Tuesday, 31 January 2012

How to write a free RPG - Chapter 8: Publish

Finish your game. Finish your game. Finish your game. Stop procrastinating and finish it. The act of creation can be exciting and a struggle but if you don't finish it, you'll never know if it was any fun to play. Publishing is what you do once you have finished. So finish it.

If you're not sure if you're finished then that's OK. I have put together a guide to help you answer the question.

Release small, release often

As a philanthropist, you do not need to wait until the game is finished before you share it with the community. By sharing early, you can draw upon the experience and knowledge of other philanthropists keen to share their knowledge. By releasing small and often, you reduce the cliff of work you need to scale before the joy of releasing. If you are having trouble finishing a large project, then release what you have. Be prepared for raw feedback early and then turn round a new version quickly. Do not dwell, sort out the problems and release again.


Licensing is very important. You might think that giving something away for free is simple but you could leave yourself open to problems if you do not slap on a license. For example, without a licence printed somewhere, print shops might not allow a prospective GM to print it! Furthermore, if you don't add a little protection, then you might find someone selling your game.

Licensing is a personal and legal choice I am not qualified to assist you with, however I can recommend giving it a Creative Commons license. Creative Commons allows you to tailor your license to your needs and gives you a handy graphic that is rapidly becoming a standard. Most game designers choose BY-NC-SA, which means "Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-alike". Creative Commons do a great job of explaining how they are used.

Upload it

Uploading your game serves two purposes: sharing with others and backing up. When you back up, do not forget to back up the resulting PDF and the source files, images and notes. There are lots of places you can put your game for people to enjoy. If you are releasing small and often, you will want somewhere easy to update and accessible to all. If you have finished, you will want somewhere with exposure.

Backups and releasing small and often
  • Google Docs allows you to upload PDFs and ZIP files. There is plenty of space and you can keep revisions too. Privacy settings allow you to use it as a backup too.
  • Skydrive is the Microsoft solution, plenty of space and privacy options.
  • Dropbox cleverly automatically synchronises your files to the server. Ideal for backups and can share too.
Final Release
  • 1KM1KT 1000 Monkeys, 1000 Typewriters, the best free RPG community.
  • RPGNow and DriveThru RPG are commercial sellers that will also host your free game for you.
  • Lulu is a service that offers print on demand. I recommend printing at least one for yourself because it is a joyous moment to see your creation in hard copy.

Get it listed and reviewed

Make sure you let the following people know:

Now what? Support.

Chances are a huge hole has been left by the completion of the game. Starting the process again for a new game might feel daunting so instead, support your game. Support is the act of engaging with the community to promote its play. Supporting your game will give it longevity not only in the eyes of the world but for you too.
  • Start a blog, posting up characters, rule options, new adventure ideas and people's feedback. Most use either Blogger or Wordpress.
  • Add Google Analytics to your blog so that you can see where people are coming from. It is really handy to see if someone blogs about your game so you can then reply - with thanks!
  • Create a Google+ Page for your game. Use a nice graphic for the logo.
  • If you're really keen on regular updates, create a Facebook page and Twitter account. Make sure they're used, though!
  • If it is a generic system, write another setting for it.
  • Find other free games like yours and contact the authors.
Finally, let me know if you found my guide helpful!

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

How to write a free RPG - Chapter 7: Testing

Your game needs to be tested before it’s devoured by the general public. Testing ranges from simple mechanics tests all the way through to a full blow campaign play test. If you do not have a group to test with and cannot find a kind group to test it for you, there is still testing that can be done. Testing takes a long time, be prepared for this step to take as long as the rest of the game design.

If you are following the "Release Small, Release Often" principle (described in the next Chapter) then ensure you state clearly that the game has not been tested when you perform releases.

Smoke Test

A smoke test ensures that the system won’t catch fire when you try to use it. It will only find glaring holes, not mechanic niggles (see Mechanic Edge Cases) To smoke test the game, do the following:
  • Make 10 characters.
  • Write out 4 full combats step by step. Write out what everyone says and does and draw a battle map of what happens. Ensure each combat is different from your rule examples.
  • Find a non-gamer to read through the whole game to check for grammar and spelling.
  • Update the table of contents and index.
  • Check your table of contents and index by randomly picking 6 items from each, located at different places in the book and check the pages are correct.
  • Make sure that images are near the text that talks about them.
  • Print out some test pages, is it too dark or too light? Is the font large enough? If you're using a background image, does it obscure the text?
  • Ask a friend in a different country to print out on a different size, if you're in the US, try A4. If you're elsewhere, use US Letter.
  • How does it look on screen? If a friend has a tablet device, check it on there too. If not, ask the internet, a friendly RPG geek will check it out for you.

Read it again

But before you read it again, check back to the style section of Chapter 3 then read through the entire game, contents, index, everything. Make notes as read through go, do not stop to edit. Check all the captions on the images and headings on the tables. If you are linking sections of the document together (in HTML or PDF) then click every link. You might be sick of your game by now but this is a very important step, so do it. Then ask yourself these questions:
  • Does it fit the concept I was aiming for? Go back to when you wrote it down in Chapter 1 and check each item off.
  • If it does not, have I still made something worth playing?
  • Does it feel like the genre I am trying to represent?
  • Did I solve the mechanic problems I was trying to solve?
  • What’s best about the game?
  • What’s worst about the game?
  • Can I add any more images to spruce it up?
  • Is all the information I need on the Character sheet?


You’ve used too many words to describe your game. It is normal to do that, your brain is not wired for brevity when it is describing concepts. Cut down every paragraph to its bare form. Is it still intelligible? If so, keep it that way. Your second draft should be 10% shorter than the first.

Mechanic Edge Cases

The success of a mechanics system can be judged on its ability to still operate when under stress. You can stress test your system by seeing what happens when the parameters are at their limits. You cannot test all possible edge cases (especially when it comes to combinations of spells) but you can certainly pick some example worst/best case situations.
For example, if the mechanic is combat what happens when a character has maximum strength, the best weapon, highest skill, excellent armour and so on. Do you have a monster that will challenge a character like that? How many rounds will it take to kill a character like that with medium monsters? How many medium monsters will it take?
A team of 5 people all firing guns that have been upgraded 5 times should be able to kill a monster in 5 combat turns. "Upgraded 5 times" guns do 5 damage, that's 25 damage a turn. So a normal monster should have 125 hit points. Basic characters have weapons that do 1 damage will take a staggering 25 combat turns.
Ask yourself these sorts of questions for all the mechanics, paying particular attention to modifiers and special items. A sword might have a reasonable power but may unbalance the system when enchanted by more than one spell. If you find that it is difficult to find edge cases with your mechanics then perhaps the system is too complex and consider simplifying it. Spreadsheets can be useful for testing out the range of dice roles and probabilities but do not forget the affects of special powers or feats on the numbers.

Imaginary game

A good way to test your game is to run an imaginary game. Take 4 of the 10 characters you created earlier and then run through your example setting and adventures. Ensure the characters have goals that fit your setting, is it easy or difficult to create goals that are possible. Try all of the mechanics, use the characters to defeat the monsters without using your imagination (by grinding) and using imagination. During your game, try and answer the following questions:
  • What is the quickest way to end an encounter?
  • What is the best combination of skills, spells, weapons and equipment to solve each encounter?
  • Is there anything missing from the starting character setups that make the game impossible?
  • Is it fun?

Play Testing

Play testing is the act of playing the game to see if it meets your concept. It’s important to remember that a play test isn’t really a normal game. Most GMs will bend rules, ignore sections and only use 50% of a ruleset in ten sessions worth of a play. A good play test should be precisely by the rules and use as much of the ruleset as possible. You should reward the playtesters with a credit in the front of the book, or a signed copy if you are feeling flush. Make sure that your playtest group is made up of your target audience (see Chapter 1). You should playtest only when you feel the game is complete, playtesting should not be used as a tool for design, only for verification.

Playtest Pack

A playtest pack is a ready-to-go pack of information that makes it easy for the playtest group to test your game and provide feedback. To get the best from the group running your game for the first few times, you must provide additional support. When compiling your playtest pack, you can do so assuming that the player knows roleplaying games well. It should include:
  • A form for the player to put their name and contact details on. Give them the opportunity to opt-out of being included in the book credits.
  • A one page rule summary detailing the main mechanics.
  • Character sheets. Both blank and pre-generated. Although character creation should be part of the playtest, the players may not have the luxury of making a character.
  • A sample adventure that makes use of as many of the mechanics as possible.
  • A feedback form (see below).
  • A summary of what is required by the playtesters.
  • A Non Disclosure agreement (NDA) - optional as this is a free game after all.
  • Your contact details for the player to leave with.


It is important to get feedback from everyone who plays the game. Feedback forms are the simplest way to garner information but if possible socialising with the group in a relaxed atmosphere (in a pub/bar) is a good way to dig into details. Players more likely to focus on the good things if confronted but at least you can question about particular mechanics this way. Have your notebook with you when talking to play testers, write down their good ideas then and there. Do not trust your memory to remember the details. The playtesters won't mind, they will appreciate their point of view is important.

Feedback Forms

Your feedback form is there for you to gauge whether or not you have managed to satisfy your concept. Player/GM fun is important too but it is important to note that not all players like new systems at first and the act of learning them can be tiring and less fun. You can provide two sorts of questions, check box ones and written replies. I would recommend having both as play testing can be tiring and lengthy prose without inspiration from pointed questions can be difficult. Here are some example questions:

Questions to be used with tick boxes under the headings "Strongly agree, Agree, No preference, Disagree, Strongly Disagree"
  • The game's rules are too light
  • The game's system feels like [game's genre]
  • The setting feels different to other games
  • I understood the rules
  • The game looks good
  • I was surprised that the game was free
  • I would play this game again
Questions to be used with plenty of space to reply.
  • What I liked about the game was...
  • What I disliked about the game was...
  • What I thought was missing was...

What to do with feedback

All feedback is valuable, not all of it is useful. For each of the forms and notes you have made, assign them a priority and then use your concept to check to see if you feel the feedback is useful. Concentrate on the problems that are raised rather than the solutions that the players offer. As the game designer, you are the expert. Mechanics changes will mean restarting your mechanics testing (easier if you have used a spreadsheet). Be prepared that not everyone will like your game. Thank them for the feedback but do not dwell on it.

When to stop play testing

Play testing must end when you feel that the game meets the concept you originally set out. Play testing cannot be used to find every rules hole and it is possible to play test too much. Too much play testing is procrastination, pick an end date and finish your game.

Post play test release

Ensure that you schedule time after your play test is over to update the rules and put out another release of your game. Do not make the playtesters feel that you have wasted their time by sitting on the changes for a year.


Tuesday, 17 January 2012

How to write a free RPG - Chapter 6: Organisation

In this Chapter, you'll learn how to organise your free RPG. Organisation is very important because a poorly organised game can be confusing and will put people off playing it. An RPG is both read and referred to. It needs to be reference material as well as something enjoyable to read. To achieve this, you must be careful to choose a logical structure and a layout which is both pleasing and useful. This is an improved version of a previous guide to organisation.

The Structure

Organise the game in a logical structure such that it reads clearly. Explain concepts (such as Attributes) before you use them (in mechanics). You game should include the following sections in this order:

Front Cover

At the very least, it must contain the name of your game. It does not need to be a graphic but the name is a nice font. You've put a lot of work into it, I do hope you're proud of it so put your name on it, or use a pseudonym. If a GM is printing your game to convince their players to play, the better it looks the more likely the prospective GM will be able to run it.

Contents Page

A contents page should include all the major headings and sub headings. Lists of tables, images and diagrams 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. Contents pages are used to scan from front-to-back for topic headings, if you make it too large, it does not become useful for this. Lines can be compressed as people will only scan through the Contents, they are unlikely to read it like paragraphs of prose. This is only optional if your game is under 7 pages.

Thank you / Version / Dedication

(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). Try and keep it to a page. Always put on a date. If you feel you need more than a date to uniquely describe your game, put on a version number. If you don't like software versioning (1.1, 1.2 etc) use round numbers (1,2,3,4,5...).


The introduction is likely to be the first thing that the reader will go to after the cover, avoid fluffy marketing speak. 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)?
  • If you game requires another book to use (such as Fate core rules), then say so here.

Character Creation

Begin this section by listing all of the steps so that the reader 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? Target number? Dice pool? After this brief introduction, deal with each mechanic area in turn. Beginning with unopposed action resolution and then opposed actions. Combat / magic / narrative mechanics last. If you have a core concept that runs through them all (such as rolling dice to meet a target number), deal with that first.


For more information on writing the Setting, see the Chapter on Settings.

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 not 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.


Any item that disturbs the flow 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. 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. Avoid suggesting that it is the best game in the world and that it will change the way people live their lives, instead pick out things that the characters would do and make those things sound exciting. Is the game about sticking a giant sword into the face of a particularly shifty looking dragon? Great! Tell us on the back cover.


Layout is a very subjective part of game design and as such, this section is really intended for those who do not know where to start. When deciding on your layout, take the following into account:
  • The first time your game is seen, it will be on a monitor
  • Many people still print the games for use at the table
  • Printer toner and paper are expensive

A stock layout

A stock layout is a portrait page with two columns evenly spaced. Images are placed within the text. Some packages allow you to curl the text around the jagged edge of the image (rather than being square). To maintain readability, leave a gap of at least 4mm between the graphic and your prose.
  • Margin thick enough to allow someone to bind the game.
  • Number of the chapter at the bottom in the middle. Putting it in the corner means that the person printing it cannot choose between single and double sided paper print.
  • Chapter names in the header are useful when used as reference.
  • Two columns is normally easier to read, long lines make it difficult for the eye to find the next line.
  • The above is portait, if you're going for landscape then consider 3 columns.
  • The eye naturally tracks to the top left and bottom right of the page. Put text there to keep the reader's attention. If it fits the layout well, aim to put images in the top right/bottom left of the page.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

How to write a free RPG - Chapter 5: System

The mechanics of your game provide the players with tactical and strategic choices. They will spend resources, take risks, win and lose. The mechanics must mesh with the concept of the game and support the setting. The first question you must answer is:
Do I use an existing system?
There are hundreds of free RPG systems available, all of which can be extended and modified to meet your needs. By choosing an existing system (especially a popular one), you begin with a solid, playtested base. However, you then rely upon your setting and rule extension being novel enough for people to want to play.

Before you dive in and create your own system, check the list of systems I gave in Part 2 and make sure yours is truly novel. It is much better to extend an existing system that start from scratch.

How to make mechanics

Only include mechanics for things you want the players to do in the game. Reward for the style of play you want to foster. Mechanics are a set of steps that achieve a specific outcome. You do not need to use dice, the steps can be purely conversational or use bartering with resources.

The three points of the mechanics spectrum are resource, traditional and verbal. Resource mechanics are where the player trades an in-game currency for control of the game or success. Traditional mechanics involve rolling dice and comparing to a target number. Verbal mechanics reward good ideas and rhetoric with success.

Your mechanic can be a mix of these three things. Traditional mechanics are the most widely used.

Your mechanic must give the player choice. They must choose to do something and be able to understand the likelihood of an outcome. Avoid mechanics where a single roll can cause the sudden death of the character. You do not need to have a random element to a character's action but avoid making everything automatically easy.

Make the player earn a success though clever use of their brain, either by manipulating the mechanics, setting or putting effort into the game.

Working backwards

Often it is wise to work from the mechanic you are trying to achieve back to the statistics of the character. This will avoid you getting dump statistics. Write down what part of your concept (you decided in Chapter 1) you are trying to emulate then decide on a mechanic in words that satisfies that. Finally work out what combination of skills, statistics, feats and randomness will achieve it.
I want the characters to be able to hurt the monster in imaginative ways. They must be able to inflect more damage by clever use of their gadgets, skills and environment - shooting it over and over should not lead to a win. I will need a statistic for using gadgets, skills for different gadgets (to allow specialisation) and a mechanic to make it worthwhile combining ideas and gadgets together. I'm going to use a shared dice mechanic, so the players should able able to gain more dice for working together.

The Meta Game

The Meta Game is what player-to-player interaction is called. If two players are talking about the situation from their point of view then they are Meta Gaming. If the players talk in character about the situation then that is regular roleplaying. All mechanics sit on a scale between the in character point of view and the Meta Game.

Meta Gaming mechanics can add variety to your game but must be used with care as they are often outside the sphere of knowledge of the character. The upshot is that the character may be taking actions for which they have no justification. A mantra for many roleplay groups is "What would your character do?" and that is often broken by the meta-game.

Only you can be the judge of whether Meta Game mechanics fit into your system. The mechanic types listed below include how "meta" they are.
For Chgowiz, I have a Meta Game mechanic where the players share dice. The characters do not know about the pool of dice that is being used for their actions, so it sits firmly in the Meta Game. A description of it is at the end of the mechanic types section below.

What to make mechanics for

Only make mechanics for things you want the players to do in your game. Some typical ones are:

Character creation

The creation of a character sets the benchmark against which everything in the world is judged.

Unopposed actions

The character interacting with the world alone are actions. These include riding a horse, sailing and navigation. In these cases, there is no-one opposing the character, its just the character against the world. These actions will be performed a lot.

Opposed actions

Where a character is trying to do something and another character is trying to stop them. These include persuading an NPC to open the gate to the castle. A character is trying to get the NPC to do something and the NPC's sense of duty is opposing it.


Combat can come in may different forms: unarmed, with close quarters weapons, ranged, vehicle, space craft and so on. Combat also should have a method of doing harm to the opponent. This can be the same mechanic as an opposed action. Combat is usually broken up into rounds where each character takes it in turn to do an action.

Help the players make quick choices and keep the game moving by presenting the choices in a combat action clearly. The player can then spend their thinking time working out what their character would do rather than what options there are.

Wounding and healing

Invulnerable characters are less interesting to play than vulnerable ones. Have a mechanic to keep track of how much hurt the character has been through and how much more they can take before they can take no more actions. Having a decreasing point value (Hit Points) is a traditional solution but you can also choose narrative effects that affect the player's decisions. Taking damage might also incur a penalty to performing actions. Ensure you include a way for the characters to heal too.
For Chgowiz, I want the effect of being damage to be more narrative. As characters take damage, they can pick up disadvantages - making it more difficult to play. As the characters are clones, dying is not a problem, so the damage affects can be outrageous.


Measure lethality as the amount of game time it takes for a healthy character to die with average weapons/equipment in an average fight. Is lethality so high that the player will never get a chance to retreat? If that's not part of your concept then consider changing it.

Performing "Magic"

Magic (or doing technical actions in modern/Sci Fi) does not need its own system but you can add novel flavour to your system with it. Ensure that the magic system related to the setting - a society based on magic being easy should not have a system where runes need to be drawn accurately over several turns.

Controlling the narrative

Controlling the narrative means that the players get to decide the outcome of things.

Character improvement

If the roleplaying game is designed to be run over a series of sessions, then it is important to hand out a reward that can be used to improve the character.

Character Creation

Character creation is the cornerstone of any system. Do not stint on it. A prospective GM might well make a few characters to see what it is like. Ensure it is slick, majestic and well described. For the players, it is the first time they will interact with your game and it is important that the process is well explained. Character creation does not need to be quick, some players enjoy an involved creation session, especially if the character will last through a long campaign. Be true to the concept you laid out.

Characters tend to made of some or all of the following parts:
  • Attributes - a fixed number of inherent abilities of the character. Include: Strength, Intelligence and so on.
  • Skills - a list of learnt abilities, often picked from a list in the setting.
  • Feats/Traits - extraordinary abilities that the general populace do no possess, these can be both disadvantageous too.
  • Health - a way of tracking the amount of damage the character can take before they fall over.
  • Fluff - description, character name, organisations they belong to, age or anything pertinent. It's the only place in the RPG where fluff is acceptable and prompts the player to flesh out the character.
If you want the game to be learnt quickly, try and keep to familiar terms. If your game is more epic in scale, feel free to break out the Thesaurus and pick words more familiar to your genre.

Avoid adding one of the above unless there is a rule that makes use of it. If you have a 'Psyonic strength' ability and no psyonic rules then the Attribute will be useless.

Ensure you include an example character creation, explaining the choices made at each point.

Random roll vs Point assign

Most roleplaying games use either random roll, point assign or a combination of the two (sum the rolls of 10 dice and assign). Random roll mechanics lead to faster character generation but can leave the player with a character they didn't want to play. Point assign creation tends to be slower, leads to optimisation but leaves the player with the character they think they want to play.

Backstory creation

Flow charts or randomly rolled tables can be used to create the backstory of your characters. Some players might find it too restrictive, others liberating. If you include one these mechanisms, I recommend it is optional.

Collaborative creation

Some character creation mechanisms use play a way of creating a character. In these collaborative methods, players play out scenes. The outcomes of those scenes determine or modify the facets of the character.
For Chgowiz, the players will create a 'Genome' - a root from which each clone is then generated. The Genome will have attributes and skills and will be chosen with point assign. Advantages and Disadvantages will then be randomly rolled per clone. If the clone is difficult to play because of a tough combination Disavdantages and Advantages, it is ok because Clones are expendable.

Types of mechanics

There are an enormous number of variants of dice, resource and narrative mechanic. Below are just a taste of four of the simplest mechanics many systems build upon. Most roleplaying games depend on mechanics using character properties (attributes and skills) combined with a random element.

Target number

  • Used for: Unopposed actions, Opposed actions, combat, magic
  • Format: Character Properties + Modifiers + Dice roll >= Target number
A target number mechanic is the simplest form of mechanic. A Character's Properties are combined (such as the sum of appropriate Attribute and Skill) with modifiers and a die roll. The result is then compared to a target number that is set by the Gamesmaster. In most cases, the higher the target number, the more difficult the task. For opposed rolls, the target number is a roll of the opponent. This can be slower as two dice are rolled, two equations summed before the comparison can be done.

As long as the properties are kept in low digits, the calculations are easy. Avoid applying too may modifiers. Some systems use tables to set the target numbers, this improves simulation of the mechanic but can be slow.Speed can be maintained by having the result of some calculations written on a character sheet. These are sometimes written down as secondary statistics.


  • Easy to balance
  • Quick
  • Versatile


  • Linear probability scale
  • Mathematics can be difficult with large numbers
  • There is a temptation to add many modifiers elsewhere (such as modifiers on weapons)
  • Does not foster communication at the table

Meta Gaming?

This is not Meta Gaming because the rolling of dice represents the actual actions of the character.

Dice pool

  • Used for: Unopposed actions, Opposed actions, combat, magic
  • Format: Roll as may dice as you have in character properties, remove dice for modifiers, count the number of dice that roll over a given number. To succeed, you need a number of successes.
Dice pool mechanics rely on counting the number of dice that successfully roll over a number. This can be a length process when you are rolling 20 dice but the mathematics remains simple because you are not performing additions or subtractions. Modifiers are applied by removing dice (either before or after the roll).


  • Quick
  • Modifiers do not involve maths
  • Versatile
  • Feels good to heft cupped hands full of dice


  • Can need a lot of dice
  • Counting can take longer than comparing a single number
  • Balance is more tricky
  • Does not foster communication at the table
  • Probability of success more difficult to estimate than for target number rolls

Meta Gaming?

This is not Meta Gaming because the rolling of dice represents the actual actions of the character.

Resource Pool

  • Used for: Boosting actions, controlling the narrative
  • Format: Character has a pool of points that they can spend when required
Resource pools reduce the randomness in your game by giving the player a tactical choice whether to spend the points from their pool or save them for later. This mechanic is sometimes used to allow the player to control the narrative. It can also be used to re-roll dice, boost outcomes.


  • Gives the player an tactical choice
  • Simple to understand
  • Player feels an element of control
  • Fosters communication at the table


  • Slower than dice rolling
  • Balance difficult

Meta Gaming?

Resources management tends to be a Meta Gaming task because it is not the character who is spending a point to boost an action, or taking hold of the narrative. The player is the one that is deciding to spend the pool point. If you use a resource pool for something that the character controls (such as a magical pool of energy) then this is not a Meta Game mechanic.


  • Used for: Controlling the narrative
  • Format: Players vote on the outcome
Voting reduces the randomness of outcomes by putting those back into the hands of the players. Some voting mechanisms are used with resource pools so that players have to use their votes tactically. Voting can be secret or public. This mechanic can add a level of competition at the table, make sure that fits in with the concept of your game.


  • Gives the players the feeling of more control
  • Adds tension and atmosphere to the table
  • Fosters communication at the table


  • Slower than dice rolling
  • Slows the pace of the whole game if used liberally
  • Secret voting even slower!

Meta Gaming?

This is a Meta Game mechanic. Players voting on outcomes is detached from the characters themselves.
Chgowiz uses a modification of the Target Number mechanic. To do an action, they add Attibute, Skill and a die roll versus a target number. Even if the Attribute and Skill combined are more than the target number, they still much roll a die. Where it differs is that all the players share a pool of dice in the middle. When someone does an action, they take a die from the middle. By doing so, they are depriving other players of dice. This is a Meta Game mechanic because the character do not realise that they are about to fail because the players have run out of dice!


Crunch is the name given to the feeling that there are a lot of rules to remember to play the game. You should try and strike a balance between a simple system where the tactical decisions are quick and a crunchy system where there are lots of options, modifiers and special rules. Too few rules and you're giving the player fewer tactical options, there is less game system to manipulate. Too many options and the system becomes overwhelming. Lite rules tend to be quicker to player whereas crunchy rules do a better job of representing the game world. Only you can decide whether the system fits the concept you decided on at the start.

Crunch often creeps into a system in the form of special rules for spells, monsters or equipment. These extra rules might look innocuous on their own but when the GM tries to apply all the caveats from different parts of the rules then the game grinds to a halt.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

How to write a free RPG - Chapter 4: Setting

In this Chapter, you will learn how to write an unique setting; what to include and how to avoid common pitfalls. The setting is the imaginary world that will act upon the characters and that the characters will change with their actions. Even if you are writing a generic roleplaying game system (such as Fate, Risus or Five by Five) then you should still consider writing an example setting that showcases the unique features of the system. Show the prospective GM what can be done with the system, it will help you differentiate your game from all the other games out there. Make sure your setting is a place where things happen, fill it with conflicting organisations and danger.

Creating a setting is a huge task and this guide is far from complete, acting only as a starting point.

Implicit vs Explicit Settings

Your setting can either be explicit or implicit. An explicit setting is one where you create maps, locations, a range of NPCs, plot hooks and so on. An implicit setting is where you do not write any of that but you do create a bestiary, spells or rules that constrain how the game is played. For example, for spell casting, the difference might be:
  • Explicit Setting: Magic is rare and difficult to perform, it is controlled by an Archmage who lives in a tower.
  • Implicit Setting: To cast a spell, roll 2D20. On two rolls of 20, the spell passes. Otherwise nothing happens.
The explicit setting lays out in black and white that magic is difficult but adds the flavour of the Archmage. The implicit setting makes spell casting difficult through rules but means that the GM is free to decide on how it is implemented in the setting they create.

If you are not writing a full setting, I recommend you take the middle ground, noting that magic is difficult and then demonstrating why. A free RPG should make life easy for the GM and as such create an explicit setting and let the GM ignore it if they wish. Be aware that you may inadvertently write an implicit setting by system or resources.

Building your world

Novel settings are best described from a top down point of view. Begin with the major themes of the game and how they interact. Try and keep the themes limited in number and intertwined. Expand on each of the themes, adding only detail that the GM or players might need to play. Stop when you have described the parts of your setting that the player characters directly interact with. Unless going to the toilet is something the player characters will be asked to do a lot, do not describe it. World building is a huge topic, which is very dependent on the genre of RPG you are creating. Here are some general tips:
  • Make the world exciting. If the world is mundane, there will be no desire to explore it.
  • Ensure that organisations, Gods, nations, NPCs are in conflict with others. Give them opposed goals and motivations. This conflict will make your world more interesting.
  • Before you start writing, list all the aspects you want in the setting and then list the things you do not.
  • Give the characters something to do that is interesting.
  • Avoid absolutes - it is better to say that there are few Gnomes left after the Gnomageddon rather than none at all.
  • Assume that if you include a location, the players will try to go there. If you include an NPC, assume that they will shoot it in the face.
  • From top-down, you don't have to draw the whole map or include all the races, you're only specifying the big themes.
  • Give your places, organisations and NPCs more than one weakness. A single weakness can be difficult for players to spot.
  • If providing a broad description, use an adjective. 'On a mountain' is less inspiring than 'On a craggy mountain'. Big list of adjectives
Be as fantastical as you can. If you want a flying upside down mountain, then do so. If you want the heads of state of two major nuclear powers to be having an extramarital affair then go for it.
The Chgowiz RPG is set in your home town and your home set in a world seen through the eyes of a crazy person. The Government are all powerful and view the people of your fine town as worthless test subjects. As a Chgowiz Clone, you are part of an elite army and fight for the Government to protect the people against huge mutant monsters, who want to trample and burn your home town! Little do you know that the Government sent the monsters in the first place.

What to include

Only include the minimum setting description needed to meet the themes you specified in your concept. Settings are typically where game bloat occurs. When defining the concept in Chapter 1, you defined a number of themes (such as dangerous magic, continents at war or space federations) start by describing these themes. When describing a theme, begin with what is known from the general populace's point of view and then add information that the heroic characters would know. Here is a list of entities you might wish to include:


Locations should act as seeds for adventures as well as the places they take place. If you cannot think of a good plot or reason a player might want to go there then don't include it. To create the a location:
  • Begin with the geography and an adjective. Examples: on a windswept glacier, on the edge of a cliff, surrounded by rivers, on a lonely plain, snug in a valley, clinging to the side of a mountain, sprawling across a savanna, by the golden beach or in a sweaty jungle. If you are having difficulty, put the noun of the geography (such as Jungle) into Google Images.
  • Provide an overview mention its architecture (broadly). A tall stone tower of arches and pillars, a squat village of stone and thatch buildings or a gleaming metallic space station.
  • Describe its prominent (or extraordinary) features. These should be places the players will want to go. Try and make the prominent features unfamiliar. If you describe Sauron's Tower then the players will automatically associate the tower with the Lord of the Rings.
  • Give the purpose of the place. Why does it exist? Who made it? Why should there be a village there? What purpose does it serve? Do not feel you have to explain away every location but purpose can make a mundane place feel special.
  • Give the place a name. Use a thesaurus to help find a word that describes it.
In the Chgowiz RPG, I am cheating here. The players will be playing in their home town. Building a map of local places and roads will be part of character creation. To make it more interesting, some locations will have a previously unknown secret fact. For example, the mall might be a meeting place for a Druidic chapter.

People and races

Describe the people who live in your world. The people will make up the majority of the people your player characters will interact with. You can add flavour to your setting by introducing different races with physiology, philosophy and wisdom. Racial differences do not need to be large and can be the source of great prejudice. With prejudice comes conflict, which in turn makes your setting more interesting.

It is wise to keep in mind the role your player characters have in the setting: Are they the good guys or bad? Are they made up from the different race or all one?


This is a generic name given to groups of NPCs that work together. An Organisation might be the inhabitants of a place who share a common goal or a secret society.
  • Aim: what do they want to achieve?
  • Resources: What resources do they have at their disposal? Use general terms such as 'Can influence the creation of law.' rather than 'Has 4 councillors under payment'.
  • Public knowledge: What will the characters know about the organisation?
  • Reach: Do they operate only in the city or countrywide, across a continent or throughout the galaxy?
  • Activities: What do the organisation get up to? What do they not do? How do they raise cash?
  • Allies and Enemies: Who are the organisation friends with, who do they hate? How do they interact, is is subtle or openly hostile?
For the Chgowiz RPG, The Government are the most important organisation as they provide the monsters, the Clones and the Gadgets!

Aim: To take over the world with an amazing army of either Chgowzi Clones or Giant Monsters (whichever comes off best).
Resources: Huge amounts of gadgets and monsters. They can do all the usual stuff a Government an do too.
Public knowledge: The public are thick, they think the Government are nice and care about them!
Reach: The Government are countrywide but like to think they have global reach.
Activities: Sending in Monsters into small towns to see how destructive they can be. Sending in Chgowiz cloned soldiers to mop up the monsters.
Allies and Enemies: The Chgowiz RPG is too simple to have them fight another organisation. In a sense, they are constantly fighting themselves.

Flora and Fauna

Plants and animals breathes life into your setting. Avoid creating an entire ecosystem. Choose some plants and animals and give them a twist to make them different. Then decide how they interact with each other. Include a Bestiary too


If Gods figure in your setting then be sure to describe them by what they do and why people praise them. Long back stories and history are only interesting to Classics scholars.

Common NPCs

Kings, Lords, famous heroes, arch villains, well known craftsmen, heads of guilds, merchants can all add to a setting's depth. Don't forget that if you include an NPC, you should expect someone to shoot it in the face. For an NPC to be interesting, they must have a goal, stereotypes are fine but the goal must be easy for the GM to understand. The complexity will come when the game is played. Make sure you include at least two NPCs that have conflicting goals. It is through conflict that interesting stories are formed.
Agent Backstard is the Clone's contact at the Government, Backstard will provide them with just enough information on the monsters. He's a tall, gaunt man with shiny black hair that begins every answer with 'Yes yes yes', even if the answer turns out to be 'No'. He doesn't come across as trustworthy because he isn't.
T is the equipment man and called only by his codename "T". He is scatterbrained and finds it difficult grasp that his creations are used for fighting. He can be contacted at any time over the radio and can parachute equipment in.
Doctor Socks is a fictional man created by the Government. He is blamed for creating the giant monsters. He is pictured as a cackling old man in a plaid arm chair.


A map is a useful tool to show the scope and scale of the play area. Concentrate detail to one area of the map rather than spreading it out, you should give the GM somewhere well described to start their campaign and yet allow plenty of area for them to expand.

Recent History

Include large events in the recent history, particularly if they explain why the world is the way it is. Try and include a couple of events in the recent couple of weeks that would effect everyone or that would signal that there is going to be a big change. Recent History can be useful for the GM to create plot hooks.

GM Information

Give the GM some extra details on the places you mentioned. Help the GM create adventures by providing plot hook ideas by posing "What if..." questions. Explain how you intend the setting to be used and what themes you had in mind when you designed. You need to be explicit because it is difficult for a prospective GM to understand the nuances of a new setting through the text.

Sample Adventure

A sample adventure should showcase the novel parts of the setting (and system) and demonstrate why the GM should run the game. The sample adventure should be aimed at starting characters so that the GM can run the adventure straight off. Keep the adventure simple to achieve and include some combat or excitement.

Making your game different

During the ideas phase, you had to ask yourself "What's its closest rival and how is it different?". Many free RPGs go ignored because what they offer is barely distinguishable from commercial PRGs that the prospective GM already owns. Here are some techniques you can use to avoid common themes. I refer to genres specifically here but only because it is fantasy where the greatest overlap occurs.

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.
For Chgowiz, there are two folklore sources: Godzilla (the original 1954 film) and Chgowiz himself. I've got hold of the original film (trailer below) and emailed Chgowiz for source information.

Japanese version is way more terrifying - probably because my Japanese is minimal!

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 mythology 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? Or in Science Fiction what if the human race could not survive on planet surfaces and were stuck in space craft forever.

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.
The Chgowiz monsters will be taking a lot of their inspiration from nature. I used the BBC's Live n Deadly programme for inspiration.

Other resources