How To Make Your Own Pen And Paper RPG: Part 1 (Laying The Foundation)
Author's Note: Part 2 is now up! To read it, click here: (Part 2) More coming soon!
In this first in a series of glances at how to make your own pen and paper RPG system, we’ll look at the foundational aspects that need to be undertaken and considered before diving headlong into the creative process. Consider the following aspects of creation carefully as you progress into your project and make your own interactive contribution to the world of creativity and storytelling as it unfolds around you, but most of all remember that the most interesting and celebrated RPGs are those that push the boundaries, ignore the rules, and do something wholly unlike anything that has ever come before.
- TTC: The Cygnus War
Weekly science fiction series upon which the Cygnus War ITSG is based.
Perhaps the most important thing to consider when creating your own pen and paper RPG is the genre or setting that you want it to take place in. Remember, playing an RPG is essentially just a form of group storytelling– the system (aka the ruleset) is just there to keep everything on track. As with any story, you’ll want it to be based in a particular “world” or “universe” (preferably your own original one, if you’re going to sell it as product, but it’s okay to make an RPG system based off of other people’s universes if it’s just for use by yourself, your friends, and other fans of the work – just don’t sell it!) Do you want your game to take place in a high fantasy world (like D&D or Lord of the Rings,) in a science fiction setting (like Traveler or Cyberpunk 2020) or in some other kind of setting altogether? What is the mood you want to impart, the world you want to explore, the world you want to share with others and build for them to play in?
How complex do you want your system to be? Highly complex systems with massive sets of carefully plotted out rule sets usually yield a more realistic experience, but they also make for more rigid and more binding systems that can be hard to play if you’re constantly going back to the book to track down some obscure rule for say, Mace combat that doesn’t apply to automatic hammers, pickaxes or tasers. Generally, the simpler the RPG is, the easier it will be to play, but this isn’t true for everyone. Some people find more complex RPGs easier to play simply because they are more binding, and because a larger rule set ultimately provides more rule support, like an outside referee who calls fouls and reminds the players of the rules, providing defined options for every situation.(Whereas a simpler RPG that is made to be used as openly and freely as possible often still has many options, just not etched-in-stone definite ones with painted arrows pointing to them saying “You can do this too!”)
Complexity is also key when determining what kind of dice your system will be using. Fans of D&D and D20 system RPGs are often partial to systems that go the full gamut and use everything from two sided dice (basically a coin that is flipped) up to the massive number yields of the percentile dice, but there’s always been a movement and a fandom for systems that run off simple, supermarket-grade D6's (six sided dice). After all, if everyone forgets their dice bag at home, it’s often a lot easier to make a trip out to the grocery store than it is to take one out to the comic book store, and grocery stores often keep better hours anyway. (They can afford to.)
Stuck for ideas?
- Wednesday Writing Prompts I-IX
Nine different installments of weekly writing prompts
Determining the role that your players will fill in your RPG is another critical aspect to consider. Not all RPGs are hack-n-slash like Diablo or based entirely around gathering up all the money in the world and stuffing it into your ears– many RPGs take new paths altogether to keep the industry fresh and give players something new to run through. Consider the way games like Paranoia and Munchkin pit the players against one another and incorporate their own unique dynamics when it comes to goals and the way those goals are achieved. Call of Cthulhu plays off fears and the unstable nature of the human mind when faced with unworldly terrors, superhero RPGs are concerned with saving the day against all odds, RPGs that take political maneuvering as the finest point of strategy in the game require a keen mind and wholly different way of playing, just as blasting Zentradi in a Robotech campaign requires a wholly different way of playing than say, Game of Thrones. In order to make an RPG unique, to make it stand out and function as a game, it needs to have a driving role for the characters, preferably something fresh, original, and most importantly-- Fun!
Another important aspect of your game to consider is the medium through which it is played. For D&D, that’s pretty simple and straight forward– the DM has his module, his dice, his screen that blocks what he doesn’t want the players to see, and the players have their sheets and their dice. The game is played through the interactions between the DM and the players with the challenges and rewards of the DM’s module being put up against the skills, abilities and raw stats of the players’ character sheets (not to mention their wits and intelligence!) This is a pretty common and widely used approach when it comes to RPG systems, but it is by no means the only approach. In the game Deadlands, poker cards play a prominent role in play, in Enchantment to Fulfillment, Storm Constantine's Wraeththu RPG, dice are provided in the book through a creative random flip system (with dice listed at the top of the page.) In some Serenity games I’ve seen, players make “Equipment cards” that allow them to keep better track of what they pick up, what they’re carrying, and what they’re bringing to any given firefight (with the added advantage of making it look like they'e holding a hand of cards-- a great addition to the space western ambiance the series provides.) Some RPGs are played wholly with cards, some have boards and miniatures, and some have a prominent online or electronic component, often making it necessary to bring a laptop to a game. When it comes to this aspect, do what feels best to you, what you feel best adds to the ambiance of your game, and don’t spend too much time worrying about the complexity or number of materials unless the reduction of that is one of the key things you’re going for with your game.
Next up: Character Sheets!