So You Want To: Write A Tabletop RPG
You've played great tabletop roleplaying games. You love 'em dearly. In fact, you've got the best idea for a tabletop game ever! You're gonna revolutionize the industry! All you need is a little advice how...
Look no further. (Still a work in progress!)
Also check out Be Original
- Shown Their Work: There are a lot of tabletop roleplaying games. It's almost certain that your idea has been done before, be it an idea for a game mechanics or an idea for a setting (I can think of a half-dozen games themed around playing arthropods of various sizes and intelligences, for instance, and at least one where the players are intelligent vegetables). That may sound disheartening, but it really isn't. There may be a dozen or two games themed around "pulp heroism," but no two play exactly alike and several enjoy healthy player bases and critical acclaim. D10 dice pools aren't new, but how they work in The World of Darkness isn't how they work in Wild Talents. Further, a wide exposure to roleplaying games will help you avoid the "Fantasy Heartbreaker" problem (see below for more on that).
- On top of that, if you're basing your game on a specific theme or world, and it's virtually guaranteed you are, prepare to do some research into that genre as well. Remember, tropes are tools, not rigid laws of reality, so feel free to use the tropes of your chosen genre to make the game you've always wanted to run or play in a world you've always wanted to run or play in.
- Just for emphasis: Your first and most important step is research. Groan if you must, but the cost of willful ignorance has been paid by a dozen games which have flared, been gently chided / painfully ribbed / torn to shreds, and died ignominiously. You don't have to walk that path.
There are a ton
of roleplaying game tropes, and you're going to have to choose which your game are going to use and which you aren't. The first and most important step is to decide what the "feel" of your game is. Is it going to be gritty, with an emphasis on fragility and the deadliness of weapons? Is it going to be highly narrative, built for razor tongues and barbed wit? What genre is it emulating? Will it be a generic game designed to handle anything, or at least anything in a particular genre? Once you have the feel of your game in mind—even a vague X Meets Y pitch—you can start thinking of the important questions.
- Who are the players? What is the typical group going to look like? How are you going to handle Character Customization? Will there be a Class and Level System, or at least character archetypes like Striker, Healer, Debuffer, et cetera? This is a good time to block out how your game system is going to look. Decide what your game wants to statistically model and go on from there.
- Dungeons and Dragons was the first, and it decided to model its characters' broad physical and mental abilities (Strength, Dexterity, etc.) and ability to survive threats (hit points, saves, AC, etc.), as well as unique abilities divided by class. Later games added formal skill systems, feats, and other options for customization.
- Vampire: the Requiem has a full three stats for social interaction to emphasize the importance of backstabbing undead politics. They also have a power stat, Blood Potency, and special powers based on what kind of vampire you are. This is part of the New World of Darkness system, designed so that different types of supernaturals can interact seamlessly.
- Spirit of the Century rolls stats and skills into the same system, then makes the heart of a character short, descriptive phrases called "Aspects." Stunts add special abilities or new ways to use skills. Characters are much more self-sufficient, though implicit roles like "good at hitting things" or "stupendously rich" are around.
- Wushu characters are literally just three short phrases with numbers attached, all based around hurting people in creative ways.
- There Is No Spoon has one stat, as well as two or more broad Traits that are influenced by that stat.
- What challenges them? Your characters must go up against some threat or challenge that gives them motivation to do interesting things.
- In Dungeons and Dragons, this is usually the desire for power, magic items, and gold.
- In Paranoia, it's the desire to not be (repeatedly) killed by your "friends" and Friend Computer.
- In Nicotine Girls, this is the longing to escape a dead-end small-town life (do note the game is competitive).
- In My Life with Master, this is gaining the acceptance of the townsfolk and trying to free yourself from your evil master.
- How complex should the system be? This may be the most important step, since even now games are broadly described as "rules lite" or "rules heavy," and those designations have a lot of baggage. Note that an increased complexity does not correlate with loss of focus on story or character in favor of hitting things. Rules complexity is entirely up to your personal taste... though it's a good idea to err on the side of elegance.
- GURPS is rules-heavy. You can play the game with a minimum of rules (GURPS Lite), but if you want game mechanics to model virtually anything, they're there if you need them.
- HERO System is rules-heavy. There are lots of rules and character creation can take a long time, but they're predicated on a (hopefully) balanced point system so fine-tuned you can create characters that play exactly like they do in their native systems.
- Dungeons and Dragons is rules-medium. It errs on the heavy side in offering specialty rules, but the bulk of most rulebooks are all about stuff, which is optional and not essential to memorize.
- FATE is rules-medium. While the game is narratively-focused, there are a lot of rules for integrating abstract narrative concepts into mechanical solids, the flavor feeding into the rules.
- Wushu is rules lite. Characters can comfortably fit on three lines of a sheet of notebook paper, a simple "anything you say goes unless another player vetoes it" rule governs most routine interactions with the game world, and any challenge your group/GM considers actually worth resolving mechanically can be easily handled with the fairly lightweight combat rules (just treat the problem as another opponent, whether it's actually a character or not doesn't really matter).
- Stick Guy is so rules lite, it's compared to laying about eating pretzels and drinking beer. One stat, 3 traits that add or subtract one point, and a Luck Manipulation Mechanic.
- What makes this system different from the others? What makes your game stand out from the rest of the herd, either from other roleplaying games in general or from others in the same genre?
- For this example, let's look at three different games set in the Cthulhu Mythos 'verse that aren't Call of Cthulhu, the original BRP roleplaying game. These are all worth looking at, and each takes a much different tack from the original:
- Call of Cthulhu d20, other than bringing the game into the d20 rules system, uses its level system as a slider for mood. At level 1, characters are even more vulnerable than starting characters in the original game. At higher level, while still fragile, characters are pulpy action heroes able to withstand some of the horrors of the Mythos. It also has a much larger art budget and makes the most of it.
- NEMESIS takes place in the modern day, and is particularly designed with an eye toward Delta Green. Combat is more visceral than in Call of Cthulhu, it has a much more specific and brutal sanity system, and it introduces the option to play supernatural monster-fighters a la Hellboy or the SCP Foundation.
- Trail of Cthulhu is Lovecraftian horror as a detective story. Characters automatically find clues if they have the right skills, but they must then assemble the mystery on their own. Rather than having static stats and skills, players have dwindling resources of skill points and Stability that they have to marshal carefully if they wish to survive.
- The most common form of failed roleplaying game is the "fantasy heartbreaker." In its most basic form, the fantasy heartbreaker is a game that is Dungeons and Dragons, But Not. While forgivable in games that followed the From Clones to Genre of tabletop gaming, even now there are always new fantasy games coming out that are slavishly loyal to 2nd edition Dungeons and Dragons's idea of adventuring. Imagine a Doom clone being made nowadays—as in 'literally' trying to clone Doom, ignoring everything that came after, including full 3D, mouselook, and enemies smarter than suicidal fireball-flinging lemmings, simply because that's all the author has played and assumed nothing else has changed much since then. That's what a fantasy heartbreaker looks like. The primary methods of combating these are through research and being up on your game design.
- Note that this does not include deliberate genre throwbacks to 1st or 2nd edition Dungeons and Dragons. These are games designed with ignorance of all but perhaps a handful of games outside the player's personal experience.
- See the list of The Epic Fails for some notable fantasy heartbreakers.
Suggested Themes and Aesops
- Motifs are going to be based on your game's genre and setting. You can even emphasize motifs through the game system!
- Try out events like 24 Hour RPG to flex your game design muscles in weird ways.
Set Designer / Location Scout
- Will your game require maps for combat? While a staple of gaming since the beginning, they are nowhere near as common nowadays, if only because they can be quite annoying to work with.
- Are your players going to need anything other than dice and a rulebook? Other props tend to come off as "feelies." They're cool and all, but they're usually ancillary to the experience. On the other hand, some games can make very strong impressions by use of props—the Rocky and Bullwinkle roleplaying game came with a spinner and hand puppets, for instance!
- If you're going to be printing your tabletop game, you might want to give it a snazzy layout or fancy marginalia to make for a striking look. Be sure to avoid making the background imagery too dark or complex, or else the players are going to have a hell of a time trying to figure out the rules.
- An interesting example is in REIGN. There are very few illustrations, and most of the book is illustrated with short narrative passages.
- An "interesting" example is the new edition of Nobilis, which supplements the previous edition's eerie and amusing microfiction with, uh, deviantART chibis. These have been controversial in the fandom.
- Let's not mention that Cyberpunk edition where all the illustrations were photos of custom G.I. Joe action figures...
- Two words: LARP rules. Be sure to account for players not usually being able to haul around fake weapons in public places, or not being willing or able to perform death-defying stunts.
Here's how to really master the craft of roleplaying games...
- The first roleplaying game is Dungeons and Dragons—you can't go wrong with seeing how the originals did it. For extra extra credit, check out every edition of the game and see how drastically it's changed from one edition to the next and how it influenced or was influenced by the game design of its peers. Bear in mind, of course, that this is just the first step in roleplaying gaming.
- Fudge is the universal translator between systems. Based not on numbers but on comparative adjectives (Good Swordsman vs. Mediocre Swordsman, etc.), Fudge gives you a basic system from which to design your own set of stats, skills, abilities and so forth. It's a good system to study while trying to think out what you want your system to become.
- When translating between systems: Say you have a six-stat d20 game. Your character has a Strength of 11 (Average), Dexterity of 16 (Great), Constitution of 14 (Good), and Ranged Weapons 15 (Great). Switching to a three-stat d6 game gives something like Body 4 (Good) and Laser Pistols 5 (Great).
- Call of Cthulhu is the first horror game and still one of the best. Its rules are profoundly ancient, but they're still quick and quite gamable (if you can forgive such oddities as still describing vampires as "an antagonist most players will love to match wits against" as opposed to "something lots of players will be interested in/have already played as"). Its supplements are extremely high-quality. Be sure to check out NEMESIS, Trail of Cthulhu, and Call of Cthulhu d20 as well.
- GURPS was one of the first point-based games and the first generic game. While the core rules aren't everyone's cup of tea, the unspeakably vast library of supplemental material is perhaps the strongest and most amazing body of supplements in any game line ever made. Designed to be easy to convert to and from, you can freely ransack GURPS books for ideas without ever having to use their (sometimes Byzantine and ruthlessly complex) rules.
- Vampire: The Masquerade was the first breakout "narrative first" game, and remains popular even after the end of the game line. While the Old World of Darkness had more than its share of problems and inadvisable decisions, it is still widely beloved and able to be mined for plot points. A revised 20th edition of the rules has just been released in .pdf format, so you can enjoy the original for yourself without having to scour the web for used copies. Compare and contrast its successor Vampire: The Requiem.
- Throwback games seek to imitate the feel of older editions of Dungeons and Dragons. The most popular include OSRIC (1st edition), Castles and Crusades (2nd edition), and Pathfinder (3rd edition). They're more than worth your time to see how modern gamers interpret the rules and stylings of older systems of D&D.
- Spirit of the Century kickstarted the popularity of FATE. It's an extremely player-friendly game that does its very best to get readers into the spirit of gaming and of playing their character. There are a number of other FATE games in a variety of genres already, so give 'em a look-see.
The Epic Fails
- You absolutely, positively, do not ever have to look at FATAL or Racial Holy War to know how ludicrously awful they are. Just take our word for it.
- For a more educational failure, Wraeththu shows the raw power of a fantasy heartbreaker designed by someone who only knew the old World of Darkness and d20. You can tell because characters have both hit points, health levels, ''and'' hermaphroditic sea anemones for genitals. Other fun tidbits: it's okay to bring BB guns to LARP as long as you know they're unloaded, roleplaying explicit alien sex acts at the table with your buddies is part of a healthy roleplaying experience, and the worst threat to Wraeththu civilization is ennui. That's right, all the fighting is done by the time the players roll up their characters, and all they have to look forward to is angsting, getting drunk and/or high, and having not-really-gay-or-straight sex.
- The newest fantasy heartbreaker making the rounds is The Secret Fire, which has FATE mechanics awkwardly bolted onto 2nd edition Dungeons and Dragons. Full of omitted game mechanics, special abilities so obviously breakable it's a marvel they made it past playtesting (if there was playtesting...), and a borderline-blasphemous declaration that the writer is "inheriting the legacy of Gygax."