Tuesday, 1 December 2009

How to turn your stock fantasy RPG into a unique delight

This brief guide will help you polish your stock free fantasy RPG into a unique delight. In turn, it will greatly improve its chances of being played, reviewed and adored. Rather than discard the produce of your smoking grey matter: augment, extend and tweak your game to provide an individual flavour that could have only been a product of you.

This guide assumes that you would like to share your free RPG with the world in the hope that others play it (the desire of most RPG philanthropists). You might have an RPG already or the seed of one sprouting in cranial firmament. If you are playing your lite fantasy RPG at home with friends and jealously guard it, never to share it outside your gaming group then ignore this post. Furthermore, if you are into crafting retro clones, your job is to hark back to the early thrashings of dice and minis. Carry on as you are!

Although much of the below can apply to full length fantasy roleplaying games it is the Lite games that often become indistinguishable. The desire to keep rule and page counts down means that individuality is slight. If you have sent me a lite fantasy game recently, please do not think I'm just talking about you! This post has been months on the back burner and a recent flood has brought it to the fore.

Write a setting

A setting is where you can really personalise your game. Most free fantasy systems imply a setting in the loosest of terms: the existence and style of magic, the types of races, attributes and skills go a long way to suggest a setting. However, it is often not enough to be unique. Add maps, local personalities and organisations, secret societies and so on. The mechanics can remain light: flesh out how the system is implemented to make a different game.

Avoid standard fantasy elements

The definition of player character races is the first place where you can depart from fantasy lore. You may have an excellent idea for Elven creatures but the word 'Elves' brings along a huge amount of baggage. Use a different name and you are free from the strictures of fantasy canon. The only exception is 'Humans'. You don't have to put Humans in your game but if you do, then it is an understandable benchmark. If having Elves, Humans and Dwarves defines fantasy to you then do put them in but be aware that your game is running down a well trodden path.

Go back to the folklore source

So much of Eddings, Tolkein, D&D and other great fantasy proponents is inspired by northern European folklore and history. So can you! I'm no expert in folklore, and neither is Wikipedia. You don't have to be to pillage for inspiration.

Read other games

In research, there are two schools of thought: Ignorance provides you with freedom and knowledge allows you to avoid other's mistakes. Having tried both academically and in roleplay, I can recommend the latter. By reading other games, you will be able to find a niche for your own game by reading what is already out there. You might think Norse is different enough but then you find Midgard by Ben Redmond or The Beast of Limfjord by Nathan Russell.

Invert a popular theme

By taking a popular theme and turning it upside down you can end up with a very different type of game. For example, magic in most games is wielded by Wizards. Instead, what if magic was the purview of the general populace?

Optional Mechanic Crunch

A lite system can be given a little more edge by having optional rules to add crunch for those gaming groups who like their game hard and crispy. I won't dwell on this technique because I do not think adding rules is a good solution to this problem.

Borrow from outside the genre

With care, you can take concepts from outside fantasy and build them into your fantasy universe. While watching a Sci Fi or CSI:Miami, think about how various things would look in the fantasy world. Robots might be magical constructs - beings moulded from natural detritus and bound together as a servant. Perhaps your game is about fantasy Crime Scene Investigation: the Dwarf is missing a head, find the head, find the killer.

To go further with this idea, you might want to crash two (or more) very different genres head on. Steam-punk-fantasy, Space-Opera-Supers, Cyberpunk-Anime-Supers, Modern-Fantasy.

Take from the natural world

The natural world is an awful place. So inhumane! Lift some of the terrible things animals do to each other and place them into societies. Imagine a player group stumbling into a society of mostly ladies and young boys only to find out that the local custom is for the woman to eat her lover after conception! When projected onto sentient species, the actions of nature reads like a nightmare.

Get feedback

1km1kt - make some friends and get some feedbackBeing objective about a labour of love requires a heart of granite and a mind of onyx. Instead, find some roleplay author colleagues (knowledgeable types are best) and ask them for their frank opinions. I do try this with my player group who delight in any opportunity, no matter how small, to ridicule and guffaw at any idea.

If you are stuck for useful friends (as I am), then I can recommend the free RPG community at 1KM1KT, who will always react for calls for help and will offer as many different opinions as there are people on the forum.

Have your say!

While patting this entry out on my duck tape repaired laptop, it occured to me that I might read like something of an arse. If you agree that there are enough good lite fantasy systems out there or perhaps that I've lost the plot please do let me know in the comments.

Finally, I'd like to thank Badelaire of Tankards and Broadswords who acted as a sounding board on Google Wave while I was drafting this post. Thanks Badelaire!


Phil said...

An arse yes, but an arse with a good point. A perky bottom, then.

I think most RPGs - in particular 'lite' ones - live and die by their setting. A generic mix of humans, dwarves and elves with a simple d20 system is just that: generic. The setting is the one place an author gets to inject some personality.

I don't need yet another d20 system or dice pool mechanic or whatever is the latest flavour of the month. I'd much rather have *no* mechanics so I can use what fits my group, and instead get a beautifully thought out, living, breathing, *world* to get the creative brain juices following!

Rob Lang said...

I absolutely agree, Phil. I think the proponents of No Setting would argue that the GM normally creates the setting anyway, so it's a waste of time adding one. I think that without a setting, the reader cannot fully appreciate the mechanics of the game and get a feel for it.

Settings are malleable, of course, but it is a lot easier for a GM to mold what is there than start from scratch.

Thanks for the comment! I'm glad you like my bottom.

misterecho said...

A very interesting post. I would say that creating a game is an exersise in self expression.If you create a generic, bland, rules lite fantasy with no system i would say well done. However no ones going to read it or play it.

Put your stamp on. Make it say somthing about you, or your view of somthing, make it a little bit original. I'm trying, i know it's difficult to write something intresting and playable. But i can assure you, you do have something interesting to say. Just find it and tap it.

my 2p

@Rob, Thanks for the tweet mention & Review, Review

Giga boy said...

I humbly pimp my game:"under the moons of zoon"

Badelaire said...

Thanks back at you Rob, for acting as my sounding board. I'm somewhat chagrined to admit that my own bland waffle of a lite generic (semi-) fantasy RPG was tucked somewhere in the pile that spurned the writing of this post.

To play the devil's advocate for a moment, most of us who try our hand at writing lite generic systems do so because we look at games like D&D or GURPS or other large, complex, generic systems and say "there's some really good ideas here, but there's also so much junk I would just love to throw out". One then pares down their favorite generic system, tweaks the core mechanics a little to create something a little more distinctive, and arrives at a happy result that does just what the writer wants it to do; provide X function within Y form. Consider, for a moment, ultralight versions of D&D such as Microlite d20; it is a lite generic fantasy RPG, but it's also fairly popular amongst such circles. Also consider Swords & Wizardry, which while a retro-clone, is flexible enough that others are taking its rules and implementing them in other ways (such as Ruins and Ronin).

The problem is, of course, that not every lite generic fantasy RPG carries the whiff of pedigree that allows it to cling to the coattails of some larger, more recognized system. Combine this with the fact that there are probably hundreds of "lite generic fantasy RPGs" out there, and you've got problems.

Once I am successful in unburdening myself of the albatross around my neck which is my graduate class final project, I'm probably going to write an article about all this myself, as I have just gone through the laborious process of writing a lite generic fantasy RPG, which has gone through about four iterations over the last seven years, only to come to the conclusion that it really is no more than "yet another lite generic fantasy RPG". If I am to ever bother to expose it to the cruel glare of the public eye, I'll have to do something in order to preen its feathers a little.

John Doe said...

I personally think that the rules of any system aren't the issue per se. The ability to take any given world and paint a verbal picture is though.

I have personally been role-playing now for decades and have recently introduced the next generation to the three systems I created.

The rules are not a problem but the language barrier is. This is by no means denigrating the young, but it seems that language is no longer as important as it used to be. To paint a verbal picture of an ancient library suffering at the hands of neglect and decay has to lose a lot in translation just so the players under 18 can understand.

I think what I am basically trying to say is that the rules and the world they support now play second fiddle to the person who is actually running the game. A universe may be as full or as sparse as the creator wishes, the rules as simple or as complex, but it is all for nought if the G.M. is only capable of net speak.

I hope I haven't missed the point. :)

WalkerP said...

I don't know what you weirdos across the pond do with your "duck" tape, but here in Canada where it was invented and where nobody leaves the home without a roll, we call it duct tape.

Zzarchov said...

The problem with describing a setting is at that point you are no longer truly building a game, but a setting. Which is a different edevour completely.

For example, I can write my own version of monopoly with different settings, but unless I make different mechanics, Im not really making a different game, just different window dressing.

RPG's often blur these lines, but it is still valid.

Forgotten Realms is not really a different "game" from any other d20 system game.

Its different in play, but thats a limitation of the word game.

Playing a game of soccer with different teams is a different "Game" but its still the same "Game" in terms of what sport it is.

Anonymous said...

I'm in the market for a game; the competition consists of the games I already have and can make. And those are tough competitors. I'm picky.

I've seen people playing with mechanics out the wazoo and they are boring. Taking someone else's ideas and making a quick little game out of it is so boring I cringe.

"Look at my ultra-lite fantasy RPG where you roll 1d6 and on a 4, 5, or 6 you have success for everything. Those are all the rules, make the rest up. For example, you wanna find traps, roll 1d6..."

Scuse me, I can make lite up myself.

I want from a fantasy RPG the spells, the monsters, the magic items and the mechanics that let me play. And the adventures: if you don't play and don't have adventures, what good is your game?

I have games and adventures so I don't need just more cutsey mechanics stolen from someone else's game. I need real material.

When I download a "game" and see a few pages with no real ideas or material behind them, I just shut the pdf file and do something else.

Rob Lang said...

WOW! A plethora of superb comments. Thank you all. I'll try and do them justice.

@misterecho - I agree. I applaud anyone who can put a game together, no matter how simple. For those that love to share, I wish them luck but to better their chances of it being played it really must feel unique.

@Giga boy - are you Artikid on 1km1kt? If so then I do have Under the Moons of Zoon in my shortlist. :)

@Badelaire - I do understand the genesis of free rpgs and my blog entry is filled with heartache for uttering this uncomfortable truth. You game system is excellent and should act as the hub for a meal more filling to the hungry gamer. Let's keep talking about it, though. On your blog (which I enjoy) and over on 1km1kt!

@John Doe - You give us all a valluable insight (one I hope to share in the future) but you've strayed a little off topic. I agree that the GM is important in an RPG, especially when the players are young but my advice is aimed at the author who wishes their endeavours to be played. Individuality is the key for lite fantasy systems.

@WalkerP - Over here we call it gaffer tape. I worried that no-one would understand it, so I translated it. Perhaps you'd prefer a Canadian translation in the future? My French is dreadful. ;-) Will fix in the main blog post.

@Zzarchov - You make an interesting point. I believe that the game is a conglomeration of mechanics and setting. Without a setting (or any world information at all) you have a statistical treat for mathematicians. Every lite fantasy game implies a setting through mechanics but there is barely anything to differentiate between them. A setting can do that. It's not just window dressing, it's the meat. This is a good discussion we should probably have on 1km1kt. Would you like to start it?

@Anonymous - I'd dearly love to know who you are, I like your style. Please email me at brainwiped@gmail.com. I imagine you echo the thoughts of many GMs that find a lite fantasy RPG. I too appreciate real material and I do hope you've found it in other games on The Free RPG Blog.

Age of Fable said...

In my opinion, a lot of these games would be better off as supplements, either systemless or for an existing system.

Giga boy said...

@Rob: yes, it's me

Stan said...

The folklore is a good idea. The problem with Tolkien et al. is twofold. First, by ripping him off, you're being 2nd degree derivative when you could be 1st degree derivative. Second, you're following a path so well trod that the ruts are chin high. Unless you're trying to be directly compatible with something, then branch out.

AoF has a good point. If the author really likes Game X but wants to tweak it into Game X' then they should just make a short addon and save themselves 90% of the work of making an all new game. The reality is, an addon for a popular game is going to get more use than an all new obscure game.

modred11 said...

"To go further with this idea, you might want to crash two (or more) very different genres head on. Steam-punk-fantasy, Space-Opera-Supers, Cyberpunk-Anime-Supers, Modern-Fantasy."

I have to say those things aren't that clashy, like Modern Fantasy is actually a standard genre (Twilight and any movie with a vampire/werewolf is a Modern Fantasy). But then I can't really think of any combinations that actually clash... Mystery-Supers, Mystery-Anime, Horror-Sci Fi, etc. I can think of a "good" movie that falls in any genre-combination I can think of.

I suppose if you expanded it into descriptions, like: "Hard Boiled Detectives investigating conspiracies surrounding super-heroes", "Frankensteinian Monsters fighting to save Utopia", etc.

Tyler said...

Two games I've played recently that did a good job chanelling non-Tolkienian fantasy are Dragon Warriors (republished by Mongoose) and Dragon Age (playtested the new Green Ronin game). A little bit off topic with the post, but they had enough hard/dark fantasy to be different than both the D&D and Warhammer flavors that seem to be imitated over and over again.

Then again if you want *really* non Tolkienian fantasy there's always Jorune...

Mike "Shmoo" Steely said...

Have not gotten around to creating any published setting for it yet, (maybe someday if I get the time) but here's my own mechanics/system if anyone has a spare 3 or 4 minutes to take a look.


Christopher Johnstone said...

Okay. This is something I've thought a lot about, and it's sparked quite a thread here too. Interesting stuff. People approach writing free rpgs in three basic ways:

- New System/No Setting
- No System/New Setting (i.e. write up a setting for Fudge).
- New System/New Setting

All three *can* result in a bland, by the numbers sort of fantasy setting. Opting for #3 doesn't necessarily mean that the game will sparkle with originality, but it is probably the easiest path to take, if that's your end-goal.

I mention *if* because this is something that has to be kept in mind. It's perfectly ok to write up a vanilla fantasy setting if that's you current cup of tea. Maybe you feel nostalgic. Maybe its all you want to play right now. There's nothing inherently wrong with doing so. No one's dog is killed in the process.

However, if your goal is to produce something that people might ooh and aah over, then, it can be a big help to create a game that is original, and a good way to work towards originality is to create a world and setting that interweave. Making the setting gel with the rules often means starting from the ground up. Thinking over mechanics to represent in-game processes that are unusual helps you, as a designer, unravel what it is that makes the game really different. I think the best example of this I've managed was Mythos of the Maori. I needed rules to represent some Maori folkloric beliefs that were pretty odd (from a modern Western POV). Spirits fear cooked food. Eating part of an enemy who you've killed is a sign of respect, but it will also make you a little bit sacred for a while (which is dangerous). Tricking a person into eating tapu (sacred) food is a clever way to curse them: the gods will punish them for the transgression, even if it wasn't their fault. All of these sorts of rules needed to be worked into the flesh of the game.

Right. I need to head off, so I won't keep blathering too much. Also. Let's see. I agree with the pillaging of the folklore thing (as is pretty obvious in my own games).

Also, for fantasy races, I think a way to generate new and interesting fantasy races is to think of races as not just cliches, but also as ways to explore particular aspects of humanity or human behaviour or emotion.

So, I want a new fantasy race. I'm going to base this race on, I dunno, art. I'll call them Portunes, a name of an English fairy that hasn't been used much in RPGs. Portunes have an abiding interest in visual art and are known for their amazing art. They work permanent magic through painting (sort of like runes). When on the move they use sandpainting to do 'quick' magic. They paint their skin to imbue temporary enchantments on themselves. They don't write, but instead produce elaborate, confusing abstract murals to communicate words. Um, what else. I'm just making this up. Their social ranks are based on art annual 'competitions' judged by high priests (really, very elaborate rituals). Losers have been known to commit suicide. They can also read a person's basic personality and preoccupying thoughts from their handwriting / art / diagrams / image-work (whether the person is a Portune or something else. So a Portune could look at a human lord's handwriting and know what is on the man's mind, whether he's basically honest etc, for example). That will have to do. I need to dash. One could just as easily create a race based on logic, or friendship, or anger, or tricksterishness, or unbending morality, or desire for power. They end up being sort of cliche, but that doesn't matter. Each race act to emphasize a part of the human condition, and that's what people enjoy playing out, exploring and toying with.

Right. That's my rather long two cents.


Rob Lang said...

@AoF & @Stan - Absolutely. There are lots of occasions where a game designer creates a superb setting with lack-lustre system (or less often vice-versa). However, one cannot ignore the joy to be had in creating your own system from the blank piece of paper.

@modred11 - I think I said crash, not clash. As in 'to take two things and throw them together with great force.'. :)

@Tyler - thanks for the tips. Skyrealms of Jorune was always a favourite of mine. So very far of the beaten track.

@Mike "Shmoo" Steely - Welcome to the fold! Great to see a new free RPG. May I recommend my Guide to Organising an RPG and also please do join other free authors on 1km1kt! I've added your game into the Directory.

@Chris - I love a good rambling comment, which yours certainly is! :) I agree with all your points (and have even stated them in different words in the post). I like the idea of using races as a mirror on the human condition. I shall better explain that in my next guide, when it arrives.

My How To wasn't meant to be taken with each step in isolation. By taking as many of the steps together the chance of achieving a novel RPG is greatly improved.

Are you on 1km1kt? It would be great to have you there - your idea fountain would be very much at home!

Thanks again everyone for a super set of comments. :)

Christopher Johnstone said...

@ Rob

Yes, well, it was your very good post triggered the enthusiastic rambling, so the credit (or blame) is yours :)

And yes, I don't want to seem like I wasn't agreeing with everything in your post. If my ramble was confused and rushed, it was exactly that, confused and rushed.

I drop by 1km1kt now and then and check out the games but haven't commented, largely for fear of being drawn into an online community that I know I'd enjoy and potentially spend a lot of time in. Life is busy at the moment... however, that's a poor excuse. I'll make an effort to make my presence known in future rather than lurk shiftily.

Also, been enjoying reading the blog for a while now too. I'll put a link to you and 1k1mt on the index page at Mythopoetic Games once I have a change to do so.



Nathan Abrahams said...


That was a pretty awesome example.

I may use that design process to work on something for Mini Six.

Nathan Abrahams said...

Also, Rob, what would you recommend as a solution to the crunch problem rather than adding rules?

Rob Lang said...

@Chris, got you! Thanks for sharing your thoughts, they're always welcome.

@Nathan - To be precise: Generic Lite systems tend to suffer from the plague of being too generic. Larger systems (Fear, Legendary Tales) have enough rule crunch to make them feel different. To solve the blandness problem in Lite systems, I do not recommend adding more crunch. It might well ruin the system you carefully crafted. Instead, I would recommend doing any of the other steps: adding background, thinking up different Player Character races and so on. It's not adding crunch, it's adding flavour to demonstrate how the lite system is good.

Does that make more sense?

Nathan Abrahams said...

It does, and it helps direct some of the work I'm going to be putting into creating a more unique setting for Mini Six (which is an awesome system that I found in your database, despite it only being around a few weeks).

satyre said...

No mention of Talislanta in the 'different' fantasy settings? How odd - particularly now it's free.

A very salient post worth the time of anyone whose entertaining their own fantasy genre.

@Rob - looking forward to the race guide. It's one of the ponderables on a little project I'm working on.

Zoltan said...

I just wanted to say that I particularly appreciate the point about going back to the folklore. A lot of that source material is far more fantastic than most modern fantasy.

Thanks, Rob, for sending me this way from over on Reddit.

Rob Lang said...

@Zoltan, you're welcome, I'm glad this post is still being of use. :-)