December 08, 2011

The Two Fundamental Elements of RPG Design

Or, How To Design RPGs the Robin Laws Way (Part One of Several)

I've been asked to describe my process of RPG design, so let's kick off what will surely be a series of posts illuminated by your further questions. Should this need be said, this is my process and not a commandment for others to do likewise. If it sometimes seems like I'm making Olympian pronouncements it's because qualifiers are boring and I will have no truck with them.

Sometimes I pitch a game to a publisher (Feng Shui, Mutant City Blues, Ashen Stars); other times I am presented with a brief and asked to develop an approach (The Esoterrorists, Rune, HeroQuest.) The distinction between these two starting points is not always clear-cut.

The first step is to refine the initial brief, by identifying the design throughline and the core activity. Without the second, resulting game will be hard to pitch to gamers and to play. Without the first, it has little reason to exist in the first place.

The core activity I've talked about before. It tells you who the characters are and what they're doing. You're heroes fighting to shape the turning of an age in a world where myth takes on fantastic reality. You play troubleshooters for hire on a war-ravaged fringe of an interstellar empire. You lead an isolated tribe of raiders at the dawn of the iron age.

The design throughline is the central concept underlying game play, and your reason for creating a new rules set (to the extent that you are.) The game evokes the spirit of Jack Vance's stories of the Dying Earth. Or streamlines investigative play, so that the solution to mysteries depends not on finding clues but putting them together. Or provides a simple framework for the building of dramatic storylines.