Best RPG Design Advice: Why?

While working on Triune, I’ve asked a lot of people for advice. (And received some I never asked for. Seriously, I’m not designing a D&D clone so stop recommending XP!) From Allen Varney to the fine folks at, I’ve received tons of great ideas. But the best so far is to ask yourself a simple question: Why?

Like most one-word questions, this little bugger is annoying and helpful at the same time, much like exercise or meteorologists. When you keep asking yourself, “Why?” about the parts of your game, it can help you refine your game into something that makes sense. For example, in the first draft of the Triune rules, each player-character belonged to a secret Faction. Why? Well, um … because the Paranoia RPG does that (secret societies), and I wrote for Paranoia, and it works there, so there you go. In other words, I stole from a game I worked on. Not the biggest crime in the world but there wasn’t a good reason to include Factions in the game, so I cut it.

Sometimes you end up adding stuff you didn’t necessarily want simply because “that’s how other games do it”.  The original reward mechanic included points used to increase attributes. Why? Because that’s how so many other games do it. Level up, gain some kewl powers, increase your stats, and go kill more stuff to do it again–sort of a carnage-based enabling of adventure addiction. (“Hi, my name is Grognar and I’m an adventurer. [“Hi Grognar!”] It’s been six weeks since my last leveling.”) I wasn’t comfortable with designing solely based on what other games do, so I cut it.

“Why?” can lead to some interesting reasons for keeping stuff in there, though. Triune uses real religions for Heaven’s classes (Christianity, Judaism, etc.) but sins for Hell’s classes (anger, greed, etc.). Why? Because I don’t want Satanism, Dark Cults of Baal, or similar tripe cluttering up the game experience. No one in their right mind is a Buddhist but closet Satanist. I wanted to explore the hypocracy around religion, how you can go to church every Sunday out of true and honest belief in Jesus, yet lust for the kind of sex that would make Jenna Jameson blush. This lead me to decide on making all characters “three-classed”: Heaven, Hell, and humanity. Not only does this mirror real life, but more importantly, it makes for compelling gameplay.

If you are working on a game or even campaign world, ask yourself, “Why?” lots of time. It will help. Fine, it’ll hurt a bit too, but no pain and all that, right?

2 comments on “Best RPG Design Advice: Why?”

  1. bigznak

    I understand your points and admire your ambition to attempt to make your own role-playing game. And to tackle one with Religion aspects tied into it is very difficult. I have wondered how would you or another GM deal with say a very religious player character. There can be some out there. Lets for say a person played this game that was a devout Mormon. I myself don’t attend church every Sunday but do find myself believing in being a good catholic. Questions are always good to ask yourself when creating a game. It makes you think what is necessary for a good game to succeed. At the very core, people must ENJOY playing it.

  2. WJ MacGuffin

    I think most gamers are at least relaxed about religion, if not unconcerned. I’m not worried about offending gamers per se, but you are right that some hardcore religious folk may take offense at this game. I don’t mean to hurt anyone but c’mon! It’s a game!

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