D3 Words of Advice For RPG Design

There's been a flurry of design activity around Intwischa lately.  I think all of us have an original RPG system in the works, new campaigns are constantly being created, and I'm in the midst of building an original campaign world.  We've also been working on a re-design for the blog itself.  In addition, we recently got some very kind words from fellow bloggers about the design of many of our original generators published here.

Throughout the course of all these creative processes, various threads keep coming out: finding the right hook, keeping a consistent theme, the Three Questions, designing for players (yours or otherwise).  I've found that, in all of these efforts, three simple words provide me with the proper guidance when I start to stray away from my desired end; alliteration provided for your convenience.


All work and no play makes... well, makes for headaches.  I've cast aside more than one game system that was too complicated to learn.  Likewise, it's a challenge to really get immersed in a game that requires a wall-sized flow chart just to track all the salient NPCs or plot points that will prove vital to the players.  Intrigue is fine, and complexity can be rewarding.  However, to get people hooked on and using your design ideas, those ideas need some degree of accessibility.  While the system or the story may get more involved during future sessions you need to provide a simple, attainable entry into the game.

Our recent foray into Houses of the Blooded (HOTB) is a good example of how "keeping it simple" is vital to generating interest in a game.  We started with some very simple social scenarios, just to acquaint the players (and the game master) with the basic mechanics and narrative style.  The next session added a few more twists; Duels and Insults to be specific, both of which have very detailed rules sets in the game.  Next, we'll add another layer to our existing foundation; Romance and Politics will probably creep into the next encounter.  Chase's simplified approach to designing an evolving campaign has been far more appetizing than my introduction to HOTB: sitting down and reading the entire rules manual from cover to cover.

Chase has been aided in his approach by a streamlined 'introductory rules' document, published by the folks who brought us HOTB.  Recognizing that jumping feet-first into such an intricate game system might put off even the experienced player, the publishers have provided a lighter variant of the basic mechanics to get people playing.  To be honest, if this 'introductory rules' version didn't exist I don't know that we would have committed any time to the game.

I've also noticed that in the two most recent reviews of our site's original generators both bloggers commented on the ease of incorporating these tools into their games.  That leads me to believe that fellow gamers are more likely to be attracted to elements that display such simplicity and accessibility in design.  That's some good positive reinforcement to keep it simple.


Keeping it simple also facilitates the second "S" word.  When you have clear, accessible elements to your design it becomes much easier to make each of those elements significant.  There should be an intentional decision to include a certain character, or to take the plot in a certain direction.  Each element should have a reason for being, and that reason should be obvious before the game is through.

While plotting our epic Cabin Trip game through a fantasy desert kingdom, I had to strike a number of hooks and characters that were scheduled to appear.  The decision to remove them from the rotation was based solely on the fact they were no longer relevant to the game I was running.  Other elements took their place, elements that had an intentional effect or response I wanted to illicit from the group.  I'm proud to say that the majority of those moments worked, because they were significant.  They served a purpose, and weren't just there to fill space.  For me, a good way to test certain aspects of a design is to ask myself "Why would someone care that I've included this?" and/or "Will they really miss it if it's gone?".

If a game or system is taken over by too much 'fluff', that is, information or efforts that don't contribute directly to that game or system, it's almost impossible to gain any real investment from players.  Events seem arbitrary, and actions lack any real gravity or consequence.  Significant events rarely happen by accident; they must be engineered to have purpose and meaning.  Without these meaningful markers in our campaigns, the spell is broken and we all might as well be playing Yahtzee.


The structure of an adventure, encounter, or system is reflected in the mechanical order and balance of its design.  In other words, the design needs to make logical sense.  Character advancement needs to follow a patterned progression.  Benefits and detriments need to take effect in proportion to one another, or at least in proportion to the world around them.  There needs to be a natural flow to the design that connects events, characters, abilities, and players.

One of the main benefits of working on a structured design is trust.  Operating in an environment with a stable structure assures the players of a fair and reliable outcome.  It encourages them to act because they can trust that they stand some chance of success, even if that chance hangs on the edge of a D20.  A defined structure makes a design easier to learn and navigate, and promotes activity and involvement.

This logical progression is a priority for me when creating a new 'random generator' post, and I will frequently run tests to make sure that the structure I've built into the tool actually makes sense.  I'll roll up a few towns or ships or character flaws on my own, and see if the outcome is at least fair in the numbers and probabilities I've assigned to each choice.  If the results seem unbalanced, skewed, or just plain wrong then I know I need to make changes in the design.  Without a logical structure to the design, people will only flock to the strongest element and ignore the weaker aspects.  Alternately, they may make the characterful choice to embrace the weaker aspects, only to get punished by the mechanics (and the mathematics) during a game.

Much of the time spent on my original role playing system has been hashing out the numbers, running scores of test rolls, compiling the data , and analyzing the product.  Some of the variables make the game exciting, but a structural hole in the design quickly becomes apparent when certain results are unattainable or indistinguishable.  A big focus in my new system is weaponry, both the ranged and melee varieties.  While testing out the effectiveness of these weapons in roll after practice roll, it became apparent that many of the weapons' roles were identical, mathematically speaking.  They had the same likelihood of hitting their targets and the same capacity to damage them as several other options.  The structure of the weapons systems seemed too confining, and didn't offer the players enough unique choices.

This phenomenon shows that having structure isn't enough; you have to have a stable structure to make a game function correctly.  If the structure of a system is like a skeleton, I'd say that my game's skeleton previously had four legs, but no arms.  That gives me a stable foundation for a system, but isn't the right structure to function properly.  It's encouraging to find that I have enough to stand on, but I'm going to need more if I want it to survive.


One Response to D3 Words of Advice For RPG Design

  1. Pingback: Friday Knight News - Gaming Edition: 6-APR-2012 | Game Knight Reviews

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