So you want to make an RPG?

September 26, 2010

So, I’m going to summarize nine years of lessons that have come out of the Forge and indie rpg publishing, since they seem to be forgotten so easily.

How Not to Start

Funny, huh? Starting with how not to start, right? No seriously, don’t do these things:

Don’t ask people “what kind of game you should make?”

The unspoken part of this question, is always the person looking to find out “what’s marketable” in the hopes of having success. Two problems: by the time you finish making the game, most of those people’s answers to that question might have changed, and second, “the market” is really too small for that to be a useful metric.

Make the game you want, because you want it. If you have passion for your game, at least SOME other people will buy into it. Who expected a game about Mormon gunslingers delivering mail to fit a market and become a best seller?

Don’t ask questions about marketing, publishing, or printing before you have a game

Seriously, seriously, seriously. It’s definitely good to plan ahead, but it’s like designing the packaging for your product before you have a product.

More importantly, nearly everyone who STARTS with these questions usually have no idea about actual monetary numbers and realistic sales to expect back- if you find yourself starting here, STOP.

Most of the people who “research” this end up either using numbers for literary fiction or for RPG sales in the 80’s or the 90’s and almost always ask stuff like, “Should I print 6,000 or 12,000 copies?” when really, you need to be thinking small, repeat print runs.

Stop, make a working game first. Ask people who have published already when your game is done or near done, but don’t waste time on it before-hand.

Don’t expect to make a living on this

Tied into the previous two Don’ts, they almost always come out of the idea that someone is hoping to make a living on this or find the “magical hit” that will springboard a new renaissance in roleplaying.

Yeah, no.

The ok games sell a few hundred copies. The big hits sell a few thousand copies. Luke Crane, who makes Burning Wheel, has sold enough to go full time. He’s also a professional editor and layout designer and has spent YEARS promoting his game.

Seriously, make your game, and plan on breaking even and probably getting some extra money, but you will be working or finding other means of support.

There is no magic bullet, there is no great idea waiting to be found that will bring in the millions to play rpgs.

If you can accept that, then great!

What is the point of your game?

Decide for yourself, what you want your game to do. Think hard about it, and be ready to re-write that as you work on your game, not to change it, but to clarify it- for yourself and for others.

Being clear on this is going to inform everything you design, because either you’re adding stuff that supports that vision, adding stuff that detracts from that vision (bad), or adding stuff that is neutral (not always, but usually distracting and easily leads to bad).

You need to know:
– What your game is about
– What you expect people playing to DO, generally
– What kinds of stories/fiction should happen in this game
– What kinds of things shouldn’t happen in this game
– What your rules do to support ALL of the above

When you post on the Forge, or any serious design space, this is what people are going to need to know. The same rule can be good in one game, and terrible in another game- based on what the point of your game IS.

If you don’t give a point, and then ask, “Is my encumberance system good?” no one can tell you- because the point of the game determines if it would be supporting it or not.

Don’t make a game that can “do anything”!

I put this “Don’t” here, because it has to do with the focus of your game. If people ask, “What do players do?” and your answer is, “They can do anything they want!” you’ve just said, “Go play GURPs or freeform!” and said nothing about your game. It doesn’t promote freedom or flexibility- we’re all gamers with imagination- we can already do that without your rules.

You’re making a game because you’re trying to give a new play experience. What does that look like? What would a GOOD example of play look like? What -should- players do?

Play vastly different RPGs

Artists look at art, musicians listen to music, writers read books- I don’t understand why people who look at designing games get stuck on NOT trying out new games.

Even if you decide to use nothing that you’ve tried, you at least will have a better idea of what you are using works to do what you want.

I usually suggest people play Inspectres, Primetime Adventures, 1001 Nights, Breaking the Ice, and Shadow of Yesterday.

More generically, you should at least:
– Play an rpg that doesn’t have a GM but has rules
– Play an rpg that lets players narrate outcomes, taking over the “GM’s seat” for a bit
– Play an rpg that has stats for emotions or relationships
– Play an rpg that gives advancement on something other than defeating challenges
– Play an rpg that has rules for social conflicts

(The list above covers all of that, with games you can get a good feel for in a short, short run. )

Obviously, there’s a lot more stuff out there, but these are some basic things you should experience as a tabletop rpg designer, as much as a videogame programmer should probably have played a puzzle game, a platformer, a fighting game, an MMO, an RTS, and an rpg at some point – you don’t have to like everything, but it’s necessary to put you as minimally informed.


Playtest with different people. Have groups playtest without you present. You’re not just playtesting the mechanics, you’re playtesting the writing- if the group can’t figure out how to do things, if they’re misunderstanding the rules, you need to fix your writing as much as the rules themselves.

Remember how you figured out what the point of your game was? Being clear on communicating this means you’ll get more useful feedback from the playtest groups.

Being clear on it with yourself will help you sort the useful feedback from the pointless feedback – someone complaining that your soap opera love rpg doesn’t have enough weapon tables is not useful criticism for you to think about, no matter fervent or vocal they are.

If you keep in mind the point of your game, you can start reading between the lines and looking for what you really want- how well does the game support the point you’re trying to hit? Where are the snags? Are people confused about that point? Can it be made more clearly?


Do you have a game ready to go? No? Go back until you do. Do you have a game ready to go? Ok, then think about this.

Consider how much money you’re willing to lose. Yes, start with the worst assumption. That’s your budget. Consider selling PDF games, consider selling print-on-demand, consider small format, consider short print runs. Consider at what point you break even, and at what point you actually make money.

(If you give your game away for free, then all of this is pretty easy to understand. It’s kinda sad that the people who give games away for free are the ones who don’t go bankrupt, probably because they’re not counting on a gamble.)

Email people who have published. Get their info on what worked and what didn’t work. Find out what their sales were like, before you commit to printing 6,000 units. Ask about business stuff at this point, because you have a working game, and you want to put it out there.

For some bizarre reason, people who show up on rpg publishing forums often ask business questions, but don’t actually, you know, email or PM the people who have published. A lot of them are really happy to give info and details- to recommend printers, to tell you about pitfalls, to give you ideas on what kind of sales they made and what you might expect.

No seriously, don’t reinvent THIS wheel, use the resources people offer. Get help, and the more money you’re investing the more people you should talk to. Don’t expect to make a living, don’t expect to make actual part time money.

You’re not on a contract or a deadline. Take as long as you want to make the game you want. You’re not forced to churn out a game a year, or so many books a quarter.

Good games keep selling over the course of years, crappy games are bought for novelty and not played much after the excitement wears off.

%d bloggers like this: