So You Think You Can RPG: Fundamentals

02 Sep

Last post, I introduced the main idea of this series: to explore the fun, value, and history of tabletop roleplaying games by designing one. I’ve had a few weeks to think over your many suggestions as to what kind of game I should make. Paring down the list wasn’t easy, because there really weren’t any bad ideas; my decision was based primarily on which one had the most straightforward, intuitive, and well-understood thematic hooks.

“Fish” (no relation, I am assured, to the Oxford Fishes) suggested this:

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

That’s what we’re gonna make. We’re gonna cook up Game of Thrones without the long waits between installments. I don’t know about you, but this is something I think I could use in my life–and even if you’ve never played a tabletop game, ever, there’s a good chance you’re thinking the same. Especially since, since it’ll be your version of GoT, you can have it without that one thing that absolutely ruins it! You know, the [pointless character deaths/historical inaccuracy/ethnocentrism/constant sexual menace/oppressive bleakness of tone/hypocritical Mary Sue-ishness] that you and your friends can’t stand. Running an RPG campaign is a lot like making your own beef jerky–the advantage of going homemade is that you can do things commercial releases can’t or won’t.

So let’s design our jerky maker.

My first move is to do a thematic sketch. This is a lot less fancy and technical than it sounds. Basically, because I’m not designing this game to tell one specific story, but to allow the telling of an infinite number stories upon a certain thematic base, I have to give myself a loose idea of what the dimensions and contents of that base look like. So I write down a list of things that spring from what I had in mind.

Letters that take months to arrive. Armies making camp. Balconies and fancy living detached from the realities of war and turmoil. Diplomacy. Knives in the dark. Poison in the wine. Evil advisor. Romance. Betrayal. Spies. Vassals.

That’s a pretty good start. I can kind of see it like a montage in my head–a rough generalization of what an average game will look like over the course of a few dozen play sessions. Now I think of things that players will want to do:

Form pacts. Break pacts. Broker trade agreements. Put out contracts on the lives of others. War with other nations. War with each other. Try to unravel one anothers’ motivations. Leave a legacy.

That last point feels particularly interesting. “Leave a legacy”–what does that mean? That everything they accomplish in the span of the session should feel important. That when they declare war, or cut off aid to Elfland, or turn away refugees, they’re going to have some kind of permanent and tangible effect on the world.

I do a little more brainstorming. After a while, I come up with this premise for the game and how it is played:

The first session, the players create nations or factions in a fantasy world, then personal characters to represent those entities. Players spend the bulk of the session pursuing goals, often at cross-purposes. They will play out the effects of a few months or a few years of history between their factions. Eventually, all conflicts come to a head. There is a climax, followed by resolution–treaties, concessions, or outright surrenders, as appropriate. Based on how well they did, players get to define parts of what happens over the next few years or decades.

For the second session–and every session thereafter–players pick up after the last time-skip, create new characters and factions when appropriate, and negotiate another period of turmoil.

This game is now codenamed “Truce.” I think we’re going to like it.

Next session: We get to the real nitty-gritty stuff.

Previous in So You Think You Can RPG: So You Think You Can RPG: The Project

Leave a Reply


  1. KingJosh

    September 3, 2014 at 6:29 am

    Sounds good to me! I was contemplating a “courtly intrigue” D&D campaign just yesterday. Your’s sounds better.

  2. Jay

    September 3, 2014 at 8:26 am

    There was an old boardgame called Junta that this reminds me of. Each player controlled an influential family in La Republica de las Bananas, and took roles like President, Chief of Internal Security, General, etc. Every turn, the President got a (random and secret) amount of money from the patron superpower (which one wasn’t specified, because it didn’t matter), and had to pay off the others to avoid a coup. Coups were resolved by a strategy mini-wargame. You might want to take a look, if you can find it.

  3. Sydney

    September 3, 2014 at 9:46 am

    I would absolutely play this.

    I offer as proof the fact I’ve clocked … 369 hours in Crusader Kings 2, and it’s starting to lose its lustre for me. This sounds like it would be much more fun, because…well, tabletop RPG and all that.

  4. Cuthalion

    September 3, 2014 at 2:20 pm

    Iiiinteresting. Well, not what I hoped for, but I’ll be tuning in on the process all the same. 😀

    I’d be one of those people who doesn’t like oppressively bleak tone, so I’m happy to see that’s not core to the theme. Also like that it sounds compatible with any low-tech setting, including fantasy (which is even in the premise! sweet!). I’m still not tired of fantasy.

  5. GTRichey

    September 3, 2014 at 3:08 pm

    This sounds great. Depending on how ingrained the fantasy elements are it also seems like it could be used with relative ease (few adjustments) for the same sort of thing a modern setting (more House of Cards than Game of Thrones).

  6. Francis-Olivier

    September 3, 2014 at 6:14 pm

    This sounds like a great idea. I would get my shit wrecked first session but that’s pretty much half the fun. Beside that will there be different races?

  7. Attercap

    September 4, 2014 at 4:35 am

    “For the second session–and every session thereafter–players pick up after the last time-skip, create new characters and factions when appropriate, and negotiate another period of turmoil.”

    A new character every session? Even in the simplest, math-light systems (like FATE or Cortex), my tabletop groups can spend a session or longer just in character creation and discussion alone. I’m very curious how you’d keep/force character creation to be a short process. Or, maybe, with the knowledge that a character would only be there for a session there’d be a little less brain-storming and characters would be a little more one-dimensional. Looking forward to the next installment of this column.

  8. evileeyore

    September 4, 2014 at 1:49 pm

    Damn you Rutskarn! I was really looking forward to reading about you doing an rpg all about Pickles.

  9. Ramsus

    September 4, 2014 at 2:35 pm

    I agree with pretty much everything Cuthalion said.

    However I also agree with Attercap that it might wind up with a sort of rushed feel (I mean in game, not the game design) if you’re expected to resolve a new period of turmoil every single session. You’d have more room for depth (and people behaving like real people and thus wasting time) if each period was somewhere between 1 very long session or up to around 5 shorter ~3 hour sessions.

  10. aldowyn

    September 5, 2014 at 12:49 am

    I want to play this 😛 Looking forward to more!

  11. Brian

    September 13, 2014 at 12:43 pm

    Difficulty for me is the “competitive” elements of the theme as core to this RPG we’re making. That alone makes it significantly different from what I would think of as a role playing game … maybe fun, but very different. I would think competitive elements drive mechanics into the forefront, but I suppose if we strip down the mechanics enough you can end up with something like diplomacy or werewolf that has a lot of person interaction components. It still seems like you end up in “Board Game + Acting” territory to me, but I guess we’ll see.

    I think I remember you have a history with LARP and other competitive models of live play type games, but personally I’m out in one – I don’t want to build characters I care about and then have my friends try to ruin their lives / kill them.

  12. Flock of Penthers

    September 14, 2014 at 6:07 am


    Well, if there is no personal combat and the gameplay is seemingly not ‘can I make my research roll or should I be rolling damage’ but ‘how do I play these two people off against each other’, I barely see the need for a character sheet.

    Am I born to this position or have I fought my way in or been given a job I didn’t really want.
    Am I a loyalist, traditionist, revolutionary or pragmatist?
    Do my goals line up with the dynasty?
    What are my values for my faction/position/people, and do I have a sense of chivalry.

    If Rutskarn establishes that the system doesn’t care how many points I have in halberd instead of voulge, I can see character creation being fairly deep and damn quick.

    I struggle with non-standard conflict resolution (fiasco), but I can dig the idea that… Your character is sort of like your avatar in Tropico?
    The tiny stat bonuses make virtually no difference to the game, only your decisions do.

    Open question, if we started Ned Stark up in d20-any, would anything on his sheet matter, or is it really just about the decisions he makes?

    Alternative question. Song of Ice and Fire notwithstanding, to what extent does this sound like a crusader kings rpg?
    Sell it to me that way and I’d be game for random character generation. How well can I steer my chaste, pious and wrathful possessed count through to the next generation.

  13. Attercap

    September 15, 2014 at 9:23 am

    @Flock of Penthers

    I suppose if the play was more avatar / legacy character-style play that would alleviate the need for character development. I see characters and their sheets as more than just stat and skill blocks, but also as a reference guide to their past and what kind of person they are–actor’s notes, if you will. And I spend far more time developing the character’s persona than playing with their numbers (with the possible exception of the numbers-heavy Shadowrun).

    Now that I’m thinking about it, the game Rutskarn’s defining seems like a combination between D&D’s Birthright setting and the obscure Aria: Canticle of the Monomyth, with the latter being more about the group defining a world than playing specific characters.