Sunday, 24 August 2014

[Design Talk] What Does an RPG Need?

Hello World,

I have been doing a lot of research lately, reading as many systems as I possibly can. In doing so I have learned so much about what an RPG needs to be an RPG. Depending on your background in tabletop you may have very different thoughts on this, but here is a pretty standard list of what the average player thinks needs to be in an RPG.

-A GM who creates the story and the world
- A group of players each controlling one character
-Levels and experience
-A detailed combat system

Those all seem pretty important and appear in one form or another in most common RPGs on today’s market. But RPGs don’t need any of these to be considered good or functioning. Many systems may only have one or two of these traits, forgoing the rest.

Let’s take a look a Fiasco for example,

Fiasco is a game about collaborative story telling in which there is no DM. Each player has equal bearing on the world and how the story plays out. As such players may be responsible for roleplaying multiple characters. Due to the disastrous nature of Fiasco plots, games generally don’t last more than one session, thus forgoing the need for Levels, Classes, and a Combat system.  Although Fiasco uses dice it isn’t in the method we are used to seeing. Dice are used to determine what fiasco befalls the plot, only being rolled only a few times a session.

If you are interested in learning about fiasco, Tabletop did an episode on it :

You may be thinking that while Fiasco breaks a lot of the traits it is not the type of game you think of when you talk about a conventional tabletop RPG. But that’s just the problem, so many of the novice designers I see and meet only have experience with a handful of similar systems.  How can you gain a full understanding of something if you don’t look at all it has to offer? The tabletop industry is huge and diverse, with new systems being released every week. But the majority of players only play a small handful of these systems.  It’s like only eating vanilla ice cream, yes you can put chocolate chips in it, or nuts and make a different dish, but at its core it’s still the same flavour. You may like vanilla ice cream, but you are missing out on a whole world of flavours if you don’t at least try the others.

Here is an appropriate quote from Martin Yan

“People who don’t travel cannot have a global view, all they see is what’s in front of them. Those people cannot accept new things because all they know is where they live”

I encourage all players and potential designers to try systems that do things a bit differently. Some good examples are as follows.

Ars Magica – A Fantasy RPG focused on creating a wizarding community. Each player controls a Magus, their lieutenant, and their henchman. It also has a great freeform magic system which puts shame to spell lists
My Life With Master – Winner of the Diana Jones Award in 2004. This game lets players assume the role of Igor like minions working under a tyrannical Leader. This game does a fantastic job handling dark and horrific tones.

The Valedictorian’s Death – A great and creative system in which players use an old high school yearbook to create a setting and assume the identities of senior class members , in the weeks leading to the valedictorian’s death. Also its free and under 2000 worlds, so give it a read.

Buring Wheel – A more traditional Tolkien style RPG but with heavy focus on character growth and limited use of dice rolls. A good transitional system if you are coming from a purely DnD/Pathfinder background.

Dogs in the Vineyard – An RPG in which players take the role of “Gods watchdogs” travelling from town to town freeing it of sin and vice.  This uses a great free form conflict resolution which uses dice in a poker style bid system.

I could go on and on listing systems which incorporate interesting Ideas or mechanics but I am going to cut it off at these five. Between the games I just listed and Fiasco it is clear to see how different tabletop RPGs can be.  At the start of this post I purposed the question, what does an RPG need to be an RPG, the answer is nothing. There is no set formula or outline that one has to follow in order to make an RPG. If you are making one of your own you have to have a clear understanding of what is at the heart of your game. Why do people want to play it? Once you know that you can begin to expand upon the game and add mechanics that deliver upon that core.

As an example my last post I discussed how I had run into problems with my RPG, and that it was becoming a fantasy heart breaker. After talking with Fred Hicks and some other professionals in the industry I decided to take a step back and look at what my system was trying to deliver. At its core fellowship is the aesthetic I am trying to resonate with. I had to look at how to best invoke that aesthetic in my players. It was at that point I realized that a system in which one person is the DM is not the way to go. By creating that separation, it already makes it harder for all of the players (including the DM) to work together. By switching to a game with rotating GM responsibilities, it allows all the players to have their hands in the world and the story. This along with many other changes has helped me change my game from a heartbreaker to something I am proud of and can’t wait to play.

Hopefully In the next couple weeks I will have a playtest document up for players to enjoy.  If you wish to receive playtest document as they are released feel free to sign up as a playtester on the right hand side. You can also stay up to date on blog posts by following my on Google+.

Thanks for reading,


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