Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Rob Lang's free guide to organising your RPG

In this entry, I take a look into a stock way of organising your free RPG. If you are stuck for ideas on how to get your idea onto paper in a way that other people can understand and ultimately run a game from. Using an example, I present an ordering that would work for most games I've reviewed (and is used by some of them) but if you feel it's not right for your RPG, then that's ok. There is no definitive structure. I include Setting here as I believe that if you want to be certain your game is to be played, you'll need a setting and a sample adventure.

Your brain is fizzing with ideas and you've projectile vomited the thought froth at full throttle into a word processor, PDF'd it and launched it onto 1KM1KT. You've joined the all-too-jolly clan of internet philanthropists. Well done!

Then you're bathed in stark daylight, every wrinkle deepening. You're pounded by a heart thumping worry and cold perspiration. Will anyone play it? Have I got my idea across?

Sometimes great ideas get buried by the author not due to bad writing but through poor organisation, which is a shame because it is a relatively easy facet to fix. I'm guilty of most of the below but I am working on changing to this format. Don't forget that an RPG is both read and referred to. It needs to be reference material as well as something enjoyable to read.

The Structure

A game should be organised in a logical structure and so that it reads well (more below in my section on style). To help illustrate my point, I'm going to use a completely fictional game from someone who really didn't know what I was up to. These are the main sections I would include:

Front Cover

At the very least, it should contain the name of your game. It does not need to be a graphic, a bit of text in a nice font will do. I'd also include your name too. You've put a lot of work into it, I do hope you're proud of it so put your name on it. Or, if it is a work of filth and you deteste it, put someone else's name on it. Not mine. Perhaps a nom de plume?

Contents Page

A contents page should include all the major headings and sub headings. Lists of tables or images belong in the Appendix. Try and keep the contents to a couple of pages and compress the font or line space to fit more on a page. Lines can be compressed as people will only scan through the Contents, they are unlikely to read it like paragraphs of prose. Only optional if your game is under 7 pages.

Thank you / Version / Dedication (TYVD)

Optional. Chances are you're going to need to thank someone for helping you through the game and this is best place for it. Might be a spouse, girlfriend (if you have both, don't include both here), online cohorts of evil, a special plushie you sleep with, therapist or parole officer. Try and keep it to a page. Always put a version on and a date. If you don't like software versioning (1.1, 1.2 etc) use round numbers.


The introduction is likely to be the first thing that the reader will go to after the cover, so ensure it is fluffless. It must include the following:
  • What is in the book? System? Setting? Sample adventure?
  • What is the genre of the setting? What are the major themes?
  • What will the characters do?
  • what sort of mechanic is it (dice/diceless/pool)?
  • Character Creation

    Begin this section by listing all of the steps so that the read knows what is coming. Then describe each of the steps, giving examples when needed. Optionally, include a start-to-finish character generation. Make sure your example character will fit into the example adventure you provide. Don't put your skills inline unless there is only half a page of them. Put them in the Appendix.


    If you have designed your own mechanics, start with an introduction to them. What sort of mechanic is it? Rolling dice? Lots of adding? After this brief introduction, deal with each section in turn. If you have a core concept that runs through them all (such as rolling dice to meet a target number), deal with that first. The sections you might have are Action resolution (doing stuff), Combat (hurting stuff) and Magic (doing unbelievable stuff). Give at least one example for each type.


    Free games live on their setting. Mechanics can't be played alone by anyone but a group of statistical mathematicians and statistical mathematicians aren't allowed to gather in groups without a license. Laying out your setting information is very important. Begin with a general overview, much like you did in the overal introduction above. Give the main elements, recent history, who the main NPCs are. A page at most.

    As the RPG is going to be used as both something to read as well as used as reference. With that in mind, I recommend describing your setting from the top and work down. For example, describe the world, the countries, the towns, the rulers and so on until you reach the campaign area for the sample adventure.

    Gamesmaster Section

    GM sections are important and at the very minimum include an Example Adventure. The example adventure should showcase your setting without relying too much on the system. Imagine the experience the roleplayers will have: They'll sit down. Make characters and the GM will begin. Make the adventure simple to understand and also get the point of the setting. Perhaps give example characters too.

    Additional setting information should also be included. If there are things the players should no know but the GM should, then include them. It is normally the GM that presents the game to play to the group so make it delicious for them too.


    My science background makes me an Appendix fascist. Any item that disturbs the follow of explanation should go in the Appendix. Lists are the biggest culprit. Put them at the back, they won't get read through from start to finish and are used more like reference. This is my biggest weakness and when I got the test print of Icar from Lulu, I was appaulled that I had all the lists (Skills, Psychotheatrics) inline with the prose. It might feel a bit jarring to move the skill list from inside the character creation section but I assure you that it will be better off in actual use.

    Examples of things that should really go in the Appendix are:
    • Skills
    • Equipment
    • Spells
    • Bestiary
    • Charts and Tables
    • Character Sheet

    Back cover

    I would have a bit of advertising blurb on the back and perhaps instructions to the print shop that it is ok to print for personal use. If a prospective GM has printed it and bound it nicely, the players will soon go to the back cover.

    On style

    In this section I talk about a few stylistic points about your RPG's organisation. Style is more ethereal than structure and as the beholder, your eye is king here. If you have no idea, then try these steps as a starting point.
    • Two columns is a must. Unless you're printing a pamphlet.
    • Use facing pages as most people will print on both sides of the paper. Be careful where you put your page numbers as they might end up in a crease. If you're not sure stick them in the middle of the page.
    • Put images in the top right and bottom left as a preference. The top left and bottom right parts of the page is where the eye scans to most easily, so best to put your text there.


    Fluff is what I call any words or content that does not directly assist player or GM in playing the game. Fluff can appear in the following ways:
    • Examples that do not demonstrate meaningful bits of the system
    • A chatty style of writing can add hundreds of words.
    • Justifications of why a particular rule was chosen over another
    • Marketing speak about how revolutionary and epic the game is. It is ok to describe why it is different by over the top adjectives is fluff.
    • Over-elaborate detail regarding a small part of the setting

    Choosing good examples

    Examples will help the GM firmly grasp your setting and mechanics. A single example should highlight a single facet of your mechanic or setting if possible. Examples can chain together, but each example should stand on its own too so that people can get a flavour of the example when refering it. Ensure your examples are fluff-free.

    Calling all designers!

    • Anything I've missed?
    • Any horrid travesties here?
    • Am I being too harsh?
    • Do you know of any other tutorials outlining similar ideas?
    All comments welcome, I'll build good ones back into the post.

    A big thanks

    To chgowiz for letting me construct this outlandish parody based entirely on his, erm, cartoon face! He had no idea what I was going to do with it, so I can only thank him in advance for having a sense of humour. If anyone does want to make chgowiz The RPG, then I suggest you ask him first. :-)


    shinobicow said...

    I'm not sure that i agree with you on the use of an introduction; i tend to believe that you have to have a good deal of fluff to give the reader a feel for the theme of the game in addition to the game's play style and such.

    Other than that, i think your guide is really good. I kind of want to do another 24 hour RPG entry using your guide as a tool for making it.

    rpgcharacters said...

    I disagree about moving all the tables to the appendices. I agree that they should be COPIED there, but nothing annoys me more when going through character creation than to discover that the charts I need to create the character are somewhere else in the book so I keep flipping forward and back to get a character made.

    Rob Lang said...

    @shinobicow Thanks for the comment! I'm not very good at describing fluff, except I know it when I see it. The introduction is a good place to give a feel for the setting, let me give you an example of what fluff is and what it isn't.

    Fluff is...I created this setting because AD&D was boring to me and I wondered what would happen if dwarves had steam. Giant cities built on steam with punk elements in there too. So, a fantasy steampunk...

    Fluff isn't...Deep in the bowels of the megapolis, amongst house size boilers live a underclass of dwarves...

    I do appreciate where you're coming from and this might need some more debate, perhaps elsewhere but I believe that if you have more than a page of skills, you end up flipping back and forth anyway. Then you flip back and for for feats. Then spells. You're always flipping back and forth. You might as well have them in the Appendix. Then someone can at least read the book through without having to skip. Let's start a thread on 1000 Monkeys!

    Rob Lang said...

    For skill lists, I've started a discussion thread over on 1KM1KT.

    Jeff Rients said...

    Now I want to play an RPG that doesn't actually exist.

    Stargazer said...

    @Rob Lang: I always thought fluff was something like that: Deep in the bowels of the megapolis, amongst house size boilers live a underclass of dwarves...

    Badelaire said...

    Some great content here. As I am in the process of writing the Tankards & Broadswords RPG, this will be very useful. One always wonders what "best practices" should be used in designing a RPG, even if it's one directed at a relatively niche audience.

    blogquarentaedois said...

    Dude! Very nice post!!

    This will help me a lot for my future game based in the D6 System, but I have one question. Can I Translate this post to portuguese?


    Rob Lang said...

    Thanks for the comments everyone!

    @Jeff - you could always write it, sir!

    @blogquarentaedois Glad you find it useful enough to translate!
    Please do translate as long as the links remain the same (to chgowiz especially) and there's a link to here.

    jamused said...

    Since I haven't run a game in somebody else's original setting since Empire of the Petal Throne, I guess I'm a bit surprised to see that free games live on their setting. Even when I look at games that have a setting, I'm not looking to do more than cannibalize interesting bits, and I've actually avoided picking up games that seemed to be too tied to their settings. Now as I'm thinking of writing up my latest homebrew I'm wondering if I should include the setting I've been using...

    Stargazer said...

    @jamused: You really should do so!

    Sewicked said...

    I'm torn between the in-line skills, etc and putting them as an appendix. I might in fact do both.

    At least, have a sampling in-line, so that the reader can construct a character as he reads, with a reference to the appendix. Then have the full and complete set at the back so he can build a character without reading about the steps again.

    I also recommend a one or two-page step-by-step guide (step 1, character name, sex, race, etc) with a filled-in character sheet with the same numbers. Reference pages (step 3 skills, see page X for sample & Appendix Beta for the full selection) are helpful there, too.

    rpgcharacters said...

    Sewicked - fully agree with you there about the character creation guide matched with a character sheet. I did that for my 24 hour RPG (Geodesic Gnomes - http://rpgcharacters.wordpress.com/geodesic-gnomes/ )and I feel that it really helps solidify the chargen process for players, and as a game designer it helps you double-check for any omissions, errors, or poor design in your chargen system.

    Roger said...

    You don't cover art at all (that I noticed); it might be worth mentioning.

    Siskoid said...

    I'm wondering about the system before setting structure. If the two are more intimately linked, the rules might be more difficult to understand without knowing the setting. Character types for example, or rules for things specific to the setting, but unheard of in other games.

    Rob Lang said...

    Thanks for the great comments, all! I am glad I have hit on something of use. I'll do my best to answer some without going on for too long. :-)

    @jamused Part of me agrees but I still feel that if you printed and placed a game with a setting and one with an interesting mechanic next to each other, the one with the setting is more like to be played. Even if that setting is then butchered by the GM, generic mechanics leave me feeling a bit cold. The one exception to this would be Old School games because their setting is implicit. Midgard is an excellent example of a system that needed a setting - and got one - and is stronger for it. Norse myth is a strong idea but without that setting, the GM has to do a lot of work to run the game. I think as a designer, you need to make the game as easy as you can to play and to do that you need a setting and a sample adventure.

    @Sewicked Thanks for the extra tips for reference pages. The more I think about skills, the more I want them at the back. Also like the idea of the character creation matched with a character sheet. Great idea! I'll add those in when I do a revision.

    @Roger Art. I agonised about art and hoped no-one would mention it! The first draft of this entry had art as part of the section on style. The problem with art is that most people can't draw very well. I don't draw people well at all. Icar is notably bereft of human figures! There is lots of free art but some of it might be placed into the book and not quite fit the author's original idea - making it jarring to the reader ("Yes, it's a cool pic but what does it represent?"). Perhaps art is worth mentioning in so far as you don't need to worry about it. Good typography and layout is enough to make a game enjoyable to read.

    @Siskoid You have hit upon a good special case, there. I agree that in some cases, setting and system should be more closely intertwined or even switched around. In most cases, my structure works as a starting point.

    Many thanks all!

    rpgcharacters said...

    The necessity of two columns I think is up for debate also.

    There are enough printing formats (I'm looking at the lulu page right now) that would work better with single column design - specifically the classic paperback format which is what I'll be using for my next game.

    blogquarentaedois said...


    The translantio to the portuguese is done. I dont know if you would like in see it. But if you want the link is


    As you ask for me, I put all the links of your post

    hugs, and tks

    Rob Lang said...

    @rpgcharacter Ah ha! Another limit case. Most will design A4/Letter, in which two columns is a good start. If you wish to print it on the side of an aircraft carrier, toilet roll or a tattoo down a bearded lady's arm you'll need a different format. Thanks to eye saccades, narrow line spacing and wide columns makes it difficult to read large bodies of text. Newspapers have known this for years. Website normally increase the width of the line by using extended line spacing. We don't have that luxury when some poor soul might want to print it! :-)

    @blogquarentaedois WOW! A translation! I feel honoured, sir for being thought worthy. It appears you've done a fine job in reproducing the article. Many thanks. :)

    Little Shepherd said...

    It struck me that some games, if they used your suggestions, would be over 50% appendix. Wow.

    blogquarentaedois said...

    I thank you for the permission. The brazilians players likes a lot this guide.


    snikle said...

    I love your game! You should make that game, it sounds like it would be a blast to read, if not play!

    Rob Lang said...

    @snikle. I might just do that.

    Jeff Moore said...

    @Little Shepherd ... I think that 50% or more of most RPG's is appendix. They may not refer to it that way ... skills, spells, bestiary ... these all generally have their own chapters in most RPG's. The point is that from a reference/reading flow stand point these are all just lists of things. Reference Material like an encyclopedia. And as such, these materials, these chapters ... whatever need to be shoved to the back of the book. Put all your reference stuff together in the back and people will be able to find it quickly while they are playing. And it's kept out of the way where people won't trip over it while they are initially reading the book and trying to learn how to play.

    Thanks for the guide Rob, I am going to apply these techniques to my current project and see how it works out for me.

    Jeff Moore

    Rob Lang said...

    @Jeff Moore
    That is ever so more eloquent than I managed! I've been arguing this point for some time with people who's opinion I respect dearly. It's nice to have some people on this side. :-)

    If you manage to use the guide for anything, please let me know so others can see how the guide might be employed.

    Jeff Moore said...

    So I have decided to blog about the process of creating my RPG using your guidelines as I almost immediately found my own ideas challenged stepping in ... ultimately, perhaps I was taking your guide too literally. But, I have decided to do just that. Stick as close to your guide as I can and see what the results are. Despite some initial resistance, I am really happy with the results so far.

    I have blogged about it here:


    And included in the blog links back to your post. Hope you don't mind.


    Jeff Moore

    Badelaire said...

    Jeff -

    Looks like an interesting project - I've added you to my blogroll. Keep up the good work!

    Mountzionryan said...

    You should make a PDF of this post available.

    Just sayin'

    Rob Lang said...

    @Mountzionryan - I am tempted to but I think I'm going to build it into a longer series, which will be more PDF-worthy.

    Frontsideair said...

    I stumbled upon this guide totally randomly, and it comes out to be something I've been searching for a while. Thanks a bunch for these useful tips.

    I'll be waiting for a series or a PDF.

    Rob Lang said...

    Frontsideair, thanks for the support and appreciation. Will you be using the guide for a free project?

    Frontsideair said...

    Yeah, of course! I'm a free RPG (and also free software) fan. Actually, right now I'm making myself a 24h RPG. =D But unfortunately it'll be in my native language, Turkish. (Yeah, I'm not good at English. Not for 24h RPG.) And I saw your response when I was checking your guide again. So thanks again! You're a life saver.

    misterecho said...

    I would really love to have this in a Word template! but that would be cheating :)

    Rob Lang said...

    I am building this into a PDF guide, which is much more verbose and perhaps a little bit more irreverent.

    Christoph said...

    I think the rpgcharacters is right about copying charts to the appendices... you need to have the charts in the book too.
    I'm setting up my mechanics section into the different game modes; social, combat, et cetera to try to make the book good for reference.
    The goal is to have the the GM or Players able to play the game with only the one section open. Flipping around sux!

    j.smith said...

    I think i've read most of this thread now, but i'm skipping to the comment box to say something, and hoping i'm not reiterating something someone else already concluded.

    I'm currently writing a basic ruleset with the intent to write not one, but two elaborate settings to go with it after it is completed and functional without a setting.

    Anyway, it came upon me to organize my rules with some explanations thrown in. But when my gamers read them, they were confusing to everyone except me, so i'm rewriting the explanations and placing a table of contents in as well.

    I read the bit about the appendix and thought it was brilliance, then i read the bits about keeping the skills and feats next to the chargen section and thought that was brilliance. So what i'm doing now is i've moved all the tables, in their entirety, to the appendix, and copied just the bare minimum necessary for chargen into that section.

    Everything needed to build a level one character is in that section, and everything needed for the levels gained afterward is in the appendix.

    Rob Lang said...

    @j.smith - I'm glad you really like the guide. I'll be forming it into something more meaty in the coming months. Once you finish your game, please do let me know how you get on. Either post up a comment or drop me an email.

    anarchist said...


    "Everything needed to build a level one character is in that section, and everything needed for the levels gained afterward is in the appendix."

    That makes sense. But having tables that you need to create a character in the appendix only? I think that'd be annoying.

    Rob Lang said...

    @anarchist - Since I wrote this, I'm now on the fence. For any table that's longer than 9 or 10 lines, it really should go in the Appendix, very small tables should go inline and both in the Appendix.

    What is really jarring about having tables inline is that its very difficult to understand the system when you're doing a 'read through'. If you are trying to understand how it goes together, having 20 pages of skills right in the middle is not helpful.

    I've experimented with Icar and Cloudship Atlantis and both have worked out very well by bunging big tables in the appendix.

    Joshua said...

    I think the problem there is that 20 pages of skills shouldn't be organized as a table in the first place. One or two pages with the name, cost, and maybe a capsule description of the skill one to a line with the details of each found in that 20 page Appendix seems much more reasonable to me.

    Jeff Moore said...

    I moved the majority of my tables to the back of Xceptional when I followed the guide and it really helped the flow of the document a lot. That said, many tables stayed in line as they were referenced and used in the flow of the document if I just felt strongly that they belonged. I personally feel like that's how it is with a "guide." Use it as a tool to help you, but also realize that "the rules" may change slightly from document to document, because every document will be different. So, I followed the guide, I moved a lion's share of tables to the back in an appendix, and I kept what I felt was needed in line. Because yes, having to jump forwards and backwards through a document in an attempt to comprehend a read through does nothing to support document flow.



    Anonymous said...

    How would you feel about an RPG specifically formated to be viewed on a computer and not printed out.

    Do you feel it should still follow this format?

    Rob Lang said...

    Anon - Good questions!

    I think it's important to design for those who want to print out. I guarantee that if you create it only for a monitor then someone will want to print it!

    Having said that, if I was going to create specifically or a computer, I would make the rulebook less like a book and more like an interactive affair with web links and video and so on. You have the power of modern browsers, so use it all! Printing is a restriction, which if you free yourself from can be liberating.

    mythusmage said...


    What about those situations where the setting is so large it takes up a book all by itself? I realize that with the right lay out you can fit most anything into a manuscript, but still there are times when a setting could be a springbok in a boa constrictors stomach; a large lump causing all sorts of gastric distress.

    I'd say that the decision to include a setting or not in the main rule book should be up to the designer.

    Then you have John Wicks' Orc, where the mechanics are an add on to a delicious parody of fantasy stories, rpgs, and anthropological treatsies. There putting all the setting details up front was part of the joke.

    Anyway, other than that small quibble I rather enjoyed your essay.

    Rob Lang said...

    mythusmage - If the setting is big then include a smaller one in the core rules and expand the main setting in another book. A ruleset without a setting can't be played alone and if you want people to play your free RPG then it is the setting that will most enthuse them. The mechanics (unless they are epic and game changing) will not!

    I sort of have this problem with Icar, my setting is HUGE (like much of Sci Fi) but I have distilled it into something that is easy to get hold of. Free games need to be more accessible than commercial ones because the reader has not paid money and so feels no loss at putting it down.

    Thanks for your comment!

    Doc said...

    This is nicely done, but it seriously assumes that "the way it has always been done" is the right way. I'm not sure, for instance, that character creation up front and GM section in the back fits ALL RPG's. In fact, I'm sure it does not. But I can respect the idea that learning a pattern first can help you _intelligently_ break that pattern when it is right to do so.

    Rob Lang said...

    @Doc, I completely agree. In fact, I agree so much, I say this in the first paragraph:

    "I present an ordering that would work for most games I've reviewed (and is used by some of them) but if you feel it's not right for your RPG, then that's ok. There is no definitive structure."

    Because there isn't. The guide is for those who are lost and don't know where to begin. If you do know where to begin and know what you're doing, the guide is less useful.

    What's more, I think you'll find my structure isn't how most RPGs are laid out. Skills, for example, normally go in Character Creation but being an Appendix fascist, I demand them at the back to keep the flow.

    One design doesn't fit every game but for those floundering because they don't know where to start then the guide will give them the shove in a direction.

    Thanks for your comment!

    Michael Guider said...

    Thank you for this most useful article! I have referenced it many times and it has really helped me to stay on track. Thanks again!!

    Michael Guider said...

    Thanks for this most useful article!

    Rob Lang said...

    You're welcome, Michael!

    Veritomancer said...

    One thing that I've been stuck on recently with my RPG development is where to put a description of how characters advance (obviously this is only applicable to games where there's character advancement).

    My game has a simple advancement system that's referenced often during play, so my first impulse is to put it immediately following character creation so that players know immediately how their characters grow and develop and can use it from then on. On the other hand, putting it before the basics of the game could detract from the readability of the document, as the Advancement mechanics of my game reference the core mechanic.

    That being said, I don't want to put it in the Appendix simply because out of sight all too often equals out of mind. Rogue Warrior Mage is an example that really threw me off track-I spent 10 minutes combing the document for how to advance characters, only to find it buried in the Appendix.

    Anyone have any advice on this? Rob? Anybody?

    Rob Lang said...

    @Veritomancer - Sorry for the slow reply. It's a great question. I would put it straight after character generation. Then, at least, you have all the rules pertaining to updating characters in one place.