While D&D remains iconic, countless other RPG systems provide unique canvases for game designers to create immersive content. Designers outside of the D&D universe can delve into diverse genres, from post-apocalyptic wastelands to cosmic horrors, for players seeking fresh experiences. We sat down with Dominique Dickey, to talk about designing for RPGs outside D&D as well as the creative process of making your own game!
Where to start designing for a game that already exists
The first step of the designing process for a game that already exists, is to establish familiarity with the game. Read it and get to know what the experience is for, who the target audience is and what the play style/GMing style looks like. See if something already exists in the game’s universe that feels exemplary.
If you’re writing an adventure, look at other published adventures with that game and see what the component parts of them are. If you want to publish it, take notice of how the adventures in that game are formatted, by looking at the heading structure, word count per section, and the writing style. Try to mimic that, so frequent players/GMs of the system will be familiar with it.
How do different mechanics affect how you write?
Your writing style should also differ depending on the system and its mechanics. Different systems draw different audiences. Furthermore, mechanics and narrative should be very connected rather than separate things in order to achieve a cohesive and natural flow.
When writing, make sure to leave meaningful choices for the players too. GM-only sections are often needed, but the players should still have power to influence things. To do this, don’t write the adventure as “here’s how the players should try to resolve the plot”. Instead, write it as “here’s how you’ll know that they have solved the adventure” and give enough information to handle player freedom.
What are the advantages of designing outside of D&D?
Besides D&D, there’s a vast world of diverse and unique RPG systems and settings, that have completely different themes and play styles. Each one of them will allow you to do different things for different kinds of players. D&D is good at what it does, but it’s a very specific game focused on combat. Many people get caught up in trying to bend D&D to provide different experiences, when there are tons of games out there that already provide these different experiences by default. Here are some examples that Dominique recommends for that alternative experience:
- The Cypher System is very genre-agnostic and very modular, so it can provide many different experiences.
- Belonging Outside Belonging is also great and it makes room for a very special kind of storytelling.
- For the Queen, and Descended from the Queen games have a very casual, low-prep experience that’s great for people who might not like RPGs because of the time they usually require.
- Solo games and journaling games, also provide very different experiences from what people usually expect from RPGs.
- Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) games are great too, and you can play pretty much any genre there.
Lately we’ve seen a lot of movement of people looking beyond D&D, so the disadvantage of having a more limited audience is disappearing.
How to get into designing professionally
If you’re interested in designing professionally, you might be wondering where to even start. It’s generally easier to pitch for freelance opportunities if you have examples of your work already available. So make one good thing on your own, put it up on DriveThruRPG or on Itch.io in a game jam. Make the best you can with your level of experience and skill, and then you’ll be able to present a finished product alongside your pitch or first contact. After that, as you begin building up a portfolio, opportunities will start snowballing!
How to Create your own game from scratch
Creating your own game from scratch is definitely not an easy task. Begin with the question: does this idea need to be a game? And why? Sometimes ideas are better expressed in different mediums. For example, if the idea is a specific conflict that after solving it there will no longer be a story, that probably needs to be a novel (or short story) rather than a game. After that, start with the setting and the character creation process—characters are how players interact with the world, so they’re very important! Make sure to determine the role of each character as well as the different character types in the game. This will inform what the role of the GM is as well.
How do you know it’s ready to play-test?
After you start creating your game, you might come to wonder what the right time to play-test it is. You should do that as soon as possible! As soon as you have mechanics, play-test them. Even if it’s sitting with another person and trying out the mechanics in a “void” without an actual adventure.
Also, keep in mind that character creation is very important, so play-test that as soon as you have it—even if you don’t have anything else. Ask your play-tester what they are most interested in, and what they would want out of each character type. This will be very informative and influential for your choices in mechanics later on as well. Of course some play-tests won’t go as you expected them to, but they will still prove valuable since you’ll see mistakes and opportunities that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
Listen to the full interview!
Who is Dominique Dickey?
Dominique Dickey is a writer, editor, cultural consultant, and Nebula Award-winning RPG hooligan. In addition to creating TRIAL, a narrative courtroom tabletop role-playing game about race in the criminal justice system, and co-creating Tomorrow on Revelation III, a tabletop role-playing game about surviving and building community on a hyper-capitalist space station, Dominique has written for Thirsty Sword Lesbians, Dungeons & Dragons, and Pathfinder. Dominique works as a designer and editor at Monte Cook Games. Check out their website!
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