point that you will end up making the wrong choices. It's your duty to yourself, and the experience as a whole, to not let those moments bring you down. Learn from them, and – as much as possible – try not to make the same mistakes again.
How do you avoid those mistakes I hear you ask? Why, I'm happy to tell you...
5. Do A Lot Of Testing. Fast.
We've got information, we've started work, we're not afraid to move things around, and we're definitely not afraid of failing. It's time to crunch some numbers, make sure we fail as little as possible, and deal with it as early as we're able to. It doesn't matter which numbers get crunchy, doesn't matter how well it goes, it's always a good idea from the get-go to see if everything will really work when and how it’s intended.
Grab a bunch of dice, splatter some attributes around, see if that David vs. Goliath thing works.
Testing early and often saves you time through identifying bugs, and other aspects that only actual playtest can uncover. Just look at what Wizards of the Coast did with D&D 5e – going through each playtest pack and seeing the game evolving was a real treat to early playtesters, let me tell you!
All you need for this are a few pregens, a simple adventure taking you through some main aspects of the game, a couple of willing friends, and some Sprite (or other beverage of your choice).
6. Do Not Keep It To Yourself.
This one's a no-brainer for any and all creative projects you develop: get people involved!
Nobody's telling you to go to Kickstarter within the month. Start small, with the aforementioned friends, spouse, whatever. Maybe you're lucky enough to have geeky parents that can give you some pointers? Just make sure you don't keep this close to your chest and only come out with it when you think it's perfect.
Newsflash – it ain't!
As someone who's done work on three different iterations of a ground-up system, I'm pretty sure the design I'm using right now is not the one I'm going to end up calling finished.
Feedback is the key here.
You shouldn't bend your knee to any and all voices out there, but having a chorus of opinions to sift through will greatly improve your chances of ironing out the kinks in the system.
7. Do Not Go Tt Alone (?)
This one's always largely a matter of personal taste, but most of us in these hobbies are not lone wolves. You've certainly got at least one or two other likeminded individuals who you regularly play games with, thus people who (hopefully) have the same tastes in games as you.
One of the biggest hurdles you'll come across when going into creative mode is the motivation to keep going until the end, especially once you realise any creative endeavour is... well... a pretty big endeavour. Having a Samwise to share the load with may end up being the difference between getting something done or finding your notes in a dusty drawer twenty years from now.
Just make sure you don't end up fighting, going your separate ways, and then taking your systems to crowdfunding at the same time.
I'm guessing that doesn't make for fun conventions.
I think I've covered most of the issues I've faced. One more thing to add: have fun!
It doesn’t matter if you're doing this to have a system you know inside and out or you actually want to make a living of it, the end product is going to suffer if you're going through everything with stormclouds above your head, and a frown.
So clear those skies, pop some music of your choice on, and give things a go. Worst case scenario, you'll get depressed at not getting anything done, try to sell off a half-finished system to various companies, end up trying to self-publish, pawn off your assets, left kidney, your dog, mortgage your house thrice over and live the rest of your days in an asylum with your imaginary friend, Binky von Grim.
But don't let my fears put a damper on your hopes and dreams...
Writer, gamer, and - provided he's got the time for it - loving husband, Costin does not rule out sacrifices to the Great Old Ones in order to get into the gaming industry. He's been role-playing for the better part of 6 years, but has been a joker, gamer and storyteller for as long as he can remember.
His greatest pride is once improvising a 4-way argument between a grave digger, a dyslexic man, an adopted child and a sheep, all by himself. That moment is also the closest he's ever come to giving himself a role-playing aneurysm... thus far.
He's been dabbling in plenty of writing ventures lately, and you can find him hanging his words around the Oh Be Wandering hangout page on Facebook - https://goo.gl/4be3Bj
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.