Let’s be honest; learning how to make a tabletop RPG for the first time can be pretty overwhelming.
Infinitely more intricate than your standard board games and often requiring a multitude of components, the whole process of world-building, establishing characters, and establishing the rules can prove such a colossal task that many novice game designers are tempted to write the whole thing off as a bad idea and go back to the games they already know and love.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
The sense of accomplishment that comes from building your own RPG from scratch is alone worth sticking with the process, and that’s before we even mention the abundant opportunities to design the kind of game you truly always wanted to play, whether that’s combining all the best bits of your favorite RPGs or devising something completely brand new.
The best part?
This whole process doesn’t have to be as formidable as it first appears.
In this guide, we’ll talk you through the basic process you need to follow to create your first tabletop RPG, complete with simple, step-by-step instructions.
Here’s how it’s done:
How to Make a Tabletop RPG
1. Start Simple
Tabletop RPGs aren’t exactly known for their simplicity. The best-selling RPG board game, Gloomhaven, for example, requires a huge, heavy box to contain its mammoth rules/storybook, 95 different scenarios, and a whole host of characters, features, and game pieces.
Meanwhile, even classic pen-and-paper efforts like Dungeons and Dragons can get pretty complex as the game progresses and worlds are developed.
While it’s great to have such lofty ambitions, it’s best to start simple. Maybe not Dixit simple, sure, but at least at a level that is manageable while you’re first getting your game off the ground.
Stick to a handful of characters and scenarios and be careful not to tie yourself in knots with the rules.
Remember, this is your game. You can always expand and make things more complex later on after you’ve got the basics down.
2. Start at the End and Work Backwards
It sounds obvious to say that the first real step towards designing your own tabletop RPG is to come up with an idea for it, but there’s a little more to it than that.
Sure, it’s great that you want to create a fantasy RPG about medieval warriors, but what do you want those warriors to do? More importantly, why do you want them to do it?
In other words, you need to come up with an overall objective for your game. Are you pitting two intergalactic rivals against one another as in the popular Star Wars: Imperial Assault or giving your characters the freedom to roam the realm as they please, building their character stats by fighting off dragons, demons and all manner of devilish foes?
The best way to figure all this out is to start at the end and work backwards. Imagine it’s the end of your gaming session, or perhaps a series of gaming sessions. All the players are pleased with the outcome.
What happened to put them in that mood?
And what happened before that?
Taking this approach will encourage you to think about how your players are going to experience the game and the various mechanics you’ll need to put in place to make that happen.
3. Design Your Game Mechanics
By now, you should have a good idea of what your game is about, and the kind of things you want your characters to do, such as fighting monsters or finding treasure.
Now it’s time to start putting the mechanics together to make all of that happen.
At a basic level, you’ll want to come up with some sort of system for how your players move around the game world.
When it’s their turn, does the roll of a dice determine the distance and direction a player can travel in, are players free to move any way they desire, or is there another method of determining how a character moves?
Will the progress of character moment be determined by a board and miniature figures in the same way as many best-selling board games?
If there’s a combat element, how does that work? Many tabletop RPGs use a dice-throwing process to determine a character’s success (or lack thereof) in battle, though you might prefer to come up with a card-based system instead.
If your game has a heavy-emphasis on similarly uncovering loot to games like Massive Darkness, what actions do your players need to perform to make their characters find and collect that loot? What system is in place to help players keep track of their loot?
These are all questions you’ll need to think about as you start coming up with the mechanics of how your RPG actually works.
4. Design Punishments, Rewards, and Recovery
Whether it’s D&D or more modern, board game RPGs like the smash hit Eldritch Horror, almost all games of this type have some kind of reward/punishment system in place to ensure that the game is both motivating and challenging.
Here’s where you decide how that works.
Perhaps your characters collect currency for slaying various beasts that they can then use to buy better weapons, armor, and equipment. Maybe you introduce a component similar to popular MMORPG World of Warcraft in which you can trade currency to learn new skills or improve existing ones, or perhaps you follow a system in which various actions are rewarded with points that can be used to upgrade your character stats.
Likewise, think about punishments that are going to present challenges for your players. If one character goes into battle against a vicious foe and comes up short, what happens? Do they lose health points? If so, how do they get them back again?
5. Define Your Baseline Character Stats
Tempting though it is to start planning your characters and their statistics right at the start, it’s best to save it until you have most of the other game components in place.
That way, you’ll be able to better design characters to fit the game, rather than coming up with stats, designing the game, and then having to back peddle because you created a scenario that would otherwise be impossible for even a fully maxed out character to complete.
Start by deciding what kind of stats you need. Most games use things like strength, intelligence, and agility, though you may need others depending on the type of game you’re devising.
Next, create your baseline for your stats. Lots of games use a method in which 10 points represent typical human ability. So, for example, a character with 10 strength would have the same power as an average human and a character with only 5 points would be quite weak.
In the previous reward-designing step, you should have devised a system to determine how characters can upgrade these stats as the game goes on, and how increased stats will affect the game.
6. Define Your Character Classes
Character classes will help you assign stat points to various characters. Fantasy-based games often use wizards, warriors, warlocks, and the like, though a sci-fi based game would be more likely to have characters such as space pilots, intelligence officers, and weapons specialists.
At this stage, you should be sure that the stats you assign accurately reflect these characters. For example, a warrior would likely be higher on strength, while a wizard who relies on casting spells and mixing potions would rank higher on intelligence.
7. Create Your Game Components
If you haven’t already, now is the time to create your game’s physical components such as the game board, character figures, character sheets, and any cards, tokens, or other features.
You’ll also want to write up and make copies of the rules so that first-time players can familiarize themselves with your game.
Once that’s done, there’s only one thing left to do:
Get your friends round to give your game a trial run.
Making a Tabletop RPG from Scratch: A Summary
To sum up then, the best way to start building your tabletop RPG is to start with the end in mind and think about what you want your players and their characters to accomplish. From there, you can work backwards, designing each phase of the game to lead into the one that follows it.
If, for example, you decide that at one point your characters are going to meet a demon who can only be killed with a solid-silver sword, you’ll know that when you work back a few paces, you’ll need to come up with a scenario in which your characters can find this sword.
Likewise, building your gameworld and the mechanics first will help you determine what kind of stats and character classes you need to devise.
Finally, if we could offer you one final tip, it would be this:
Give your game a few test-runs as it develops. Even if you took our advice to keep things simple, you may still find that your RPG starts to get fairly complex, so it’s helpful to keep playing it through as you go along to ensure that, when you do finally get your friends over to play, there’s no major errors that could ruin all the fun you worked so hard to create.