A couple years ago I started writing a book on RPG design called “Tools for Dreaming.” It’s wound up being kind of a massive project–the manuscript is already 73,000 words and feels incomplete–and I’m trying to figure out what exactly to do with it. Finishing it the way I started it will require kind of a lot of research and work. I’m considering taking the various parts and turning them into one or more smaller, more focused books, but that’ll also take some time and thought. In the meantime, I’ve decided to start posting the more developed parts of it as a series of blog posts, in the hopes that it will be of use to someone, help me figure out where I’m going with this, and perhaps provoke some discussion and feedback.
So let’s get this whole thing started with the introduction, which is kind of a long, flailing attempt to lay out a bunch of preliminaries and disclaimers.
Role-playing games are in an odd place today. There’s no denying that the entire medium isn’t nearly as popular as it once was. On a purely commercial level, the entire industry has shrunk since the heyday of the 80s and 90s, and game stores make more money from other types of tabletop games. On the other hand, in terms of the variety and quality of games that are coming out, the medium is the best it’s ever been. It may not be a great time to start an RPG publishing business, but it’s a great time to be a fan of new and interesting games, and a fascinating time to be a game designer.
Every kind of media has become more democratic in recent years. Even for things like movies and video games, there’s at least some form that anyone with the dedication and time can make and distribute. The only hard requirement is an internet connection and a decent computer. You can’t make a AAA video game by yourself, but you can start on a Twine game in minutes or take a stab at learning Unity. RPGs are one of the “flattest” creative media of all, because to the extent that an industry even exists, the quality of the actual experience doesn’t owe all that much to production values per se. Wizards of the Coast and Fantasy Flight can make glossy hardcover books full of expensive artwork, but they don’t have that big of an edge over the rest of us in terms of being able to make a good game. And since getting your RPG to people is just a matter of getting the text to them in a suitable form, there are a wealth of distribution options. I’ve made some gorgeous, fully-produced RPG books, and I’ve made some that are very basic visually, where I did the layout myself in Word with some stock art, and all of them can have a place.
The purpose of this book is to try to lay out my philosophy of RPG design, and to provide some practical advice on basic publishing. I have my own opinions and methods, but ultimately my goal isn’t to persuade you over to my way of thinking. Mostly I just want you to get out there and try stuff out and share it with people in whatever way works for you. But I also want to get you to consider questions that you might not have otherwise. For example, I’m going to question the entire basic paradigm of how RPGs typically handle combat, but the important thing is the questioning. If you find that taking a traditional approach is what works best for your game, then great! It annoys me that I feel like I have to keep saying it, but my goal has never been to sweep away what came before, just to expand the horizons of the future. Venerable games like Dungeons & Dragons and Call of Cthulhu still capture imaginations and still have a lot to teach us, but so does the bleeding edge of weird little games. The basic medium of role-playing games can handle basically any kind of narrative and subject matter that human beings can devise, but some of these require seriously rethinking things. I don’t claim allegiance to any one school of thought on RPG design, and instead I draw on everything that interests me, within and outside the realm of RPGs.
Words like “narrative” and “story” can be especially contentious in the context of RPGs. Some of that is silly politics that we can safely ignore, but there is the practical question of what kinds of experiences RPGs help create and how. If you explain the concept of RPGs, the idea that it’s a form of group storytelling will form naturally in a lot of people’s minds. For some kinds of RPG play that’s completely accurate, while for others it’d be better to say that you vicariously take part in a series of events, and as with real life you might turn them into a story after the fact. The difference is ultimately one of simple preference. In both cases (and in everything between and to the side of those two extremes), the real value of RPGs is in their immediacy. You own and share what comes out of an RPG in a way that runs deeper than most any other form of entertainment, and whether the narrative that emerges would be good or bad if translated directly into a novel or other non-interactive medium is beside the point. The appeal is in the moment, in the unique alchemy that occurs when a group of people do something like that together. It’s important not to lose sight of that, and that can be a challenge, because it’s easy to get caught up in writing a book to the detriment of designing a game.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned about RPG design, and one of the most applicable to other creative endeavors, is that you can do them at whatever scale is right for you and what you want to create. A one-page game that creates a highly specific half-hour experience and a 500-page tome that enables multi-year campaigns are both RPGs, and both are valid creative endeavors. Whether you want to invoke a single emotion or give people a vast world to play in, you can and should make what moves you. Likewise, whether you e-mail a PDF to a few friends or Kickstart a full-color book, it’s all part of the incredible world of RPGs.
The First Thing
In this book, I’m going to assume that you’re already familiar with RPGs in general. You don’t have to be a multi-decade veteran gamer, but I’m not going to try to introduce RPGs for the total novice. If you haven’t played tabletop RPGs I sincerely hope you get to enjoy this hobby, but this book isn’t for you, at least not yet. But if you are familiar with RPGs already, the first and most basic piece of advice I’ll give to anyone interested in design is still simply to read, play, and tinker with lots of games.
It sounds like an incredibly basic, obvious piece of advice, but I regularly see Kickstarters for games whose designers apparently haven’t played any RPGs other than Dungeons & Dragons. They’ll brag about how they have a system where you’re not restricted to premade classes, as though that innovation hadn’t been around for decades. D&D is a good game and an expansive hobby, but it’s also only small part of what the medium is capable of.
Playing games is the most important thing, because even if you’re a really experienced gamer, there’s a limit to how much insight you can gain from just reading the book. There’s a degree to which you can learn to anticipate how things will play out at the table—it’s an important skill for a game designer in fact—but gameplay in general tends to have enough emergent properties that it’s impossible to anticipate everything. On the other hand, although actual play is better than reading, reading is better than not reading, so it doesn’t hurt to pack in plenty of RPG reading as well.
A Note on Theory
RPGs have had kind of a strange relationship with the whole concept of RPG theory. Ron Edwards and the community of The Forge got big into GNS Theory, which became hugely contentious all around. There’s a lot of legitimate criticism to be leveled at that body of theory, but these days I seldom even hear it mentioned except when someone is looking for an excuse to rant about how terrible they think The Forge was. I don’t think GNS theory will ever achieve true legitimacy (even the people behind it moved onto “The Big Model”), but it’s in the nature of such cultural theories that people need to try things and see what does and doesn’t work. While I think GNS theory is flawed, it was nonetheless an important part of a movement that helped birth some great games and encouraged a lot of people to try their hand at designing RPGs. It’s like World of Darkness in that whatever issues we might find with it in hindsight, at the very least it deserves a place in our hobby’s history for kicking a door open and forcing us to confront new ideas.
This book goes into a lot of areas that we could call “theory,” but that’s not the place I’m coming from. All of this is in the service of helping us make fun games and get them out to the world. There’s a certain kind of person I’ve encountered who seems determined to force things to become a grand narrative made of clashing absolutes, but I’ve always found it better to be relaxed and genuine. There are some ideas that you need to be on board with to get the most out of this book, but I have no commandments from on high for you, no ironclad Laws of RPG Design. There is no deception in this book, no scheming, or politics, just an earnest desire to help.
I look at the various bits of RPG theory like the different branches of literary theory. You can gain insights from exploring a text through a lens of postmodernism, feminist literary critique, or any of dozens of others, but ultimately what matters is the process of interrogating a creative work. Similarly, I’m not telling you how things definitely do work so much as trying to create useful models. The three-act structure can’t explain every narrative under the sun (there’s a Japanese four-act structure called kishōtenketsu for one thing), but it’s nonetheless a useful tool for readers and writers alike, so long as we recognize its limits. The things that I and most anyone else will tell you about RPGs are very much like that. Don’t take anything as gospel, but don’t limit your sources of ideas either. If you think a piece of theory or advice is bunk, show it through your games.
A Brief Aside on Inclusiveness
Others have written more and better than I could about issues of diversity and inclusiveness, but I want to take the opportunity to exhort you to try, particularly when it comes to your choices in artwork. People often frame that kind of thing in negative terms, as a rear-guard action to keep people from taking offense. To me that’s coming at it from exactly the wrong angle. If you’re the kind of person who is routinely portrayed in fiction, it can be hard to grasp just how uplifting it can be to see someone like yourself when the world at large usually can’t be bothered. Being a cisgender white guy I only see that in small ways, from things like seeing Tony Stark dealing with clinical anxiety and Serenity Rose mentioning that she doesn’t drink alcohol. Those things make me feel a little less alone in the world, and it’s a good feeling that I want to give to other people out there.
It takes some extra work, but diversifying your creations is an amazing opportunity to touch people’s lives, not to mention it’s exactly the kind of creative challenge you should be relishing. It breaks you out of familiar, lazy patterns you might not even realize you had fallen into, and forces you to be more conscious about creative choices, yet also frees you by offering more options. If you’re not sure how to portray people who are different from yourself, talk to those kinds of people. They may have some harsh criticism, but as long as you’re not an asshole, chances are they’ll appreciate that you’re trying. (Also, keep in mind that they’re still individuals, and don’t magically represent everyone like them.) If you still mess up, be gracious about it and try to do better in the future. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen someone make a situation far worse than it had to be by being unable to react civilly to criticism.
There are people out there, living human beings, who are women, people of color, LGBT, disabled people, and so on. You have the power to make them feel a little more welcome, and to brighten their days, and that’s a wonderful thing.
Who’s This Guy?
On the off-chance that you got your hands on this book without being familiar with the name on the cover, I’ll fill you in. I started playing RPGs in middle school with Palladium’s Robotech RPG (based on Harmony Gold’s mashup of not less than three different anime series, reworked and redubbed for the American market), and I’ve played dozens of other games since then. That wound up being important to my relationship with RPGs, because very few of the games I played early on have all that much nostalgic appeal for me. I still love the gonzo ideas and infectious enthusiasm of Palladium, but there are a lot of issues with basically everything else.
I started trying to write my own RPG material almost immediately, and I started posting some of it on the internet in around 1997 or so, on Geocities no less. The first thing I did that got some serious attention was a game called Thrash, a martial arts RPG heavily inspired by various fighting games. In hindsight, it was not a very good game at all, but it was one of those games that addressed subject matter that people were hungry for. Someday I’d like to revisit Thrash with my vastly improved game design skills, but I have a ridiculous number of other games to work on.
At some point, I realized that I don’t have the talent for computer science, and switched to majoring in the Japanese language, with the aim of becoming a translator. Through a friend who worked at Funimation, I wound up translating some DVD booklets, which in turn led to translating more than a dozen different video games, most of which had the words “Dragon Ball” in the title. I also worked in the video game industry for a tiny publisher you’ve never heard of for a little under 5 years, as a localization editor and then as a translator. The pay sucked, but it was very good for my translation and localization skills.
I started and in a few cases even finished quite a few other games over the years, but the first really big thing I got involved with was publishing Maid: The Role-Playing Game in English (in 2008), with the help of Andy Kitkowski. This wound up being the first Japanese tabletop RPG ever published in English, and it wound up teaching us a bunch of difficult lessons about publishing. Despite some missteps, Maid was a huge success as independently published RPGs go, and it continues to sell disturbingly well to this day. It’s an embarrassing game in more ways than one, but since it’s sold thousands of copies all over the world, it seems to be making people happy.
In 2012 I designed a party card game called Channel A where you put together anime titles from words on cards and pitch them to the other players, and in 2013 Asmadi Games published it. I wouldn’t call it an explosive success, but of all the games I’ve designed it’s the one that the most people have felt the need to tell me they had a lot of fun with. I also ran a Kickstarter to publish my translation of Golden Sky Stories (the original Japanese title was “Yuuyake Koyake”), a heartwarming, non-violent game about magical animals from the creator of Maid. It was a major success, bringing in about $85,000 and reaching about 2,500 people. Thanks to the wonderful art from the original Japanese game and Clay Gardner’s impressive graphic design skills we produced a gorgeous book, and thanks to the Kickstarter’s success we ended up publishing quite a bit of original material for GSS.
In late 2014 I got laid off from the aforementioned video game job. In the panic that ensued I started self-publishing, making a bunch of weird little RPG things to sell on DriveThruRPG. The first of these was Schoolgirl RPG, a super-simple take on the rules from Maid RPG, and I now have more than 60 products listed on the site, as well as several print on demand books on Amazon. I also wound up doing freelance work for Japanime Games, including translating the Heart of Crown deck-building game. Oh, and I’m the one who convinced them to stop printing the Tanto Cuore rulebooks in Comic Sans, so you’re welcome.
As you’ve probably guessed by now I have something of a passion for Japanese language and culture. I try to be reasonable and grounded about it and generally not act like a “weeaboo,” but a huge portion of my creative output shows at least some “anime” influence, sometimes even when I’m not consciously trying to put it there. That’s important to this book in that I count some Japanese RPGs among my most important design influences.
In 2012 I published a book called Yaruki Zero: Collected Thoughts on Role-Playing Games. It was my first self-published work, and a collection of essays about various aspects of RPGs and my experiences with them, a mixture of original material and blog posts. This book is something of an outgrowth of that book and its eventual sequel, because both involve a lot of my thoughts on RPG design, but I realized I wanted to have that material in a more coherent, organized, and independent form. My RPG design sensibilities are a hybrid of just about everything. People sometimes treat “traditional” and “indie” RPGs as a dichotomy, but I get ideas from both, as well as Japanese RPGs, Norwegian style games, American freeform, and occasionally video games and board games.
When I was much, much younger I had the idea for a book about RPG design, and I figured I’d lay out the various ways you could set up stats and different options for combat rules. It turns out that that although that sort of thing isn’t unimportant, it’s a rather shallow part of RPG design. It’s kind of a cliché that a would-be designer will post to a forum saying, “I want to make an RPG; what kind of dice should I use?” How many sides the dice have doesn’t actually matter as long as the math is sound and the game uses them in the right way. Whether you have players rolling 2d6 or 1d20 or a die pool or whatever else you might come up with, it needs to produce results that make sense and don’t work against the game. What’s vastly more important is the more fundamental stuff about how you structure and shape play. RPG design is sort of like poetry in that you can learn specific forms and devices, but those things are ultimately just tools you can wield. It’s also like poetry in that for the most part it’s a niche medium that won’t get you too much money, but let’s not dwell on that.
 Though thankfully they’ve shifted away from being CCG stores with some other stuff on the side. Also, hi, my name is Ewen and I use footnotes kind of a lot and in a not entirely correct fashion. It’s the Terry Pratchett influence I guess.
 I end up mentioning D&D a lot in this book, both because it’s the single biggest cultural touchstone RPGs have ever produced, and because for better or for worse everything we do with RPGs is going to be in D&D’s shadow. That said, D&D is an important and interesting game that you absolutely should play, just so long as it’s not the only game you play.
 I put the word “anime” in scare quotes there because we sometimes use the word “anime” to refer to a range of styles in Japanese entertainment, and the whole matter is generally more complex than people make it out to be.