Many small-press roleplaying games (and middle-ground RPGs as well) share common problems that could have been solved if the authors had taken the time to do more research. It’s something you should do no matter what field you’re in: research the opposition. Find out what’s already available in your market. Get a handle on how other companies have dealt with the problems you’re facing. RPG-writing is no different!
If your game is a home-brewed variant of a pre-existing game, just don’t.
It’s been done before (particularly in the cases of the really big games, like D&D, which has been re-written in dozens of different forms by different people). Corollary: If you’ve only played one game, your “home-brewed” game is quite possibly a variant of that game, even if you think it isn’t.
There are certain things that you are likely to take as given for RPGs in general if you’ve only played one game that aren’t certainties at all. For instance, if D&D is the only game you’ve ever played or read, then you might think that all roleplaying games are level-based, are class-based, have the standard spread of fantasy races in them, and use 20-sided dice to resolve actions. If you’ve looked at other games, then you have a much better idea of the truly amazing variety of possibilities out there! What seems original to you after reading and playing only one game will look like a rip-off to experienced roleplayers.
If your world consists of a pantheon and map, keep going.
Think of the world you live in for a brief moment. It contains a myriad of cultures, religions, creatures, and political structures, to name just a very few things. If you haven’t thought about any of this, then your world is going to seem awfully sketchy.
If your world started as a campaign in a different system, it probably shows.
Everyone has their thinly-veiled Norse god pantheon. Everyone has the standard spread of fantasy races. It’s very, very difficult to purge the traces of another game from your world, and sharp-eyed readers will label your game a rip-off. Or at least they’ll yawn and point out that they’ve seen it all before. So if you want to publish a game world to go with your newly-minted game, then start up a wholly new game from scratch.
If your world history consists only of details from your campaign, then keep going
There’s a difference between using details from your own roleplaying to help you come up with neat material, and just plunking your campaign down for someone else’s use. There are many reasons why this doesn’t tend to work very well, and many reasons why people tend to spot this sort of thing from a mile away.
If you think your game will “revolutionize roleplaying,” don’t count on it.
Unless you have a lot of experience preferably writing in the RPG field (but at least doing an awful lot of reading and playing), odds are that someone else has done it before–or if they haven’t, they’ve done something even more revolutionary. There are hundreds of RPGs out there. If you want to be even remotely sure that you’re really doing something new, then you must do your research.
What You Need
Of course, you don’t have to revolutionize roleplaying in order to put out a fun game! However, you do have to offer something at least a little new, or why bother? If your game is just “D&D” or “Vampire” with a few home-brewed rules tacked on and your own campaign material added in as world background, you probably haven’t come up with anything new enough to catch people’s interests. (And then there are the copyright or trademark infringement issues if you’re too similar, but that’s another matter entirely.)
Many roleplaying groups have a somewhat myopic view on the roleplaying industry. You’re mostly familiar with one (or several) games. You probably haven’t heard of the more radical RPGs out there (played “Puppetland” yet, “Sherpa,” or “De Profundis?”). You haven’t seen the myriad of ways in which different designers and authors have solved traditional RPG problems. You haven’t seen which aspects of your campaign have already been written up in similar form by fifteen different companies (most of which probably had the budget to pay better or more experienced writers).
Luckily you can find all of this out by reading roleplaying games and playing them. This is why researching your field is important. You don’t want to reinvent the wheel with an inferior design; you want to come up with something new and interesting. This applies to both rules systems and game worlds. When reading, keep some of the following needs in mind:
- You need a good grasp of the issues that an RPG must balance (playability? realism? simplicity? thoroughness? etc.).
- You need a good grasp of the ways in which different RPGs have solved various problems of playability throughout the years.
- You need a strong sense of which story elements have been done to death already.
- You need a good handle on which issues (both general and specific) you must address when writing up your world and mechanics.
- You need to know how to make a world or game that will work for and appeal to roleplayers in general, not just your gaming group.
You can get all of this by reading roleplaying games, playing them, and discussing design matters with other writers and roleplayers. There are forums out there on the web–make use of them. There are articles you can read. Use your gaming group to playtest the various games you come across, and get them to tell you what they liked and didn’t like in the games (and why). If possible, find another group of players to occasionally playtest things with as well, just for the new perspective. Take notes and develop a list of what (to you) makes a good or a bad game. Use that! You might not get the perfect RPG out of the exercise, but you’ll certainly end up with something that’s more original and useful.
Hobby Web Site Work
Keep in mind that most of the above suggestions are aimed at people who want to professionally or semi-professionally publish their roleplaying games. Generally, a lower level of quality, originality and detail is accepted by people who are just trolling through individuals’ free web site materials. That’s no reason not to put the effort and time in if you want to do so, of course! But it does mean that web sites are the perfect place for sketchy game worlds and house-rule variants.