This is what I would call the first post that really fits into what this website is about. My mission is to provide entry tools into the world of RPG design. What I’m examining here is a tool that is used very often at the Forge and to a lesser degree on RPGnet. I have personally used this tool to create my three entries into Ronnies contest run be Adept Press (at the time of this publishing, two of them had won a Ronny award). This tool is basically a set of three simple, yet piercing questions about what an RPG is and what it can do. These three questions have been dubbed by some “The Big Three.”
First, some historical background (or really lack thereof) on The Big Three. I can’t tell you, and I doubt anyone else can either, who first used and created them. My guess is they evolved over time, probably one by one, as the need to create a framework to discuss an RPG design became apparent. As to whom first called them The Big Three, again I have no answer. However, the history of them are not nearly as important as their use.
So enough already, what are The Big Three?
1. What is your game about?
2. What do the characters do?
3. What do the players do?
At first glance, how simple could you get? Each has only a measly five words. No follow up questions are tacked on. No real theory jargon can be found in any of them. So what’s the big deal? The big deal is that for many, many designers these questions are the hardest questions they’ve ever had to answer.
I first wrote about them here at the Forge in Troy’s Standard Rant #1 and furthered their explanation in Troy’s Standard Rant #2. Those are prerequisite readings for discussing these questions on this site.
These questions can be so hard to answer for designers because they are so attached to old-style preconceived notions about the way an RPG should look and play. I often, often have seen answers from people when asked question #1 like “The point is to have fun, isn’t that what all games are about?” Or worse, I’ve seen things like “Aren’t characters and players basically the same thing?” These are the kinds of newbish answers I gave when I was first asked them concerning Ember Twilight. I didn’t understand the questions. I didn’t try to understand them, and for it, my game did not reach its full potential. If you don’t understand these questions, and refuse to understand them, you’ve got a very long very hard road ahead of you.
But there is hope for those who want to seize a hold of this design tool. First, discard all notions you have of what an RPG “should be.” For an excellent post and discussion on this topic (which I will revisit later here on this blog) check out Josh Bishop Roby’s “Games, The Standard, and Spoons” on his blog. Second, jot down your ideas first. Don’t start to create a game based off these three questions. The likelihood of that working out for ya isn’t too great IMHO. Write out briefly what you would like a session, an adventure, a campaign, to look like. Decide what’s most important to you in your game and then come back to these questions. Third, write out a brief “snip-it” answer for each that will give other people a good idea of what your game is, then write out a much lengthier answer for yourself. The lengthier answer will be your guide for design. Fourth, take your answers and design over to the Forge and post it in Indie Design. I cannot stress that fourth step enough. Get feedback-get feedback-get feedback.
Oh, and be prepared to change and tweak your answers as you go. The feedback you will get will have a significant impact on your design so remain fluid. No design is perfect on the first try.
The last part of this post is to open it up for questions about the Big Three. That’s what we’re here for after all, to ask questions.
Quick note to veteran designers. This post probably isn’t for you. I welcome your feedback, but much of the advise I give here is for first time designers. What you think an RPG should be and what a fresh-out-of-the-oven guy (much like myself) thinks will be two very different things.