RPG Design: A Lesson in Starting Over

It’s been a while since our last article, for a variety of reasons. We’ve been hard at work with the creation of new name generators, with 7 new ones last week alone! We’ve also been putting together a followup to our AI Written The Adventure Zone Script and Outtakes. The final project we’ve been working on is that we haven’t talked about before: RPG Design. Having never created a game before, it’s been quite a learning curve with a lot of lessons along the way.

The current campaign the Roll4 crew is playtesting an upcoming system. It’s been making great progress in the lore and system itself! That is until we had to start over.

Okay. That’s a bit dramatic, we didn’t start completely over. It’s was just around 50 pages of written text that in one session became entirely useless. Thrown out never to see the light of day again. However, this isn’t a disaster. These things can happen in game design, they are okay. In some way, they should be expected. Why? Because during our playtest, we discovered a better way.

Of course, that is the point of playtesting. To find the flaws in the system, to find what’s confusing, cumbersome, or not fun and change it. Sometimes, however, you find a more elegant solution to a problem you didn’t even know existed.

What was wrong?

For a bit of background, the game itself revolves around mages, wizards, witches, sorcerers, any kind of magic user you can imagine. One of our goals was to create a system that could easily encompass many kinds of magic, simplifying them all by common factors, yet still having them feel distinct.

We accomplished this by creating 18 different Abilities, 9 of which were magical, with the remaining 9 being mundane. To get the distinctive “feel” we were going for, we further subdivided each of these abilities into 5 skills. I’m sure you can see where we’re going with this. 5 skills, for each of the 18 abilities, are 90 skills! Each of which has a distinct name. When added in with the Abilities, there are 108 different names, for 108 distinct things you can roll!

Now, this isn’t necessarily a problem. There are several massively enjoyable games, that have a high Skills count. The game that got me started in RPG’s was the legacy Star Wars d20. In the base game alone, there were 37 base skills with an additional 20 Force skills. Alternatively, the Song of Ice and Fire RPG has exactly 100 skills, even more than our playtest!

Why did it change?

Here’s the most interesting part of this adventure: we fixed something that wasn’t even broken! After playing for a few months, a player mentioned to me something that he thought would be cool for his character to do sometime: roll using 2 abilities at the same time. For example, merging the Illusions ability with Skulduggery might help cover yourself in shadows, helping you to hide, whereas Illusions with Craft would help you to create an illusory item.

This got my wheels turning. He had just proposed something that flat out wouldn’t work with the rules as written. But it hit the exact design goals I wanted. Creating a distinct, simple, magic system that is completely versatile. Over the next few weeks, I restructured the game to try something new. Removing skills entirely.

Reaction and Results

My players were flabbergasted at first: “You mean, this session we’re going to have to rebuild characters, without the skills that we’ve built up?”. Yes, that’s exactly what I mean. To be quite honest, none of them were happy at first. They liked the skills system because it helped each character to specialize further. The 18 Abilities were split out into 24, but all of the skills had been entirely removed.

Their astonishment did not last long, however. By the end of the session, it was a smashing success! Unanimously, every single person at the table felt the game was vastly improved. The thing is, there was nothing wrong with the previous version: it was fun, it created tension, and it was unique. But the new way was just… better.

And really, that was a lesson onto itself for us. One that we needed to write about. You can’t be afraid to make sweeping changes when you find something drastically better, even if it is quite a setback in terms of work.
Are there any other RPG Designers out there that have experienced the same thing? Don’t agree with us? Then leave a comment below!

Image by PIRO4D from Pixabay