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!

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Anthony cloak

First Post
RPG now stands for, "Roll Playing Game" and not, "Role Playing Game" clears. It is a game which allows you to develop your character with lots of fun & adventures, according to your desired way and there are many of them. RPGs is a game in which each participant assumes the role of a character, generally in a fantasy or science fiction setting, that can interact within the game's imaginary world rather than reality. These games are so wide in variety but I tend to look for three main components when it comes to excellent RPGs: great storytelling, complex game play, and solid character progression. Best RPG games are as follow:
1. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
2. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
3. Diablo II
4. Final Fantasy VII
5. Fallout: New Vegas
6. Baldur's Gate II
7. Dragon Age

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First Post
I voted the "working on" option.

When I was young, going from teens into my early twenties, I had surrounded myself with various RPGs I ordered out of the Wargames West catalog in the States. I started designing one using playing cards, but didn't get far.

Now twenty odd years later, I'm showing my daughter and step-kids the wonders of RPGs. I had been out ofcthe scene for a while but still had my old AD&D/C&C books. Violence was a worry in the early part of my new marriage so I kept the teens playing C&C while I came up with something for my younger ones. I selected a deck of cards for resolutions as now I'm stepping on dice left on the floor. I had forgotten my old game idea until after going through sold old backup CD-R's and finding my old RPG notes I was recreating it! Talk about hand of fate....

Anyway, violence tensions have eased but my kids still want me to make it. We have played only a session as my step kids' virtual school sucks a lot of time and I only get my daughter overnight a couple times a week. It's been hard to make the game as one gets filled with self doubt as I want to share this but with all the options out there, it's daunting. On top of that just the sheer amount of work involved can kick in procrastination.

I finally have a combat and action resolution done in a way I like. The world, which I went with a fantasy anthropomorphic animal approach, is fleshed in my head and a bit on paper. The spell system originally was going to be free form (come up with an action and effect, consult table for spell cost, etc.) but I'm rethinking that. Character creation needs a rework with my new ideas but something will pop in my brain.

Should be a fun endeavor. The trick is sticking with it.


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?

The next horizon is more adventure products design with use at the table in mind. There are less adventures written because making a "good" one is hard. Reassembling existing mechanics into new shapes is much easier. That is why you see more games than game content.

Not that I haven't published my own ttrpg :-S

But I did include an intro adventure with it!

Why Would Anyone Write a RPG? …
… Of course, there are lots of tongue-in-cheek reasons, which I'll leave to readers to convey.
… you asked for it:

Because you couldn't write the Great American Novel, so you...

… tried writing screen plays and couldn't, so you …

… tried writing short stories, and couldn't, so you …

… tried writing an RPG, and everyone was impressed how literate and readable it was!

… or not, so you tried writing forum posts, and got a few laughs now and then. :(


Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
RPG now stands for, "Roll Playing Game" and not, "Role Playing Game" clears.

I really have to disagree. There are more and more narrative games doing well on the market, and some of the most old-school (even D&D) are including mechanics to support and reward RP instead of just their wargaming roots.

There's a lot out there, I think it's tunnel vision to say that the state of RPGs has moved away from Role Playing.


Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
I’m near the end of developing a true, deckbuilding RPG.

I'm cheering you on.

I've played around with ideas on deckbuilding as your character sheet / randomness generator / RP+stay-in-character encouragement, especially toward including wounds as null or negative cards in your deck. But the best I've managed are mechanics that support some narrow subset of play (combat, whatever) without the same level of support for clever and ad-hoc maneuvers.

I've worked on a deck as opportunities that a player can take advantage of, in general categories so not relation to specific types of actions - just as meaningful for picking a lock as scamming a mark. But the deck mechanic was weak in "unstructured" time, and was open to gaming by players looking to set up situations of enough importance to shift the hands and decks in preparation of more critical scenes ahead - a meta gaming of system that perhaps could have been cool if I could have worked it into the narrative instead, perhaps as resource building or even the equivalent of a movie's training montage.

Either way, I think there's fertile ground for using something besides numbers for randomness.

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
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. <...> 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?

I was looking at a Dark Sun adventure recently and, lo and behold, it had most of what you discuss in it. It had high production values, lots of pictures and play aids, and the writing was solid and well-edited. How thoroughly was it playtested I can't comment on but I recall a lot of the mid '90s TSR stuff and it was really high quality. al-Qadim was, similarly, very well-executed. The issue is that this level of polish is expensive. Lest we forget, TSR went bankrupt in not too long after that material was released and ended up being bought out by WotC.

Beyond that, really detailed adventures for new GMs are, in my view, a lot like writing super detailed performance guides for complicated pieces of music that end up providing too much information for a newbie to cope with. A newbie needs to learn good fundamentals and probably can't dive into running something really complicated right away.


I'm cheering you on.

Thanks, that is most welcomed, and, well, I must admit, it’s been a long journey since my Kickstarter for the project failed almost 8 years ago.

It was a difficult task to create a true RPG (rather than a board game variant) into a deckbuilder, but a good one.

Aside from my own gaming experience for the past 30+ years, I’ve read hundreds of RPG systems and combed thousand of posts, learning what players saw as strengths and weaknesses in RPGs in general.

I absorbed all that to offer a different role play experience, all the while creating a game to allow the stories I want to tell, and I believe I’ve done both.

My goal was to focus on role play, but still kept a solid system in place to determine success and failure.

For one, I eliminated target numbers (the game does have a difficulty system), so instead of counting modifiers and adding numbers together, players role play their characters as they play action cards. Each action card is tied to an ability.

Second, the character deck possesses a series of algorithms, like a computer program, running in the background (so to speak).

It keeps track of fatigue, wounds, and sustainability against damage, among other things. It is also serves as a timekeeper for special abilities, such as mana for spells.

This later feature allows characters to cast spells whenever they like, and places the burden on players as to the amount of magic they cast as well as the power level. This eliminated the need for a Vancian or spell slot/points magic system. Players must balance their own magic ability or suffer consequences.

I’ve learned the character deck is essential for the Game Master and players to focus on the story and describe cinematic actions, without being bogged down with numerous dice rolls and math.

As you can see, I’m pretty excited. I’ve kept it under wraps for many years and now feel I can start talking about it - almost like a castaway being rescued from a deserted island.

I should be making a pre-announcement soon, and launching a Kickstarter later this year to help fund artwork.

If you wish to follow the progress, it is Alea Publishing Group ( or Facebook). Though, I haven’t updated the website in a while, so it might have much older info pertaining to the game.

As a small publisher, a lot of what I designed is deep under the radar, therefore my credentials suffer that fate as well, but I did design Blood Magic. It turned out to be somewhat notable over at DMSGuild.
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Deluxe Unhuman
I've written one, with a friend, and did it after many conversations with said friend about RPGs and what I liked, didn't like, etc. He suggested some ideas, did a lot of the footwork, worked out some mechanics, and I pulled it all together and did a lot of writing.

It was a system that used multiple d20s, which represented a characters basic ability to do stuff, and as you used them, got hurt, tired, etc., you would move the dice around into one or more of 3 sections in a bowl. I found 3-compartment Tupperware-like things to implement this.

It worked really well. It was effectively a resource-management system, with the resource being your dice pool, or at least the number of dice in your pool that you currently have access to, that aren't currently committed to something else. It was probably too complicated and/or "gimmicky", but I liked it.

I also really like editing down text to make things crystal clear, and I'm very good at it, so that was satisfying.

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