Getting Started in Tabletop Roleplaying Game Design
My latest DMs Guild product, The Iron Titan, is now available!
This post originally appeared on my Patreon page about a year ago.
In the last year the question I’ve received the most about tabletop roleplaying game design is, “How do I get started?” I have more than a little advice to give on that question, so let’s dive in.
To get started in game design, you have to sit down and write… but where to start? If you’re like most game designers, you have a head filled with ideas: entirely new game systems, complicated hacks of existing systems, brand new settings, multi-adventure campaigns, and so on. That is awesome. Write down and save every idea you have, because you will likely get to them, but you have to start small. Pick a single element of a game that’s easier to design (like a D&D background or magic item) and challenge yourself to make ONE of those.Why start small? There are several good reasons. The first is that writing for games takes longer and requires more revision than many people initially think. Game design is technical writing, so nailing the the style and jargon of the game you’re designing for is key. If you give yourself less words to write, you’re more likely to finish something that you (and other people) might actually think is good.It’s also true for most people that their first work in game design is not their best. Starting small allows you to make mistakes without investing a lot of time and energy. Small projects are also much easier to revise, update, and totally rewrite than entire game worlds. (You also feel less bad about not revising and rewriting small projects if you don’t have the time.)You can learn on small projects to prepare for the bigger stuff. I knew very little about what made a good adventure, a balanced game system, or a compelling RPG mechanic when I started World Builder Blog. I learned a lot of those things overtime, and I still learn new stuff on every project (large and small). Small projects give you the building blocks to make larger projects. It’s not just the building blocks of game design either. You’ll learn how art, layout, editing, playtesting, project management, and more come together if you start small. That is not stuff you want to learn on-the-fly as you also deal with the mammoth task of building a brand new game.The RPG community is also more likely to read something from any designer, especially a new one, if it is a small creation. Just reading a full campaign setting or 150,000-word adventure is a big time commitment, and there are already more RPGs in the world than most folks will play in a lifetime, so getting people to play your enormous creations is even harder than getting them to look at it. A person is far more likely to read and use a spell or feat you write than an entirely new game system.After starting small and becoming comfortable making that one element of a game, move on. Push yourself toward places where you are less and less comfortable and need more and more expertise. For instance, if you were to design elements of Dungeons & Dragons, your progression might look something like this (which is a VERY LOOSE road map):
- Magic Items
- Rules Modules for DMs to Use
- Campaign Settings for D&D
- Hacks of D&D
- Entirely New RPG
Pick a System You Know
It may seem obvious, but if you’re going to start small, that usually involves designing for another system, so pick a system you know well. This should be a system you currently run or play with some frequency and history, and one for which you have read and have access to all the rules. The first reason for this is the most obvious. The better you know the system, the better you understand its nuisances. You have to understand how the rules of a whole game work if you want to add or modify tiny pieces of it. We all know even the smallest rule can be exploited to break the game in ways that were never intended.Designing for a system you know well also helps you understand the correct language to use in your creation. If you don’t use the proper vocabulary for your creation, it won’t play nice with the system’s existing rules. This is a key part of game design. For instance, did you know that there are no skill checks in fifth edition D&D? What some of you are thinking of when you say skill check fits into a much broader category formally called ability checks. That one-word distinction makes a big different.Finally, the better you know the system, the more likely you are to understand what the game is missing that you can create. Before you make something, make sure it’s not already an official part of the game. If it is and you want to remake it anyway, go for it! Just make sure you’re not reinventing the wheel unknowingly, so you can explain the recreation (and differentiate it from the existing rules).
Share Your Creations
Once you creat something, share it! Let friends and family who understand games see it and ask for feedback. Share you stuff on the internet, and ask people what they think. Gamers will not hesitate to give their opinions. Listen to what people have to say. You don’t have to take every piece of feedback or advice, but if you get an overwhelming number of people telling you the laser gun you designed is too powerful, too weak, or too complicated, take a look at the design, and see what you can improve.Sharing your creations with a wider community also helps get your name out there. It can be scary for some to put personal creations out there, and some people can be mean with their criticism (ignore those jerks for sure), but there will be people out there who like your stuff and follow you because of it. I would never have gotten hired by Kobold Press, the Adventurers League, Roll20, or Wizards of the Coast if I hadn’t shared my creations on social and on forums.
Don’t Get Scared
This is a lot of advice I’m giving here, but don’t let it scare you off from creating. If you’re interested in designing games, the only way to do so is to do it. You will make mistakes, which will help you learn. You will get frustrated sometimes, but if this is what you want to do, you owe it to yourself to try. Besides, most of the time it is a lot of freakin’ fun! You can always revise your creations, so have no fear!
Don’t Give Up (or Do So with Pride)
Don’t stop at one small creation. Maybe it didn’t get as much traction as you wanted. That’s ok! Your creation can live on the internet forever, slowly gaining recognition. Maybe it was more difficult to create than you thought. That’s ok too! Like anything, it gets easier with practice. It takes time to build a following and to get good at any task. Don’t give up if you’re not an RPG superstar with 20,000 Twitter followers after a year of work.Of course, it is also ok for you to give game design a try and say, “This is not for me,” then walk away from it. It is ok to love RPGs and not design for them. If you give it a shot and find that you’d rather spend your time and energy elsewhere (perhaps making your own personal games better), then leave game design behind with your head held high for giving it a shot!
What Do the Pros Say?
I am not the only source of game design advice out there (nor am I the best). Here are some of my favorite places to go to hear what the pros have to say about it:
- Complete Kobold Guide to Game Design from Kobold Press is a series of essays from Wolfgang Baur, Monte Cook, Ed Greenwood, Mike Stackpole, and other industry veterans. It’s got a lot of great advice about frequently asked topics. If you enjoy it, check out the other Kobold Guides.
- Gnome Stew is an award-winning blog that has a whole category of articles dedicated to making games from incredible authors.
- Table Top Babble is my own show. Each week I talk to many different folks in the RPG industry, but most often I speak with designers about their games and game design. Here’s Matt Mercer chatting about game design if you need an episode to jump into.
- Design Doc is a podcast where hosts Hannah and Evan are designing their own RPG episode by episode!
- Dragon Talk, the official D&D podcast hosted by Greg Tito and Shelly Mazzenoble, has segments called Lore You Should Know with Chris Perkins and Sage Advice with Jeremy Crawford. These segments break down how D&D’s story and mechanics were created and how they work.
Do you have your own places you like to go? Share them in the comments!
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April 16, 2020 @ 6:33 am
After much thought I decided to create my own world and system (a hack of D&D 5e) last week and reading this helped me a lot. Thank you!
April 17, 2020 @ 11:07 am
I have been working on building better stories and more meaningful NPCs in the small space of a one-shot D&D adventure. I have found the free Pixar in a Box videos really helpful. The Art of Storytelling is a good series to jump into. https://www.khanacademy.org/partner-content/pixar
April 21, 2020 @ 11:20 am
Really enjoyed this article and agree with it! Thank you for writing this.
May 23, 2020 @ 4:29 pm
Great article! Served as a great read coffee in hand.
Also found out I do have the Complete Kobold Guide to Game Design book bought and I haven’t read it yet. Immediately going into my to-do list