Wednesday, October 02, 2013

What do RPGs amount to, what are you actually designing (if you do the whole thing)?

Just trying to get this straight in my mind.  I’ve never designed an entire RPG, and probably never will, nonetheless it’s well to know exactly what’s involved.

1)  A set of mechanics to govern play of the game - the actual “game design.”

2)  A world-setting, which could be a time (era) for familiar worlds (such as, medieval Europe or ancient Rome for an earth-like world), or an entirely different world that nonetheless may resemble Earth and earthly history in some ways.  E.g. Middle-earth, Spelljammer.

Some settings don’t make much difference to the play - they’re atmospheres, not themes.  In other cases, the setting makes a big difference to how the game is constructed and how it’s played.  Consider, say, AD&D settings like Spelljammer where there are many additional spells and such, and where the play tends to be quite different from the old standard “dungeon/wilderness exploration”.

World and setting are actually two separate-but-related things.  In our world there are lots of possible settings, but lots that are not possible (those involving magic or starships, e.g.).

3) This world-setting includes a definition of the state of technology (science) and magic.  At some point technology and magic look the same (remember Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic).  But technology tends to have scientific trappings while magic is usually wrapped in mystery.   Moreover, is there lots of magic or technology in the setting, or only a little?  Are “14th level wizards” (extraordinarily powerful wizards) common, or as rare as US senators (less than 1 in 3 million people), or unknown (in Third Age Middle-earth there was only one, Sauron) or somewhere in between?   Is magic used to substitute for functions where we in the real world use technology?  Does the populace approve of magic, or fear it?  Is magic based on religion, on the elements, on “mind-power”, etc.

4) The world setting, and even the rules, have a strong bearing on the stories that are part of RPGs.  But often the published game will include only some overarching stories that are wrapped up in the particular world setting, or maybe no stories at all.

5) Adventures.  Adventures are mostly published separately, though there may be introductory adventure(s) with the published game.  Adventures have their own stories within the context of the overall world-setting.  Maybe there's also an overarching story that affects all adventures (perhaps as simple as a war between good and evil), maybe not.

6) (Moral) Tone and (player) Angle.    This “player view” is something I added late in the day as I made this list.  I refer to the overall purpose and “world-view” of the game, from the players’ point of view.  This can be drastically altered by the referee, but each game starts somewhere.  Here is where we run into such tonal questions as “how black-and-white is the moral point of view”?  Some players like an RPG with the same kinds of moral gray areas that we might encounter in everyday life, where the bad guys don’t seem much different from the good guys.  Others like much greater clarity and separation, where they can KNOW that someone is a hero, or someone is a villain.  The other part of this concerns how the player interacts with the game.  Is he an actor playing a role, or is he participating vicariously in the action, putting himself into the game?  Is the game to be treated primarily as a wargame, or as a story, or as cinema, or where in between (or something else entirely)?  Once again, a referee can always push these viewpoints, but games begin somewhere: Fate, for example, is very much a cinematic game that would be hard to play as a wargame.  Most versions of D&D are much closer to wargame than to a story or cinematic game. 

In here somewhere is also the question of how “realistic” the game is intended to be.  RPGs are inherently unrealistic, I think, but some players want a game where disbelief can be suspended but not abandoned, as in a good novel, while others want something closer to the (thoroughly unbelievable) tentpole adventure movies like recent Star Wars and Indiana Jones IV.

Other notes:
A created world setting and story are both parts of fantasy-SF novels.  Though someone writing a "Star Wars" novel takes the already-existing setting and makes a story to fit within it.

A single world setting can be applied to many different sets of game rules, in general.  If we take “Tolkien-like fantasy world with elves and dwarves” as a brief description of a setting, many games use it.  Some settings will be closely tied to technology or game mechanics, many will not.

So there are games and worlds to devise, and adventures and stories to devise.  The tone and angle will be in the game, whether the designer chooses one consciously or not. 

If we wanted to narrow this down from six to three elements, it would be mechanics, world-settings, and adventures.  Most published RPG supplements focus on one of these elements, usually adventures or world-settings, that can be applied to many sets of mechanics. 


My brief, free, audio-visual class Introduction to Game Design is now open at  The "What You'll Discover" lecture from the course is on youtube at

My book “Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish" is available from or Amazon (paper or Kindle). (Books-a-Million has an eBook version at  It's currently discounted on Amazon to less than $26 for the paperback.

Audio-visual course Get a Job in the Video Game Industry, $15 (or use this coupon URL for 20% off): or use the coupon code: VideoGameJobs20%Off
30 day money-back guarantee.

YouTube Game Design channel:

I am @lewpuls on Twitter.  (I average much less than one post a day, almost always about games, not about other topics.)  Web:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My favorite bit in rpg design is that of implied setting-- these are all the little things in the rules that speak to the nature of the world/setting/tone of the game and that emerge naturally in the course of play without forcing the players or the referee to fully master the nuances of a long or detailed history, geography, or pile of census type data.

Closely related to this is the default campaign of a ruleset. This is what an average referee would be liable to run just on the basis of the rules alone.

Implied setting and the default campaign are taken for granted to such a degree, that players of a particular game often aren't even aware that the assumptions surrounding these things are a part of the game and its design. (And these sorts of things are the first things to get excised when a game is translated to a Generic Universal System.