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.


Jensan said...

Great reading as always, Mr Dr Lang! Should have had this when we did the 24-hour competition...

I believe the questions in the article could be applied to games already considered "done", to see what could/should be fixed. Like reverse engineering.

By the way, the graphs (under "What style of game will it be") could be useful as a search option on 1km1kt. Just plot out your desires, hit "Search" and get a game in your taste!

Rob Lang said...

@Jensan thank you! I agree that using game style can be good for searching. My worry with that is that classifying games (albeit a big job) is very subjective. Subjective classification is very hard. For example, what feels "crunchy" to you will be different to me. Therefore, it will be difficult to agree if a given game is crunchy or not.

What IS useful for is to keep the designer on the same track. When you spend months doing a project, it is difficult to remember what the original idea was and you go off track. Going off track is one of the dangers that causes the game to be unfinished. A designer looking back at the 60% complete game may lose interest because they've lost their way. A firm concept, tightly defined will keep them on track.

I hope you enjoy the other sections, published each Tuesday!

The RPG Guy said...

This is awesome! Bookmarking this to use for creating my next Campaign!

Rob Lang said...

Thank you, RPG Guy. You might want to watch out for later Chapters because I talk about World Building later. :-)

Jack Badelaire said...

When I manage to shake off the sloth clinging to my back keeping me from doing a lot of creative work, I'll be coming back and re-reading this very carefully.

A year or two ago you took a look at a RPG of mine and the big take away was that it wasn't "about something". I think you made a great point, and I think it is the single most important point RPG developers need to understand - there are hundreds of generic "resolution systems" out there, but the games that get noticed time and time again are About Something. Even if people don't like your rules, they are taken in by the concept. Even if they eventually drop the concept and keep the rules, it is the concept that pulls them in and makes them read the RPG.

Rob Lang said...

Thanks Jack, it's great to see you're still dreaming up ideas. You're right about the feedback, I think the lack of a strong concept kills games before they've had a chance to really shine.

Matthew Schmeer said...

Ok--you need to compile both the original "How to Organize" and this new series of "How to Write" into a single PDF and sell the hell out of it on RPGNow.

Hell, I'd ASSIGN it in my game writing classes, as this is a hell of a lot more accessible than many other things I've seen written on the subject.

Rob Lang said...

@Matthew - Thank you! I have updated the "How to Organise" guide and it forms parts of chapters 5 and 6. Whether I make it into a PDF - I might have to throw that to a poll. I'm not used to creating something that is sold - although the first guide was part of the Open Game Table vol 2, of which I am very proud.

Anonymous said...

Cool once again, for the Style category I thought it would be best for the GM to decide things like humorous vs serious. However I was certain that it was more cinematic than realistic.

Rob Lang said...

@wegetgeek I agree that it is up to the GM to make the tone of the game overall but there is a lot that the game designer does in the creation of the example setting that sets its mood. If your game doesn't lean either way then put a spot somewhere in the middle. Then the GM can decide whether to make it humorous or series. Even D&D and Tolkein - stock fantasy canon has humour in it, it's not deadly serious! Thanks for you comment!

Dr Rotwang said...


Rob Lang said...

Dr Rotwang! Indeed! On tuesday. ;-)

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

I had forgotten about my old Google alert and was pretty surprised to see this in my inbox.

Imma charge you a no-dollar fee for using my likeness/name in vain. :) How's life treating you?

Rob Lang said...

Chgowiz - great to see you popping your head in. As you can see, I am fleshing out the idea I had all that time ago.

Thank you for lending me your likeness (you can have it back when I'm done). There will be a couple of other Chgowiznesses in the game.

Oniwolf said...

this chapter complete

Anonymous said...

There appears to be a contradiction in Step 1. In step 1, the advice states: "Write down at least four major themes associated with your idea. These should be broad genre ideas..." Then, later on in the paragraph, the advice warns, "Avoid using broad themes."

Obviously, this should be reworded more clearly to reflect the author's actual intent.

Otherwise, I consider this guide very helpful. It has encouraged me to attempt at writing an RPG and, if I progress far enough, will start an account here to share my results. Thank you for posting this advice and making it available.

Rob Lang said...

Thanks Anonymous! Glad you liked the guide. You're right about the text, it was a bit flakey, so have updated it.


Nealo said...

Thank god for you Rob. I have been struggling to write my own game for years and this has finally sparked my ability to write it out.

Rob Lang said...

Nealo, I'm thrilled you found the guide useful. I'd like to see what you end up with! :)

Michael Taylor said...

I think you forgot the most common way to invent an RPG -- take your favorite book/movie/TV show and make an RPG out of it.