I have been developing a superhero tabletop RPG since early last year and some blog-mates have encouraged me to share the challenges of developing it and talk about the process of game design, in general. In this post I’m going to talk about why I’m doing it, and define what exactly I’m trying to create. In later posts I will talk about the nitty gritty details.
The tabletop RPG, or Role-Playing Game, that most people have heard of is Dungeons and Dragons, but that is just the most famous one. There are also hundreds of other systems spanning genres, themes, complexity, and required investment.
If you haven’t played one, a brief introduction: RPGs are not games in the traditional sense, you are not typically playing to win or lose. You are playing to tell a story.
Each player invents a character whose personality, choices and actions they control. Usually one other person is in charge of providing a world for those characters to live in and challenges to face. Most of this is done through conversation, with dice being used to decide what happens when outcomes are uncertain. They’re part collaborative storytelling, part tactical strategy game.
Depending on which system you use, the nature of those two elements can vary greatly. Some games, like Fiasco are more like improv theatre activities, while games like the legendarily complicated HackMaster focus more on the specifics of battle.
In most games I’ve played, the driving factors are improv comedy and the consumption of Doritos.
On to game design process.
Step 1: Define your problem (the only step I’m talking about today)
When developing a game, you are trying to design an experience. You are providing a framework in which players will tell their stories. Ideally, every aspect of the system should facilitate the creation of those stories. Before you can start designing a system, you have to really understand the kind of stories you want to tell.
I want to tell superhero stories. Specifically, I want an accessible game about the lives and adventures of a team of superheroes. I want a tabletop RPG that can recreate Avengers, or X-men, or Justice League comics. Not just one issue, or even storyline, but ongoing adventures. There are other superhero RPG systems out there: Powers and Paragons, Icons Assembled, and Mutants and Masterminds to name a few. But none of them do exactly what I want.
I need to break that idea down to really understand what I’m trying to make.
Teams: The game is about a superteam, a group of superheroes working together. This can include characters with wildly different powers.
Ongoing: The stories do not end after one adventure. Characters grow and change, relationships evolve.
About lives and adventures: I want the focus to be on the lives of the characters, who they are and what they do and the melodrama around that.
Accessible: I want people to be able to play it without a lot of investment or skill. I want it to be relatively easy to understand and not too complicated. The barrier to entry should be understanding basic superhero stories, not understanding calculus.
That’s the game I’m trying to make. There is a lot implied in there, and a pile of tough challenges to overcome. Anyone who has played a tabletop RPG will already see a few. Having Superman on the same team as Batman is hard enough to justify in a comic where writers have complete control. Balancing that fundamental imbalance of power will be tough.
Opening the floodgates of superpowers is also a challenge. There are superpowers in comics that rewrite the nature of reality. Navigating that is a challenge every superhero RPG has grappled with, and often poorly.
Ongoing stories usually mean character advancement, getting better over time through play. That means the system has to be able to scale with character growth. It means there need to be interesting reasons to continue playing, and opportunities for a variety of stories to be told with the same characters.
Being about the lives and adventures seems obvious, but it speaks to the focus of play. It’s not primarily about the fights. It’s more about relationships and drama than it is about punching things to the moon. That implies a system with fewer mechanics and more emphasis on role-playing choices than strategic ones. It needs to be a system that supports people making poor choices because those can make for a better story.
Now that I have my problem well defined, I can move on to developing a core mechanic. More on that next time.