Inside: Part 1

Thanks to flickr user freefotouk; CC BY-NC 2.0

This is the first part in a series of design journals about constructing my own small RPG. It’s all open-source, licensed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license; I will compile everything into a finished product at the end and make it available to those who want to try it out.

Part 1: Background

Before I even start talking about my idea for a game (and don’t worry, I’ll get to that by the end of the post), I wanted to start out by talking a bit about my preconceptions I have coming into the process of designing a game, my design philosophy, and some goals I have for this process.

All of these things, I think, are necessarily related. I wouldn’t venture into designing a system without knowing things like target audience, level of familiarity with role-playing needed, similar systems available, and so forth. I can’t honestly design a game without looking to the past, both what has come before and what inspires me, and toward the future, by trying to map out exactly where I’m going.

Goals (Wherein I list a set of ambitions I may or may not attain)

0. Create a game that is fun to play.

1. Story and rules are equally important, but the tie goes to the story.

2. The world and mechanics must be internally consistent.

3. The world background should be rich, but concise.

4. Neither player nor GM should have to slog through pages of rules to find a ruling.

5. Allow as many options as possible without bloating the rules.

6. Confine the entire game to less than 10 pages.

7. Explore a setting that is under represented in role-playing games.

8. Support both campaigns and single-session games.

I think that wraps it up for goals, which you can see are very generic. I wanted to start with a nearly-blank slate when designing this game; yes, I already have my general idea in mind, but I wish to be as unbiased as possible when contemplating options.

The Basic Premise

A couple of months ago I was planning an RPG and thought to myself: man, this would probably be a very cool setting to explore way more. I wanted to do a one-shot game where all my players were inmates in an all-women prison investigating the death of another inmate. It was going to be nominally horror-esque, and thus I retreated to my old standby, Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu, for a base system. However, over the course of designing the game, I eventually realized that the rules set was not appropriate for what I wanted to do.

I also knew I wanted the game to have a bit more of an investigative, cooperative feel than an action feel. I don’t want prison breaks to be out of the question, but they’re certainly not going to be the focus of this game. And while I’m on the investigative kick, I really like the noirish look and feel of movies like Double Indemnity and Brick, so I want to try and incorporate noir into the game in some way.

So, there we have it. Inside: Prison Noir will be the game. Now, how the heck do we design it?

GNS Theory and the Foundation of Gaming

One article I strongly recommend reading if you’re going to design your own game, or even if you are interested in the theory behind gaming, is this one by Ron Edwards (designer of Sorcerer and other games). I don’t want to go so far as calling it the role-playing game design bible, but it’s pretty close to being that important, at least for me. The real meat of the discussion begins in the middle with this section:

In my experience, the answer turns out to be a version of one of the following terms. These terms, or modes, describe three distinct types of people’s decisions and goals during play.

  • Gamism is expressed by competition among participants (the real people); it includes victory and loss conditions for characters, both short-term and long-term, that reflect on the people’s actual play strategies. The listed elements provide an arena for the competition.
  • Simulationism is expressed by enhancing one or more of the listed elements in Set 1 above; in other words, Simulationism heightens and focuses Exploration as the priority of play. The players may be greatly concerned with the internal logic and experiential consistency of that Exploration.
  • Narrativism is expressed by the creation, via role-playing, of a story with a recognizable theme. The characters are formal protagonists in the classic Lit 101 sense, and the players are often considered co-authors. The listed elements provide the material for narrative conflict (again, in the specialized sense of literary analysis).

I think GNS theory is a great place to start when designing a game. Knowing my setting, prison noir, two parts of GNS theory immediately jump out at me.

Firstly, the core of this game is certainly going to be Narrativism. Looking back at my goals, I can see that I clearly favor a story-centric approach to the game, but do I really want to get involved with mechanics that actually inform the flow of the game. Thinking of indie games that are clearly narritivist, I come up with games like Polaris, whose mechanics actually affect the co-narration of the story.

However, I find lots of aspects of Simulationism to be appealing. I want players to explore what it’s like to be a prisoner (not literally). So much is limited inside the walls of a prison, and I think that needs to come through in the game. The internal anguish of prison life, whether it’s the forced whitewashing of identity, the distance from friends and family, the conflicts with gangs and thugs, the oppression from the guards; all of these are parts of inmate life that players will be exploring (not to mention all the difficulties of being a guard should that option be allowed as well).

I don’t think I have much interest in Gamism; I don’t see the game being broken down into encounters where success can easily be defined. However, I can already see certain players going for certain goals: perhaps everyone’s goal is simply to get out, and that can be counted down: number of days til release, number of days til parole, etc.

So, I think I’ll end up going Simulationist-Narrativist, with more focus on the simulation aspect of the game when it comes to the mechanics rather than the narrative aspect (more rules based on the characters experiences rather than cooperative story-telling).

Come back next time for some themes, some basic concepts, and more role-playing design. As always, I can be reached at

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3 thoughts on “Inside: Part 1

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  1. I think it’s important when designing a system to keep in mind the reason people use systems – to help facilitate their gaming. Too many designers like to “mix things up” when designing new systems in order to differentiate themselves from familiar systems. I’d say try to resist the urge to do away with a solid mechanic other systems use simply because other systems use it, especially if the mechanic works without pages of caveats to memorize.


    1. Definitely true. However, I think the key is finding the right mechanic for your game. Don’t invent one if a good one already exists; but also don’t stick with what exists just because it works for other games. A simulationist numbers-crunch might work well for a simulation game, but not too well for a rapid-fire hack and slash. It’s all about what fits. And heck, I don’t know half the games out there; maybe I come up with something that someone else has already done better – that’s more likely than me completely inventing something new.

      There are a lot of systems out there, and many of them do what they do very well. I just want to create something that meshes system and story well in a neat little package.


  2. As someone that is currently in the process of editing the final version of my own rpg before sending it off to the printers, I agree that one needs to do what works for the setting. I have scavenged and altered rules from a dozen or more different systems, trying to find what worked best with the world I was creating. While it is true that some designers like to throw in twists just for the sake of being different, it doesn’t necessarily mean that different is bad.


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