People begin their design of a roleplaying game in all sorts of different places in the design, and for all sorts of different reasons. It might be a cool dice mechanic you thought up, the desire to create a certain type of character, or a reaction to something somewhere you wanted to redesign and it just kind of got away from you
No matter what brings you to designing your own game, at some point you’re going to want to decide what your game is all about, and I don’t mean putting it in a tidy little box like sword and sorcery, space opera, or contemporary supernatural. What I mean is, focusing on the bit after the “but” in the statement “It’s like Dungeons and Dragons but…”.
This “but” is like a flashing sign showing you where to look for what your game is all about. This “but” is the reason you got started writing something in the first place. It could be something really simple or something really complex but it’s the thing you want to check in on as you continue with your design. That’s not to say it can’t change but it’s ultimately how you can gauge the success of your design.A brief aside…
Once upon a not so very long time ago there was a website called The Forge (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forge/index.php?board=76.0) which featured a lot of game design related talk.
It’s closed now but at the time it was pretty avant garde and as time went by became increasingly jargon heavy. That’s not to say it’s inaccessible but if you’re planning on looking at some of the articles be ready to search around for the meaning of some of the terms you’re going to find.
The reason I bring it up is because one of the progenitors of the, site, Ron Edwards, coined the phrase “Fantasy Heartbreaker” (you can read the article where it was first used here: http://www.indie-rpgs.com/articles/9/). It’s not intended to be mean-spirited but the article does ruthlessly deconstruct several games he has identified as “Fantasy Heartbreakers”.
In essence a “heartbreaker” is a game which is derivative or, specifically, tries to out D&D D&D or some other game. My understanding is that the heartbreak comes from the fact it is either unlikely to be popular or make any money and/or could have been so much more.
I never much cared for the way the term “heartbreaker” came to be used. Although it wasn’t Ron’s intention*, it became a reductive and dismissive term. It still haunts design conversations today and the thought that hearing it in reference to their game might put somebody off completing a design makes me sad.Anyway, my personal feeling is just do what makes you happy. You don’t owe it to anyone to innovate or colour outside the lines. Just follow the “but” part of that original sentence and see what happens, or better yet, spend a little time fleshing out that description just to help with staying focused.
A great way to do this is to think of a metaphor, design brief, or pitch for your game. Perhaps by starting with an existing thing like a well-known game, book, film, or television programme and adding your “but” statement to the end.
If a better example exists than this one, which comes from the Call of Cthulhu 6e Quickstart Rules, I don’t know it.The simplest metaphor for a game of Call of Cthulhu can be likened to the fairy tale of the Little Dutch Boy.
The dam had a crack and the Little Dutch Boy had to stand there with his finger in the hole to keep the water from flooding out and destroying the nearby town.
However, instead of how the original tale played out, imagine that on the other side of that dam is a bloodthirsty shark, which is gnawing away at the Dutch Boy.
He loses one finger, so he must put another one in. Then he loses another finger, and another. The hole is getting bigger, and he must stick his entire arm in, and the shark keeps biting. But if he fails, if he leaves his post, the dam will collapse, and many lives will be lost. And so he stays, resolute in his convictions. He may die, but humanity will live because of him.
Those two paragraphs tell me everything I would want to know about what to expect when I play a game of Call of Cthulhu.
My design goal for Victoria was to create an experience like the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes Films. It had to have a very simple and short resolution mechanic where people could roll dice and describe what happened without mentioning a number or looking at a table.
Faith, which actually predates the writing of Victoria by fifteen years despite being released eighteen months after, is a bit tricky to remember. I’m struggling a bit to recall exactly what spurred me on at the time but I wanted to create an experience like a Tarantino film where the resolution system, such as it is, would never get in the way of the most interesting thing happening.
Was I successful?
If meeting the initial design goals of a game means that a game was successful, then it was.
If the game worked means that a game was successful, then it was.
If covering the production costs of a game means that it was successful, then it was.
If being able to give up your day job to write games full time means your game was successful then it wasn’t.
Which brings me to my last point.
Don’t let people that say you can’t make a living from writing games discourage you from writing them at all. If that’s your dream: go for it, and don’t measure the success of your games by whether you’re able to write rpgs full time. The vast majority of what I would consider extremely successful designers work regular 9-5 jobs.