The 10 Commandments of Writing an RPG

 Posted by on November 23, 2011  Filed as: Editorial  Add comments  Topic(s):
Nov 232011

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…

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).

  – – – – – –

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.

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Chris Stevens

In Chris's opinion, the very best vices are dirt bikes, rock music, and gaming, while the very best medicine is fatherhood. If he could just learn to balance them all, he'd live forever. He's much more creative than intelligent, often wakes up belligerent, and ponders many things insignificant. Lastly, in an effort to transform his well-fed body, P90X, Roller Blades, and Food are all laughing at him. And the pain continues.

  14 Responses to “The 10 Commandments of Writing an RPG”

  1. You know, that Blade/Buffy/Underworld setting and game sounds pretty awesome… I love those movies/TV series. I love when they’re on randomly, quickly getting caught up in story and the characters again.

    And like you wrote, it’s more about that than it is about the mechanics. They go hand-in-hand in an RPG, but you just can’t having a boring, nonsensical, uninspiring story or world.

  2. Beyond the benefit of saving you time in writing the game, using a free system and tweaking it to fit what you want to do makes it an easier sell to players. There is a very large mental investment in learning a new system, some (I’d guess 1/3) players love new systems but the majority (the other 2/3rds) like to stick with one they know.

    I think I do most of these, I try not to steal from other games but it’s not always that clear cut. Sometimes they sneak in because that’s the only way you’ve ever seen it handled that way.

    I’d phrase 5 as “Play Lots of Other Games”. Try to find games that are as different from the ones you’ve played already as possible. It opens up your mind to think of the design in very different ways. It also gives you the chance to realize the mechanic that you wanted to use has already been done and you could just go and ask the writer if you can use it (if you’re thinking of selling it).

  3. @ Kilsek – I have to tell you, even if I make the greatest game system mechanic possible, I won’t play it until I have a good setting. It’s gonna be difficult!

    @ Emmett – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone back and forth about using an existing system. It can be such a pain in deciding alone.

  4. “#3 Setting, Setting, Setting” This one is so important that it may need to be moved to number 1, just because this choice will/should give guidance to all the rest.

    Nice article!

  5. Quite right, Colin. Quite right.

  6. This article is great! Me and my group are trying to write our own RPG but as you said: take a lot of time!
    It’s involuntary do all this stuff that you said, I just needed to say that I was glad to see that our protocol is been used in another part of the globe! ^^
    Sorry for my bad english, greetings from Brazil,


  7. This seems like more than just advice for RPG- it’s advice for running a campaign and I’ll be taking all these points in while writing up my next one. The difference between a new RPG and an old one with a few house rules is pretty slim.

    I have to agree “setting, setting, setting” should be #1. Either because the rules should only focus on the points required to bring across the feel of the setting, or the setting should be tweaked to work seamlessly with the rules you’re using. ie. If you have a setting that’s based on a war torn planet with lots of combat, the combat rules should be more detailed and exact. If your combat system is fairly lethal, your setting should come across as harsh and gritty. If the system is more forgiving, dashing heroics are the name of the game.

  8. I agree with everything… except maybe number three. If by “setting” you mean, “theme, tone, style, expected characters”, then, I take it back. I DO agree. If, however, by “setting” you mean “world background, major NPCs, history, backstory”, then I strongly, strongly, disagree. Unless you’re specifically doing a game around an existing IP (via a commercial license or just for fun with your friends), then setting absolutely does not belong in the core book. Give people the rules, character options, etc, they need to make the kind of character who belong in the kind of world the game is intended to support, but don’t give them the world. At most, give them a hint of it — through the artwork, through tiny fragments of flavor text scattered in the rules, quick sidebar quotes or item descriptions. Give them graph paper, pencils, and markers… not a map. Give them inspiration, not dictation.

    An “implied” setting is fine, but keep it “implied”. Name very few names. Don’t tie things together, don’t force relationships between game elements unless they’re necessary to explain mechanics. (If Race A can only exist by feeding on Race B, you’ll need to explain or justify this. If Race A and Race B don’t have a mechanical connection, don’t waste time setting up a backstory to explain why they might adventure together; that’s the GM’s job.)

    In the “put up or shut up” department, I’ll offer Earth Delta as an example of what I think is how setting should be handled. ( I humbly submit that once you’ve read the rulebooks, you’ll have no doubt whatsoever as to what kind of game ED is, what sort of playstyle is expected, the general tone of the game, what types of characters or adventures are well supported and which are not, and have a lot of ideas to inspire you to create your own actual setting for the game… but there’s almost nothing explicit in there in terms of setting, except for a listing of the baseline assumptions and a handful of random place names tossed into flavor text.

  9. #11 – Spend more time developing the setting than modifying your book layout and/or ripping pictures.

    #12 – Steal less, create more. If it is just a bunch of stolen ideas from other games, why not play the other games? It’s a lot easier.

    #13 – Your play-testers are giving time to help develop your game. Make it worth their time by listening to their advice once the game is play-tested. If you get thirty suggestions from them and don’t digest hardly any of it, you might not have play-testers anymore.

    #14 – Ask yourself, “What makes this game UNIQUE and FUN?” Why would someone want to play your game? With limited time for gamers to play, there are tons of games they could be playing. If they are taking the time to play yours, it needs to offer something that the other games they could be playing don’t.

    #15 Setting first, system second. See #7, consider creating your world and using an existing game system (like Savage Worlds) to test it. If you get great feedback from your players on the setting, then consider creating a system that supports your world (or just keep using what you’re using).

  10. I really like this article, as RPG creation can be quite difficult – especially system-creation. That’s why their are so many flavors of gaming systems out there. Crunchy, non-crunchy, some crunch… A system really boils down to taste. You can even tell just by the comments to this article. 🙂

  11. Within the category of “setting” I would definitely emphasize tone, style, and feel. To me there is an obvious distinction between rules that were designed for a specific feel, and those where the rules were designed independently from the setting, in a vacuum as it were.

    You have to decide what kind of play experience you’re going for and then make you rules reflect that.

  12. Interesting article with 10 commandments more useful than the religious ones. Thank you!

  13. I appreciated this article. I felt as though I were writing it to myself, and yet it was fresh.

    Another thing: you can write, sir. While reading indie roleplaying games, I have waded through much grammatical hideousness. Your command of the language fills me with trust, trust for the material.

    I could run one of your games, simply because I could read it. I am a sucker for competent authors.

  14. I take exception with the sentiment that it ‘takes a lot of time’ to make an RPG. Maybe at the start, when your first is an exercise in experimentation. But otherwise, I really don’t think so. When you consider the amount of time it takes to read and commit to memory someone else’s rule book, expansions, etc AND the time you invest in consulting the rule book about nuances in a campaign- custom builds aren’t that much of an time investment, and overall, they’ll play more fluidly at the table.

    My first system took weeks, the second was the same, the 3rd came together in a month and was added to for years, the fourth took about 2-3 weeks. The fifth has come together in a week. A sixth version will take more time because it will reinvent a lot of content.

    What I think is critically important for RPG builders to understand is the difference between systems and content. Systems are mechanisms for resolving conflict. It’s the relationships between elements of play: skills, stats, equipment, etc. Complexity is a vice in systems, it should be simple and relationships make sense. Content is the stuff you layer on top of the systems: the skills, equipment, items, and abilities themselves. Content, in a good system, is balanced against other content.

    What I think most builders need to remember is that system is necessary, but not all content is. Content will fill out as you play. The only necessary content is the content you need to build your PCs, and maybe, offer them 10 levels worth of progression for transparencies sake.

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