Game Design Hour: The 4 most useful RPG design things I know

Posted by on April 6, 2017
'Right in the thick of it' by Nic McPhee

‘Right in the thick of it’ by Nic McPhee

Do you want to design a tabletop game?

I’ve designed a couple of indie tabletop RPG games and a couple of indie board games. I’m in the middle of developing one of those board games, so I’m going through the process I’ve cobbled together over the years.

This is part of a series of blog posts in which I provide recommendations about tabletop game design. This won’t necessarily teach you how to design a game, but it will help you along as you build it.

There are four things I’ve learned that dramatically improved my ability to design interesting games.

3 Unique Things

At the beginning of your game document, describe 3 things about your system that are different than almost every other game.

If it’s really not different, why would people play it?

Shape the Conversation

The fundamental activity of a tabletop RPG game is talking. Your players will talk whether they’re playing your game or not, and whether they’re playing your game “correctly” or not.

The goal of your rules is to direct that conversation towards specific topics and experiences.

You should know those topics and experiences as well as you know the inside of your car. You need to know exactly what you want players to be saying. (And here’s a bonus trade secret: they’re perfect for examples of play in your game document.)

Design the Game, Not the Mechanics

This is a corollary to the advice above, but it bears expansion.

Don’t apply dice rolls (or card pulls or whatever) to your game initially. Imagine people talking and playing the game, narrating their characters’ actions.

Write the game to push the players towards the conversations you imagine. Tell them how to create their characters and what kinds of adventures they’ll go on. Build mechanics where you see the conversation getting bogged down.

Conversation usually gets bogged down in conflict resolution, but conflicts in your game may be very different than in other games, so don’t rush to apply another game’s resolution mechanics to your game. Look at how conflicts are shaped in your game, and build mechanics appropriately.

Mechanics Emerge from Play

When designing, don’t create rules for every conceivable situation, and don’t spend a lot of time polishing each rule. Instead, get your game to the table and playtest it. Watch the experience of people with the game, and modify or invent rules to deal with the actual situations and frustrations that you encounter in play.

It’s better to start with a one-page game with only a few basic rules and shape the game as you playtest it, than to try to design it all in your head. Let the games you play make your rules for you.

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