I’ve said it before, “We all have our own RPG, right?” Well, I assume that’s the case, because I’ve written several, and some of them have several editions. No, I’ve never published any of my RPGs - they were always written for my enjoyment, my players’ enjoyment, and my need to vent creative brain vapor build-up. Most often, I wrote them simply because I wanted to play or run a game (genre) that wasn’t really out yet or readily available. Sometimes I even thought I could make a better version of an existing game.
In this article, I’m going to talk about some of the pitfalls of writing your own RPG, and how to overcome them. Actually publishing a role-playing game for profit is a whole other ball of hot magma, one that I’m certainly not qualified to talk about.
*I am not a professional writer, and I’ve never tried to sell a game.*
I’ve written several RPGs. Unfortunately, most of them were 10-30 pages destined for a fiery death in the recycle bin. I did, however, have a few juggernauts that saw some serious game-time, so I’m very happy about that…
- Back in high school (when my love / hate relationship with Heroes Unlimited began), I felt that I could make a better supers game than anything else out there. Using Wordperfect, I put together 100+ pages of pure super material (titled “Supers“). Unfortunately, it ended up being nowhere near original, so I rewrote it – only to find it still wasn’t very original. So I just dumped the entire thing.
- I then created two editions of Militech, which was a brilliant combination of Aliens and Robotech. Space Marine combat and Versatile Fighter combat provided our group many hours of entertainment, complete with military rank, tons of options, and some cool (ripped) artwork. I even had six books printed, complete with a cool front cover. Unfortunately, I eventually killed the game because I kept tinkering with it. I’d get inspired by a movie or book and then try to add those new concepts to the game. I should have just left it alone, since a lot of time went into that RPG.
- My last major endeavor was Nighthaven. A Blade/Buffy/Underworld kind of a game. This game had all the bells and whistles. 150+ pages, great options, and great (ripped) artwork. Of course, I had to have it printed in book form. We played this game through many, many sessions, and I simply liked it so very much. I liked this game so much that it went through three editions. <sigh> And that is what ultimately shelved it. I kept tinkering with it, changing things, making the game “supposedly better” – and it simply ran away from me. I really should have focused more on fluff than stuff.
So, where did I go wrong with all of my games? And why am I even writing this article?
Well, I’m getting the itch to start developing Nighthaven again, but I don’t want to run into the same old problems. So, I thought about it, and then came up with some of the roadblocks and pitfalls that I’ve faced in the past with the hope that I don’t make the same mistakes again. If you’re looking to write your own RPG for fun, hopefully you’ll find this useful as well.
The 10 Commandments of RPG Writing
- Create a “to do” list. Create a list of things that need to be explained in the game. This is most often a list of chapters and subchapters. I always look through other RPGs to see what kinds of things get explained in those games, to help ensure that my game will be complete. Really, in creating a list, you’re creating a plan of attack, one that will help you stay on track.
- Don’t stall. If you get an idea, go with it. Don’t worry about your idea not being original or perfectly figured out – you simply have to get the ball rolling. Don’t sit there trying to flesh it all out in your head. I’ve sat for hours in front of my computer just waiting for the right words to mystically flow through my fingertips onto that keyboard. And you know what? Those were hours well-wasted. Once you get that initial idea, just go with it. Write, write, write.
- Setting, Setting, Setting. This is important. A great system mechanic or character options tree might be cool, but it won’t last when paired with a poor, uninspired, or under-developed setting. A setting connects the player characters to the story, and that’s mucho important in keeping players interested in the game.
- Only focus on what is on your mind. You don’t have to write your game from front to back (this is why you created your “to do” list). If you’re working on a specific section – like PC Races, but then get inspired about your PC Classes, work on your PC Classes. You’ll get so much more done writing about what’s on your mind than if you try to finish one section before moving on to the next. Trust me.
- Steal what works from your competitors. Hey, if you like how Wizards formats their D&D Powers section, copy it. Or, copy and alter it. Whatever. It’s ok to study what’s out there, because it just might work for your game (and you may even be able to improve it). On the flipside, you can also check out things from games that don’t seem to work, and avoid making those mistakes.
- Keep it simple. Several of my failures occured in part because I thought I could make grapple rules more realistic, or ranged combat, or falling damage… whatever. All that did was add more rules to an untested RPG system. Using my “obviously superior intelligence” to make certain parts of the game more realistic only makes the game less playable. It makes the game clunky, and opens your system mechanic to a vast set of inconsistent rules. Just keep it simple. Again, trust me.
- Consider using an existing game system. In line with keeping it simple, why not make your game using an established generic system, like Savage Worlds or Stands of FATE? This is soooo much less work and (more importantly) less stress. Of course, if your idea of a game is based off a unique system mechanic of your own design, then by all means, go for it – just remember that desiging your own system can be a daunting, time-consuming, tedious task. Using an existing generic game system can easily cut out tons and tons of age-inducing playtest hours.
- Playtest with one-shots on occasion. This will help you adjust numbers, balance powers, and show you what simply doesn’t work (and anything that takes a lot of explanation certainly doesn’t work). Players are not going to want to play the game if they can’t remember the eight-step process for determining initiative.
- Make the rules consistent. When you design your own system, a common error occurs - it’s very easy to focus on combat resolution while disregarding conflict resolution. Then, later you’ll realize that you need to figure out how to handle ability checks, skill checks, casting spells, and social interractions. Pretty soon you could end up with several different ways of handling such conflicts (sub-systems), when you should have devised a single mechanic that applies to just about every situation.
- Stop making changes. After you’ve finished your game and distributed it to your players, resist the urge to make changes. This is the time to play the game, not work on it. Unless you find something that is seriously breaking your RPG, leave it alone. Just go with what you have and let it be. Sure, you’re going to find errors, inconsistencies, and power imbalance, but your players will forgive that. They won’t forgive you for interrupting the campaign when you start making changes. My two most successful games were ultimately killed because I kept trying to improve them.
That’s it, I think. Hopefully this list will help you with your homebrew RPG project – I know it’ll help me. Here’s a few more ideas to help make your original role-playing game a success:
- Include artwork. I always rip images off the web for my personal RPG projects. I’ll even doctor those images to suit my needs. Imagery adds a great element – it helps give the game flavor, and helps your players envision the game’s concepts. Just remember, don’t post your game online with ripped images, and I know you’re not going to try to sell it that way.
- Make a character sheet. There are all sorts of ways to create a character sheet. Microsoft Word or Excel is usually fine for a homebrew RPG, though there are many other (better suited) graphics programs out there. Really, having players write their characters down on some binder paper is a no-no. Doing so will irritate your players. Make a character sheet, even if it’s a very simple one.
- Make your game easily available to your players. If I’m going the cheap route, I’ll print my game on my home printer (or at work) and put it into binders for my players. However, I prefer to have it printed in a printshop. I’ve done it for as little as $15 per spool-binded book in color, with front and back covers. Whether you print it or not, give your players a Word document or PDF of the game (you can save as a PDF in Word if you want).
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I’m assuming you’re writing your own homebrew RPG because you have a cool setting, genre, or mechanic that you’d like to play, or because you’re dissatisfied with the output of the current industry games. Writing an RPG takes a lot of work, and can easily lead to a lot of wasted hours. I really do first suggest looking at other games to see if you can modify one of them to suit your needs. That could very easily get you the game you want (and much sooner), instead of starting from scratch.
Of course, if you’ve read this article down to this point, then you’re probably like me – you probably get enjoyment not just from playing the game, but in creating it.