Two people walking on train tracks. Comedy or Tragedy?

RPG Design Choices #2: Fleshing out character and moods

After you’ve chosen your genre (or genres),  there’s more to flesh out in terms of the types of characters and moods your game will support. Unless you went very specific with your genre, chances are that your genre can support many types of characters and moods.  Are you going to support all of the possible combinations, or focus your game further on a specific type of character or mood?

From genre, you’ve gotten an idea of what kinds of rules might be required what aspects of the genre might require more detailed rules than others… but when you decide specifically what kind of protagonists, antagonists, and other non-player characters are in the game world, you’ll have a much better idea of which of your ideas to follow up on and nail down.

BeetlePopOutIf you chose to build a comic book superhero type game, for example, the stories typically include super heroes, anti-heroes, sidekicks, villains, politicians, police/army spies, love interests, and other civilians.  It’s usually assumed in the genre that the protagonists are heroes (or anti-heroes). However, you might make your game stand out by focusing on a different segment, which will take your RPG in very different directions.  Consider the following:

  • Players take on the role of a national defense team of mundane people trained to take down super villains.  All of a sudden, super powers might take a back seat (because characters won’t have them), while high-tech equipment will become crucial in subdoing superhuman foes.
  • Players take on the roles of civilians trying to avoid becoming collateral damage as superheroes and supervillains duke it out.  All of a sudden, both super powers AND high-tech are now the realm of NPCs, and so probably won’t receive as much attention as the rules of luck, courage, or panic that influence a mortals chances of surviving.
  • Players take on the roles of villains.  Villains are likely to be more balanced between powers and high tech than heroes or military figures.  Also, you’ve just opened the possibility of characters almost never seen in the superhero genre.  For example, who recruits a supervillains goons, or finds remote lairs? All of a sudden, you may realize that your game needs rules for a black market of mutagens and death rays that would be unnecessary for the other character types.

You could choose to support any and all of these combinations. However, if you decide to support a very broad selection of characters, you may want to decide which ones you’ll focus on in your core rules and which you’ll leave for later extensions.

When you have an idea of what characters you’re working with, you’ll also what to decide what kinds of stories and moods you want the RPG to support.  Game masters can tell any story they want, but the character types and game rules will influence the mood of games.  For example, I tend toward humor in games that I run, but when I’m playing World of Darkness, it’s sinister setting, creepy antagonists, and rules for losing humanity turn my stories to dark comedies.

You’ll get some inspiration for mood based on the types of characters you support.  In the example above, if you superheroes are your protagonists, it leaves the mood of the story wide open for epic, suspenseful, tragic, and comedic stories.  However, if you choose to have supervillains as your primary protagonist, the stories will likely be either tragic or comedic.

The moods you choose to support will have an influence on the types stats, skills, and advantages that characters can have.  In a supervillain spoof, ‘Monologuing’ might be a common disadvantage, while in an epic superhero saga there might be some concept of destiny.

In a cross-genre game, you can still make many of the same decision to focus your game.  In fact, if you haven’t made some choices to narrow your focus on genre, character, or mood by this point, you will have a difficult time differentiating your game from the popular generic RPGs already in the market.  Since Varza Games wanted Legendary to be flexible in terms of genre and mood, we decided to make a narrowing decision on the type of protagonist the game would feature.  I found in a lot of genres a set of related ideas about powers being both a blessing and curse, or super-heroic protagonists being their own worst enemies and tested the idea out with with Meg and our friends, and we decided the game would be about characters with superhuman but flawed powers.  Powers with side effects.  That decision makes it much easier to distinguish Legendary RPG from GURPS or Fate, and would lead to the development of a unique game mechanic.

However, for all the narrowing decisions we didn’t make, we would later have to test the rules and character stats against many different genres.  Supporting multiple genres and moods made game development a lot more complex.  Even though Varza games would like Legendary RPG to be adaptable to many types of games, we simplified a little bit by selecting a few broad the genres and moods we were going to focus on during game.  By testing our character stats and rules in fantasy, horror, sci-fi, and comicbook hero genres, we figured that we had most of our bases covered.  Supplements or future editions could address niche subgenres with specific needs.

Also, we tested our rules and stats against where they would would work in dramatic or comedic types of games.  The goal was to have stats that could work in both settings, although we allow some stats to lean in one direction or another.  For example, the side effects of using your powers include madness (which works in both comedy fantasy and a Cthulhuesque thriller), taking damage (typically functions best in dramatic campaigns), and bad luck (excellent for comedic stories).

Once you’ve fleshed out genre, characters, and moods for your story, you’re ready to think about game play and game mechanics.

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