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Let's say I have an idea for my own tabletop roleplaying game.

How do I begin to learn about how to design and publish my RPG?

In particular:

  • What do I need to know about?
  • And how should I learn?
  • How can I find advice and resources to help me get started on the path?

Obviously this is a basic orientation question, so you don't have to go deep into each of these, but if I want to start designing an RPG with no experience except playing some of them, how do I get started?

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    \$\begingroup\$ The goal of this question is to satisfy a need identified in this chat discussion: guidance for how newbie designers can find more information, especially for problems that maybe aren't a good fit for RPG SE itself. \$\endgroup\$ – Alex P Jan 12 '14 at 8:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ This question is list question and also separately a shopping question... \$\endgroup\$ – Please stop being evil Mar 17 '17 at 6:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a basics question like any other basics question. It's not a shopping question just because answers can contain references. "How do I get started playing D&D" is a well regarded question with answers including "go watch actual plays on youtube" etc. "How do I learn to design my own RPG" is basically perfectly parallel to that question as far as I can determine. Answer with high level general guidance on how to get started in game design. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Mar 17 '17 at 20:13
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I'm going to take a shot at being more concrete than the question asks. This answer thus focuses on the what you have to do, rather than the "where to find resources to tell me what to do". That is the title question, rather that what is currently in the body of the question post.

Honestly because I feel that is a more interesting question to spend my time answering. I'll eat the downvotes this gets me; if people disagree.


  • Play/GM a lot of systems.
    • If you have only played various editions of say DnD, then you are going to be biases in your notion of what is possible.
    • In particular also play other homebrewed systems/total conversions; but not at the expense of neglecting to play professional systems.
  • Don't try and make a RPG for your favorite new Book/TV show etc.
    • This isn't a hard no, but it is a stop and check yourself.
    • It is a trap I fall into every time I read a great book
    • It is difficult to make a good system/setting from a book because actually most books are not compelling settings for people who are not the specific main characters -- and you (generally) don't want your players to play the main characters from the story -- there is little scope for creativity there.
    • There as some Pro and well-developed/respected fan-made RPGs for systems based on books etc. These are good to play as part of the first point "Play a lot of systems"
  • Get good at probability and statistics;
    • You need a way to check your dice mechanic.
    • I find that rather that actually using proper maths; it is a lot better to do a simulation of rolling the dice in Python (Or Julia, or Matlab, or R etc), and generate plots.
    • You might prefer to learn to use one of the Dice Probability Calculators. Eg AnyDice. But it might be your mechanic is too complex to get that to run. Simulation is much more general.
    • You don't have to be great at math for this; but a solid handle on highschool level probability is basically required (Eg understanding difference between conditional, marginal and join probabilities). If you need to brush up, their are plenty of resources about for highschool students.
  • See if you can join a well run existing collaborative effort
    • For example, AdeptusEvangelion , was a collaboration of half a dozen major contributors and a dozen-plus minor contributors (of which I was one). It had the traits I outline below.
    • it should have good/strong leadership that isn't afraid to say no.
    • it should have already produced 1 release (at least an alpha) before you join.
    • it should have active and currently running playtests -- you can join as a playtester initially and start running it for your group. Which also fills the goals of "Play a lot of systems -- including other homebrews".
    • It should have a active and interactive communication channel -- eg some form of Chat such as IRC or Slack.
  • Have friends who are homebrewing RPGs
    • if you have a local gaming club (and if you live in most cities you probably do; finding them is a seperate question.) There is probably at least one other person passionate about homebrewing RPGs.
  • Get playtesters when you need playtesters

    • Playtesting is an art in and of itself. You could really ask an entire question about it.
    • Early playtests should have you GMing, and you might not even have the rules written down. Then later ones have you in the room helping with clarifications, but not actually running it. Then you in the room silently. Then you not in them room, but the GM playtesting sending notes back.
    • Playtest with different people. You normal group is good. But also later you will want strangers. Recruiting from local gaming clubs or stores is an option. Conventions are great, not-for-profit cons are normally happy to have a cool and unique event to put in the program (check what conventions are in your area. Often SF conventions have a side gaming room).
    • Choosing when and what to playtest is also a thing to work-out.
      • It is important because you only have finite capacity to playtest it with your regulars/friends. Too much will try their patience. And as they play more and more they become contaminated by prior exposure.
      • However, often a playtest can reveal whether an idea that looked cool on paper, is actually super fun, or really annoying. So don't fail to play-test critical/core parts of your game; or things that you are unsure about.
  • Learn to typeset and manage your documents

    • Typesetting is the final stage of laying out your work into a beautiful book/pdf/website
    • This also could be its own question. And it is several: on software, and on design
    • I can tell you the Pros use InDesign to typeset the final product, and do development work and writing in MS-Word.
    • InDesign is hands down the best tool for the job when it comes to laying out and RPG. But it is very expensive. You can rent the cloud edition per month more reasonably. It does take a little to learn.
    • Some use OpenOffice writer for layout and development, because historically it has been a bit better at doing things like anchoring than Ms-Word.
    • If you have academic experience, you might like to use LaTeX or LyX. My use of those tools prompted this question though, more guidance here, also check this showcase. It is good because you can then use version control, eg Git to manage your documents. And it is very nice for managing cross-references.
    • GoogleDocs is another very popular tool. It handles document management automatically and allows collaborative editting from anywhere. It is probably my suggestion if you don't already have preferences. It is not excellent for final layout, but you can export to HTML and then mess with that using CSS etc.
    • Depending on your personality, you might be able to completely neglect typesetting and layout until the rules are all written. But if you are like me, then you may need something that looks good-ish, to stay motivated; and be thinking "Look at this cool thing I am making"
  • Publishing and Printing: not today

    • the day you have something actually commercially publishable, is a day so far from this one, that there is little need to worry about it.
    • It will almost certainly come after you have multiple different completed and/or abandoned projects behind you.
    • It will certainly not be a profitable venture. You'll have spend hundreds of hours on it, and money you may make will not pay you minimum wage on that time.
    • What you might like to do is a small private print run of between 1-2 copies. These can done by your local print-shop. If you live in a city you probably have several. The basic kind while often be attached to a large news-agent; or on a university campus (they need to produce bound lecture notes). If you want to go for hardcover you may be better looking further afield.
    • While you are looking afield, you may run into vanity presses. They will offer in some way to print your books and maybe to get them on stores; but you will have to pay them (which is the opposite of how it should work see also Yogs-law and self-publishing); and some will both take your money, and your copyright. Avoid vanity presses. Don't sign a contract without passing it through a lawyer. Do due diligence in who you give money to. It is safer to use local sources, who are bound by the same set of laws as you.
    • Make your RPG available free online as a pdf. You'll only do it a labour of love; it will never be commercially worthwhile. But someone else can share your love. You may want to open source it; with a proper license. The Creative Commons Licenses are good for this; in general.
    • If you are looking to create an RPG to use as something to show prospective employers in the industry; or more likely industry publisher's hiring freelancers. Please ask another question. You need to do different things than what you do just for yourself.
    • Kickstarter (& crowd funding) is another thing I am not going to touch in this answer. Ask another question on the site; and make sure to get answer from people who've succeeded and who have also failed.
  • Don't worry about Art too much at the beginning

    • Art makes your rulebook, start to look like a complete and real product.
    • This isn't something to think about too much early as it will probably cost money and you can have a fully playable RPG without it. But it is real nice to have.
    • Using work from only 1-3 artists, particularly if you can exercise creative influence during the creation can give your work more consistent feel. Examples are good to provide. You may want to spend more money/time on your first commission, so that it can be just perfect, so you can use it as an example to the other artists you bring in.
    • If you can do your own art, then you are set.
    • If you can not, then you will eventually want to source your art from else where.
    • If you are going to download Art from online sources, check and double check the license conditions. Remember if there is no license then it is completely restricted. Please don't give all of us homebrew RPGers a bad name.
    • The other option is commissioning art.
      • The intricacies of commissioning art, finding artists, and sorting your contracts is well beyond the scope of this question. But to have it on your radar, some points:
      • Commissioning Art is expensive. We are talking bare minimum $US50 for a quarter page illustration.
      • Consider that money spent on are is money you are spending on your hobby of RPG design. It is not money you can expect to get back in sales. It is simply that you have decided that it would bring you personal joy to have that art created. People spend money on things for fun all the time. This is one of those times.
      • See also stuff above about Publishing and Yog's Law; art will cost you more than almost anything else in the project. And again: Things are different with kickstarter. Art matters differently then. I am not touching kickstarter in this answer.
      • When commissioning art, always have a contract. For the sake of both you, and the artist. Again contracts are beyond the scope of this answer, but it should cover things like: Who owns the copyright at the end?, How much paid before, vs after? How have you promised to credit the artist? How many revisions?
    • Never ask an artist to work for free. It is morally reprehensible. If someone comes to you and offers to do free art, then that is ok. But you should be careful even asking your closest friends to do this, it is something that artists suffer with.
    • If you are willing to donate your time to creating art, than can be a leg-in to "joining a well run existing collaborative effort". AdeptusEvangelion, that I mentioned above, had 2 or 3 semi-pro artists on the team.
  • Remember: Sometimes it is about the journey.

    • You don't always have to produce an RPG that even gets to the stage of playtesting. That doesn't even have to be the goal.
    • Just designing the RPG itself can be rewarding, as a way to spend time. Like writing a story that you show no-one.
    • Remember also ideas are cheap/common. You will have thousands of them. Don't worry about sharing your ideas, and someone else getting the scoop on you. Development is what is expensive/rare. Sharing your ideas is always worth the risk of them being stolen if it gets you advice/support in developing them; and often sharing your cool idea is motivating in and of itself.
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    \$\begingroup\$ I haven't even touched on art, at all. Let alone cover art. It has little importance in a getting started post. Using good cover art to get good sales in a brick and mortar store is no concern of someone getting started -- long before it shows up in a brick and mortor store you have signed with a publisher, and they will be highly influential in deciding things like cover-art. With that said, Maybe I should add an Art section. \$\endgroup\$ – Lyndon White Mar 23 '17 at 0:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ Ok, now with an Art section. I think the further this gets from Raw-Beginner the longer each section gets. But I think a raw beginner needs to be aware of the later stages so they don't spend too much time on them too early. \$\endgroup\$ – Lyndon White Mar 23 '17 at 1:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ Layout and publishing are out of scope for the question though — it's specifically about learning RPG design. You might want to pull those sections. We already have questions about advertising, layout, finding reviewers, publishing, art commissioning, etc. It defeats the purpose of a well-sorted site to have material hidden here on a different topic. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Mar 23 '17 at 1:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie you are correct, it is suffering from the scope creep. I will take a shot at rewording/trimming it later today; your feedback is (as always) really appreciated. I think the sections all belong; but mostly in the keep these in mind as you say. Publishing belongs in particlar because it is asked about in the OP: "design and publishing my rpg". and people need to know that publish is not something they can do anytime soon. \$\endgroup\$ – Lyndon White Mar 23 '17 at 2:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ Agree that art and such is well out of scope for a beginner (really even layout is - if you're thinking about that and you're starting to design your first game, guess what, it's going to be years before you suck little enough to merit shining it up...) \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Mar 23 '17 at 2:27
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Vincent Baker's blog "Anyway" has a ton of valuable information, including both theory and sales/publishing information. In any given post, there's a lot of smart discussion as well. A good theory/idea listing is right here. Vincent is a GREAT resource and you should ask questions! (I think he also has a good following on Google Plus, so there may be more discussions happening there, these days.)

The old Forge forums, no longer active, had quite a bit of useful information, though at this point, it's digging in archives. The Articles section (particularly on publishing) has some really good, and still valid ideas which have become a lot more accepted (electronic only game publishing, etc.) I've written a good summary of the big publishing ideas out of the Forge on my blog.

A fair number of folks who used to be on the Forge are now at Story-games.com, though due to the way the site is set up, it is a lot less focused and you will have to pick more carefully between "valuable and true information" vs. "everyone is really excited about this thing but doesn't actually know" kind of information.

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