Approaches to RPG Design

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Every month, as I’ve been redesigning Cyber Run, a futuristic table top RPG, I’ve also been writing an article based on subject I was redesigning. This month I was going to write about skill systems, but after overhauling our attribute system, I thought it might be more helpful to other game designers to talk about different approaches to designing a game system.

Top-down vs. Bottom-up Design

When I get a game idea, it begins from some detail of another game system that I want to change. After I get enough ideas, I start making a game. This approach is the Bottom-up design—trying to build something with a group of piecemeal ideas. One problem with this approach is linking each idea together in a logical way can sometimes be difficult. Bottom-up design does have its place, but mostly toward the end of the development cycle when I want to use the results of play testing.

Top-down design is required for designing a game’s core mechanics. A game needs to have a foundation that the other game mechanics revolve around. Creating a core mechanic for a game is difficult; it not only determines the type of game I am creating, but also how it will be played. I might have an idea about how to make an existing game system better, but not an idea about how to make an entirely new system.

What helps me most in creating a new system is determining what I want to communicate to the players. In the case of Cyber Run it is morality, which as a result determined a list of character actions, which allowed me to build the entire core mechanic.

D&D has a morality system called alignment. I and probably a thousand other people have spent hours debating over the interpretation of an alignment. I disliked the alignment system, but it was central to the game, expressed in spells, abilities and class restrictions. White Wolf games have a humanity meter, which attempts to keep player characters from becoming psychopaths.

For Cyber Run, I didn’t want to judge a character’s actions as being good or evil. Instead I wanted the system to handle consequences to actions in a realistic way.

Realism vs. Numbers

D&D took real medieval society roles to create character classes, and assigned a character attribute for each class to create their core mechanic. The hit point, saving throw, and attack systems revolved around this core mechanic.

Some games don’t need or want to reflect reality in anyway, but in RPGs I found that I become more absorbed in the games that do reflect some aspect of reality. I sometimes get too focused on this reflection in the details of a system and lose sight of the big picture. I find that it is better to limit reflecting reality in a game to the core mechanic, and then just concentrate on how the other game systems can work with the core.

D&D has a terrible, realistic representation of shields in their Armor Class system. In realistic shield-wielding combat, the shield is the primary defense against attacks, and in D&D it can be a simple +1 to AC compared to full plate armor that gives a +8. This mechanic can be addressed with house rules and the expanded rules that more recent editions provide, but in first edition D&D, reflecting realistic shield combat was not as important as reflecting realistic medieval societal roles.

Basic Rules vs. Detailed Rules

I like the idea of a game with few and simple rules, such as Guardians of the Order games or something like Ghost Echo, but the simple games I play are only fun for a inadequate amount of time due to their limited content and complexity. Heavily detailed games can be fun, eventually, but the initial cost of time for reading and learning one is a barrier that prevents many gamers from ever playing the game.

In addition, simpler game systems rely heavily on the ability of the game master. An experienced GM is free from the shackles of strict rules to craft a story, but an inexperienced GM can become frustrated, often ignoring some of the rules of the game systems, to simplify the entire game as a result, providing the players with a less desirable game experience.

Detailed game rules allow inexperienced GMs to perform better without making an experienced GM perform worse. Finding the balance between the two approaches can be tricky; I make the most basic rules possible for a play test and slowly add more rules after a few gaming sessions. What I found most important in creating a game is to not get burnt out on the design. Only if I maintain my passion for the project can it get finished. I hope this helps anyone struggling with their own game design.

  • 09/04/15

About Atticus Evil

Lead Game Designer for Cyber Run a Science Fiction RPG.
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