Creating a New Table-top RPG System, Part 3

GenCon 2018

Today I’m going to diverge from my ramblings to share my experiences at GenCon 2018. Specifically, I’m going to review my hand-written notes and present them here in a format that’s readable and, more importantly, applies to what I’m trying to do.

I attended several seminars at GenCon, and for most, I did not take notes. Several were more about writing, including listening to and learning from masters like Terry Brooks and David Brin.

Most of my notes were from the RPG Design and Publishing seminar. Without further ado…

What is game design?
a. It is an opportunity to share an experience with someone I’ve never met.
b. It is a recipe.
c. It is fun for me and my friends.
d. It is an opportunity to push or facilitate a story.

What is the game about?
Can the description be distilled into an elevator pitch? Sometimes it is best described with a metaphor.

How does your game do this?
Is it another game that has been hacked or reskinned?
If it is a new system, it must be play-tested and must have an editor
(An editor is NOT a proof-reader, and the editor CANNOT be you. An editor is someone who will challenge every decision you’ve made.)

How does your game encourage and reward this?
What is the mechanism supporting the style of play you’re trying to get?
What is the carrot for the players and their characters?
How do you get players to do something interesting and avoid the “easy” path?
Missing or omitted rules are an important consideration. Leaving things out is just as important a design decision as putting them in.

(Sidebar question: If leaving out rules or mechanics is as important a design decision as putting them in, what systems can be created without this? For example, can I create an RPG with no combat mechanic?)

How do you make it fun and engaging?
Subject matter
Don’t try to please everyone. Make the game fun for me. Make the game I want to make.
Does this game already exist? If so, go play it!
Don’t try to change the market. You won’t succeed.

At this point, the seminar discussed something they called “Old Forge Theory.”

Resolution systems
a. Random chance
b. Drama (aka Narrative)
c. Karma (fixed)

Structure components
a. System: mechanics and rules
b. Setting
c. Situation: context, why?
d. Subtext: intentions

(Sidebar question: What is the endgame or ultimate goal of the system?)

Who is leading the story? What role does the designer have?
Setting expectations
Don’t lie to your players.

Playtesting is the process of design iteration.
a. Alpha: does the idea work?
b. Beta: Flesh out the idea. Work out the kinks.
c. Blind: Can someone run the game without me being there?
d. Textual: Can someone find gaps, errors, and contradictions in the written rules?

Playtesting conversation/technique: Roses and Thorns
Give me one thing you like and one thing you didn’t like.

Create an “Ashcan” version: a shortened trial version of the game (20-pages max)

Common pitfalls new designers face when publishing:
a. Vanity: Remember the first thing you publish will probably suck. Vanity is a waste of time and money and you’ll end up with a garage full of unsellable books.
b. Don’t compete, because you CAN’T. *find your own audience*
c. There are NO shortcuts.
d. Don’t be a self-publisher unless you WANT to be a publisher.
e. Don’t quit your day job.

Before you start, know where you want to end up. What is your dream? Your goal?

It is estimated that the entire table-top RPG industry is worth $55 million. Half of which is D&D and Paizo (Pathfinder). There’s room, but don’t expect to be big.

The industry rewards longevity and building on prior successes and failures. Reinvest in yourself.

Expenses (be willing to barter – trade services for services, but value both sides accordingly)
a. Freelance writers charge MINIMUM of $0.05 per word. If you’re a writer, don’t work for less.
b. Editors and proofreaders. You NEED a development editor
a. Clarifies vision, etc. This should be the First person you hire
b. Has a holistic view
c. Artist create a huge value-add to your work. “A picture is worth a thousand words.” (Do the math). Also, know the language of artists, terms like Bleed, DPI, etc.
d. Layout Artist. Don’t use MS Word.
e. Printing:
a. P.O.D. via RPGNow, good for <100 sales
b. Digital Run, good for <500 sales
c. Offset printing, good for >500 sales
f. Kickstarter
g. Distribution and retail
h. Shipping (it is ALWAYS more than you think it will be)
i. Marketing

Final question: Do I want to be a publisher?

Join IGDN (Inde game designers network), membership is $100.00 per year. A trial membership is available for half that.

Know WHEN to step away. Do I want to be in business, or just be a designer? At what point am I willing to cross that line? What is my level of tolerance?


Now that I’ve reproduced my notes, it’s time for me to interpret them in terms on what it is I’m trying to do.

In my prior articles, I’ve written about various ideas for mechanics, but I don’t feel like I’ve settled on some of the core questions. Attending these seminars (not just the RPG design sessions) was like a knock in the head with a two-by-four. Something I needed.

Let’s sidetrack for a moment. The writing seminars, and, especially, the sessions where I listened to Terry Brooks and David Brin speak and answer questions, gives me a lot of encouragement toward working on my writing, which I believe is one of my best talents. If you haven’t read my poetry or the story I’m working on, you should.

Speaking of the story, I’ve decided to hold off working on it right now, in favor of a couple smaller projects I want to get off my plate. Prioritize! Arg… Tangent off the side track: What are my current priorities?

1. Get Final Exam into a publishable state. Speaking with Steve Crompton, representing Flying Buffalo, this T&T solo needs to be broken up into two separate adventures. As of this writing, I’m basically done with Part 1 and ready to forward it to Steve – though I’d like to run through some play-testing first.
2. Keep up with the blogging. This article (and the subsequent articles) and the poetry. Posting Brenda’s isn’t a problem other than staying ahead of schedule. In less than an hour, I can type up a handful of her poems from her hand-written book. Usually a week or two at a time. For my own poetry, every poem I’ve written (that I know of) is typed. Not all of them are posted, but most of them are. Finally, there are some general articles I want to write, but they are low priority right now.
3. Keep up with the two D&D groups. Fortunately, most of the work is done. However, I do spend a couple hours each week adding new material and making sure everything is prepared for upcoming sessions.
4. Publishable Supplements: There are a few things I can publish, or work toward getting published, that are supplements to D&D. The first is the Revised Wild Magic Surge table. The second is the Three Dragon Ante deck mini-quest series. There is an issue with the dragon deck, however – WotC has not released the deck for OGL in 5e. I must wait for that. Publishing on RPGNow and/or DMsGuild will go further to build my own name recognition, which will boost my credibility when dealing with editors and publishers in the future.
5. SligoDB. This is the database application I’ve been working on over the past several months. It’s a labor of love that has no commercial value. However, my goal is for it to replace a lot of the pen-and-paper work I do presently.
6. This RPG development project. I have an ulterior motive. It’s not necessarily that I want to publish a new game and become a successful, world-renown designer, but I want to create a sustainable system that will work for my D&D setting…
7. Kabize: And here’s the rub. I DO want this story to be publishable! In the current blog format, there are two major hurdles relating to Intellectual Property (IP), and I must deal with a MAJOR criticism I received from a reader, which prevents me from publishing.
a. I need to sanitize my story so that I don’t use D&D-specific terms, like Tabaxi, names of spells, etc. For this, I need my own fully-developed and defined system, which includes its own races, classes, magic system, and so on.
b. I need to ensure all Steeleye Span content is addressed properly. If a song is an adaptation of an old ballad, I can use it, provided I go back to the original, public domain text. If the song is under copyright protection, theoretically, I can use two lines, properly quoted and referenced. Any more than that I’d be subject to losing half my income to the recording industry. It’s safer if I just edit it out.
c. The major criticism I received is that through 17 chapters, the reader didn’t have a clear concept of the story’s plot.
I find myself in the position where I need to rewrite the entire story from the beginning. In doing so, I need to incorporate the advice I received from the masters.
8. Neuith: In support of the RPG and Kabize’s story, I’d like to turn the entire Neuith setting into a publishable work. This would be to support my own RPG system, not D&D, where I’m presently running it. I’m talking a couple years down the road, but it’s on my radar.

I’m done with the sidetrack tangent.

The above priority list clarifies one important aspect of RPG design for me. I need an RPG system to support my setting world and Kabize’s story that is distinct from existing IP, yet still fulfills the needs for me and any players of this system.

Within this context, I can now document a lot of what is in my head regarding the setting. Even if it’s stuff that will never be printed in a rule book or setting book, I want it written. I can start giving answers to the design questions with clarity and conviction. A week or so ago, I couldn’t, because I was just poking and prodding ideas.

It doesn’t change my goals and desires. It gives them focus.

Let’s go through some of the questions and see what comes out. It’s likely the answers will change as development progresses, but this is a start. (It’s also likely I may contradict something I’ve stated previously. Oh well.)

What is the Game about?
SligoRPG (my working title) is a game based on a setting where physics and science meet supernatural in a new and innovative way. It is a fantasy world where magic is derived from heavy-metal radiation, not from divine or other traditional sources. Conversely, it is not based on mutation in the sense of many superhero systems.

Is it a hack or reskin of another game?
While heavily influenced by many games, such as D&D, T&T, Pathfinder, Savage Worlds, Shadowrun, and other games, it is my goal that this game’s mechanics are distinct and unique. Several core design decisions are made that differentiate it from other systems, like “no negative modifiers,” “meaningful, untransformed attributes,” etc.

How does your game do this?
There are two basic, core mechanics: Physical Task Resolution and Social Task Resolution. Physical task resolution will be covered by opposed die rolls where the actor (attacker, active player) rolls a die and the acted-upon (defender, inactive player) rolls a die. The die rolls are compared, and a single chart is consulted to report the outcome of the action. Social Task Resolution is handled by role-playing.

How does your game reward this?
Again, “this” can mean a lot of things. Other than the “rewarding” experience of playing the game, SligoRPG will have a robust and sensible character development and improvement system.

How do the mechanics support the style of play I’m striving for?
One of my primary goals is to eliminate die rolls for social interaction encounters. I want to encourage players and game masters to role-play through them. The easy path is for a player to say, “I want to intimidate the guard into letting me through the gate.” Dice are rolled, and the GM gives a binary response – pass or fail. In this system, the player needs to speak for their character and the GM needs to speak for the NPC.

What makes this game fun and engaging?
Since there are no social stats, stats are only relevant to combat abilities. This prevents the min/max philosophy of the “dump stat.” By extension, characters will be better balanced. I believe having balanced characters is the first step toward a fun experience. The over-arching story is key to a fun game, which, as the designer, I have limited control. Conversely, there are parts I can control. The physical task resolution system is abstracted to a level that doesn’t require a degree in math to resolve, yet still retains the better aspects of tactical board-game combat.

Can you explain the resolution systems?
Random chance is a major component in physical task resolution. As stated before, it engages both the actor and the acted-upon. Even if the acted-upon is an inanimate object, it still gets a die roll. There is never a “fixed” difficulty level. The resolution chart is scaled so that both differences in skill levels and the differences in the die rolls are considered. By using this chart, we’re able to go beyond the binary yes/no or success/fail resolution because the result considers the spread between the two die rolls. The greater the spread, the more effective (or ineffective) the result.

For social task resolution, this is all at the discretion of the players and the game master. It is narrative based, and the players must role-play their characters to succeed.

Who is leading the story?
Ultimately, the game master establishes the story and the plot. The players participate by taking on the roles of the heroes. Their decisions and actions should always be a primary driver of the story as they progress from one scene or encounter to the next.

What role do I, as the designer, have?
I aim to create a system that can be used to support the what I’ve outlined. The last thing I want to see is for the rules to get in the way of the narrative. I believe a solid, lightweight system where there’s a good balance between abstraction and detail, is critical to achieving my stated goals.

3 thoughts on “Creating a New Table-top RPG System, Part 3

  1. I think it would be a good idea for me to answer all these questions for my own two games.

    I am glad you are thinking of your strengths of writing a poetry. Maybe the more those can be brought into your game design the better the game could be. Or maybe they don’t need to be part of a game, but just supportive of it. hmmm.


  2. I have now written answers for all of the questions for both of my games.

    I notice that you answered all of the questions for your upcoming game except “What is the carrot for the players and their characters?”

    I am having trouble with that one for my games too.


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