Denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance: the stages of grief. These also happen to be the stages that you will go through if you try to design your own roleplaying game!
Anyone who has enjoyed roleplaying as a hobby for long enough has had some variation of the following thought: there’s got to be a better way to... But before you embark on a journey to rewrite the rules of the roleplaying universe, prepare yourself by packing for these stages. Bring a healthy sense of humour, a pouch of resiliency, a whole bunch of paper and writing implements, a sackful of humility, and a helluvan aptitude for self-reflection. With all this, you still won’t ever stand eye-to-eye with Wizards of the Coast in terms of fan base, but you just might have the right set of ideas for a great Kickstarter! (In this article, I borrow some of the questions in Whitson John Kirk III’s 2005 draft article, “Design Patterns of Successful Roleplaying Games”).
“I love Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, but I don’t want to use 20-sided dice…”
“We could change that! How hard could it be?”
This stage could equally be called ‘naiveté.’ We’ve all been there. Your group is playing a great game, but there’s just this one set of mechanics that seems clunky or out of place in the setting, so you want to change it. Or maybe you’re imagining the same game, but in a completely different setting of your own creation. Perhaps you could make a house rule or two that fixes the problem… or maybe you could just make your own game? You have some pretty good ideas, after all.
Delusions of grandeur, fantastic ideas, fascination with rules systems
“I’m sure I can fix this game!”
“I want to make a game that does everything and is super simple to play.”
“What if we put this system and this other system together?”
Don’t be fooled! Roleplaying game design is a complicated task, usually involving teams of people working together to solve complex logistical problems. Setting, mechanics, artwork, playtesting, publishing… don’t expect to do everything yourself. Check out resources like the RPG Design Panelcast to get ideas about what goes into making your own game. Ask yourself: What are you trying to accomplish in making this game?
“What do you MEAN you don’t understand my recoil/damage/distance matrix?!? I JUST explained it to you!!”
If you have put any amount of time and/or effort into designing or re-shaping a game, then tested it on a group of friends (or even if you’ve just been the Game Master for a group), you have experienced this stage. The best laid plans and the best game design will inevitably fall apart once it comes into contact with a group of players.
High blood pressure, an obsession with charts, possible table flipping
“I am NOT going to change this. I’ve worked too hard on it.”
“If I tried this with a better group, it would work.”
Designing a game takes a lot of time and effort, then when you playtest it, it falls apart. Accepting and preparing for this fact can help you design a game that is easy for real players to understand, and robust enough to handle the highjinx that ensue when you put a group of nerds around the dining room table. Ask yourself: What mood are you trying to evoke?
What do the characters do? More importantly, what do the players do?
“Okay, I’ve solved how to balance a fireball spell in a combat situation. Only two… hundred… thirty… six… more… spells…….”
Once you have a basic mechanic scrawled on a few sheets of paper, it’s time to tackle that list of ‘to do’ items. Maybe you want a comprehensive equipment list. Maybe you want to flesh out a magic system. Maybe it’s time to expand the history of the game world’s thirty main locations. Whatever the list is made of, though, it’s daunting. It’s long. It will be hard to do. And now you’re not sure that you want to.
Lethargy, disinterest in the hobby, procrastination
“It’s impossible. I give up!”
Popular games like Dungeons & Dragons or other big franchise games have been around a long time. They have had many years to gather variations, exceptions, and expansions to the basic rules systems they originated with. Focus on the basic game: What kind of activities do you want to reward and what kinds of rewards do you want to provide? Do you envision a game that can be easily extended with numerous supplements or are you more interested in creating a single, self-contained book of simple rules?
“This other game already does almost what I wanted to do, but different….”
This is often the stage where our game design hero has an epiphany: Standing above the ruins of game after game, the charred remains of half-fulfilled ideas and failed attempts, staring at the desolation around her, she looks back to where she came from… and sees hope! With a fresh appreciation for the difficulty of designing a game, she approaches those old, familiar games with new understanding. Does she then return, happy to expand the library of work supporting other systems with her own creative contributions? Or does she press on, insisting that there is yet hope of a better design over the horizon? If she does, she recognizes that a workable system will usually sacrifice some good elements in order to prioritize others.
Glassy-eyed perspicacity, iron resolve, or capitulation
“I could make a module for another game…”
“Why would I reinvent the wheel?”
“I’ll have to give up a bit of realism to keep the story flowing.”
Whatever the flavour you are trying to achieve in your game, there are likely already many variations on similar themes. If you want to make something new, the greatest novelty will likely be in emphasis or perspective, not in the basic elements of a roleplaying game. If you decide to stick with making your own game, good for you! But remember that in roleplaying game design, trade-offs are inevitable. Also, it’s okay to play other games and enjoy them for what they are!
“Yes. This is what I wanted.”
Having delved deeply into the world of game design, the roleplaying game design hero surfaces. Whether it is in designing for another game, in creating a subtle shift of what behaviours are rewarded by a roleplaying system, or by creating a genre-and-world-specific game, he has emerged with a creative outlet that meets the goals he set out with at the beginning.
Relief, renewed interest in gaming, evangelistic zeal
“This game is amazing, and everyone should play it!”
“I am so happy.”
“Hmm… This other game prioritizes combat mechanics over story mechanics. It’s not what I prefer, but it’ll be good for a one-shot.”
With the advent of Kickstarter campaigns and sites like DriveThruRPG, more than ever it has become possible to find and sell games to a niche market. While you might never get Chapters to stock your book, you could use crowd-funding and -sourcing to find all the people in a given area who share your interest in, say, rules-light character-driven games about alien politics… or whatever your interest is! Roleplaying game markets now favour genre- and game-specific mechanics like these. Ask yourself: What literary genre corresponds to your concept? What age group does your game target?
We may not all be Gary Gygax, but I’m certain there’s a little bit of Jason Morningstar and Steve Jackson in all of us! Game design is hard work, but it is worth it. At best, it means you could be publishing the only game for a community that didn’t even exist until you came along. At the very least, delving into the details of game design will give you an appreciation for the hard work and precision that goes into making a roleplaying work of art. Regardless, take the plunge, and see how the experience helps you bring your games to the next level!
Landrew is a full-time educator, part-time art enthusiast. He applies his background in literature and fine arts to his favourite hobby (roleplaying games) because the market for a background in the Fine Arts is very limited. He writes this blog on company time under a pseudonym. Long live the Corporation!
Picture Reference: http://www.greenheartgames.com/app/game-dev-tycoon/
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.