Friday 9 July 2021


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I've spent a lot of this week preparing for an upcoming webinar that I'm running. The pitch is "design an RPG in four hours" and the pressure is building as I see the attendee numbers climb.

In my previous career I designed and led a lot of staff training and instructional sessions for customers, and before that I was a schoolteacher, so I'm hoping the delivery won't be too much trouble. The part that really stumped me to begin with was "how do I actually teach somebody how to make an RPG?"

Like so many people, I pretty much started making games as soon as I realised rulebooks existed. I probably made my first rudimentary RPG before I'd even played something as thorough as D&D. I've learned a lot since then, but I'm not sure I was ever told how to make a game from scratch. It just... happened. 

RPG design exists in a very weird place compared to other creative activities. You've got to make up a decent amount of enticing creative content for your game, but you also need to make it a game. I know I've seen enough RPGs that only do one thing or the other. 

It's sort of like simultaneously teaching somebody how to fix a van's engine and airbrush a space-wizard onto the side. It's all working towards the same goal of "drive your wizard van around town" but you'd struggle to learn them at the same time.

For the webinar, I'm setting realistic goals right from the start. You're making the skeleton of a game, and a lot of that "engine tuning" only really happens later on. It's really more important that you get that space-wizard right. Make your game about something, not necessarily in an abstract way, but hone in on what this game is for.

When I was ten and hacking Warhammer Quest into something resembling an RPG, I knew what I wanted. To take those WHQ characters out onto epic journeys across a big overworld map, fighting monsters in the woods and swamps on the way. It was built out of desire for that game to exist on my bedroom floor, not through any sort of external draw. It was a desire that I couldn't fulfil elsewhere, with even D&D still firmly outside of my grasp. That limited my reference to this one hack and slash dungeon-crawler and the world it inhabited. 

In my own experience, that amalgam of Desire with Limitation is gunpowder for game design.

I won't go into the full scope of the Webinar, as some of you may actually be attending, but for any game design I see that as a good place to start. 


  1. If you start with an idea, as the fiction core. Then a Conflict Resolution System, as the mechanical core. That seems like a good start. Then build off of that with stuff like "what is the feel that you want. Horror, power trip, debt riddled survival?" Model the stats based on that. Wrap with extraneous systems. Random tables, classes, enemies etc. Just an idea.

  2. I don't know if you plan to address it, but my impression is a quite a few amateur rpg designers don't understand numbers & probabilities. Boring stuff but it matters, even in "rules light" games. And one of the other mistakes I see is providing one unified resolution mechanism without discussing in detail how it might apply to all sorts of different tasks & situations. It's alright to say everything is a D20 with some predetermined modifiers, but still a car chase is not a fight is not a negotiation etc. Detailed discussion on how to handle specific situations really makes a difference. Too many designers never bother and then players discover in practice the rules don't work or are just too shallow to make a fun game.

  3. It's a shame that i missed the webinar! Would very much like to watch a recording, if it's available anywhere on the interwebs