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Creating an RPG

By Charlie Dougal

One of my many mottos is “If you’re going to do something either be lazy, or aim for something more difficult than you think you can handle… that way if you fail at least you fail at something hard.” Not my most concise motto, but you get the point. Oh and when I say RPG I am specifically referring to pen and paper (though many of the general ideas can be translated to video games).

The first piece of advice you should find when trying to research game design, is playtesting; Extra Credits covered this in their ‘fail faster’ episode and it’s one of Dice Tower’s ‘top ten tips for game designers’. As soon as you have a half or even quarter-baked idea for a game’s mechanics, test them; ask people who play similar games “Is the damage of a longsword in my game reasonable compared with a dagger?” and such, in fact these are questions that you should ask yourself first and then tweak your idea based on multiple opinions. It’s important to note that an expert opinion could be biased, and particularly in terms of playability you may even prefer to get advice from a more casual gamer. Also avoid asking leading questions or making leading statements, all comments are useful, though at the same time a player saying that “Fire ball is over-powered!” for example, does not necessarily mean that you need to decrease the damage on that spell, it could mean that the spell is too easily accessible given its damage, or that the mana cost is too low.

This second tip is also a generic truth; it is your game, makes sure it stays that way. Do not overhaul your entire system based on the whim of a small minority, especially if that minority is ill-informed. This is a similar issue as above; the player identifies the problem, it’s up to you to check if there is in fact a problem (e.g. make sure it wasn’t just luck) then make sure that it is resolved correctly.

Third, keep your ideas loose, if you spiral off and write all of the lore for your world and then find that mechanically it makes the game far too hectic and unmanageable, that’s when you get into a catch-22 situation. You know the mechanics have to change in order for the game to be playable, but you’re too invested in the work you’ve done on the story. So what’s the solution? Long story short, it’s probably to dissect the story from the game, make the story its own separate project and start the game from scratch. If that doesn’t appeal to you then you could re-iterate on your story as the mechanics mutate. The moral of the story is don’t dig yourself into a trench with any aspect of your work; the more open you leave each section the more room there is to adapt where needed; you can always add in the details once you’re done.

Fourth, keep everything organised; another good piece of general advice. Make sure everything is in the same place so you don’t have to waste time gathering things together, also make sure you have a back-up copy (the easiest way to do this is I found, is to have a copy on your computer and another on a flash-drive). And don’t worry about someone stealing your game, particularly pen and paper games are very hit-and-miss and it’s worth no company’s time, effort and risk to try to steal your ideas, plus if you have previous versions/notes available (which basically everyone making a game has) then they’d be screwed, which is one of the many reasons why this just doesn’t happen.

Fifth, balance and variety are two qualities you’ll want out of your RPG, these are more easily achieved if you adhere to the previous tips. However they also require imagination and/or research into other RPGs, so whilst you’re often thinking logically, remember it is important to think laterally, as well as find sources of inspiration. As for the issue of copyright, particularly in pen and paper this is rarely an issue (Pathfinder is total proof of that), if you’re adapting ideas from many sources (including yourself) into your own unique experience, then you’re 100% cast-iron safe (after all, every piece of art from the Mona Lisa to Smells Like Teen Spirit was inspired by something that came before it). When it comes to different ways a character can be built and played they all need to be a viable options; for example, if in most of situations a tank (shield, heavy armour, high hit points, moderate melee damage) is more effective than a rogue (light armour, medium hit points, high melee damage, moderate to low ranged damage, thief skills) then who in their right minds would play a rogue!? No one, exactly, which would make that character path a complete waste. It helps to have experience and use common sense; typically speaking someone wielding a weapon in/with both hands should have an easier time dishing out damage than someone wielding a weapon and shield, however the shield should give a defensive boost in some way; also a character in heavy armour should be better at resisting damage from regular weapons, conversely a character in lighter armour should typically move faster. I could probably write a whole page of damage alone, but I think I’ve said enough already, time to move on to another topic (more credit to Extra Credits) ‘differences in scale versus differences in kind’. Now differences in scale are things like tougher enemies of weapons that are more accurate, there’s nothing wrong with these as they are necessary for level progression (assuming your game has such a mechanic), the problem is if this is all there is then the “best-builds” (the best character archetypes and the best abilities and equipment for that archetype) are easily calculable (assuming someone has the time to figure them out, which inevitably someone will… seriously people have even done this with Pokemon for crying out loud! It’s called “EV training” if you want to look it up). In order to avoid your game being ‘solvable’ and thereby risk it being reduced to a series of equations, rather than the font of fun it was intended to be, is to add ‘differences in kind’; this could be as straight forward as varying enemy and encounter types (a good puzzle or role-playing an intriguing story are often better than a battle, particularly if you’ve done nothing but fight for the last 5 hours of the game), or it can come in the form of incomparable abilities. Incomparable options are any two or more options where none are clearly superior to another, for example if you have the choice between and ability that stuns an enemy or one that allows you to teleport away? Depends on the situation; if you’re dealing with a manageable number of enemies or you wish to capture one of them, then stunning would be more useful; if you need to traverse difficult terrain quickly, teleport is best; and if you’re trying to capture a guy whose escaping across difficult terrain then they could both be useful, it’s up to you which one you prefer (unless of course you can have both).

Sixth, practise speaking in public, this is of course useful in the world at large, and brings me to another motto “If you don’t speak, who’s gonna listen?” truer words were never spoken by someone too shy to speak (I think you’ll find that logic to be flawless). The fact remains that if you don’t speak up as a player, then your character may never develop. The troubles are far greater for the GM (game master) because whilst you are running the game, you are also narrating the bulk of the story; being able to improvise something and say it with confidence, will help greatly in making your games run smoothly.

Finally, know your game inside out. If there’s an aspect of your game you don’t know then you should at least know where to look and have that place be easily accessible. Should you find that aspect is missing improvise something reasonable for the meantime; the most important thing is to keep the game flowing, you can refine your new ideas after watching how the players deal with it.

There you go folks, seven suggestions to get you to grips with RPG design. See ya at the tabletop!

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