Creating an entire RPG system is a very rewarding experience, as you’re able to create a game exactly how you want it! But it’s also a big endeavour, which is easy to get overwhelmed by. So we interviewed Celeste Conowitch and Jack Caesar, two incredible RPG game designers, to get their thoughts on the matter!
Listen to the interview on Spotify or Youtube!
Where to start creating an RPG system?
The core of any TTRPG are players. So, to create an RPG system, start by thinking what will the players and their characters be doing during the game! What are the characters doing in the world, and why? And what should the players feel while they play the game? As a tabletop RPG designer you need to think not just about the rules and mechanics, but also about the real-world experience you want players to have! And yes, this includes GMs—they’re players too, even if they have a fancy title.
Think about the genre and themes of the game. These are not mechanics by themselves, but they will have a big influence on the rules and will determine how players experience the game. D&D feels very different from Call of Cthulhu, and it’s not just because of the different rule sets! Then, when you take decisions about the game (like adding new mechanics), consider if it feels like part of the themes or genre you chose.
The worldbuilding meta can be of great help here! Check out our blog post about the meta for more information.
An example of the importance of theme is Call of Cthulhu! One of the central mechanics is sanity, which happens to be a central theme in the setting as well. A new Call of Cthulhu player doesn’t need any previous information to know that sanity and horror are important parts of the theme. So if you put thought into how theme and mechanics relate to each other, you’ll also be giving the players setting information without spelling it out!
Conflict resolution mechanics
Conflict resolution is usually the core mechanic of TTRPG design, and as such, it should be the first decision you take after settling on a theme and genre! There are many conflict resolution methods you can pick from (a single die, dice pools, cards, a Jenga tower…), but the best one will always be the one that doesn’t interfere with the story and reinforces the themes or genre. For example, the d20 is great for D&D because it allows for quick fast-paced rolls, which are necessary for D&D’s combat mechanics. However, the swinginess of a d20 (each result has an equal 5% chance without modifiers) might not work for all systems. And yes, percentages and math are things you’ll have to do if you want a mechanic that fits well with your system.
Don’t add mechanics just for the sake of it—everything should have a reason! Give more complex mechanics to the most important parts of the system and simplify the rest. For instance, combat-focused games will have one roll (or more) for each attack, while narrative games might summarize an entire combat with a single one but give detailed initiative turns to social encounters.
Finally, try to associate specific mechanics to in-world elements: being really good at something could be represented by a +5, speed could be represented with re-rolling, and improvised weapons could use smaller dice. If you are consistent with this, you’ll help players tell stories through mechanics, which will end up increasing immersion!
Classes and ancestry—player character options
This is another important decision you’ll have to take! How are characters created, and what can they do? There are two main approaches here: class-based systems and classless ones.
Classes in games like D&D are very useful because they tell players how a character feels and guides them to the archetypes that work in the game setting. They also make character creation easy because there’s a set path that you take and progressing to new levels is quicker. Classless systems (like Savage Worlds), on the other hand, give more freedom to the player, but at the same time they’re also more overwhelming. It’s really easy to get into the weeds of character creation/progression and not know what you’re doing, especially if you’ve never played the game before.
Ancestry (or race, species, kin, etc.) is another character option that many games have and that, unlike classes, usually doesn’t have a progression tree of its own. It can be very useful to set the tone or establish important worldbuilding information, but it can also be a trap: if a certain ancestry is better at a specific class than another one, it can devolve into a “min-maxing trap”. This isn’t necessarily bad, but be aware that players might feel pressured to play certain combinations of ancestry and class rather than thinking out of the box.
Whatever you choose, keep in mind that the shorter your RPG is, the fewer options it should have. Long games need to have many different options to give the players a sense of progression. But for shorter RPGs, it’s usually better to keep it simple.
What does “balance” mean in a TTRPG?
Balance doesn’t exist! Or, it does, but not in the way you probably think. Balance will mean different things in different games, and even in different parts of the same game! If playing the game feels like what it should feel like, if the game is fun and it’s doing what you want it to do… then the game is balanced. In Call of Cthulhu, player character fail constantly and they usually die by the end of the campaign—but that’s the point of the game, so it’s very well balanced. On the other hand, in D&D, being an epic hero that can absolutely destroy any monster isn’t a broken mechanic, it’s by design. So, again, it’s perfectly balanced (as all things should be).
But if you’re starting to think that the feel of balance is more important than balance itself… then you’re on the right track! Every player is doing different things with their own abilities, so they’re really difficult to compare with the same parameters. The amount of power that makes an ability too powerful changes based on which kind of ability it is too. For example, if support abilities are a bit overpowered, nobody will complain, whereas if “lone abilities” (like attacking or a self-teleport spell) are too powerful, the other players might feel useless. As Celeste and Jack put it, “nobody hates an overpowered bard”!
At the end of the day, as a game designer you don’t have as much control over balance as you might think. The GM is the one who has to deal with the choices players make and change the encounters so they are tailored to the players’ abilities.
Playtesting is a process!
Playtesting is a very important part of game design—but you shouldn’t think of it as a step, especially not as a final step before release. This should be an ongoing process that you do all the time and start as soon as the game is playable. And by “playable” I mean as soon as you have the core mechanic! If you have a round of playtesting for every addition to the game, you’ll be able to spot weak areas in your design early on. (And if you’ve built your game in World Anvil, you can use our RPG campaign manager to help run your playtest smoothly).
Some of the best playtesters are strangers and people who have never played an RPG before. They won’t have a “friendship filter” in their words, and they won’t have previous RPG knowledge that could influence their opinion. And when you listen to their feedback, always keep in mind that a playtester won’t ever “play wrong”—if something isn’t working, it’s something that you have to fix in your design, not them!
So, pay attention to what they hate and what they love, and consider fixing the former and embracing the latter! You’ll probably have players trying to find solutions to the problems they see. Looking for solutions is human nature, but always try to find the core problem: if a player says that you could design something in a certain way, try to find out why they feel that way. Many times, this process requires reading between the lines. For example, in a card-based game, if someone says that they felt they didn’t have enough cards, maybe the problem is that there aren’t enough player options in the first place!
Listen to the full interview to learn how to create an RPG system!
Want to learn more about this to create an RPG system on your own? Check out the full interview on YouTube and Spotify!
Who is Celeste Conowitch?
Celeste Conowitch is a game designer in Kobold Press and the DM of the Venture Maidens podcast. She’s also the co-founder of Penwitch Studio and has worked with companies like MCDM Productions, Wizards of the Coast, and more. Check her out on Twitter!
Who is Jack Caesar?
Jack Caesar is a game designer and the head of studio at River Horse. He’s worked on several games, such as the Dark Crystal Adventure Game (together with Janet!), Tails of Equestria, Tales of Primordia, and more.
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