Days of High Adventure
Stop Complaining and Make Your Own Game

David Hill | 26 Nov 2009 17:00
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"Fourth edition sucks! New Vampire isn't as cool as old Vampire! I'd play Serenity if it were based on Firefly! If they tell you the GM can change rules, they're just admitting they can't write good rules! Money-grubbing game designers keep releasing new editions because they couldn't write a good edition to begin with! Games from the 80s had so much more soul!"

Blah, blah, blah. We've heard it all before.

If you know what would make a better game, why don't you make your own? I know, you don't have a studio full of people at your beck and call. You don't have a ton of free time to burn writing something for your group of friends. RPG books are written by people. You're a person! Your friends are people! Sure, you don't know how to write games. But that's where I come in.

Not only that, but I'm going to take the labor out of it. We're going to turn the process into a self-contained night of entertainment. So, get your friends together. Get some pizza. Print out the following steps. Assign someone to take notes and moderate. Let's make an RPG.

For each step, I recommend 45 minutes. These times work out to a four hour evening, with a little time to spare. Clearly, these times are mutable. But I'd recommend keeping roughly the same ratios. Time is important. If you want to design a complete game in a single sitting, you need to have a stopwatch or timer. When time's up, you have to move on to the next topic. You can go back later and fix things later, but for now, you're shooting to have a rough draft ready for playtesting. I've been through this process dozens of times. It can be done in an hour. If participants are dithering, stop and move on. Sometimes, a lack of good ideas means that there aren't good ideas to be had, or at least that night.

For each section, have your note taker read the italic text to your group. Then, you start conversation. Keep it civil - voting by show of hands is a quick way to resolve arguments. If the group comes up with enough material before time is up, move on. Save the time for the end, when you can tweak things and clean up your ideas.

Step One: What Is It?

This is the most abstract part of the process. The goal is to come up with a foundation to build on.

What kind of story do we want to tell? Are we going for sci-fi, fantasy, Victorian drama, horror, comedy, feudal Japan, space western or pirates? Let's come up with three things as a foundation for the setting.

Coach the group through determining those three game elements. If two or more of them seem odd together, don't hesitate to ask how they'd work together, and don't hesitate to cross something off the list if the group determines that it wouldn't work well. Replace it. If you have three setting elements, you have enough room to make the game unique while staying within time constraints. This section often leaves time to spare. If the group runs into roadblocks, try to come up with examples from pop culture. That helps to refine topics.

Step Two: Who Are We Playing?

We have a basic idea for the game. Now, who are we playing? What types of characters would tell the types of stories we were just talking about? How can we build variety amongst the characters? How can we keep their goals similar?

This is probably the hardest part, but easily the most important. RPGs are about the players, and the characters they're playing. You want to determine what the standard group of player characters is, as well as what motivates them in loose terms. Without a general motivation for action, the best characters in all fiction fall flat.

As the players discuss, keep a mind to versatility. If the characters are too limiting, it probably isn't very playable. But you have to maintain a balance between restriction and variety. Remember, you have a limited time to design a playable game. Openness can shoot you in the foot here. "People in 1890 AD" is far too open for this exercise. "Members of a secret society in Victorian England researching the truth behind a library full of occult knowledge" is narrow enough to work, while still leaving a lot of room for differing character types.

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