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.


Jensan said...

The Picasa Flashgizmo isn't working for me.

Great and inspiring article (again), but I had a question about the Grab, Sort, Filter-method: if there's only three categories (Core, Inspiration, Off-topic), couldn't you do the sorting at the grabbing. I mean, if there were tons of categories, I could understand the need for sorting later, but with only three it seems more manageable?

Rob Lang said...

Please email me with your browser/OS details and I'll look into it. I'm not doing anything clever, just plonked the picasa tool on there!

There are lots of ways of doing research. The act of grab should be raw and unfiltered because you don't necessarily know what you're going to find until you've finished. If you spend time filtering as you go, you might find something in a later grab session that invalidates everything you've filtered.

Best to get all the information you can together and then decide what's best given the entire scope.

Of course being a soft subject, there are lots of ways to get to the goal of a broad and useful body of research so please do modify to make it work for you!

Thanks for the comment, as always. :)

Emmett said...

I'm pretty much in sync with this post, although I don't do a good job of setting a time limit for myself. Not setting a time limit can be really bad if you find something half way through writing that derails your direction so I agree that it's important. I'll have to set a limit in the future.

Rob Lang said...

@Emmett thank you! Glad I'm on track with the free RPG community. Back when I did academic research, it was very important to know when the deadline was because there was always another paper to read, another journal to delve into, etc. You never get anything done!

Jensan said...

Hey Dr Lang, you've got a PM on 1km1kt to read!

Tourq said...


What was I thinking when I wrote about writing your own RPG?

I humbly apologize for speaking out of turn, and will thus read your blog intently.

God I love the internet! Thanks for the article, and the blog.