“The number one rule,” I said, “in storytelling is this: Keep your audience engaged!” It was winter 2008, and the geeky kid had become the seasoned pro, standing in front of two dozen students and teaching a course inconceivable in 1978: roleplaying game design.
At the moment, RPGs are more popular – yet less profitable – than ever. Although MMORPGs(1) dominate pop culture, the book-based medium is a dying industry. High costs and low profits force even the most successful publishers to produce books at a loss. Fortunately, the independent game scene is booming. Technology (2) allows anyone with a computer, some software and a good idea or three to reach an audience Gary Gygax would have killed for, and while there’s not much money in that audience, a creative person can have a field day.
(2014 Update: In the years since this article was originally written, POD, PDFs, Kickstarter and DriveThruRPG have revolutionized the RPG field. As a result, we have RPGs and other games that manage to get funded in spite of those small audiences. That, in turn, has led to an explosion of creativity in the gaming culture, where games like Kingdom of Nothing, Monsterhearts, Hoodoo Blues, Passages and My Life With Master make the arms-rush of the 1990s look tame. Even now, there’s not much money to be made. For many creative people, though, the experience of expressing a vision and getting it to an audience is worth the work even when the money involved barely pays the production costs.)
So how is this done? How might you craft your own RPGs?
Contrary to rumor (3), there are no satanic rites involved in RPG creation ― just work, skill and imagination. Social savvy helps, and spare cash certainly doesn’t suck. A team of collaborators is fairly essential, too. Sure, you could craft an RPG by yourself, but it’s not easy and the result probably won’t win much success. What you need most of all is patience, a fine critical eye, really good ideas, and a willingness to work your ass off for little or no return.
A would-be RPG designer must recognize that last part. Publishing demands lot of work. As interactive entertainment, a roleplaying game is open-ended, crafted for an audience the creators will never meet. Unlike the books, songs and films that normally fill this column, a roleplaying game offers a free pass to the imaginations of each participant. You can envision a game of genteel sophistication, but once that game has left your press (or server), it can become anything. In that sense, then, there is an element of magic in game design: It’s the art of inspiration. In the end, a roleplaying experience belongs to the players, not the creators. And in that aspect, it’s like a spell: You set forth intentions, lay out parameters, and use tools to direct your vision toward an unpredictable aim, understanding you might never see the ultimate results.
So how can you work this “spell”? What steps must an aspiring RPG designer take to bring her vision from premise to publication? As I tell my students, any published creation ― game, book, web comic, whatever ― involves the following stages:
• Premise: To begin, you need a premise, the concept behind your game. You can find it by answering these three questions: What roles will my players assume? What do I want to say with my creation? and What inspires me to do this all in the first place? Without a strong premise, your work will lack…
• Foundation: The core of your game informs the other choices. If, for example, you wanted to create a metaphysical game about steampunk witches (4), that premise would provide afoundation for the game’s rule mechanics, character options, background setting, illustrations and other elements.
• Teams: If you’re planning to publish your work, you’ll need text, illustrations, editing, layout, marketing, and sales & distribution. Sure, you could do all these things alone, but (assuming that everyone gets along) collaboration is far more effective.
• Design: Someone has to make art choices, hire artists, illustrate the project, and determine the overall “look & feel” (5) of the project. If you’re creating a game, your rules must be designed, refined, tested, and refined some more.
• Content: Here’s where the actual writing and artwork gets done.
• Review: No one is prefect! (6) EVERY author needs editing! No matter how good you think you are, get someone with a sharp critical eye to go over your writing, design and artwork. From there, swallow your ego and revise accordingly.
• Development/Marketing: Once the content has been finished, a project developer must weave the pieces into a coherent whole. (7) Meanwhile, a marketing campaign begins, seeding a potential audience for the finished product.
• Layout: Text, tables, illustrations and indexes must be laid out into a readable format. And while a creative layout can be fun, your audience must be able to understand what you’ve created.
• Proofing: Evidence of gremlins and other evil spirits can be seen in the mistakes that you’re sure weren’t there in the final draft but clearly stick out now. Trust me ― proof again before you go to press!
• Publication/ Printing: When your project finally heads toward its audience, you’re inpublication. This stage might involve PDFs, printed books, posting on a web server, or whatever method works best for you. Either way, this step demands effort, logistics, and often aggravation.
• Distribution: Unless you’re posting your work for free on your personal website,distribution is essential. This step involves convincing shops, servers or old-school distribution companies to carry your project, and collecting money from your customers. Personally, I’ve found this to be the most problematic step; distributors invest time, and money into the products they handle, and they want to see some profit for that investment. Convincing your potential distributor that your game will make that profit is a challenge in itself.
• Promotion: If you want an audience for your work, you must promote the project. Thankfully, the internet makes this cheaper and easier than it used to be! Banners, websites, online forums and old-fashioned word-of-mouth (or keyboard) make great promotion tools. Still, you’ll need some hard-copy marketing ― fliers, posters, T-shirts, etc. ― to reach a greater audience.
Is that it? Hardly.
There’s more to a viable game than the 30,000-250,000 words of text between its covers. Any keyboard monkey can generate 30,000 words of prose (8); the craft and artistry behind those words (and behind the rules system, illustrations and other elements) make the result memorable ― as either a masterwork, fiasco, pastime or well-intentioned dud.
Craft and artistry are challenging in any medium. The open-ended nature of RPGs, however, presents a new hurdle. A game designer must anticipate not only what her intended audience wants from the project, but what they’re likely (or unlikely) to do with it. Once the game hits distribution, its creator has no real control over the results. Again, it’s a bit like magic. After you’ve put your intentions into motion, you surrender control and hope you did everything right!
As I’ve mentioned in previous installments, there’s a special kind of power in the RPG medium. A roleplayer manifests his imagination, ideally inspired by the designer’s vision. In most cases, that imagination takes the form of simple power fantasies. Occasionally, though, an RPG can suggest new possibilities for its players. Roleplaying transcends sexes, species, accepted history and conventional reality. For players and designers who are willing to move beyond orc-hacking, the medium invites imagination to soar. In class, I advise my students to explore these possibilities ― not merely to entertain their audiences, but to engage them.
Engagement inspires activity. And when your imagination is engaged, anything is possible. Most roleplayers simply slaughter imaginary orcs, but some hold blood drives, sponsor charities, change their lives or change their world. A well-crafted RPG inspires its audience to think and then to act, to envision new possibilities and then create them. Imagination, not force, is the true heart of magic. And no medium engages its audience’s imagination as fully as a good roleplaying game.
“We are alive in an age of miracles,” I proclaimed in my RPG Deliria: Faerie Tales for a New Millennium; “Let’s play.” (9) Thanks to technology, opportunity and the willingness to create, you too can play with miracles of your own design… and inspire others to do the same.
Yeah ― I’d say there is magic in that possibility.
So let us play…
Phil “Satyrblade” Brucato has authored over 100 RPG books, including the “act of magic disguised as a roleplaying game (10),” Deliria.
[This is the third and final installment of my “magic and RPGs” series from new Witch magazine. I’ll be posting a “fourth” installment tomorrow, with reference material from the other three articles.
[The series originally appeared in newWitch magazine, and is copyright(c) Phil Brucato 2006-2008. Permission is granted for links and reposting with attribution, denied for repriting for profit or reposting without rightful attribution. In the previous two installments, I’ve described my 30-year history with those avatars of pop-culture magic known as roleplaying games.]
* 1 Massive Multiplayer Online RPGS; e.g. World of Warcraft.
* 2 = Desktop publishing, graphics programs, the internet, and POD (print-on-demand) and PDF (Portable Document Format) distribution.
* 3 = For details, see previous installments, re. Bob Schnoebelen, Patricia Pulling and David Waldron.
* 4 = Sorry, this idea’s already taken!
* 5 = Term for a project’s graphic design, approach and atmosphere.
* 6 = Yes, that was intentional.
* 7 = I call this process “Frankensteining” ― turning bits of text and artwork into a “living” creation.
* 8 = Whether or not that prose sucks is another matter!
* 9 = Deliria, page i, [sic.] “Introductions and Invitations.”
* 10 = Ashli Sisk, founder of the Bay Area Street Theatre Association, 2003.
GAME DESIGNER RESOURCES (as of 2011)
Whether you’re interested in RPG design or simply curious about the process, check out these resources:
Fannon, Sean Patrick: The Fantasy Roleplaying Gamer’s Bible, Obsidian Studios, 1999
The Forge online game community. http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/
Glassner, Andrew. Interactive Storytelling: Techniques for 21st Century Fiction, A K Peters, LTD., 2004
IndieGames – The Weblog. http://indiegames.com/blog/
Laws, Robin. Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering, Steve Jackson Games, 2002
Lulu.com self-publishing company. http://www.lulu.com
Man!festo Games. http://www.manifestogames.com/
McCloud, Scott. Reinventing Comics: How Imagination and Technology are Revolutionizing an Art Form, HarperCollins, 2000
Miller, Carolyn Handler. Digital Storytelling: A Creator’s Guide to Interactive Entertainment, Focal Press, 2004
Rilstone, Andrew (editor) & Wallis, James (publisher): Inter*Action/ Inter*Active Fantasy Magazine(s) #1-4, Crashing Boar Books, 1994-1996
The RPG Consortium. http://www.rpgconsortium.com/main.cfm