17 Aug 2010 - Updated with feedback so far, thanks everyone!
How to write a free RPG
In this series of posts, I will be outlining techniques for the creation of a free pencil and a paper RPG from scratch. It covers Inspiration, Research, Writing, System, Setting, Organisation, Testing, Publication and Support. This guide might be useful for commercial games but it is really intended for the hobbyist who has an idea in their heads and want to flush it out. The guide is arranged in steps, each step split into instructions and example. In the example, I will be building an RPG as I go. Each step has work for you to join in to.
Please do not be upset by the authoritarian language I use. At no point in the future will masked FRPGB Police smash down your door with a printed copy of the monolithic Fear RPG if you fail to comply. I use curt language so that skim-readers can get benefit too.
What you need
To design a free roleplaying game, you will need the following tools.
- An install of a free document creator with PDF output such as Scribus
- An idea
Have you ever played a roleplaying game? Then you possess ample qualifications for writing one. There is a roleplaying game in each and every person who has played one. If you have the will and an idea then this guide will show you how.
Creating an RPG demands perspiration and perseverance. It is daunting to think about the end result: a book packed full of rules and ideas that can be used by a group of roleplayers to entertain themselves for many sessions of play. Being terrified is normal. Instead of worrying about the end result, expect the anxiety feed of the fear. You're not the first to feel this way, you won't be the last.
Do not give up. When you feel yourself flagging, go to your favourite community and post up your entry. If you're not in a community, get into one. Try <a href="http://www.1km1kt.net/forum">1000 Monkeys, 1000 Typewriters</a> (1KM1KT), it is a community for writers of free RPGs, just like you.
Do not plan to wait for the finished game but release often and in small increments. It is much easier to keep up motivation if others are following your progress.
Using a notebook
The common tool for all writers is a notebook. Keep one with you at all times. Although I have a powerful smartphone/laptop/desktop/digital device, it is much easier to scribble down an idea, perhaps with a picture on paper. Moleskines are globally recognised as a defacto global standard.
The goal of this chapter is to create a concept from which you will be able to write the rest of the game. The concept is:
- A brief overview
- Description of boundaries
- Target audience
- How it is different from other games?
Do not try and write a roleplaying game without a strong concept. You may produce something but you will find that it will be indistinguishable from other games.
Before you write anything down, you need an idea. From this seed, you will construct a concept and that will guide everything you write. The idea need only be a single word or short phrase. We will flesh it out later. If you have an idea, write it down in pencil in the middle of a piece of paper. We will use this phrase as the name of the game for now.
If you do not have an idea
If you do not have an idea but know you want to make an RPG about <em>something</em>, here is how you come up with that seed.
- Take two things you like and mash them together. For example, The A-Team meets 2001: A Space Odyssey.
- Take a thing you like and invert something important about it. For example, The Terminator universe where an archaelogical dig turns up proof that it was the Terminators that made the humans.
- Open a dictionary at a random page and take the first word. Do this five times and write a roleplaying game about that.
- Check out the list of insanity on the 1km1kt forum
- Ask for ideas on a forum
- Read outside of RPG blogs, such as Boing Boing, Mysterious Maps or your favourite news broadcaster.
- Open a text editor. Start writing. Write whatever comes into your head and don't stop for 5 minutes. It can be anything at all. Do not think while you are writing, just let it straight from the brain. Don't worry about proper sentances either.
- Write a 500 word story set in a very specific time and place. Make sure you have a beginning, middle and end. Then build your game to represent that world.
- Create a new game by fixing things you do not like about other games.
Expanding your idea
Write down at least four major themes associated with your idea. These should be broad genre ideas, such as: magic, space travel, evil empire, gods walking about, corporations, psyonics, zombies, non-human races. Write each of these themes around your central idea and draw lines from the central idea to each theme. Avoid using broad genres (Fantasy, Sci Fi etc).
For each of these themes, write down at least four components of them. Two should support the theme, two should be detrimental to it. For example, if your theme is magic, your supporting components might be 'easy to do', 'powerful' and the detrimental components might be 'illegal', 'dangerous'. Put a + sign in a circle by the supporting components and - sign in a circle by the detrimental components. By having both supporting and detrimental components, this will create conflict and provide you with the seeds of a balanced setting.
Trial by Questioning
Answer each of the following questions. Do not proceed until you know all the answers.
- What will the players do?
- What is fun about it?
- Why am I designing it?
- Who will play it?
- What do I want to do with it?
- Are you going to publish it in print on demand?
- Is it suitable for Campaigns or One-Shots?
- What's its closest rival and how is it different?
What style of game will it be?
It is not important to tie down exactly the style of play the game will engender but it will help you decide whether or not to include something later one. On each of the graphs below, put a spot where you would like your game to be.
Players co-operate / Players compete
Shared resources / Individual resources
Rules for everything / general rules
No dice / Lots of dice
Easy to die / Hard to kill
Random (quick) / Point buy (slower)
Choose from a list / Players make it up
Rapidly changing characters / Static characters (no advancement)
Grids + miniatures / Scrawled piece of paper
Precision measurements / purely descriptive
Personal quest / World changing consequences
Humour / Serious
Realistic / Cinematic
In the future, a GM is going to pitch the game to a group of players. The act of pitching will force you to more tightly define what it is you are trying to achieve. If you find that you are repeating yourself a lot, then this is a good thing, it means that you have a tightly defined idea of what the game is about.
Do all of these pitching activities:
- Describe your game in 5 words.
- Elevator pitch, describe your game verbally in 12 seconds. Keep trying until you can.
- Create a marketing that you might read on a post. No more than 25 words, no less than 12.
- Draw an advert for your game on a bit of paper.
Create the Concept
You should now have a good idea of what your game is about and so it is time to write your Concept. Your Concept is a statement about what the game is going to achieve and how it might achieve it. Write down in no less than 200 words what your game is about, incorporating all the elements in this chapter.