Since it’s the beginning of the year, I figure a good thing to write about would be the beginning of the process. People come to RPG design at many different stages. There’s the wide-eyed youth who’s played one game all his life and is ready to make a better version of it. There’s the setting enthusiast who’s worked on a fictional map/culture/world for years, hammering away at people, places, and things that stoke his or her imagination. There’s the veteran gamer who’s played dozens of games and, unsatisfied, is taking to the task of creating his own. And finally, there’s the veteran designer who’s created and perhaps published several games in the past and is putting his nose to the grindstone yet again. Maybe you fall into one of these categories, or perhaps you’re a different breed. In any case, the way I’m going to suggest you begin your design applies to all.
IMHO, the best way to begin to design a roleplaying game is to envision what you want to happen around the game table (or computer interface). This goes back, in some degree, to the Big Three: What do you want your game to be about? What do you want the players to do? What do you want the characters to do?
I tend to start my designs with what the game will be about. Sometimes, this is short and simple, “I want a game about courtroom drama.” Other times, it can take me a while to really settle on what I would like to design, “Do I want a gritty post-apocalyptic world or a new world, devoid of civilization ready to be settled?” I think answering the question of what your game will be about is the most fundamental question of all RPG design.
Next, I think about what I want the players to do. Do I want them to go balls-out, trying to win every challenge they face? Do I want them to explore the world I have created? Do I want them to examine a pressing social issue or question? Roleplaying games are about real people interacting in ways they would not ordinarily interact, so getting a firm grasp on what you want them to do is highly important.
Thus, I begin with brainstorming. I often make little notes in a notebook or Word document as I think up what I want the players to be doing. Here is an example of a game I toyed with called “Judge and Jury.”
Judge and Jury
-Players play a jury.
---GM is the judge and bailiff
---Based on the themes of 12 angry men
------ Clues and facts from case are made up on the fly
---------- GM just referees
-------------- Players given story tokens to buy clues and facts
----------------- Anyone can override for 2 tokens
---Players win if votes = all guilty or all not guilty
------Players fail if jury is hung
---------- Order goes according to jury # (draw numbers)
---------------- One player acts as Foreman
---------------- Maybe he plays judge and bailiff too
------------------- Perhaps everyone does
As you can see, my quick brainstorming took me in several directions. I didn’t need to make any final decisions at this point. I just needed to get ideas down on paper.
After the brainstorming, it’s time to reflect and revise. Looking back, I could have decided to make the game with a GM or without a GM. I could adjust the override costs, raise/lower/eliminate the clues/facts cost, or adjust who gets to play the Judge, Bailiff, or other non-jury characters. These are the first real decisions I will have to make concerning the game’s System.
After that, I might begin to brainstorm about the game’s characters, setting, mechanics, or endgame, often in that order. I would just follow the same procedures I did when brainstorming for the players. For instance, I might think about what it means to be the Foreman, the Judge, or the Bailiff etc. I might think about how characters could form alliances or rivalries during play. The object, at this stage, is just to get your ideas on paper. The revision and refinement come once you have had a chance to reflect.
If you are just starting your game, try simple brainstorming first. Start with what your game is about, then proceed to what the players do, then think about what the characters will do. Don’t worry about making hard decisions right away like “what does it mean to lose” or “how much currency should players start with?” Just jot down your thoughts in stream of consciousness and let your imagination take you where it wants to go.