So You Think You Can RPG: The Project

18 Aug

I started writing this series over a month ago, and you haven’t seen an update since. That isn’t because I haven’t been writing things, or planning posts–I certainly have. It’s because they’ve all suffered from one fundamental problem.

They’ve been boring.

See, I’m writing this series for two audiences at once: the people who play roleplaying games, and the people who have never actually done that before. And it is challenging to write posts in a way that keep the attention of both groups. People who’ve never tried RPGs often have an understandably loose grasp of the fundamentals and practicals, and people who run them all the time don’t want to stick around for five or six sessions of tutorial. Writing a series the way I was writing it, I was bound to lose somebody.

So I’ve found a workaround.

I intend to show my readers the goals, tools, systems, and pitfalls of tabletop roleplaying games. It occurs to me that there are few better ways to do this than to take a leaf from Shamus’ book and just make something already. Instead of talking about RPGs as an abstract and elbowing vaguely at the context they fit into, I’m going to design a game from the ground up and talk about exactly what’s going into it and why. Eventually the game will be playtested and released in full.

Key parts of this process I will entrust to you, the readership.  Speaking of which…


When you get right down to it, playing an RPG is just telling a story with your friends. So why is the “game” part there at all? Why are the dice there? The character sheets? The rulebooks as thick as cinderblocks? The graphs, the miniatures, the wiki with six open tabs, the supplement, the dog-eared binder of house rules?

No two groups are going to have exactly the same answer to that question. Some people just enjoy rolling dice. Some people like the strategic parts of the game and enjoy the extra layer of lateral thinking that RPGs usually offer over your classic rigid, heavily constrained boardgame. Some people like having the rules there because it provides a check that keeps any one person from ruining the experience. But the commonest, simplest, truest answer is this: if you design the rules correctly, they’ll help you tell a better story than you would have come up with on your own.

That’s something the really hardcore roleplayers, like myself, are sometimes reluctant to admit. People who’ve played too many poorly designed systems are used to rules that just get in the way of storytelling; for them, die rolls and result tables are crutches for people who can’t keep up or bones tossed to the Magic: The Gathering player who joined out of boredom. But they don’t have to be.  A good RPG system can salvage a story the way a great director can save a mediocre script.

I’ll be exploring why that is as I design my system. Now, I’m not going to be making what’s called a “general system.” General systems are like platformers in the 80s: the idea is that you can pretty much adapt them to fit any kind of story, setting, and tone that you want. They exist to make sure player-controlled characters succeed when they ought to and fail when they ought to, and that’s it. The system itself is practically a glorified referee.

But the other kind of game, and one I’m going to be exploring in great length, is a game designed to help tell a specific kind of story. For example: every single mechanic in the game Apocalypse World is supposed to make players feel like their world and their lives are hanging by a thread, which makes it great for gritty post-apoc stories. Everyone is John introduces a scoring system to make players compete and rapid, Mario-Kart style turnarounds to make sure players are always pushing for the boldest options possible–making the game ideally suited to slapstick. And Great Ork Gods lets players decide how easy and hard things are for each other, thus creating exactly the hostile, macho orky atmosphere the developers intended.

So here’s where you come in. What kind of story, mood, or attitude should my homebrew system strive for? Post your suggestions in the comments.

Previous in So You Think You Can RPG: So You Think You Can RPG: Gamer’s Origins
Next in So You Think You Can RPG: So You Think You Can RPG: Fundamentals

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  1. tmtvl

    August 18, 2014 at 4:22 am

    You say “poorly designed systems,” but it’s basically systems that are not designed for the type of game the players want.

    I’ve been part of a 3.5 D&D group for years and after some time we basically ignored 80% of the rules. D&D is not a poorly designed system, it’s just focused on a different style of play from what we needed.

    Anyway, looking forward to what you’re going to make, my personal preference is for Horror RPGs (such as CoC).

  2. Lupis42

    August 18, 2014 at 4:58 am

    I’d love to see a system for practical time-travel. Ideally, not just at the Doctor Who “Go anywhen and have an adventure” level, but something more suited to using time travel as a creative tool for problem solving, in the vein of Red Dwarf (

  3. katreSee, I’m writing this series for two audiences at once: the people who play roleplaying games, and the people who have never actually done that before.

    August 18, 2014 at 5:29 am

    “See, I’m writing this series for two audiences at once: the people who play roleplaying games, and the people who have never actually done that before.”

    You’re not the fist one to tread this ground: literally every single RPG book out there has an intro chapter explaining what an RPG is, why they are who, who the roles are, some of the history, etc etc. I assume those chapters are for the non-roleplayers: I’ve always skipped them to get to the meat.

  4. evileeyore

    August 18, 2014 at 6:06 am

    katre: “You’re not the fist one to tread this ground: literally every single RPG book out there has an intro chapter explaining what an RPG is, why they are who, who the roles are, some of the history, etc etc. I assume those chapters are for the non-roleplayers: I’ve always skipped them to get to the meat.”

    I always at least skim them in case the writer found something new and interesting to write* or something so lame and stupid it was funny (this happens roughly 1/3 of the time).

    * So far only Robin Laws has written an interesting Intro to Roleplaying, I was hoping Ruts would be added to the list.

    As far as systems go… If there were anyway you could make roleplaying as an Accountant sound fun you’d win all the internets. And forever be King of the Nerds.

  5. Brian York

    August 18, 2014 at 6:54 am

    For time travel, have you considered Continuum (and possibly its counterpoint, Narcissist). Both come with rather a lot of built-in setting, but both are also *very* good at incorporating time travel into *everything*.

  6. Barmn

    August 18, 2014 at 7:17 am

    I, as a DM, have had a lot of trouble with difficulty. While I enjoy making and killing characters as a player, the people I play with tend to enjoy it far less, as the game kinda ends for them right there. Challenge ratings have never really made sense to me either, so its hard for me to judge what a group can take on. I have personally wanted to make a very imposing and tense atmosphere, and I kinda feel like death should be a part of if. So far the solution ive been working on is just running an undead campaign, where death isn’t as permanent as it normally is, and also keeps things nice and tense tone wise.
    I dunno, basically I would be interested in seeing how to put a difficult campaign together.

  7. Neko

    August 18, 2014 at 7:48 am

    Oooh, shiny.

    I’m not sure what story, mood, or attitude would be best, or even how to begin categorising games like that, but I will say the first thing that came into my head while reading this: An RPG system that helps you come up with short “episodic” content would be great for someone like me, who can’t keep a group together every weekend. Everyone’s got commitments these days, so a long overarching campaign is kind of impossible – there’s always someone each week that can’t make it.

    If there was a way to somehow use the system to draw up an adventure-of-the-week, that’d be pretty sweet. I keep meaning to get my group back together for a game of Lasers & Feelings, they have a cute little table to roll on for inspiration. Something like a Star Trek episode where not all the regular cast need to get involved, or some superhero game where today’s threats just happen to coincide with the powers of the heroes who are in the office today.

  8. swenson

    August 18, 2014 at 9:24 am

    I can’t speak from tabletop gaming experience–I definitely fall into the “total uninitiated noob” category there–but when it comes to computer RPGs, as much as I love innovative and strategic combat, I also love character and story, sometimes even more than the “real” gameplay.

    As a noob, I don’t really know how well currently-existing systems handle this, but this is the thing that I, an outside, think I would find most interesting about an RPG. That it’s not all oriented around building a character best-suited for rampaging through hordes of enemies, but that it’d be perfectly viable to have a character/story where combat doesn’t get involved at all, and yet it’s still engaging and fun.

  9. Anonymous

    August 18, 2014 at 11:27 am

    Story…. hmm…. magical space opera? (By which I mean actual magic that is fundamental to the setting.)

    Maybe in a post-post-apocalyptic setting. Because we don’t see enough of that.

  10. Thk13421

    August 18, 2014 at 1:53 pm

    Well, I think that a fun exercise could be to rebuild fantasy, from the ground up. Go back to the folklore and mythological roots of the genre and build a system that isn’t based on so much on fantasy literature. I think you’d end up with a setting and system that could really reflect the basic alien-ness and weirdness of something people think they understand. From what I’ve heard, Pendragon might be a good example of what I mean for Arthurian legends, for example.

  11. Blake

    August 18, 2014 at 3:22 pm

    I’d like a system for modern day wizards, who use spells to handle mundane tasks.

    With spells less like ‘fireball to explode all the baddies’ and more like ‘summon coffee’ to keep energy levels up when trying to finish a report.

  12. Faren

    August 18, 2014 at 5:30 pm

    How about a heist game? Focusing mainly on stealth and disabling security instead of just shooting up the place.

  13. Cuthalion

    August 18, 2014 at 5:57 pm

    I’m going to vote for either some kind of caper (pulling off crazy stuff) or, even better, something that tries to capture the mystery of exploration and discovery, because that’s something I’m still trying to figure out how to pull off.

    Something that captures the feeling of searching through a new, weird place, not knowing what you’ll find, but you’re pretty sure you’ll find something cool. Metroid Prime is coming to mind, but since I didn’t get very far in that, I’m not sure if that’s an appropriate comparison. Maybe just one of those games that makes you want to explore every chunky pixel of the minimap.

  14. Akri

    August 18, 2014 at 5:59 pm

    How about something surreal? A system designed to evoke similar feelings/experiences to what you might get if you stumbled into Wonderland.

  15. Cuthalion

    August 18, 2014 at 5:59 pm

    I guess I mean a game that tries to latch on to curiosity.

    (Sorry for double post.)

  16. Fish

    August 18, 2014 at 6:40 pm

    Fantasy politicking. No big damn heroes, just courtly airs and intrigue, with any combat being on an abstract army scale.

  17. Anonymous

    August 18, 2014 at 7:05 pm

    I remember hearing about an interpretation of the white-box D&D, where at the start of the day, each player would re-roll their current hit points (to account for having a bad night’s sleep or what not).

    From that, I’ve been playing in my head with a game idea where the characters would change on the player from day-to-day, or from session-to-session. It coudl be some combination of involuntary or guided by player choice.

    Also, ponies. It needs to have ponies.

  18. Groboclown

    August 18, 2014 at 7:07 pm

    Grrr. My pony comment was added as anonymous…

  19. Jarenth

    August 19, 2014 at 2:42 am

    If this series doesn’t end with a system where players are somehow both penalized ánd rewarded for constantly making awful puns, I’ll be disappointed a tad.

  20. Anonymous

    August 19, 2014 at 4:57 am

    I would like to see a crossover between Paranoia and Lord of the Rings, in wich the player characters are the lowly grunts of the Evil Empire. The (highly effective) forces of all that is Good and Pure and True and Holy march ever forward, crushing orc and goblin under the jackboot of righteousness. The EE, meanwhile, is a lumbering beast of bureaucracy, boredom and meaningless procedures.

  21. Stomponator

    August 19, 2014 at 4:59 am

    Gah! Same problem as Groboclown obove, my comment was published anonymus.

  22. Lilith Novale

    August 19, 2014 at 5:05 am

    @Lupis42 – There’s a game called Timestream that does a whole bunch of cool things with time travel.

    I haven’t been able to try it out yet, unfortunately, but you can find it here –

  23. venatus

    August 19, 2014 at 12:57 pm

    I have two ideas that are vaguely related.

    spy fiction, less James bond and more subterfuge/intel gathering.

    modern day hackers, somewhat realistic and focuses on the flow of information (I just read a comic called hacktivist that used these themes and I’m always looking for stories that focus on flow/control of information instead of some sort of contest of strength)

  24. Erich T. Wade

    August 19, 2014 at 2:34 pm

    I really like the idea of an episodic system, as mentioned above. Something that works really well for one-shots and scales up to campaigns well would be nice. As far as theme goes, the idea of a heist/spy game sounds appealing, as does Star Trek-esque space opera.

    Obviously, what I’m looking for is a spies IN SPACE game.

  25. Joe

    August 19, 2014 at 7:26 pm

    @katre: “You’re not the fist one to tread this ground: literally every single RPG book out there has an intro chapter explaining what an RPG is, why they are who, who the roles are, some of the history, etc etc. I assume those chapters are for the non-roleplayers: I’ve always skipped them to get to the meat.”

    The only exception I’ve seen is Monte Cook’s Arcana Unearthed (a D&D 3.5 variant system), where the intro outright states: “this game is not for beginning roleplayers”. But is any game, really? I still think the best way to learn is to play, or at least watch other people play, and thanks to YouTube and podcasts, you don’t even have to hunt down local gaming groups to get a sense of how tabletop RPGs work anymore.

  26. avpix

    August 19, 2014 at 8:02 pm

    I’d like to see a system that’s a mix between dungeons and dragons and Oregon Trail. Ideally it would force players to make tough resource-management decisions that impact future combats. The basic setting could be a small caravan group that travels from city to city while fending off bandits, bartering with village people, and running into trouble.

  27. Mersadeon

    August 20, 2014 at 9:45 am

    I’m always in favour of really weird shit. We’ve got enough Fantasy or Post Apocalypse games as it is. Maybe take the Azteks as a setting? Thinking about it, that might make for a strong theme both mechanics and atmosphere -wise.

  28. Tizzy

    August 20, 2014 at 1:40 pm

    @Mersadeon: I wouldn’t really call the Azteks an “empire”, given that they were generally considered a failure as a car model, running only between 2001 and 2005.

    The Aztecs, on the other hand… definitely an empire.

  29. evileeyore

    August 20, 2014 at 8:27 pm

    Pickles. The system must include Pickles in some manner.

  30. Nalyd

    August 21, 2014 at 4:18 am

    I’d love to see a community/society management RPG, where most of the game is preparing for a coming disaster.

  31. Evans

    August 21, 2014 at 4:34 am

    I’d totally second the heist game (I have no idea if there’s a system for that niche but there should be) though Stomponator’s evil empire idea offers the possibility of some interesting bureaucracy-based mechanics.

  32. DTor

    August 21, 2014 at 6:26 am

    Suspense! You should make a system that makes players feel afraid.

  33. Gnoll❤Queen

    August 21, 2014 at 4:46 pm

    a Transformation and mutation based system would be nice.

  34. tmtvl

    August 22, 2014 at 7:20 am

    A quick note for newcomers: it’s a tabletop, P&P RPG, not, I repeat, NOT a videogame.

    Anyway, Ruts, I hope you’re getting a trend from the replies, because I’m not seeing any big threads, except a vague trend for scifi.

  35. Tony Kebell

    August 22, 2014 at 12:08 pm

    Been Lurking again Ruts, but the story I’ve had in my head for a short adventure story/set up for an RPG. Has been:

    A post apocalypitic, space adventure. The earth is fucked so we (humanity) have fled for the stars.
    This loss of all of Earths tech/resources, but retaining what they managed to take with them to “New Earth” could provide a nice amount of tension.

    Additionally, space pirates. (inspired from, what I beleive to be a memory, but may just be a dream, where you role-played Reginald Cuftbert as Captain of Space Pirate Ship)

    Additionally, additionally, space races that are basically tolkeinesque Elves/Dwarves/Hobbits with added “Mass Effecty-ness” (I really don’t know how to put that AND sound sane at the same time)

    Whelp, there’s my 5cents, hope some of it inspires you etc. etc. otherwise looking forward to lurking future posts and hope you find your joy/smile/fire/muggfunthatwillmakeyouwritemore.

  36. Nano Proksee

    August 22, 2014 at 10:35 pm

    As an outsider I’ve always kind of felt a disconnect between all the statics and the storytelling in RPGs, but I also find kind of difficult to create a system based on anything else. I mean, numbers are easily understandable. My number is bigger than yours, I win. And that’s my problem, what if I rolled a 1 but I ~deserved~ to kill that goblin. And I know that that’s what the DM is there for but I still think that a game that either justifies all those numbers in the narrative (Science-Fiction? Cyberpunk maybe?) or eliminates all numbers and statics outright would be interesting.

  37. The Rocketeer

    August 23, 2014 at 2:08 am

    A game to capture the style and action of ’80’s martial arts movies like Enter the Dragon, Master Killer, and Fist of the White Lotus.

  38. Tony Kebell

    August 23, 2014 at 7:30 am

    Also put my name in the “Heist Game” hat.

  39. Benjamin Hilton

    August 23, 2014 at 8:27 am

    The heist game does sound good, but personally I would love to see a well down system for psychological horror. The stories that come from games like that are always interesting to me.

    Example: I was one of the people voting for the space horror in the last Aunty Paladin, and I was very happy with the result.

  40. tmtvl

    August 23, 2014 at 8:44 am

    A clown RPG, where botching and rolling low is actually better compared to high rolls.

    I can see it now: “you stumble back 10 feet, straight into the unaware Bobo, who gets knocked clean through his drum. You receive 5 clown points.”

  41. evileeyore

    August 23, 2014 at 11:45 am

    Perhaps a game where the PCs comment on someone’s blog and jockey for various positions such as, First Post, First to Call Out First Post But Actually Be Second, Guy With Avatar, Responder Who Thinks His Comments Are Listened to, etc…

  42. Oblivion2007

    August 24, 2014 at 8:55 am

    Something that I’d really like to see is a system designed around Pioneering. The premise would be that your party is part of a colonization effort to tame the unexplored wilderness full of strange creatures and vistas.

    The system would consist of two major systems that would play off each other; expeditions and colony building. During expeditions the players would go out and have an adventure in the unexplored wilderness which would bring in various resources and relics. After they finish an expedition they would come back and use those resources to enhance their colonies and characters, or perhaps send back to their parent empire for fame or favor. The stronger the colony the better equipment and perks they can use on expeditions, which brings better discoveries that can enhance the colony.

    I think that could also work easily for both serialized and episodic style play groups.

  43. Francis-Olivier

    August 24, 2014 at 10:46 pm

    @oblivion2007: I was going to say sci-fi fantasy but your idea is so much better. From te few RPGs I’ve seen so far I think pathfinder is something that’s a bit like that except without the town building aspect as you are a group of adventurers sent to explore uncharted lands.

  44. Groboclown

    August 26, 2014 at 7:05 pm

    Battle cooks!

    In a world where nutritious food is scarce, and tasty food is a rare delicacy, the world looks up to the top cooks to hunt, grow, genetically tinker, steal, and lie their way to the ultimate dish to be served to the Galactic Gastro Critic!

  45. Stomponator

    August 27, 2014 at 5:10 am

    I’ve got another one:
    The characters are the crew of a seriously undermanned whaler ship, sometime around the end of the age of sail. The ship is adrift on an unending ocean of fog and ice during a war. The crew has to fill their quota, then make their way home, evading the enemy. Everytime they meet an enemy vessle, they are outgunned and outmanned and have to use whatever wits and ressources they can muster to escape. Of course, work on a whaler in itself is dangerous. The machinery is prone to malfunction and the medical facilities are not very well equipped. Then there are the dark things living under the water…

    Hmm. Somehow it sounds more like an adventure idea than a system.

  46. BattlePug

    August 28, 2014 at 2:26 am

    I’ve always thought I’d be interesting to make a homebrew RPG influenced by the Mindf*ck movies of the early 2000’s – like Memento, The Game, Fight Club, The Matrix, The Usual Suspects, The Sixth Sense, Lost, The Truman Show etc.

    The mood and tone will be a mix between noir, cyberpunk and contemporary, depending on the session. The players would be given a goal (solve a mystery, investigate a crime) but told that there is a portion of their reality that is not real.

    Maybe one of their group doesn’t really exist. Maybe they are all brain in vats. Maybe it was them all along. Much like Paranoia, there would be a fun, parodic element to the storytelling.

    One mechanic would be the plot twist: at the end of each session, the DM would have to provide a plot twist that completely changes the reality the players have been operating in, and reveals to them what has really been going on. Perhaps for shorter sessions the plot twist would be smaller, but would still change the status quo.

    Another mechanic of the storytelling would be the mystery: here, the DM introduces a random element that is mysteriously affecting the players but they don’t know why. For example, they start losing experience points after a certain time for no discernable reason. Or the NPC’s do not want to communicate with one member of the party. This mechanic would provide a challenge to the players but also give them an additional push to find out what is really going on.

    Players in the game would be detectives (like Leonard Shelby in Memento) or regular people suddenly affected by a sequence of events they can’t explain.

    The fun in the game would be that a) the players would not fully know who they were and whether they can trust themselves or what they are experiencing. Much like Paranoia, the world would have to be continuously questioned, the rules can change, and the rug can be pulled from underneath the players. And b) the DM would be challenged to come up with interesting/fun plot twists and mystery mechanics to keep the players guessing but also wanting to find out what’s behind the curtain. Mystery, more than loot or combat, would be the main engine that propels the players along, much like Call of Chtulhu. By the end, players should feel properly Mindf*cked.

  47. Malexia

    August 29, 2014 at 4:33 pm

    I for one would look forward to something character-focused, perhaps an exploration of nobility, or of interpersonal relations.

  48. Cuthalion

    September 2, 2014 at 5:39 pm

    I’m glad we’ve all reached a consensus here.