Tuesday 27 December 2011

How to write a free RPG - Chapter 3: Writing and style

In this Chapter, we will look at the act of writing itself. By the end you will know some habits to keep and pitfalls to avoid. The second part of this chapter focuses on style and details how writing in a particular way can help the GM and players pick it up.

The first rule of writing an RPG is to keep writing. Do not edit until you have a full first draft of the game. The first draft will be poor but you need to have a complete game before a proper edit can occur. If you get stuck on an area, make a note in the document (I use a load of Xs like 'XXXXXXXXXX' to make it easier to pick the notes out) and move on. Writing a roleplaying game is a little like writing a novel, some of the ideas included here are applied to both and you can plunder novel writing resources if you get stuck.

Getting it finished

Any large project requires dedication to complete. Initially, you will have a fire and passion of enthusiasm, which will last about one third into the project. If you manage to force through that barrier, the next drop in enthusiasm comes at two third through. If you can get through those then the chance of you completing is extremely high. Here are some habits and tips to help you push through those barriers.
  • Set a deadline to have a 'test' version of the document. Stick to it. Produce whatever you can by that date. Whatever you have at that date, release it to the community - even if it is far from finished.
  • Schedule small releases to the free RPG community. Release small, release often.
  • Collect feedback from the community but don't edit your game right away - wait until it is finished.
  • Don't re-read the game until it is finished.
  • Set aside a time each day or week when you sit down to write. Do write outside of this time but never miss it. Use a calendar to set a regular appointment with a reminder to send you an email/text/tweet.
  • If you have control over the computer you're writing on, set up a new user account that does not have access to games and puts parental filters on games/RPG forums sites to reduce the distraction.
  • Use whatever time you have, great progress can be made even in a half-and-hour lunch break or while the newborn baby is sleeping.
  • Schedule what TV programs you are going to watch and watch only those. Never channel-hop.
  • Open a dialogue with friends and family (non-gamers too) about what you are trying to achieve. By talking about the game, you will find it easier to keep motivated. They might also enquire how it is going and that acts as a softly softly pep talk. Show them the work you have put in.
  • Write the game in any order. Later in this guide, you will learn about ways to organise your game. Organise it last, write it first.
  • [Optional] Play appropriate music to the genre you're writing in for inspiration. Soundtracks to films that inspire your genre are useful.
  • When you feel like you’re flagging, print out an attractive chunk of your game (like a picture you found) and put it on the wall next to where you create.

Good practise

Write these best practise tips on post-it notes and stick them near the place where you write.
  • Never delete text forever - when cutting a section, copy into a 'scraps' document, label it and leave it for later (I do this with graphics too).
  • Do an off-site backup your work weekly. Either upload to a free file storage (such as Google Docs) or put on an old USB thumb drive and hand to a friend or put it in your desk at work/locker at college.
  • If you are stuck finding a name for something, use Thesaurus.com to help find similar words. Mash similar words together.
  • If writing starts to slow, move onto the next section.

Writing rule Examples

A good example is essential to making your game playable. Examples should be both compound and independent. Compound examples are where one example leads on from a previous example, for example, if you describe an example character John Smith with a Strength of 9 in one example, John Smith should have a strength of 9 in all examples thereafter. Independent examples do not rely upon previous examples to be understood. A single example should be enough to demonstrate a ruling. Remember that the GM uses the book as a reference, so lean towards independent examples or repeat the important parts of John Smith.

A good example takes a small part of the rules and demonstrates it. Larger examples can build upon the simple, atomic examples but be sure to include both. Atomic examples are good for reference, longer examples are better when the book is read through at first.
Good rule example for 'Choosing to fail':
Chgowiz Clone 4123 wants to shoot at Godzilla with a Turbo-Mega-Cannon. His Brawn attribute is 5 and his Guns skill is 5, giving him 10 (Attribute + Skill). The shot is normal difficulty so he needs 12 to pass. There are only 2 dice in the pool in the middle and shooting will burn one of those.

The player knows that although shooting Godzilla would hurt it, one of the other players is going to try and ram Godzilla with a tank next turn and will probably need all the dice he can get to pass it! Instead, Chgowiz Clone 4123 decide to choose to fail. The other players decide that the shot misses and blows a chunk of the Post Office away, removing cover for another Clone character. Oops! The GM awards another die into the middle for comedy of it all. There are now 3 dice in the middle and the tank driving Clone is much more likely to hit!
Actual play examples can be useful but be careful to keep them curt and to the point - you do not have to write precisely how people speak. If you have particularly tricky parts to your system, include more than one example. It is unlikely that your audience will be completely new to roleplay.


Poor writing style can make your game inpenetrable. Good style can make a complex game appear simple. Write the book the way it is supposed to be played:
  • Optional rules are fine, mark them clearly as such.
  • Do not load down the game with 'The GM can ignore this if he/she likes...'
  • Avoid an overly chatty style of writing, it adds words and does not help the reader. Strike a balance between being interesting to read and being informative. Check the example below.
  • Justifications of why a rule is prefered over another belongs on a website.
  • Describe your game objectively and compare it to others only if you are extending the rules or using it as a basis. It is OK to say "Using Fudge rules but with more dice rolling" but not "It's like D&D but lighter and more fun".
  • Avoid elaborating in too much detail on a part of the system which is not core to the concept.
  • Do not add anything to the RPG that is not going to enhance the concept. If you have an idea for a tangent, write it in a notebook and use it later.
  • Avoid including your design process, that is best left on the website or internet forum.
Bad writing example:
Chgowiz uses a completely new and brilliant system where the players share a bunch of dice in the middle of the table. It's so much better than all other roleplaying games because there is normally no penalty to just rolling a skill as many times as you like, here you use up a shared dice when you do it. Sure, fewer dice are rolled but then it means more when they are. I chose this rule to force people to work together, which works really well. The GM puts more dice in when the players have good ideas or do cool things or have fun but you can ignore than if you want. It's up to, it's your game.
Better writing example:
Chgowiz uses a shard pool of dice in the middle of the table. When the game starts, 2 for every player are put into the middle. When a player wants to do an action, they must roll a dice from the centre of the table. This dice is 'burnt' and handed back to the GM. When the players do something fun, clever or choose to fail an action, the GM awards them by putting dice back into the middle. When the dice run out, all actions fail until the GM puts more back in.

Writing Chgowiz the RPG

I am frighteningly verbose (you've probably noticed in other posts) almost to the point of being lost in a paragraph of text and completely forgetting what it was I was trying to say in the first place. The style tends to lean toward the scientific, which is OK for Icar but didn't feel right for Chgowiz. I lightened the tone by writing quotes and paragraph-long stories in callout boxes for flavour. The rules could remain clean of chatty text while lightening it for those reading through.

I have also had time issues recently, given changes in job (for the worse then for the better) and being the father of a toddler who likes to play with parents. Also Minecraft has consumed my soul. In a nice way. I am getting back my routine that involves writing for an hour once my son is in bed.

Rather than write straight into InDesign (which is how I wrote Cloudship Atlantis, Commando and Icar), I used Google Docs, as a simple text editor. This way there are no distractions by messing around with graphics or layout.

Tuesday 20 December 2011

How to write a free RPG - Chapter 2: Research

Research is the act of gathering information to strengthen your game. If approached with gusto and the right mindset, research can be very enjoyable. By the end of this chapter, you will know how to research, what to research and when to stop.

The benefits of researching before you design are:
  • Helps avoid reproducing a game that's already out there
  • Ensures your facts are straight
  • Aids inspiration

How much research?

It is important to set a limit on the amount of time you spend researching. By capping the amount of research you do, you will limit the scope of information you have to sift through. Do not set a cap on quantity as it is quality that matters. Set one of the following caps.
  • By date. Set a date and be finished by then.
  • By duration. Set a number of hours and stick to it.

How to research

The method I prefer to use (both for RPGs and academically) has three steps: Grab, Sort and Filter. Repeat this process until you run out of your self-allotted time.


You run round grabbing whatever you see that is appropriate. This requires a lot of Googling (see Where to Research) followed by pasting into a note taking tool. Good tools I've used are Google Docs, Evernote and your notebook. Don't worry about tagging, organising or even reading your information in depth. Just collect it: text, images, quotes, search terms, links, YouTube videos - anything!


For each piece of research you find, group it into one of these categories:
  • Core. Information that you know you will need.
  • Inspiration. For those items that just light your mind up but does not have an obvious application.
  • Off Topic. Some of the things you grabbed might turn out to be not useful. Don't throw them away because you might need them for another game.


For each of the categories you sorted, order them in importance. The very top item should be absolutely key to your game. Be ruthless in your filtering, too much information is overwhelming. Get to the nub of what your game is about.

What to research for?

Research is best performed in those areas where you are going to diverge from what you already know. For example, if you know what roleplaying system you are going to use then do not research lots of roleplaying mechanics. If you are creating your own diceless system or you do not know what system to use then it is worth researching those areas. It is comforting to read research that is familiar but that comforting feeling normally means you are wasting time cementing what you already know.

A list of things to research for:
  • For each of the main themes of your game, find five relevant web pages. Try finding a YouTube video that represents part of your game concept.
  • Read around inside the genre of your setting. For example, if its Fantasy, read something other than Tolkein.
  • Find an existing game that is the closest match for your concept. What does it do well? What does it do badly? Is your concept different enough to be worthwhile?
  • If your ideas are based around a new System, try and find an existing system that has the same benefits or drawbacks.
  • Read a few other free RPGs that are similar to yours. Take notes on how they are organised and how they describe complex things. Do they do it well or poorly? You can find lists of free RPGs in either my free directory or the venerable John H. Kim's Free RPGs on the Web.
  • Read those free RPGs that people are always recommending (Risus, Sketch, Fudge, Fate, Dungeonslayers, Five By Five, Lady Blackbird, Warrior Rogue and Mage). What makes them good? Why do people like them? What can you do in a similar way?
  • Read a few reviews of Free RPGs (from this blog or elsewhere) and check out the common themes. Most of the common problems I have found will be listed in the course of this guide but other reviewers come up with excellent points too.
  • Collect a bunch of images (or deviantArt or Flickr) that help you define the feel of your game. These are not images you necessarily use in the final game (so can be copyrighted images you find at random) but will be useful for inspiration.
  • Ask on forums about the concept, do people think it is a good idea? Perhaps someone may know that it has been done before.

Where to research?

The best research is from the source. If you are creating about a place, go there. If it is media (Books, TV, film) then consume that media. The local library and Wikipedia are also useful but beware that these sources can be third hand. If you are writing a game about the world in which we live, try and find an expert in the precise area - for example you might want to ask a grandparent about life in the 1950s.

Google can also be a wealth of information. Google Streetview can help you describe a place in the modern world (if you cannot go there) and Google Maps can be used for inspiration. Be careful not to copy copyrighted material. Google Images can be used to help inspiration by typing in keywords associated with your concept.

Research for chgowiz: The RPG

For research, I gave myself just two evenings (about 4 hours). Below is the end result of my grab, sort and filter. I have grouped them by some of the What to Research topics and have left out things that are Off Topic.

For each of the main themes of your game, find five relevant web pages

Giant monsters: Cloned soldiers: Corrupt Government, City Desctruction (regarding science and military) Gadgets

Find an existing game that is the closest match for your concept

The Paranoia RPG did cloning well but I want death to be more of a pain in the rump. I also want each clone to be slightly different to the last one. This means that when you die, you might end up with a clone that isn't as good as the last one. I could add a little mutation in with each Chgowiz, giving every character a unique trait. I don't want them to be mutants, though - that's too far. Perhaps a stat boost or different special power.

If your ideas are based around a new System, try and find an existing system that has the same benefits or drawbacks.

My ideas are based around a new system (for the purpose of the guide). The action/combat system will use a similar system to Cloudship Atlantis, which has a bunch of dice all the players share. The benefit is that players have to work together and sometimes choose to fail. The drawbacks is that if the players are tired and not getting into the game, they will find it difficult to generate more dice. The city will need to be created in a joint story-games way. The monster will be randomly rolled like in Elliot 'Kumakami' Brown's wonderful Feast of Goblins.

Collect a bunch of images

Ask on a forum

Here's my thread on 1KM1KT.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

How to write a free RPG - Chapter 1: Inspiration

The goal of this chapter is to create a concept from which you will be able to write the rest of the game. The concept is:
  • A brief overview
  • Description of boundaries
  • Target audience
  • How it is different from other games
Do not try and write a roleplaying game without a strong concept. You may produce something but you will find that it will be indistinguishable from other games.

The Idea

Before you write anything down, you need an idea. From this seed, you will construct a concept and that will guide everything you write. The idea need only be a single word or short phrase. We will flesh it out later. If you have an idea, write it down in pencil in the middle of a piece of paper. We will use this phrase as the name of the game for now.

My idea is the Chgowiz RPG, first introduced in my Guide to Organising an RPG. Although it's an idea I've already had, I will still go through the process to bottom it out.

If you do not have an idea

If you do not have an idea but know you want to make an RPG about something, here is how you come up with that seed.
  • Take two things you like and mash them together. For example, The A-Team meets 2001: A Space Odyssey.
  • Take a thing you like and invert something important about it. For example, The Terminator universe where an archaelogical dig turns up proof that it was the Terminators that made the humans.
  • Open a dictionary at a random page and take the first word. Do this five times and write a roleplaying game about that.
  • Check out the list of insanity on the 1KM1KT forum/.
  • Ask for ideas on a forum.
  • Read outside of RPG blogs, such as Boing Boing, Strange Maps or your favourite news broadcaster.
  • Open a text editor. Start writing. Write whatever comes into your head and don't stop for 3 minutes. It can be anything at all. Do not think while you are writing, just let it straight from the brain. Don't worry about proper sentances either.
  • Write a 500 word story set in a very specific time and place. Make sure you have a beginning, middle and end. Then build your game to represent that world.
  • Create a new game by fixing things you do not like about other games.
  • Grab a local newspaper, find something mundane on page 5. What would it take to make that extraordinary? Write a game about the world if that was to happen.

Generating an idea from other RPGs

Existing RPGs can be used for generating ideas but you must be careful not to plagiarise them. There is an Old School movement that seek to reproduce the feel of the original RPGs, you could try finding a modern RPG and creating a retro version of it. Alternatively, form an idea by fixing problems in existing games. Try filling in the following sentances:
  • I like RPG _________ but ____________ annoys me. I will do _____________ to fix that.
  • I wish there was an RPG that encourages _______________ type of behaviour.
  • I wish there was a game that used _______________.

Expanding your idea

Write down at least four major themes associated with your idea. These should be themes of a genre, such as: magic, space travel, evil empire, gods walking about, corporations, psyonics, zombies, non-human races. Write each of these themes around your central idea and draw lines from the central idea to each theme. Avoid using the broad genres themselves (Fantasy, Sci Fi etc) as themes.
For each of these themes, write down at least four components of them. Two should support the theme, two should be detrimental. For example, if your theme is magic, your supporting components might be 'easy to do', 'powerful' and the detrimental components might be 'illegal', 'dangerous'. Put a + sign in a circle by the supporting components and - sign in a circle by the detrimental components. By having both supporting and detrimental components, this will create conflict and provide you with the seeds of a balanced setting.

Trial by Questioning

Answer each of the following questions. Do not proceed until you know all the answers.
  • What will the players do?
  • What is fun about it?
  • Why am I designing it?
  • Who will play it?
  • What do I want to do with it?
  • Are you going to publish it in print on demand?
  • Is it suitable for Campaigns or One-Shots?
  • What's its closest rival and how is it different?
What will the players do?
The players will be killing giant mutant monsters by working out their weakness and using cool toys. The characters might die quite often but that won't be a big problem as there are loads of clones.

Why is that fun?
Each monster has different weakness that will need to be discovered. Killing things is fun. Using cool toys is fun. The monsters will be smashing up the players' home town.

Why am I designing it? Am I going to play it?
I am designing it for an example. I am going to try and play it.

Who will play it?
Male teens to 30 somethings.

Is it suitable for Campaigns or One-Shots?
One shot.

What do I want to do with it?
Upload it to 1KM1KT and spread it around the net. Not interested in publishing a hard cover.

What's its closest rival and how is it different?
I am not entirely sure, I think Mutants and Masterminds comes close, as does Mutant Chronicles.

What style of game will it be?

It is not important to tie down exactly the style of play the game will engender but it will help you decide whether or not to include something later one. On each of the graphs below, put a spot where you would like your game to be.


Players co-operate Players compete
Shared resources Individual resources


Rules for everything General rules
No dice Lots of dice
Easy to die Hard to kill

Character creation

Random (quick) Point buy (slower)
Choose from a list Players make it up
Rapidly changing characters Static characters (no advancement)


Grids + miniatures Scrawled piece of paper
Precision measurements Purely descriptive


Personal quest World changing consequences
Humourous Serious
Realistic Cinematic
Here is what I chose for the Chgowiz RPG, roll over the graphics to see my thoughts behind each one.
Players co-operate Players compete
Shared resources Individual resources
Rules for everything General rules
No dice Lots of dice
Easy to die Hard to kill
Random (quick) Point buy (slower)
Choose from a list Players make it up
Rapidly changing characters Static characters (no advancement)
Grids + miniatures Scrawled piece of paper
Precision measurements Purely descriptive
Personal quest World changing consequences
Humourous Serious
Realistic Cinematic

Pitch it

In the future, a GM is going to pitch the game to a group of players. The act of pitching will force you to more tightly define what it is you are trying to achieve. If you discover that you are repeating yourself a lot, then this is a good thing, it means that you have a tightly defined idea of what the game is about. Do all of these pitching activities:
  • Describe your game in 5 words.
  • Elevator pitch, describe your game verbally in 12 seconds. Keep trying until you can.
  • Create a marketing blurb that you might read on a post. No more than 25 words, no less than 12.
  • Draw an advert for your game on a bit of paper.
1. Describe your game in 5 words.
Giant monsters versus cloned soldiers
Monsters, Soldiers, Guns, Clones, Gadgets

2. Elevator pitch, describe your game verbally in 12 seconds. Keep trying until you can.
In Chgowiz The RPG, you play cloned super soldiers tasked with taking down giant monsters who are wrecking your town.

3. Create a marketing blurb that you might read on a post. No more than 25 words, no less than 12.
They are clone soldiers. They have the toys. They have the target. Can they stop the giant monsters from trashing your town?
Now pitch it to your roleplaying group. Is it the sort of game they would like to play? Is the premise fatally flawed? Your friends will provide you with an important grounding. Can you imagine playing this game? If you can, you're a long way towards an idea that will work. Is the idea exciting to you? If it isn't then it will come across in your writing.

Create the Concept

You should now have a good idea of what your game is about and so it is time to write your Concept. Your Concept is a statement about what the game is going to achieve and how it might achieve it. Write down in no less than 200 words what your game is about, incorporating all the elements in this chapter.
Chgowiz The RPG is a roleplaying game set in the near future where a corrupt government keep accidentally unleashing giant monsters onto the general populace. The players play a fearless army of Chgowiz Soldier clones who must destroy the monsters by finding their weaknesses and using cool toys to bring them down. The core system is lite but with lots of options, which adds a fair amount of crunch. The players are invited to describe their home town with a simple map for the monster to destroy.