A Guide to RPG Design
Ramsey “Tome Wyrm” Lundock
Thanks to everyone at Comstar Media and Avalon Game Company for putting up with me as I learned all of these lessons the hard way.
You have a great idea for a new game. I haven’t even heard it yet and I already know it’s a great idea. There are untold multitudes of great ideas for games out there.
Designing your own game has become something of a rite of passage in the RPG industry. Using professional game systems you can design fascinating adventures, original characters, and even entire new worlds; but the game mechanics still lock you into the existing ‘reality’ of the game system. And, there are always a few things about even your favorite system that you think should have been handled differently. Designing your own game allows you to tailor every detail of the game to fit your vision perfectly.
But turning your vision into a playable game requires long hours of planning, hard work, and revision. The advent of desktop publishing has made creating a game easier than ever before. But ‘easy’ is still a far cry from ‘automatic.’
This tome collects lessons learned through years of, often painful, trial and error. The tips, tricks, and tools outlined in these pages will help you develop your dream into the best game possible. There is no single ‘right way’ to make a game. You need to find the way which works best for you. Although the topics are arranged roughly in order from initial conception to finally promoting the game, the creative process is far from linier. Issues which will come up late in the process have a direct bearing on earlier stages, forcing you to go back and rethink.
Better games raise the level of the entire industry, drawing in more customers and more money. And a stronger RPG industry benefits us here at Avalon Games. Thus you could say that my desire to help you and your game succeed is not entirely altruistic.
The Reality of Fantasy
The worlds we create are fantasy, but as a game designer you must deal with the reality around you. And this reality can intrude into your fantasy.
Letting others Play in your Sandbox
The hardest part of writing fiction, especially games, is that once you share your work with others, you lose control of your world. The easiest to understand example would be fan fiction, where people who enjoy your work take your characters and write their own stories. When you write, your characters become your friends and the world becomes your home. It is rewarding to see other people enjoy your work; but no matter how closely a fan copies your style, they will never do things exactly the way you do. It can be emotionally difficult to watch people mishandle you characters and your world. There are legal (although not effective) recourses against fan fiction, but with a game, you explicitly invite the readers into your world to play.
Once others are involved, it is no longer your private world, and you can never get it back. Be warned that people who play your game will do things you never intended: raze towns, kill important characters (in horribly graphic ways), rewrite character personalities, newbie adventurers will slay epic monsters. Worse, the players will append your world with bizarre locations while removing your favorite places from the map. They will ‘read between the lines’ and discover absurd ‘truths’ about your world.
If you work with a publishing company, the alterations to your world start before the product even reaches the consumers. Very few publishers will accept a work without checking to make sure it fits into their existing product line. Most publishers will offer at least a few suggested changes. In most cases these changes are valid improvements if you’re willing to let others have a hand in your creation.
Publishing and sharing your world with others can be a wonderful social experience that is impossible with private writing, but it requires letting go of your world so that others can enjoy it on their own terms. You have to decide for yourself if it is worth the tradeoff.
Setting Reasonable Goals for your Product
How many adventuring parties would wander out into the wilderness without supplies, maps, or even a goal just to see what will happen? (OK, too many parties actually do this, but what would become of them if they didn’t have a GM to get them back on track?) Yet, many aspiring game designers start out “just to see what will happen.”
Without a goal and a plan to work towards that goal, your game is unlikely to get past the stage of a collection of notes and sketches. With a clear goal in mind, you can evaluate the different options available to you and determine which ones will help advance your plan. There are many things you can try which will be fun to do, but won’t necessarily help your game succeed. There is nothing wrong with strolling down these side roads during your journey, provided you’re aware that you’ve strayed from your course and never forget your final goal.
Even if you get caught up in the side treks and your game never makes it past the planning phase, that doesn’t mean it is a failure. If your goal is to create a game that you and your friends can have fun with, then a collection of notes and sketches is all you need, and any effort you put into going pro will be moot.
At the other extreme, if your goal is to get your game printed, exactly the way you envision it with 300 full-color glossy pages, then you can’t complain if you end up with an empty bank account and 420 unsold copies in your garage because turning a profit was never part of your goal.
These are a couple of extreme examples. Most people do not set all-or-nothing goals. Instead, most plans consist of a final pie-in-the-sky dream and a series of increasingly ambitious milestones to mark progress to the impossible dream. Even if you don’t make it to that final destination at the end of the rainbow, reaching several of your milestones is an achievement in which you can take pride.
And you are allowed to change your goals along the way. The next milestone might require more time, money, and energy than you are willing to invest. There is nothing wrong with being satisfied with your accomplishment and resisting the urge to go a bridge too far. As you progress, expect to have your rosy visions of the game and fantasy market mercilessly shattered. There is every possibility that you’ll decide your original goal has too many drawbacks and you want to set off in a new direction. Changing your goals isn’t necessarily ‘giving-up’ or ‘failing;’ taking new information into account and rearranging your priorities to suit your current situation is a sign of maturity. Just don’t change your goals too often, or you’ll descend into disorganized chaos.
To help you set reasonable goals for yourself and your products, we’ll examine the current state of the fantasy and game market. In this day and age, any advice is outdated as soon as it is published, so rather than specifics we will focus on underlying truths, market forces, and trends with a full head of steam which promise to continue well into the future.
State of the Market
“How do you make a small fortune in the game industry?”
“Spend a large fortune.”
“What’s the difference between a game designer and a large pepperoni pizza?”
“The pizza can feed a family of four.”
This section is not intended to scare you away from the industry, but the fantasy and game industry can be a pretty scary place, and we won’t sugar coat the facts. There will always be nostalgia for the ‘good old days,’ but make no mistake, you have chosen the best time in history to write your game. Never has it been easier to collaborate with coauthors; find publishers and artists; proofread; and get your game to market. But publishing wouldn’t be an adventure unless there was the chance of failure. Sending you into the dungeon without first warning you of the pitfalls and monsters which await won’t do you or the industry any good.
The professional fantasy author is something of a Loch Ness Monster: often spotted, more often speculated about, but almost never confirmed. When you start to look into the ‘pros’ you find that most of them work another job in addition to their writing (Tolkien and Asimov both worked in academia in addition to their fiction writing), were paid by a company which went bankrupt for spending too much (including author salaries) on developing its products, or that even though they work at a game company, writing is only a small part of their duties.
Astute writers may point out the example of J.K. Rowling, but she writes fantasy-mysteries, and ‘mystery’ has traditionally been a larger, better selling genre than ‘fantasy.’ Thus the example is not entirely applicable. Later pages in this book cover the concept of genre more in depth, but for the time being, let it suffice to say that fantasy is not the largest genre. The number shift around a little depending on who analyzes them and how, but fantasy never comes out on top. It is usually trumped by things like: self-help, biographies, romance, mystery, and children’s books. In fact fantasy, science fiction, and horror are usually grouped into a single group which for years was dominated by the horror works of Stephen King. And this is a discussion of fiction; games are a tiny fraction of the total fantasy fiction market. Or to look at it from another perspective, consider the markets for board games like Scrabble and Life as compared to the market for role playing games. (Scrabble and Life are both property of Hasbro, names used without permission as examples of Americana culture)
There are currently game companies with paid staff. How much they are paid and how much of their time they get to spend creating are separate questions which I’m not in a position to answer. But today these game companies recruit primarily, perhaps exclusively, through their various fan clubs. Thus, if your goal is to work at a game company, your best bet is to start courting a particular company: be an active contributor to their forums; enter their contests; go to gaming conventions, meet the staff, and ask them where they scout for new talent. An entire book could be written on the tactics to land a job at a game company, and having never done so, I am not in a position to write it.
If you want to call all the shots, then you should start your own game company. The vast majority of game companies operate around the break-even point.
Today’s large game companies all started out at small ventures, so there is a non-zero chance that with the right circumstances your company could make it big. But in listening to stories from people who founded the companies which now dominate the game market, a reoccurring theme is the “years” at the beginning when the company paid its employee little or literally nothing, forcing them to find other means to support themselves. So this seems like sound advice: if you found a game company, you have to be ready to financially support both yourself and it by other means.
The other thing most people don’t realize about founding a game company is that writing is actually only a small part of the publishing industry. Even publishers which start out as ‘self-publishing’ usually end up recruiting outside authors because they are too busy running the company to write. In fact, the more successful you are, the less time you’ll have to write.
This means that game companies always have a backlog of projects they want to publish, but not enough time to write them. This drives them to hire freelance authors to work on the projects. Working as a freelance author can be fun, it can also be stressful, and it is probably the fastest route to get a game with your name on it published. Freelancing also allows you to control the amount of time you spend working on games; it’s your choice which jobs to take and which jobs to turn down.
We’ll cover the fine are of freelancing in more detail in its own section. For now, let’s look at the numbers for making a living as a freelancer. Five to ten cents a word is considered ‘pro-rate,’ so to support a minimalistic $20K a year lifestyle, at top pay rate you would need average over 700 words every day. This may not sound like much, but there is more to writing than just putting words on paper. 700 words a day means: finding an opening, writing a query letter, receiving a response to your query letter, writing the piece, editing the piece, submitting the piece, HAVING THE PIECE ACCEPTED (always the tricky part over which you have no control), revising the piece based on editorial feedback, proofing the final copy, having the company ACTUALLY PUBLISH THE PIECE AND PAY YOU (again, not a given) and helping the publisher to promote the work… for 700 words, every day without a vacation. For this discussion, we also need to say that most game publishers don’t pay pro rate.
In short, writing a game is not a step towards a larger goal: writing a game is a grand adventure which is both the journey and the goal wrapped into one. Don’t sabotage your game with unreasonable expectations; appreciate your game for what it is and enjoy the adventure.