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 reader’s poll.

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Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

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 don’t 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, it’s not a place to make money unless you’re extraordinarily lucky (it’s 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!
 
Lewis Pulsipher

Comments

Blue

Orcus on a bad hair day
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".
 

Celebrim

Legend
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?
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
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.
 

aramis erak

Explorer
Missing from the Poll:
  • Part of a competition
  • codifying one's houserules into a standalone. (Especially popular in the OSR)
  • OCD
 

PMárk

Explorer
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.
 

LordEntrails

Adventurer
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 :)
 
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.
 

jmucchiello

Adventurer
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.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Most annoying is having what I think is clever mechanic but that mathematically has some issues. Getting it to work is tilting at windmills.
At least you are wise enough to realize that.

I feel the same way every time I try to get a FUDGE based system to work for me.
 

Jraynack

Visitor
I’m near the end of developing a true, deckbuilding RPG. Two things brought me inspiration:

1 - To culminate my 30+ years as a Game Master and 15+ years of game design into a single system.

2 - More importantly, to offer a different role play and gaming experience compared to what’s come before.

It’s been a challenge, but that is also what drew me to the task. I knew, when I began my career in game design, even with the flexibility of the OGL over the years, creating a new system would become an eventuality for me.
 

jmucchiello

Adventurer
At least you are wise enough to realize that.

I feel the same way every time I try to get a FUDGE based system to work for me.
Oh, I've failed to realize a lot of things as soon as I should have. :)

In D&D3.0 days, I tried to make a superhero game. I picked the worst part of 3.0 to use as my core: the skill system with its class and crossclass points to have a class based superhero game. So I don't remember specifically, but say "blast" is a power. For some classes "blast" would be a class power and other a crossclass power so the cost of "blast" varied by class. And thus, if you multiclassed, its cost varied by when you bought ranks in it. (Ugh.) I had to have it beaten into me by online forums how bad an idea this was.

Otherwise, it was a rather lovely system. Some of the powers look exactly like modern Mutants & Masterminds powers.
 

Blue

Orcus on a bad hair day
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.
I've been working on-and-off on two RPG systems. Here's just one facet of one of them, I'd be glad to play this if it's already out there. Can you let me know where?

Resolution system of variable levels of granularity based on the players interest in a scene. So with the same rough resolution something very interesting might be in-depth (like D&D combat), mid depth (like a 4e skill challenge if they had reasonable mechanics) or light (a few rolls tops).

Mind you that player interest and character importance are NOT always in sync. Some thing of lower importance are things the player want to focus on, and sometimes things like "another combat" may have real risks but isn't something the players want to spend a lot of time on.

(I'm dealing with player interest with an escalation system that starts at the lowest level of detail and allows growth.)

That resolution system can map to differing challenge types, be it fisticuffs, seduction, aerial dogfighting, politicians dueling with rhetoric and showmanship for a crowd, navigating Indiana Jones style traps at a dead run, learning to pilot an alien skyship, or multiple success/failure tracks at once (that may be partially mutually exclusive).

It can also handle longer-than-a-scene challenges, such as wooing the prince's hand in marriage, and longer-than-a-scene impacts. Pissing off the crime boss in one scene might make it easy to make him play on "tilt" in a poker scene later, or might have some less happy consequences if he catches you cheating.
 

TheFool1972

Explorer
I did my time in the rpg industry. After a while, I moved on the the digital gaming market, and made more income per month than I did in a year in paper and pencil. A sad truth, really. Every so often, someone calls on me to help with bridging the gap in some way, but not very often.

I would really like to see the rpg industry be viable again, but facts are, it’s heavily over saturated.
 

Saelorn

Adventurer
While there are a million games already out there, and there's probably something that would satisfy exactly what any frustrated GM is looking for, actually finding it is significantly less likely. By making your own system, you know that it's exactly what you want, with none of what you don't want.

As for the idea that we should settle for just using the popular systems, learn those, and focus on writing adventures... well, there's a reason why so few award-winning games are made in RPG Maker. It doesn't matter whether a system is technically sufficient, because a purpose-built system will always blow it out of the water when it comes to doing the thing it's designed for.
 

Celebrim

Legend
That resolution system can map to differing challenge types, be it fisticuffs, seduction, aerial dogfighting, politicians dueling with rhetoric and showmanship for a crowd, navigating Indiana Jones style traps at a dead run, learning to pilot an alien skyship, or multiple success/failure tracks at once (that may be partially mutually exclusive).
This is a laudably ambitious goal which many have tried before but so far failed. Good luck to you in your endeavors, but I have certain suspicions about this goal that make me believe that it is unobtainable, at least in the sense that prior designers have imagined.

It can also handle longer-than-a-scene challenges, such as wooing the prince's hand in marriage, and longer-than-a-scene impacts. Pissing off the crime boss in one scene might make it easy to make him play on "tilt" in a poker scene later, or might have some less happy consequences if he catches you cheating.
The catch with this sort of flexibility is that you aren't actually creating the rules of a game, you are just creating the metarules of a game. That is to say, you have only told the GM running the game how he might go about creating the rules for the game using what is essentially a rule set generator, and not actually told him what the game rules are to be. This means that your system actually takes what is normally considered part of the games rules and makes it part of the games preparation to play. That is to say, you've given a set of templates for creating minigames, but you are leaving it up to the GM to actually implement these minigames in an appropriate fun creating way. And while that is true of all RPGs to a large extent, your system makes that even more true, in that both the encounter must be designed and the rules for handling that encounter designed.

And here is the problem. In doing so, you are not solving a problem a GM normally has. You are adding to the burdens a GM faces a new problem - not only must the GM create a narrative and a conflict, but now they must also decide what system to use to during play, and what sort of game system to create to represent the game which is used to resolve a particular problem. The risk you have by having an abstract resolution system which can map to many wildly different particular challenges is that in practice the GM will tend to leave the system abstract and so not compelling for that challenge, or else adopt the wrong approach to running the scene.

What I've found of these systems in the past is that they don't really provide the would be GM with well designed and compelling examples of play. For example, to pick on my current favorite whipping post, consider the disparity to be found in the imagination that went into creating the mechanics of the 'Mouse Guard' RPG, compared to the imagination that went into creating the examples of play. The only examples of play are drawn from episodes in the 'Mouse Gaurd' comics, but are typically short and are not really convincing - that is, they don't convince me that they were play tested and created compelling narratives. Rather, they strike me as adaptations of a story into mechanical form, but it's not clear to me that the when the handle is cranked, stories come back out the other side. In fact, based on my experience with them, they probably don't. Nowhere in all the attention to detail is there any sign someone created a long form imaginative story with this rules set and then upon playing through it and refining it, transmitted that experience and lessons learned out to new GMs. Anyone looking for a published campaign for 'Mouse Gaurd' will come up empty handed.

There is some reason to wonder whether a rules generator is actually telling a GM anything that they don't already intuit even if they haven't formally written it down. A lot of games define simple mechanics but not processes of play, leading to tables adapting those mechanics or more or less complex combinations when faced with situations not well covered by the rules. Granularity in the resolution of something based on the interest people have in the thing isn't actually novel. The handwave is already a part of pretty much everyone's tool set.

My advice would be to focus in a concrete manner on the sort of conflicts you consider core to your game, and make sure that you have a defined high resolution minigame specific to that conflict provided as a template for the process of play in that sort of conflict which is actually fun to game. The same rules for fisticuffs aren't going to apply to seduction or aerial dogfighting or oratory and rhetoric or evading a gauntlet of traps or what have you, because the concrete fictional states in those conflicts don't correspond to each other. And if your minigame does not aid in the imagining the fictional states, then it will get in the way of imagining the fictional states.
 
I made a basic system a long time ago, which I only recently decided to dig out, clean-up, and put out there on DriveThruRPG. I did it because: 1) I liked the challenge. 2) At the time, there weren't many quick and dirty systems out there that did what I was using the system for when designing and play-testing it. There were a couple, but I didn't care for some elements of the mechanics.
 

Henry

Autoexreginated
To me, reasons #1 and #6 are the most valid reasons for doing so remaining; if you see a genuine unfilled need (which I’d argue your #5 also fits into #1) or sheerly for the creative-yearning Hell of it. In my younger days (as noted in the other “have you ever designed a standalone RPG” poll thread) I messed with a post-apoc RPG until realizing I was a hobbyist as a designer at best, did not possess the drive to take it further, and just focused my RPG time on gaming and went to other interests.
 

pemerton

Legend
I've been working on-and-off on two RPG systems. Here's just one facet of one of them, I'd be glad to play this if it's already out there. Can you let me know where?

Resolution system of variable levels of granularity based on the players interest in a scene. So with the same rough resolution something very interesting might be in-depth (like D&D combat), mid depth (like a 4e skill challenge if they had reasonable mechanics) or light (a few rolls tops).

Mind you that player interest and character importance are NOT always in sync. Some thing of lower importance are things the player want to focus on, and sometimes things like "another combat" may have real risks but isn't something the players want to spend a lot of time on.

(I'm dealing with player interest with an escalation system that starts at the lowest level of detail and allows growth.)

That resolution system can map to differing challenge types, be it fisticuffs, seduction, aerial dogfighting, politicians dueling with rhetoric and showmanship for a crowd, navigating Indiana Jones style traps at a dead run, learning to pilot an alien skyship, or multiple success/failure tracks at once (that may be partially mutually exclusive).

It can also handle longer-than-a-scene challenges, such as wooing the prince's hand in marriage, and longer-than-a-scene impacts. Pissing off the crime boss in one scene might make it easy to make him play on "tilt" in a poker scene later, or might have some less happy consequences if he catches you cheating.
HeroWars/Quest does this - it's at the heart of the system.

Prince Valiant can also do this, though sometimes not as elegantly as HeroWars/Quest.

Burning Wheel can also do this, though it's less elegant again than Prince Valiant ouside of physical and social conflict.
 

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