A Guide to RPG Design
Ramsey “Tome Wyrm” Lundock
The Importance of Settings
The first step in designing a game is to decide on the setting. The rules mechanics must work together with the setting. If there is a mismatch between the rules and the setting, the ‘reality’ of the rules will win out and cast the setting in an unexpected hue. For example, if you envision a dark world of horror, but the rules mechanics place the heroes on equal footing with the abominations they face; the players’ fear will soon dissolve into thrill, turning it into a game of high adventure.
To avoid letting the rules determine the setting, you need to make a conscious choice about the setting and choose your rules to fit the setting. Every game system has its strong points; and thus necessarily each also has its weak points. Even ‘universal’ game systems have biases, and these biases determine which setting work best with the rules. For example, if a game system dedicates three-quarters of the combat rules adjudicating melee combat, the system won’t work well for modern adventures where the majority of combat occurs at a distance: the players will feel that the subtleties of firefights have been neglected, and when the occasional melee breaks out, the rules will be cumbersome, taking too long to resolve relative to the more meaningful gunfire exchanges. It is impossible to design a game system which is completely neutral; to put it in a metaphor, even white is a color. So the only way to prevent unexpected setting biases from creeping into the game subconsciously is to make a conscious decision about the setting at the beginning.
It is not necessarily bad to let the rules dictate the setting, provided you are aware of the effects and make sure the setting is in harmony with the ‘reality’ of the rules. For example, if a skilled warrior can hold his own against an army, why would anyone go to the trouble and expense of raising an army in the first place? In this setting, ‘war’ would quickly evolve into single combat between the champions of each side.
To really understand how the rules will impact the setting, it is best to get other players’ insights and watch how actual games unfold. Game creation is an iterative process, so after the rules are in place, revisit the setting to see if there are any places at odds with the rules and decide whether it is the rules or the setting which must give way.
Consistency in your Setting
“What’s the difference between fantasy and non-fiction?”
“Fantasy has to make sense.”
Consistency is vital to your setting. Every game world must follow its own rules of internal logic. These rules have nothing to with rolling dice. Consistency is also surprisingly difficult to maintain as you write. Consider the following examples of sentences that might show up in game products:
“Magic works by combining essences of the four elements (earth, air, fire and water) in various combinations to produce effects.”
“The villagers ask the PCs to eliminate the necromancer who has been terrorizing them and use holy water to cleanse the taint from his lair.”
“The power output of a spaceship’s fusion core sets a limit on the fastest star-drive it can activate.”
“While short on luxuries, the March Hare orbital platform offers weary star-farers a chance to enjoy a hot shower and a cold beer while getting their spaceship’s power cells recharged.”
Laid side by side like this, the contradiction is obvious: a magic system based on the four elements doesn’t include either ‘necromancy’ or ‘holy’ magic. A spaceship powered by a fusion core shouldn’t need to have its power cells recharged by an outside source, and if for some reason the ship was outfitted with both a fusion core and power cells, it would be the capacity of the power cells, not the output of the fusion core which limits the speed of the star-drive.
A game designer could well write either of these pairs a single setting without realizing the problem because they are separated by dozens of pages. As authors, we get caught up in our own worlds and don’t see the contradictions. But readers struggling to understand our vision will catch and resent every contradiction.
The only thing which annoys readers more than inconsistencies, is dismissing the inconsistencies by saying, “because it’s magical” or “because it’s high-tech” or worst of all, “just because.” As stated in the opening of this section, fantasy and science fiction are founded on logic. The real world is random, arbitrary, and cruel. Fantasy games give us an escape where, even if we get eaten by a hideous monstrosity, we know that our fate was determined according to the rules, not just because. And sci-fi fans are even more obsessed with logic (“Live long and prosper”) than fantasy fans.
To maintain consistency throughout your setting, before you start writing, you need to decide how the magic and/or technology of your setting work, what kinds of effect they can produce AND WRITE THE RULES OF YOUR SETTING DOWN!
Writing down the rules of your setting makes sure that they don’t slowly evolve in your mind as you work on the game. This rule book doesn’t need to be in publishable form. In fact it’ll probably be a dry list of facts and cause/effect relations. Some of these rules may become literal rules in the game mechanics, but not all of them will be necessary for the readers.
As you write, refer back to your techo/magic facts list often to remind yourself what is possible in your world. As your setting develops, you may feel the need to add to your rules. When you add to your rules, do this with great caution. It may seem like a good idea to make hulking suits of powered armor more feasible by saying they use gravity neutralizers to help offset the staggering weight. But unleashing gravity canceling technology on your setting has far ranging consequences. Flying cars and cheap space flight come to mind quickly, but what about construction? Is it possible to offset the weight of a building and just keep adding stories? What about weather control, preventing rain or snow by taking away the gravity which would cause it to fall?
(On the subject of powered armor, this one has tripped me up personally: is it ‘power armor’ or ‘powered armor?’ Readers will notice inconsistent terminology.)
Changes to the rules should be given even more consideration than additions. A change to your guidelines means there must be at least one corresponding change in the setting itself. If you do make a change, go back through everything you’ve written to see how all of the repercussions playout.
This brings up the next point important for consistency. Consider how the technology or magic will affect the setting. Start by thinking of the role you intend for the fantastic elements to play. Then think about how the technology/magic could be misused. Then consider totally unintentional side effects. (Would gravity neutralizers trigger a jump in obesity, because people could simply turn off weight they don’t want?)
For a more fantasy themed example, consider the widely accepted trick of being able to create water magically. What happens to the water after it’s created? Does it disappear back into magic vapors at some point? What happens if you drink the created water? Does it quench thrust? Does the water disappear from inside you causing you to dehydrate? If the created water is permanent, wouldn’t it be possible with effort to irrigate all of the deserts, would there be any deserts left in your setting? Couldn’t creating water lead instead to problems with areas being too wet? Wouldn’t wizards use the water as a weapon to flood out their enemies?
In the real world, actions and inventions have unforeseen side-effects. Since we can’t even predict the results in our own lives, no one honestly expects that you’ll think of all of the possible outcomes. But your readers expect you to think of more consequences than they can. After all it’s your world, with home-turf advantage you should be able to stay ahead of your readers. So put serious effort into thinking through the consequences: If dragons fly, what’s the point in building castle walls? If it’s possible to teleport individuals and goods, why are there any transport ships? If there is a very real danger of contracting an unknown disease on an alien planet, why are explorers be allowed to go straight for the bar upon return to civilizations instead of being locked in quarantine? If superheroes have been around for generations, why have none of them been recruited by the police force?
If you can manage to plug even a few of the holes that people have been trained to overlook, your world will stand out in the readers’ memories as well considered and realistic. But the need for consistency is not limited to serious games; some of the best comedies take the hallmarks of fantasy and sci-fi and follow them to their inevitable, absurd conclusions.
While preparing your notes to write from, it’s also a good idea to jot down notes about the non-human creatures which appear in your setting. Be as concrete as possible. You may know that fairies are small. But does small mean 2” tall? 6”? Half-an-inch? While all would be considered ‘small’ there are significant differences in how fairies of each size would interact with the world. And your readers will notice if you describe the fairies as different sizes in different places.
Finally, make some notes about the culture and organizations in your setting. Unlike your technology and magic which are immutable physical laws of your world, it is possible to bend the rules of society. But since your readers want consistency, it is best to let them know when the rules are being bent.
For example, suppose there are two important NPCs you want to include in the setting: a man of noble blood waiting to succeed his father and a crass but good hearted noble who was promoted after showing valor in battle as a common foot soldier. The first belongs to a society where nobility and titles are determined by heredity, and the second belongs to a society where nobility and titles are based on merit. These two at first seem incompatible, but rather than rushing to create a new kingdom and a new culture so you can ‘fit both of them in,’ consider how the rules of society could be bent. Merit based systems often take into account the merit of not just the individual, but also the merit (i.e. money and influence) of his family connections as well. Today we call that corruption but in many times it was considered common sense. Thus even in a merit based system a powerful family might hold a virtual guarantee of receiving certain honors and offices. On the other side of the coin, even in the most byzantine and calcified aristocracies, there are ways for new members to break in. A king, emperor, or other sovereign may grant a title to an outsider just to remind the nobles who’s really in charge. A noble house may adopt an exceptional commoner into the family to secure his support. Of if they feel threatened by the power he’s amassing, the existing aristocracy could grant a low ranking title to an outsider in order to bring him into the existing power structure to make him explicitly under the command of other nobles (and thus subject to punishment if he disobeys them.) If the upstart is truly powerful enough, he might invent a noble pedigree for himself (normally claiming to be an illegitimate child of a noble) and force the family to accept him. Of course it need not be strength of arms; an outsider with enough fiscal power might be able to buy a title.
There are many different types of power which can be wielded: military, economic, religious, magical, political, ceremonial, criminal, technological, entertainment & public opinion, etc. Every society has at least a couple of different power structures related to these different types of power. Almost by definition, the different organizations will accumulate different members and use different criteria for advancement. Thus if you want a powerful local female ruler, but have fraternal political structure, perhaps rather than a noble she would be more comfortable as a nun, or as the head of a merchant house, or as a crime boss.