Not as I do: Organizing an RPG

“What’s puzzling you is the nature of my game.”
— The Rolling Stones, “Sympathy for the Devil”

I’m looking at the structure of game books right now, and I really think (especially as someone who’s been doing it a while myself), that there’s room for improvement.

The default model seems to be:

  1. Some kind of introduction. Maybe fiction, maybe bragging, maybe both.
  2. Maybe something about how special our unique branded setting is.
  3. Character types and creation.
  4. Combat rules (sometimes “conflict,” if you’re really abstract)
  5. Magic powers (possibly swapped with the previous).
  6. A whole bunch of not-entirely-combat rules almost everyone ignores. And which mostly consist of modifiers to combat.
  7. Some GM advice that’s probably terrible.
  8. Some monsters.
  9. Sometimes a sample setting providing most of the useful things that the setting information at the front completely failed to.

Dungeons & Dragons conforms to this model through most of its books, though it often leaves the terrible advice and monsters to subsequent volumes. The White Wolf games pretty much all work this way, though the nWoD shunts questions of combat back to the core.

Other models have been tried. For example, Tunnels & Trolls 5.5 uses an interesting “expanding” structure:

  1. Introduction
    • Creating a character (a simple fighter)
    • Equipment, how it works and is bought
    • Creating monsters
    • Getting XP
  2. “The Game as it is Played”
    • All the damn character types and variations
    • Leveling up
    • Magic
    • Detailed combat rules
    • More monster rules
    • GM advice
    • Sample dungeon
  3. “Elaborations” — a bunch of miscellaneous rules, and descriptions of weapons
So what you basically have is a simple example going through the first chapter, which nonetheless describes a complete model of the game. Then you get all the variations and exceptions. And then appendices of random additions you might or might not use.
Trollbabe

Trollbabe

Speaking of trolls, Ron Edwards’ brilliant Trollbabe mainly describes the components of a game session in order. Loosely:

  1. Introduction
  2. Characters
  3. Scenes
  4. Conflicts in scenes
  5. Relationships (which come from conflicts)
  6. Endings
  7. Multiple characters
  8. GM advice and a sprinkling of player advice (actually pretty good)
  9. Designer notes and other appendices

It’s remarkably clear, benefiting from three things:

  1. A game that produces a story can be explained in the order of a story.
  2. There was a previous edition with years of playtesting.
  3. It was designed as a teaching text.1

As a gamer, I prefer the latter two models, personally. While the “top down” manual style is a great way to do a design document, I’m not sure it’s much good for teaching a game.

As a designer, it’s unlikely that my game is going to be the one that teaches anybody how to game (if they learn on my game, it’ll probably be from an experienced player). But I am teaching the game to existing roleplayers.

The first structure is pretty good for existing gamers, because they’re usually looking for content and twists they can introduce into an existing gaming style. They already know if they’re going to do a dungeon crawl,2 a railroad,3 or an investigation game.4 Because that’s how they roll. They just need to know whether they’re calling the magic user a Tremere.

Okay, that sounds a little harsh, but I think it’s true. I also don’t think it’s a bad thing. A lot of gamers pick up new roleplaying games to provide content for playing in a structure they’re already set on.

That’s why a game like Trollbabe, whose major innovations relate to structure5 almost need to be structured as tutorials.

That said, as an existing gamer, I find it a lot easier to get through Tunnels & Trolls on a read than the Rules Cyclopedia.6 On the other hand, it’s rather a pain to go back through the “expanding” structure looking for particular references.

I’d like to see the rules treated multiple ways within a single book: the rules explained in expanding fashion, with explanations, examples, and designer notes, plus a quick reference in the back, covering the basic gameplay structure and procedures.

This is, in fact, sometimes how I run Trollbabe: with a “teaching copy” of the current edition and a “reference copy” of the original.

How do you like your gaming books organized?

_____

  1. I have this confirmed by Ron.
  2. A game in which an imaginary space filled with deathtraps is explored.
  3. A game in which the sequence of events is predetermined and players must find their way between them.
  4. Like a railroad, except the player characters go insane at the end.
  5. …and trollbabes.
  6. And the regard in which I hold that latter book is well-established.

3 thoughts on “Not as I do: Organizing an RPG

  1. Trollbabe is indeed extremely well organized. My gold standard remains Dogs in the Vineyard, I think. The voice is intimate, polite and encouraging, and the summary section – that sums up what players, PCs, GM and NPCs should be doing at every stage of a session and campaign is one of those features that just raise the bar thereafter. Post-Dogs, I hold the lack of such a summary against any game that, um, lacks one. Which is most of them.

  2. “As a designer, it’s unlikely that my game is going to be the one that teaches anybody how to game (if they learn on my game, it’ll probably be from an experienced player). But I am teaching the game to existing roleplayers.”

    That’s a very interesting viewpoint. As a fellow ddesigner, I’d like to pick your brain on some things relating to this. Are you fully satisfied with this decision to not teach the core gaming concepts to new players? From a marketing perspective, this drastically limits your potential player base, which in turn even more so limits your customer base.

    Have you considered actually including some “primers on the hobby” sections, so as to not only bring in new inexperienced roleplayers, but to also cl-ine them and anyone else who reads on the designer’s (your) ideas and beliefs behind roleplaying? This could greatly enhance the reading experience for anyone, as it also provides a unique perspective into the designer’s beliefs and design focus.

  3. “As a fellow designer, I’d like to pick your brain on some things relating to this. Are you fully satisfied with this decision to not teach the core gaming concepts to new players? From a marketing perspective, this drastically limits your potential player base, which in turn even more so limits your customer base.”

    Generally speaking, I don’t work on games newbies would buy. It’s neat to imagine that, for example, Geist: The Sin-Eaters might spark some kind of revolution in new gamers joining the hobby, but it’s unlikely. Even the Vampire universe doesn’t do this so much anymore. It’s a shame, but it’s true. There simply isn’t a valuable marketing angle for a traditional tabletop RPG focused towards new players. Look at how often Wizards has tried over the last decade

    We’ll see how Wizards’ Essentials line goes. I’ll be pleased if it works.

    There are a lot of smaller press games that you’d think would have a broader appeal in terms of subject matter. Unfortunately, they’re not going to get the kind of marketing power that Wizards or White Wolf can bring to bear because:

    1) They’d be alienating to our core audience, the ones we know buy the books.

    2) Even us biggies have limited marketing power and experience in the venues where someone might buy, say, Primetime Adventures.

    “Have you considered actually including some “primers on the hobby” sections, so as to not only bring in new inexperienced roleplayers, but to also cl-ine them and anyone else who reads on the designer’s (your) ideas and beliefs behind roleplaying?”

    I’ve considered it. I tend to think, though, that if a designer’s agenda isn’t clear from the main text, that designer’s not doing their job.

    If you can teach what roleplaying is, then do it. Absolutely, do it. But it’s not going to broaden your market much because you don’t have a good way to introduce RPGs outside of your market.

    If you really want to introduce more people to roleplaying games, though, then maybe it’s the game itself that has to change…

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