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My Theory for RPG Design & Good GMing

My nine month hiatus from Gnome Stew was spent designing my own role playing game rules and setting using the Fudge system.  Over the next few months I will be taking that material and publishing it to one of my sites with the intent of opening the project up to the public.  This personal project taught me two wonderful lessons:

1)  I like designing RPGs, but I have no interest in publishing one.  Go figure.

2)  RPGs are best when designed to address the social aspects of this hobby.

If you have never taken a serious crack at designing your own RPG I encourage you to do so.  You will only go slightly insane, and eventually the voices will go quiet.  Designing your own RPG will also focus you to think about what has made some games pure awesome and other games crap on a stick according to your own personal experiences.

Reading through various materials on RPG, or any type of game design, I never found a quality explanation that I agreed with completely as to what a good RPG design should focus upon.  There were some very interesting theories, and a lot of poorly strung together clumps of pseudoscience.  Yet none really satisfied my ideas as to what is needed to make an RPG great.

I am not an award winning RPG designer.  Heck, I have never even had one of my game designs published!  But I am a damn good GM and as such I design with a GM’s needs in mind. This must be taken into account as you consider the advice that I will eventually present to you.  At the moment though I am enjoying the feel of my old felt hat and my +2 quill of vorpal blogging that only active gnomes may wield.

What is that makes an RPG session enjoyable?  There are a lot of people who will tell you that balanced rules are at the core of a good RPG, but I have played unbalanced games that were amazing fun with the right group of people (Rifts anyone?).  Other people will tell you that a good RPG addresses a particular type of player or element of gameplay.  This cannot be correct in my opinion,  because I have played great games with many different types of players at the table with many different game elements being used in gameplay (Top Secret /S.I., Fudge, etc.).

The more I thought about it the deeper into lunacy that I delved.  I passed C’thulu near the intersection of Werewolf: The Apocalypse 1st Edition’s page XX and AD&D 3.5’s rules for grappling.  He says hi.

Finally it occurred to me that the best games that I have ever played in always had a strong element of collaboration amongst the participants at the table coupled with a deep sense of immersion.  Those games where you as the GM are answering questions and hearing crazy ideas from every player at the table are the ones that I am talking about.  Those sessions where the players fell right into a devious trap but then cunningly found a way out of it as a group and then wiped actual sweat from their brows.  Those nights where you feel like you have been playing for a couple of hours only to realize that you are a couple of hours late getting home because you were just so focused on the game.

Finally my own personal theory of RPG design and good GMing emerged: the theory of collaborative immersion.  Ready for it?  It totally blew C’thulu’s mind, so tell me what you think of it:

“More enjoyable RPG sessions are the result of rules and participant play styles (both the GM’s and the player’s) that allow for the group to collaborate on an immersive event.”

That’s it.  That is what I believe is the secret to a great game.  In fact, I have even gone so far as to create this wonderful magic quadrant diagram to help explain this concept better.

TheMagicQuadrant [1]

Why is collaboration important to a good RPG game?  Collaboration is the act of people coming together to accomplish something.  Even competitors such as the two teams in a sporting event collaborate at various levels in order to compete.  Rules are agreed upon, a venue is chosen, and a certain level of sportsmanship is expected to maintain the honor of the event.  Communication and cooperation are the tools of collaboration

Immersion on the other hand is the secret spice of RPGs.  We would all be playing chess if the point of an RPG was merely strategy.  RPGs have another level to them that the rules barely touch upon, and it is more of a trait than a design feature.  This trait is the shared narrative where we as players, even the GM, are allowed to be someone or something else within the confines of the game.  We are not merely playing a role that is scripted for us, but we are instead fully in charge of another being of imagination.

Is your game allowing for these two elements to flourish?  Are you talking with your players and encouraging them to talk with each other about how your group will work together to produce a great game?  Good communication is essential to any group effort.  Are the rules that you are using inhibiting or promoting collaboration?  Confusing rules lead to arguments, while clear and concise rules move the game forward.

Take this theory and challenge it, or defend it if you believe there is merit to it.  Post your own theories here for others to comment upon, and provide examples of RPGs that support your ideas.

As for myself, I am psyched to be collaborating with my fellow bloggers once more.  And what gnome does not like being immersed into a good stew?

17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "My Theory for RPG Design & Good GMing"

#1 Comment By XonImmortal On October 1, 2010 @ 2:01 am

I’ve been designing my own system for some time. The first major try wound up getting stolen and sold on eBay, and was later published (to rave reviews dammit) by a third party.

I’ve been working on the new system for a few years. I’m big on collaboration, and I can’t think of everything on my own, but can’t get anyone interested in actually making a go of it.

I really worked hard on making character creation really work, and got the biggest complement ever from a playtester: “Wow. This is the most complete character I’ve ever made. I feel like I really know this character!”

“You will only go slightly insane, and eventually the voices will go quiet.”
If you weren’t *already* crazy to begin with. And no, the voices never stop. Ever.

#2 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 1, 2010 @ 8:45 am

[2] – “I’ve been working on the new system for a few years. I’m big on collaboration, and I can’t think of everything on my own, but can’t get anyone interested in actually making a go of it.”

Some projects do not require collaboration, even if they may benefit from it. An RPG can be written and published by a single individual. This is not to say that you shouldn’t work with others to produce your RPG, but just that it is possible to do it on your own.

Yet the point of the article and the theory is that regardless of how the RPG was designed it should promote collaboration and immersion amongst the players. And as GMs we should be aiming for the same things: immersing the players into the game world and encouraging collaboration amongst everyone at the table.

Good luck with your design! Let us know when it is available to the public.

#3 Comment By Zig On October 1, 2010 @ 8:56 am

I thought this article made some great points about what can really make a good game. Rule balance doesn’t necessarily matter, a game set up to be a collaborative affair between the DM and players.

I’ve played a number of unbalanced games over the many years I have been gaming. Rifts definitely stands out. With the base character classes from the main rule book you can easily wind up with a party that has vastly different levels of survivability in combat (and these becomes even more prevalent if you add classes from the different World Books…which I love for their rich content, but the classes just get more and more powerful). However, a good GM can work around this and make the game fulfilling and fun for all as well as giving “squishies” things to do in combat and a chance to actually survive. Since I always played relatively squishy classes I appreciated this. I always could find some way of contributing in dangerous situations. Like once managing to get onto a giant Coalition tank and I then started to sabotage it…all the time terrified that some troopers might pop up out or a hatch and gun me down. For me combat was always scary and the adrenaline pumped, but that made it an incredible experience. My GM also made sure to add elements in the various campaigns where each character had something to do that only she/he could do.

I’ve also run some relatively complex systems on my own. What makes them work for me is getting the players deeply involved in the plot lines and NPCs and playing loose with the rules when necessary.

Before moving to NW nowhere Georgia when I was back in NJ for a while the only gaming I could find was regularly scheduled RPGA events at two area game stores. I enjoyed meeting other players and the regular players and DMs were wonderful. However something did lack for me; there is very little opportunity for roleplaying in those adventures. The focus is on combat (and I don’t have a strategic or tactical bone in my body). Luckily though many of the regulars enjoyed the roleplaying aspect, so we managed to get the most of that into those adventures as we could and both myself and those players made their various characters realized people with distinct personalities.

All in all, a good article!

#4 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 1, 2010 @ 9:12 am

[3] – Thanks for the compliments!

What you mentioned about Rifts is exactly why I used that system as an example. I find the game system itself to be a huge mess, but a good GM and a group that works together can have great fun playing in that setting.

#5 Comment By BryanB On October 1, 2010 @ 10:54 am

I’ve always felt that really good games require a collaborative effort on the part of a GM and their players. You really put into words what I’ve believed in for a very long time. Good article! 🙂

#6 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 1, 2010 @ 11:18 am

[4] – Thank you. It is nice to get feedback that agrees with what you believe to be true.

I wish that I could afford to run a proper study that would measure how enjoyable an RPG session is in comparison to the amount of collaboration and immersion observed during the session. Unfortunately that would require a great deal of money if it were a legitimate scientific study. This theory is merely the result of my own personal observations, so hearing other GMs (or any gamer) say that they too have observed this is great news.

#7 Comment By Agent900 On October 1, 2010 @ 2:09 pm

I also agree about collaboration. Well done. I’ve tinkered with creating my own game before. I got really wrapped up in the number crunching and probably would have done much better to start with what makes the game fun. I think part of being a great GM, not that I’m one yet, is being able to make whatever system you’re playing fun for your whole group. Of course the group will have more fun with a system geared towards their chosen style of play, but the system is just the conduit to having a great time.

#8 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 1, 2010 @ 2:33 pm

[5] – That is an excellent way of putting it. I often found myself creating rules for a situation that was possible, instead of designing a mechanic that would address all situations and still allow for collaborative and immersible play. It made things so much easier going forward.

Don’t sell yourself short. You might be a great GM and just don’t know it yet. I say this because you have the right perspective on what the system truly is – a catalyst upon which the social dynamics interact.

#9 Comment By Martin Ralya On October 1, 2010 @ 10:44 pm

Welcome back, Patrick!

I promise to always be your railroading dick when we’re playing F.A.T.A.L.

#10 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 2, 2010 @ 8:23 am

[6] – It is good to be back, Martin!

And I’ll gladly play in your F.A.T.A.L. game, because I have this awesome character concept that is so original that you will be astounded as I read you the 27 page backstory that I have written for him!

#11 Comment By geekgazette On October 2, 2010 @ 7:18 pm

I don’t really want to design my own system. I do however like trying to “fix” current systems. I love 3e/Pathfinder, but there are so many parts of the mechanics that I have never used and honestly don’t know many people, personally, that do use them.
I just wonder if putting the work into slimming it down would be worth all the work?

#12 Comment By jlcsusara On October 2, 2010 @ 9:14 pm

“The Theory of Collaborative Immersion – More enjoyable RPG sessions are the result of rules and participant play styles (both the GM’s and the player’s) that allow for the group to collaborate on an immersive event.”

That’s a keeper, Patrick! It strongly defines what makes a good RPG. One of your best posts so far! Thanks!


#13 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 3, 2010 @ 10:11 am

[7] – If you aren’t using the rules don’t bother slimming the system down. Just list the rules that you will be ignoring and share that list with your players. I wouldn’t bother doing any work beyond that if the need for the rules do not exist.

Now if you want to replace the rules with streamlined alternatives work on just one element of the game and write up your house rules to share with everyone in the group. House rules should always be in written form somewhere so as to avoid possible disputes later on. I hope that answers your question!

[8] – Thank you! I really feel that this theory has merit, and it is helping me to focus when I do design work.

Of course the real proof will only come when great games emerge based upon this theory. 🙂

#14 Comment By Scott Martin On October 3, 2010 @ 12:54 pm

Welcome back!

I like collaboration and immersion; I agree that any good design should incorporate them. I know that a good immersive description makes everything more vivid– which is ideal.

Those two things can paper over a weaker system– I love Dawn of Worlds, because it’s so good at establishing collaboration– but it’s not a system I’d look at for long term play.

I look forward to seeing what games result from your crazy theorizing!

#15 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 3, 2010 @ 8:29 pm

[9] – Thank you for the warm welcome back, Scott! I look forward to getting some of the results fr0m my crazy theorizing out into the public’s hands very soon. I’m acquiring the help that I need now, and will let you all know when the content goes up.

#16 Comment By Rafe On October 3, 2010 @ 8:47 pm

Good stuff!

Two tidbits from my own project:

re: winning: You can only “win” the game by having fun. Sometimes losing in game means winning around the table.

re: character concepts: The key here is to strike a balance between “awesome” and “room for improvement.” The awesome gets them into the game, and the room for improvement gives them a reason to play it.

#17 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 4, 2010 @ 10:46 am

[10] – Thank you. I agree that a good RPG cannot be won, but it is played to be enjoyed and not beaten.