One of the first decisions to make when designing a roleplaying game is how broad or focused the RPG should be. Answering this question is both a design and a business decision.
When you choose a specific genre, the genre supplies common ideas, plot devices, and tropes that can help form rules. Here’s a few questions (in no particular order) that you might ask of a genre to get an idea of what an RPG for a particular genre might look like:
- What types of qualities are valued or common in the genre? They might become stats.
- What types of actions do characters undertake? Those actions are a pretty good indicator of crucial skills.
- What powers or abilities exist in the genre—and are they accessible to protagonists, or only antagonists?
- What’s the balance of interpersonal interaction, puzzle solving, and fighting in the genre? This will suggest where the bulk of your focus and game mechanics should be.
For example, if you were to design an RPG system for the supernatural teen monster drama (yeah, that’s a thing now), you might find some common stats like strength, smarts, social skills… but you would also find a heavy emphasize on courage, humor (specifically irony or sarcasm), and angst. Perhaps these stats will set your system apart from others. Characters tend to solve their problems via physical fighting (most often hand-to-hand or improvised weapons, rarely guns or knives); by manipulating others (appealing to loyalties, lying, blackmailing); by researching new monsters; and by tricking, trapping, or ambushing their opponents. All the above require some kind of skill or ability check.
The list of powers is potentially wide, but they usually focus on physical abilities with magic users or witches as a distinct subclass… and almost no high-tech / sci-fi abilities. Depending on the series, there may be a balance of interpersonal interaction or fighting, or the focus may be heavily on interpersonal, so you’ll probably want to support both. For interpersonal interactions, the love triangle is a ridiculously common trope… you could leave that plot device to game masters, or bake in game mechanics for it. Perhaps love triangles can affect your loyalty stat and hence how easily your character is manipulated by others! As for fighting, combat often ends in a draw: do the mechanics support that? For example, actually killing other (non-human) characters outright might be incredibly difficult, leaving you to do as much damage as you can and then retreat as a common tactic.
I also mentioned above how deciding a genre (or lack of genre) for the RPG is a business decision as well as a design decision. When you pick a genre, you determine who your competitors will be. You better make sure that your game has something unique to offer over existing games, and you can take one of two approaches. One, find pairings of genre tropes/game mechanics that are overlooked by other games and make them prominent in your system. If there are plenty of RPGs for teen monsters, but they don’t really include much about the common love triangle issue, make it a core part of your game. Two, find a sub-genre without many competitors. Maybe all the teen monster RGPs are focused on werewolves, vampires, or witches… maybe try focusing on less common monsters, like ghosts and make a specifically ghosty teen monster game. If you want to see just how specific an RPG can be, check out My Life with Master. It focuses on the henchman of 19th century horror villains.
However, what if you decide to create a generic RPG instead of a cross-genre one? Figuring out what rules you need for the game and how to stand out from your competitors becomes a lot more difficult. The answers to questions like “What qualities are important across genres?” and “What powers are available across genres?” become so broad as to not be very helpful. You could fill an encyclopedia with them, but unless you’re GURPS, you probably don’t want to try. Instead a more helpful question is “How will gameplay in your system be unique?” With a genre-specific game, you can always distinguish yourself by picking a genre (or subgenre) not currently represented, but with a generic system you have to focus on game play.
Legendary RPG was designed to be cross genre from the beginning, and Varza Games had to try out a few different a few different game play styles until finding one that resonated with players. The initial inspiration was to create a game in which the character’s personality determined the types of experience you would get, rather than arbitrary rules set by the RPG (like being heroic… what if your protagonist is just not very brave or self-sacrificing?). However, this was either uninteresting, or in some cases discouraged teamwork, so we decided that Legendary was better off focusing on something else as it’s central, unique draw for gamers.
We landed on the idea in many genres that the more power you acquire, the greater your weaknesses. This concept isn’t in every single genre, but in most stories with superhuman protagonists: myths, horror, superheroes, and sci-fi. When we landed on this concept, we realized that other RPGs had both disadvantages and advantages (GURPS) or even traits that could be both advantages and disadvantages (Fate). But what was missing was a system where the more you used your powers, the greater the negative consequences you faced. Also, while other games either specified the types of disadvantages linked to super powers (running out of mana, burning hit points, insanity), there weren’t many games that offered the player the ability to choose what side-effects their powers had. By offering a choice of different side effects we found a nice middle ground that we didn’t see in other games. In GURPs, you could probably figure out a game mechanic eventually with elaborate modding of advantages and disadvantages, and in Fate traits are both advantages and disadvantages, but there’s really only one game mechanic: fate points. In Legendary RPG, you select one of 7 or so “Tox Effects” and quickly give your character a unique side-effect to their mighty abilities.
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