Designing for New Systems
Check out Burn Bryte, an original science fantasy TTRPG I helped create for Roll20!
Though I started by my game design career creating content for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons, over the years I’ve worked with other games like CAPERS, City of Mist, and ZWEIHÄNDER.
Why Write for Other Games?
I love Dungeons & Dragons and plan to continue my design work in this area, but I also enjoy MANY other roleplaying games. I want to write for other games. That desire drives me to seek out gigs outside of Dungeons & Dragons naturally.Even if you don’t want to write for a game other than your chosen favorite, it’s not a bad idea to try your hand at another system. Most game designers can find more than one RPG that floats their boat, and as discussed in a previous post, reading and playing other games makes you a better creator in your chosen system. You likely have another game you already like. It should be easy to find at least one other you’d be interested in designing for! Just like reading other games sharpens your design skills, working on other games does the same. There’s one other reason to try designing another game. Odds are your chosen system won’t be around forever. There are big mechanical and style differences between the third, fourth, and fifth editions of Dungeons & Dragons. Because I know how to analyze and write for a new game, I’ll be ready to rock and roll when the sixth edition of D&D comes out (hopefully not for a very long time, but still).
Getting the Contract
When you’re ready to write for another game, figure out your chosen system then decide how you plan to work on that game. Does this system have an open gaming or similar license that allows you to publish on your own? Do they have submission guidelines on their website that could allow you to work directly with them? Do they have a community content marketplace (like the Dungeon Masters Guild) that allows you access to their IP? Do you know the game’s publisher and can you approach them with an idea directly? Hopefully the answer to at least one of these questions is yes. If more than one answer is yes, congratulations! You have options. Pick the path that is best for the product and you.
Preparing to Design
Once you have an idea of what you’re going to make, you should get familiar with the system and get to know your design team.
Make it Clear You’re a First-Timer
Whether you’re working with the publisher of the game or a team you assembled yourself, prepare the people you’re working with by telling them this is your first time working with this system. They will understand you might need a little more time to wrap your brain around the game. If you’re working with the publisher they should also send you a free copy of the game’s core rules at the very least. Ask for this if they do not offer and you don’t already have it. Get a style guide too!
Read the Core Rules and Style Guide
Even if you’ve read the game’s rules before, read them again before you dive into designing. If you haven’t read them before, get on it. You should be an active reader, taking note not just of mechanics, but also of the voice and style of writing. How does this game present and break down information? Make notes, especially in ways this game is different from the one you design for most. Oxford comma? Boxed text? Tables? Typical formatting of basic check/save/roll/draw/etc.? If you’re working with a publisher, they should have a style guide for you. If you’re not working with them, there might be one available for free on their website or marketplace somewhere. Read this too! It tells you how to write for their game. Eat it up with a brain spoon.
Read Template Products…A Lot
After you read the core rules and style guide, read a version of the thing you want to create. Are you writing an adventure? Read lots of those for the system you’re creating. A monster book? Devour those stat blocks. A rules supplement? You get the idea.Not only will studying template products help you better understand the game’s voice and style, it will also help you learn what already exists in the world of the game. You might have a great idea for an adventure, but if someone else has already written something similar, you now know you’re better off going with plan B.
Play the Game
Reading a game helps us understand the laws that govern its mechanics, style, and voice. Playing the game helps bend and break those laws while still staying true to the game. You must play the games you wish to design for to fully understand them and get an idea of how they flow at the table. You should play the game for the same reason products should be playtested. What’s on paper isn’t always what plays out at the table.
Work with a Veteran of the System
If you’re not working directly with the publisher, enlist the help of a codesigner or development editor who has worked with the system before. This person is your guardian angel who can give advice and help fix mistakes folx familiar with the system will pickup on right away.
All that prep work is great, but you’ve only just begun. Keep these things in mind when designing.
Be it the publisher or a veteran editor you hire yourself, make sure you communicate early and often with system experts. If you can’t find an answer by looking in the game’s rules or from another trustworthy source, ask your expert! Don’t guess at mechanics and style if you don’t have to!I would also send work sooner rather than later for your expert to check. If you’re making a book of twenty monsters, send the first critter to your expert before proceeding rather than sending the entire rough draft at one time. For an adventure send the first encounter before writing many more. You might be making some mistakes that are simple to fix in one place but a pain in the butt to fix in twenty (and if it’s a pain in the butt to fix in one, it’s nigh impossible to fix in twenty). Your publisher, editor, etc. can catch that. Make sure you keep up the communication! Send monsters/encounters/chapters/etc. one-at-a-time until you feel ready to rock.
Don’t Know? Check
Don’t be lazy! If you are unsure of style or mechanics, don’t take a best guess. Look it up in the rules. It will make you write a little slower, but your editor and you will save time in the end. Don’t rely on your memory. Odds are you have so many game rules in there, you’ll pull out something incorrect at some point. Always look it up when in doubt.
While you design, keep playing your chosen game. In fact you should play with the things you designed (provided it’s ok with the publisher). You’ll do your own first round of playtesting, which leads to a much better first draft.Even if you can’t playtest what you’re writing, keep playing the game until your product is finished at the very least. You’ll better understand the system with every throw of the dice (or draw of the cards or pull of the brick or… you get the idea).
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