Worlds of Design: Why Would Anyone Write a RPG?

Poll: Have you ever written a standalone set of RPG rules?

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  1. #1
    Scout (Lvl 6)

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    Mar 2005
    Gainesville, FL

    Worlds of Design: Why Would Anyone Write a RPG?

    Commercial RPGs have existed for some 45 years. Where RPG ideas are concerned, there's not much new under the sun. Then why do people keep writing new RPGs? It's a LOT of work, even if you don't do it well. I think of composer Sir William Walton's remark after writing his only opera: "don't write an opera. Too many notes." Change that to "RPG" and "words" and you have my point of view. We're also going to try something different, and offer a readers poll.

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    With help from Twitter correspondents I've made a list of "reasons why" that I'd like to discuss. I'm sure some readers will have yet-other reasons for make an RPG.

    • You have an ideal game in mind and no such game exists
    • to make money (most unlikely, but it happens)
    • to gain a modicum of fame (or at least, notoriety!)
    • for your friends, to make a game they'll enjoy more than existing games
    • to make a limited set of rules to use in conjunction with a board game design (my reason)
    • Creative outlet

    Of course, there are lots of tongue-in-cheek reasons, which I'll leave to readers to convey. (Rule #1 for a columnist may be, don't try to joke in "print". Someone will misunderstand and dislike it.)

    Let's discuss these in turn:

    • The first reason, that you have an ideal game in mind and no such game exists (as far as you know) is probably a common reason. I understand the search for perfection, but knowing all the difficulties of completing a standalone game, I modify an existing one (D&D), rather than start from scratch. The "Cult of the New" may come into this: the belief that new is necessarily better. So your new game will be better than older games. Some say "the old ways are best"; more say, "the new ways are best" (the Cult of the New). I say, the best ways are best. To hell with old or new.
    • To make money is a poor reason, because most of those writing RPG rules dont make money. Old joke: How do you make a small fortune in RPG publishing? Start with a large fortune. While it may not be quite that bad, most RPGs sell hundreds rather than tens of thousands of copies, its not a place to make money unless youre extraordinarily lucky (its something like playing the lottery) or extraordinarily good.
    • "To gain a modicum of fame" certainly is in the minds of some. Anyone who has written an RPG has done something much more notable just play a game, or GM a game. But how much fame you get from this may be doubted. And keep in mind, designers are known more by the names of their games than by their own names.
    • "For your friends to play" is praiseworthy, and probably related to the first reason that no existing game is good enough for you. Fortunately, if your game is just for friends, you can get away with notes rather than much-longer formally written rules.
    • "To make a limited set of rules to use in conjunction with a board game design" is my reason, but has to be exceptionally unusual. My prototype rules are suitable for a limited campaign if a GM is available, but lack the myriad details of many rulesets.
    • Designing a game can be a creative outlet. So many people have nothing in their lives that appears to be creative, but no one can fail to see creativity in game design (though often there's much less than people think). Creativity, like destruction, helps people feel powerful and good about themselves. Sadly, destruction is much easier.

    Topic for comment: If you've tried to design/write an RPG, what were your reasons, and how far along did you get?

    This article was contributed by Lewis Pulsipher (lewpuls) as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program. Lew was Contributing Editor to Dragon, White Dwarf, and Space Gamer magazines and contributed monsters to TSR's original Fiend Folio, including the Elemental Princes of Evil, denzelian, and poltergeist. You can follow Lew on his web site and his Udemy course landing page. If you enjoy the daily news and articles from EN World, please consider contributing to our Patreon!

  2. #2
    Greater Elemental (Lvl 23)

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    Jun 2004
    Cedar Grove, NJ 07009
    One of the reasons I put in the poll post is "to do it better". A common Fantasy Heartbreaker RPG cause, to do something in a genre and style you enjoy, but to fix all the warts and add new things in a more comprehensive way then keeping the base mechanics and extensively houseruling. Instead remaking it in the style you and your table wants.

    In some ways, this is the origin of 13th Age, where lead designers of D&D 3ed and D&D 4e got together to write the game they wanted to play with their regular group, what they called "a love letter to D&D".
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  3. #3
    Time Agent (Lvl 24)

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    Jun 2002
    Colombus, OH
    I'm of the opinion that RPG technology and science has advanced to the point that we are unlikely to make any real breakthroughs in the design of game mechanics, and that at this point we have such a range of strong and well designed systems that serve such a wide variety of purposes that any effort to improve upon such a system with an entirely new system is wasted effort compared to the minimal value of even successfully doing so.

    As such I'd prefer that almost all of the focus on writing new systems cease. We now have good engines to run our games on.

    What we do not yet have is a lot of widely accessible good examples of play. That is to say, having built the framework for creating stories, we are not yet doing a good job of writing or sharing those stories. All the words communicating rules are wasted compared to value that would be created by investing the same amount of words into the art of RPGs.

    If you want to impress me now, write a good adventure, campaign, scenario, or adventure.

    I was just talking with a novice DM about his early experiences in DMing, and he was coming to the unhappy conclusion that I had had long ago, which is that even a scenario or adventure with a very strong concept still required almost a complete rewrite to use in play owing to the usual sloppiness of the standards which such adventures are written in. They fail to provide obviously needed information. They fail to provide good props and play aids. They often fail to communicate what the writer is imagining clearly to the end user. They are often incoherent, often fail to take into account obvious things that the PC's might try to do, often depend on railroading without calling out the technique simply because the writer failed to imagine that the PC's would do anything other than what is imagined. They are rarely well play-tested. And they are often lacking in imagination in the details. If it was just a matter of the effort required to repaint the setting to the GMs aesthetic standards, that would be one thing. But they often fail to even run well unless the GM takes tremendous effort on their own.

    And these are just things that I would think are minimal standards, akin to writing an essay with good grammar and punctuation. I'm not even getting into the fact that at this point, we ought to be aspiring to create art. We ought to be with this literary medium, as with the novel or the movie before us, pushing past the point of mere novelty of experience and creating things of artistic merit and lasting value. As young man, when I read the Dragonlance modules for the first time, I thought, "This is it. This is were our hobby begins to achieve relevancy and legitimacy." I thought of people like Hickman and Weiss the way we might think of writer's like Austin and Dickens - pioneers in a new artistic country.

    And yet, now 30 years later, where have we gone? What have we achieved? What have we done that has improved upon what was done in the past?
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  4. #4
    Waghalter (Lvl 7)

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    Dec 2017
    Currently, I'm working on a d12-based sci-fi game.
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  5. #5
    I've messed around with such in the past, but for the most part I don't see the point or have the time. There are some pretty good systems now that can be customized and, for the most part, work well enough to not need the kind of serious effort making a good set of rules requires. That isn't to say I'm happy with games I play RAW and don't want to customize them for my own purposes.

    I play a lot of 5E and, while there's a lot I like about 5E, there's a lot I don't. I'm generally a fan of Modiphius' 2D20 house system, which they pretty strongly customize per game. It's a die pool system but has alleviated many of the previous pathologies inherent in die pool mechanics. I've taken a few of the ideas from it that I think help alleviate 5E's very wargame roots, for instance adapting a bit of the way momentum and threat work to replace inspiration, which I think is just messy and annoying. I don't much like 5E's rest structure, but haven't come up with a better one. That's a bit more of an effort.

    One big reason there were a lot of game systems back in Ye Olde Dayes was due to the fact that TSR would sue people who copied too much of D&D, so designers pretty much had to deviate.

  6. #6
    Superhero (Lvl 15)

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    Aug 2014
    Missing from the Poll:
    • Part of a competition
    • codifying one's houserules into a standalone. (Especially popular in the OSR)
    • OCD
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  7. #7
    Defender (Lvl 8)

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    Nov 2015
    I'm currently in the process of writin one and the reasons are mostly the first and the last of the above. Yes, I could use an existing system (to be fair, my starting point for the system I want is an existing system and it'll be clear for anyone that that system was the inspiration), or a generic system. Thing is, I could write up a million house rules, or just treat it as building from, not scratch exactly, but nearly.
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  8. #8
    The Great Druid (Lvl 17)

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    Nov 2015
    You forgot "Ego" as a reason. Sure, some might claim another reason, but its pretty simple to know that some people just do it because the thought that they can do something better boosts their ego.

    As for the poll, I started writing a set of game mechanics when I was a pre-teen, back when D&D was pretty much the only system. Never got far, would rather play

  9. #9
    Novice (Lvl 1)

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    Apr 2009
    new haven,ct
    With the ease of publishing on Lulu and Drivethrurpg making a game is easier than ever. I built my own game system when I couldn't stand running 4e anymore. I don't want money I just want a game that scratches my itch and I can give each player a well laid out professional looking game book.
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  10. #10
    Community Supporter
    Superhero (Lvl 15)

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    Jan 2002
    Central, NJ, USA
    Heck, I've started more than one. But became unhappy with each of them before completing them. Either is didn't "work" or accomplish what I set out to do and that could be because of a perceived flaw or just because it wasn't better than anything else out there.

    Most annoying is having what I think is clever mechanic but that mathematically has some issues. Getting it to work is tilting at windmills.

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