Hamsterprophecy: Prevision

It\’s All About Pen, Paper and People.

RPG Design Handbook: Chapter 1

Posted by Nathan P. on June 25, 2006

Table of Contents here.

Why Design?


Here’s a statement: At some point during your time roleplaying, you have broken, ignored, modified, adopted, or otherwise changed a rule in the game you were playing. Maybe you decided that keeping track of encumberance in AD&D wasn’t worth the time; maybe you realized that not once had you ever spent a point of Willpower in Vampire: the Masquerade. Maybe you created an entirely new monster from the ground up in order to surprise the heroes. Maybe you added a hit location randomizer to better simulate the vagaries of hand-to-hand combat. Maybe you settled everything in the game by talking instead of rolling dice, or the other way around.

Congratulations. You’re a RPG designer.

Like anything else, there are a number of interpretations of the term. For the purposes of this book, it means just what it says: a RPG (I’ll just use “game” from here on out) designer is someone who designs a game. By adding or changing the rules you use in play, you are designing right into the structure of your game, even if it’s just a little bit. It’s kind of like how an interior designer will paint a wall or hang a curtain, even though they didn’t build the wall or install the window. Adapting your environment to your use is design.

I bet that you want to go further, though. You don’t want to be the interior designer; you want to be the architect of the whole house. Right on. Since the beginning of our hobby, there has never been a better time to write and publish your own game. There are huge communities dedicated to design and play; services that enable you to publish texts with a minimum of effort and investment; and the infrastructure to put your game directely into the hands of the consumer or the retailer.

That sounds great, right? But there’s one question that you will need to come back too, over and over again, throughout the entire process: Why am I designing this game?

There are a number of reasons, and none of them necessarily better than another. “Because there isn’t a game out there that does what I want it to do.” “Because I have this great idea, and I want to implement it my way.” “Because I want to make money.” “Because I won’t be able to sleep until someone plays this game.” The only wrong answer is “I don’t know.”

The rest of this chapter is dedicated to giving you the tools to answer this question coherentely and in a way that is useful for the rest of the design process. There are two critical components to consider when you first start thinking about designing your own, original game:

What are my play preferances? Everything you do is informed by your opinions and experiences, and game design is no different. Whether you are trying to fulfill or change your preferences for fun and fulfilling play, identifying those preferences in the first place is a crucial step.

What are my goals for this game? This sounds like an easy question, but its not. Further chapters will have a more detailed breakdown of this question into three, or nineteen, component questions. At the outset, however, you do need to think about your goals – not only for the game design itself, but also for who your audience is and how you will get your game to that audience.

Finally, this chapter will conclude with a breif overview of the design trends over the last 30+ years of the hobby. This is intended both to give you a reference point for the kinds of games that you tend to enjoy and the kinds of design that produced them, and as a resource that will give you a very rough idea of what published games to look at that had goals similar to your own.

One last word. As the term “play preferences” indicates, this book will continually come back to your own play, and how it informs your design. Actually playing games is the only way to learn the critical lessons that will lead to informed design. If you haven’t really played that many games – well, maybe you should do some more gaming and see if there’s already a game out there that fulfills you in play. Even if you have a wide experience, embarking on a design means you should play more, not less. Every game you play will teach you more about design, if you pay attention.

The philosophy of this book can be summed up thusly: The point of design is play. Without play, design is meaningless.

Now, lets get started.

2 Responses to “RPG Design Handbook: Chapter 1”

  1. Guy said

    An RPG.

    Carry on!

  2. After playing Analise with you at JiffyCon 09, I’m excited to have discovered this effort on your part to create a design handbook. I hope you say something about the recent history of indie games: who wrote what and how that changed later game designs.

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