2011-01-03 : The Basics of RPG Design

a brief outline with links

Section 1: Your Three Insights
You have insight into how your subject matter works.

You have insight into how real people work.

You have insight into how collaboration works.

A few links:
2009-12-08 : Your 3 Insights
2009-12-18 : Seed content
2010-11-08 : What I learned from my horror binge

Section 2: System & Rules
How do you decide what happens in the game? That's your game's system.

A game's rules don't define, but instead inspire and provoke, its system.

A game's rules embody, express, its insights.

A game's rules provide permission and expectations.

The purpose of a game's rules is to supplant the group's default interactions.

A few links:
Vincent's Standard Rant: Power, Credibility and Assent (10-04-2002, at the Forge)
2005-01-20 : The goal of designing rules is to change social contract.
2005-06-07 : Periodic Refresher
2009-09-14 : Subsystems

Section 3: Players' Duties & Tools
As a player, what's my job? How do I go about it? How do I know when I'm succeeding?

To avoid:
Conflicts of interest between players;
Conflicts of interest between a single player's duties & tools;
Mismatches between duties and tools.

A few links:
2009-04-10 : A Moment of Judgment
2009-06-15 : GM Agenda
2009-06-10: "Every player has responsibilities to the group, and the group gives every player tools."
2009-07-27 : Resolving Player Conflicts by Reconciling Their Interests
2010-04-26 : The MC, a GM

Section 4: Two Timelines
A game's rules coordinate what's happening in the real world with what's happening in the game world.

Real world:
A game's rules structure and coordinate decision-making among the participants. ("What should I contribute? How should I treat others' contributions?")

A game's rules (usually) also maintain and depend upon a body of real-world cues: dice, character sheets, lookup tables, maps & minis, whatever else. ("How do I roll the dice? How do I read them? When and how do I make changes to my character sheet?")

Game world:
A game's rules respond to fictional events and details, and provide fictional events and details of their own. ("What must we decide before we go to the dice? What must we leave for the dice to decide?")

A game's rules create links and feedback between the player's position in the game and the character's position in her world.

A few links:
1-18-05 : How RPG Rules Work
2005-05-20 : Things on Character Sheets
2006-05-18 : A quick IIEE primer, by request
2009-06-07 : Concrete Examples of Arrows
2010-02-16 : Things on Character Sheets (2)
2010-02-18 : Currency - Spanning Divide and Range

Section 5: Subsystems
A game's design lives in how its subsystems interact, not in just the subsystems themselves.

Subsystems operate over real-world timeframes: What are we doing right now? What are we doing tonight? What are we doing over the course of the game?

Subsystems operate in game-world domains: How is my character situated in her setting? What do characters strive for, and how do they achieve them? How will my character change, grow, lose, suffer?

Subsystems serve players' duties & tools.

A few links:
2005-10-20 : The Fruitful Void
2006-10-05 : Reward systems
2006-10-10 : "[It] isn't the moment of changing your character, but the whole process of changing your character."
2008-04-29 : GameChef08 - a Dirty Joke
2009-09-14 : Subsystems
2010-02-16 : Things on Character Sheets (2)
2010-02-19 : Shared Positioning at the Micro

Section 6: Social Context
Who needs your game? That is, who needs its insights?

What does it promise them? Does it make good?

How will they know?

The call for external playtesting is a dry run for publication.

A few links:
"Here's when I knew that Dogs in the Vineyard was good..." (10-04-2004, at the Forge)
2008-04-09 : Rules vs Vigorous Creative Agreement
2009-07-28 : "Designing a roleplaying game means more than designing rules that we can all agree to play by, and that are playable."
"You'll know you've hit it when you start to get excited playtesters." (12-09-2009, at the Forge)

1. On 2011-01-03, Vincent said:

Happy New Year! One of my goals for 2011 is to get this stuff into an approachable and concise form. Here's a first baby step.

The links are non-exhaustive and how. I welcome more links on any of these topics, especially links to things that you, not I, have written about them.

I also welcome questions, as always.


2. On 2011-01-03, Ben Lehman said:

I am so thrilled people other than me are finally talking about social context.


3. On 2011-01-03, Ben Lehman said:

Here's some old posts:


4. On 2011-01-03, Troy_Costisick said:

Heya Vincent,

I'm so glad to see an Anyway Anthology.  I've been hoping for one for a long time.  Thanks for taking the time to do this, and happy new year to you too!




5. On 2011-01-04, Simon C said:

This is a cool thing. Bookmarked for reference purposes!

Section 6 is exciting stuff, not adequately explored by the links provided, in my opinion.

I don't know if any theory in the world is gonna help you capture that elusive something that makes an idea catch fire in a person's mind, that drives them to go out and buy the game, or playtest it, or make their friends play it, or post about it on a forum.

What is it that makes people buy shelf-feet of White Wolf game fiction? Why can't I get anyone to play Steal Away Jordan with me? There are answers to those questions, but they're complex and they're not going to win friends on the internet.

I'm making a game called "Dungeonfuckers" at the moment, and I suddenly understand what you mean about the call for playtesters. This is the first time I've had people bugging me to run a playtest. I thought I had crappy friends, but it turns out I was just making crappy games.


6. On 2011-01-04, Larry said:



7. On 2011-01-04, jaywalt said:

This is really good:

"The call for external playtesting is a dry run for publication."

As is this:

"I thought I had crappy friends, but it turns out I was just making crappy games."

But I don't know, Simon, I think Vincent's description there is pretty good at saying why games succeed: those games get in the hands of people who want what they offer and deliver on what they promise. That's it.


8. On 2011-01-04, Bret said:

This is handy.


9. On 2011-01-04, Simon C said:


Yeah, that describes it, but!

What do people want? Do people know what they want? How do people know when they're getting what they want? How do you best communicate what people will like about you game? How do you know what people will like about it?


10. On 2011-01-05, Suna said:

What is the reward system in Apocalypse World? Is it getting character advancement? I'm sorry if my questions sound impossibly dumb, I'm just trying to see if I get it right, because I want to be able to answer to the same question regarding the game I'm developing (what is Beyond the Mirror's reward system?)


11. On 2011-01-05, Suna said:

whoops. Seems like I posted in the wrong section. Please disregard. Humblest apologies. Some of the above discussions appear to be old enough to make it impossible to post comments on them. I imagine how tiring it would be for you to reopen such discussions to debate, it'd end in an unbearable flooding. Too bad, though. Back when you wrote them, the Forge's thought had not yet appeared in Italy, I'm afraid...


12. On 2011-01-05, Valamir said:

Any chance we'll see this synthesized and redacted into a published book...please o please o please.  There's a pretty sizeable market for game design books well beyond this hobby...I bet it would be your best and widest seller ever (by orders of magnitude).

Also in section 2 did you mean "supplant"?  or should it read "supplement"?  If the former can you comment on why that and not the latter?


13. On 2011-01-05, jaywalt said:

Simon: I started a new thread about your question on SG.


14. On 2011-01-05, Vincent said:

15. On 2011-01-05, Vincent said:

Ralph: A chance, yes. We'll see.


16. On 2011-01-05, Seth Ben-Ezra said:


FWIW, I would pay cash money for that book. FYI.



17. On 2011-01-05, eggdropsoap said:

I'd pay money for that book. Having these article links collected and curated like this is worthwhile all itself, too.

Simon: My experience with Apocalypse World is that it places the fruitful void in a concordant place with what I want to fruitfully fill. Even as important, it does *not* leave a void in parts of the game where I'm uninterested (or currently unable due to schedule) to fruitfully fill.


18. On 2011-01-06, Simon R said:

"The call for external playtesting is a dry run for publication"

So true. The number of playtest respondents is a very good indicator of final sales, for us at least.


19. On 2011-01-06, Bret said:

I'd pay a beef gyro for that book!


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