Hamsterprophecy: Prevision

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

RPG Design Handbook: Chapter 1 (part 3)

Posted by Nathan P. on September 23, 2006

So Far:

A Brief History Of Design Trends

[BIG NOTE: I’m going to need some help here. I’m too young to have experienced the early stuff, and I haven’t played enough non-Indie stuff to know how accurate I’m being. This is very much a skeleton – comments to fill it out are totally permissible and appreciated. Or if someone wants to tackle a more complete reckoning on their own, just let me know! I’m using John Kim’s RPG Encyclopedia for my date referances.]

Knowledge is power. Like every other creative endeavor, RPG design both builds upon and reacts against what has come before. Your personal gaming history and experiences inform your design, and not just in how they’ve shaped your preferances. I cannot imagine any circumstance under which having a broader experience of published games can be detrimental to one’s design efforts.

I am not saying that you must have logged many hours with every system out there. Nor am I saying that you should try to read every single game text ever published. But you should be aware of how much of the gaming world you know about, and know where to go for more exposure to a given genre, style or method of play.

Many first-time designers are nervous about “stealing” or “plaigarizing” from published games. To this, I can only say that your fear is unfounded. Obviously, lifting an entire system from a well-known published game is probably not the best idea, for a number of reasons. But I’m willing to bet that if you’re reading this book, that wasn’t your plan in the first place.

Non-Lawyer Approved Legal aside: Remember, only the expressions of an idea can be copyrighted, not the ideas themselves. This means that you can take clever mechanics or impressive skill lists that you admire from a published game and mold them to fit yours. They are ideas, and as long as you are not copying the original text (the expression of those ideas), you are legally fine. However, if you everhave a legal question, talk to a lawyer!

Anyway. As long as the peices of your game make sense in the context of the whole and work towards acheiving your goals, there is no problem with being inspired by or trying to imitate the work of a designer that you admire. It is good form to include the games that you looked to the most in your bibliography; many designers include two lists, one of genre or flavor inspiration, and one of mechanical or system inspiration. But your implementation of those ideas will be your own, and thus unique.

So. Now that your fears have been assuaged, here is a very breif rundown of the general design trends since the inception of the role-playing hobby, with some commentary and example games. This is not a definitive list by any means, and many details are probably arguable. But it should at least give you an idea of where to look for certain things.

Wargaming Roots (pre 1975 – 1980)

My understanding is that the games of this time are coming straight out of Chainmail and original D&D. The Dungeon Crawl is the basic adventure arc; the adventuring party is the basic unit of character organization. I think that maps and miniatures were de facto, but I don’t actually know. Design was heavy on dice randomization and in-character effectiveness manifested through skill at arms and fighting.

“Traditional” RPGs Take Shape (1980-1990)
All of the roots and hallmarks of what we now call “traditional” RPGs take shape, though many bits and pieces that are later re-imagined by indie games are present. Most of the big names are released (and re-released in various Editions) during this time, including the founders of almost every big genre of roleplaying, most of which went through many editions during this time. Dungeons and Dragons goes through various incarnations; Rolemaster is released, Tunnels & Trolls gets its 4th edition (among a number of games in the Alliteration & Alliteration model (Villians & Vigiliantes, Pirates & Plunder, etc); Call of Cthulhu is released, Champions is released; James Bond 007 is released; Palladium Roleplaying System is debuted; Elfquest (the first big license, yes?); RuneQuest; Ghostbusters; Traveller; GURPS; Ars Magica; Cyberpunk; the list goes on and on.

This was a big time for the hobby, and saw the development of the three-tier distribution system (manufacturer -> distributor -> retailer -> customer) that dominated the industry through the 1990s. Most of the well-known companies that are still with us were created during this time as well (Steve Jackson Games, Palladium, R. Talsorian).

While there was a wide array of systems being created for all of these games, the general trends continued in the wargaming tradition. Being able to fight, shoot or take damage received more attention in rulebooks then being able to convince someone of an argument or change a belief system. Many elaborate rules systems were being conceived in order to simulate reality, or at least create a versimilitude of various physics in the real world. Randomizers were still primarily dice, though new innovations in character creation and character effectiveness (point-buy systems and life paths) became well known. “Generic” or “Universal” systems were being designed in order to be adapted to any kind of game that an individual group wanted to play. Finally, most if not all of these games set up the “players play their characters, while the GM plays everything else in the world” dynamic (aka “The GM is God” paradigm).

The Rise of “Storytelling” RPGs (1991-2000)

Two games were released in 1991 that symbolized the coming shift in design trends: Amber Diceless Roleplaying and Vampire: the Masquerade. Amber was a system designed entirely without randomizers, with an elaborate bidding/point-buy system for character creation that basically set the characters effectiveness for the rest of the game. Vampire broke with the wargame tradition of RPG design (and marketing), with a self-avowed focus on dramatic storytelling and flawed (anti)heroes, hearkening to the realms of theatre and dramatic performance rather than hex maps and fantasy literature.

While just as many, if not more, RPGs were written and released during this time, fewer of them are still with us today in the way that, for example, Traveller is. White Wolf Game Studios followed up on the success of Vampire with its entire series of related story-telling games, each focused on a different supernatural creature. Many existing games continued to get new editions. Some other notable games (in terms of breaking from earlier design trends) published: Over The Edge; Theatrix; The Whispering Vault; Everway; and FUDGE, among others. Other new games that are closer to “traditional” design include Earthdawn; CORPS; Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay; Fading Suns; Deadlands, and so on.

Some of these games were true breaks with “traditional” design, not only looking elsewhere for methods and techniques to resolve disputes in-game, but also arising from design paradigms and philosophies that were different from traditional roleplaying. Some games were created with mechanics that expressed those philosophies; many made great efforts, but continued to fall into similar patterns as “traditional” games. Combat as the main emphasis for problem-solving and the adventuring party were strong paradigms that dominated even Vampire and its successors. Also, most games continued the “GM is God” tradition.

Focused Design (2000-Present)

Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition was published in 2000, and it represents the beginning of the third “movement” in RPG Design – Focused Design. While closely identified with the “indie movement” (Ron Edward’s Sorcerer was available online since 1998, but it didn’t see a print edition until 2001), by this I mean design that takes into account its designers goals for the game and aims directely towards acheiving its goals. Since 2000, focused design has began to be expressed across the industry.

Focused design can be seen in D&D 3.5 and some of the Open Game Licensed derivatives, particularly Iron Heroes; the New World of Darkness revamp of White Wolf’d Storyteller system; and the vast majority of independently published games that have been developed by designers that have been involved with the Forge, a forum focused on independent design and publication. Some of the more well-known titles from Forge participants include the above-mentioned Sorcerer (and it’s supplements); Clinton R. Nixon’s The Shadow of Yesterday; Luke Crane’s Burning Wheel and Burning Empires; Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard, and Fred Hicks Don’t Rest Your Head (among many others). Some other focused-design small-press games include Atomic Sock Monkey’s Truth & Justice and Atarashi Game’s Panty Explosion (again, among many others).


As you can see, the basic focus of this book is on preference and context. Identifing the set of preferences that you want to design for, and the context which your design will inhabit, is the crucial groundwork for your design efforts.


11 Responses to “RPG Design Handbook: Chapter 1 (part 3)”

  1. Have you read Steve Darlington’s “History of Role-Playing”? Might help with some factual details.

    E.g. I’m pretty sure that WFRP came out before 1990. Checking…yes, the Pen & Paper database has 1986.

    “I think that maps and miniatures were de facto, but I don’t actually know.” de rigueur is what you want here, I think. Or maybe “standard”. But it’s also mistaken in my experience. We played original D&D (white box plus supplements) without figures or tactical maps. The GM would just describe things; sometimes we had rough rules for how many characters could engage an enemy at once, sometimes more detailed spatial representations were used via cards. I personally tended to GM by drawing diagrams on a piece of looseleaf to keep track of where everybody was, but I wouldn’t show it to the players during battle. The groups I played with in college and grad school in the 80’s, who generally used some kind of (A)D&D variant, generally worked much the same way. Since I didn’t teach them, I think a lot of groups must played D&D the same way.

    Now “operational” maps were pretty standard in my experience. I.e., dungeons mapped on graph paper, and outdoor areas mapped with or without graph or hex paper.

  2. Looking good. 🙂

    It was before my time, but IIRC Ron Edwards did an essay about how with original D&D there was a massive diversity in terms of what the actual gameplay would look like. Despite Gygax’s adminitions, people were apparently houseruling like crazy, and having to work out lots of things on their own.

    Although I more or less get what you mean but “Focused Design,” the text seems a little unclear on what that’s about.

  3. Thanks for the feedback, guys. I really appreciate it. This section definitly will get some work, especially with explicating “Focused Design.”

  4. Paul Czege said

    Hey Nathan…as a focused game design, and Diana Jones Award winner, is My Life with Master well enough known to be mentioned on your short list?

  5. Oh, hells yes.

    My love for MLWM knows no bounds. Until I get to play it, at least.

  6. Linnaeus said

    You may want to mention Shadowun as a major release of the 80s. I know it made a hell of a splash at the time, and it still has a considerable fanbase three editions and one publisher later.

  7. […] The Hampster Prophet is working on an RPG Design Handbook. […]

  8. burningvoid said

    Interesting! I often shake my head at folks who think they’ve come up with the “next great RPG” and it’s clear after five minutes of reading that they’ve only ever played D&D and that it colors so many of their underlying assumptions. Like you said, you don’t have to play everything, but you should at least get some idea of how various games have solved (or failed to solve) various issues of game-play before charging ahead.


  9. […] Chapter 1, Part 3 […]

  10. […] Chapter 1, Part 3 […]

  11. I’m surprised to find you referencing D&D 3.5 in connection with the focused design and the Forge. Most people would treat the indie games movement as a rejection of D&D and the tradition of combat-centric gaming that it represents. Are you oversimplifying here, in an effort to establish a neat system of historical periods for recent gaming? Or do you see D&D 3.5 as marking a turn away from earlier D&D tradition which is in some meaningful sense analogous to what Ron Edwards and his followers were up to?

    I like what you’re doing here, but I want a fuller analysis that clarifies what “Focused Design” means and why it is a meaningful term for describing both D&D 3.5 and Sorcerer.

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