Overthinking Things

As many of you already know, I’m a bit of an amateur game designer for tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs). I’ve created quite a few games over the years, but only self-published one, back in the long-ago days before Amazon and DriveThruRPG.

It didn’t do very well.

Regardless, this is a bit of a passion of mine, despite my lack of success, or talent. I am always thinking of different game systems, settings, and whatnot, but haven’t been able to combine those concepts into a workable game that I’m happy with enough to actually throw out into the public for their consumption. Yet I still persevere, despite these shortcomings and whatnot.

But I also follow others who strive to make their own TTRPGs, mostly on Reddit (because I’m a glutton for punishment), answering their questions, offering advice, and so on. One thing I have noticed, though, is that many of these aspiring game developers tend to overthink their projects, or push for goals that are frankly too lofty for someone just starting out.

Now then, I’m not one to squash another person’s dreams, but let’s be honest here: You are not going to take an established game system framework (such as ‘Powered by the Apocalypse’), and add in your own revolutionary game mechanics that will produce the greatest PbtA game ever made, with your very first TTRPG. You simply won’t, it isn’t possible.

That said, what I would suggest to those looking to create their first TTRPG would be to study similar games to what you have in mind, then do something like that… only simpler. Take a game framework such as “Simple World“, which is not a game in itself, but a walkthrough on how to create a narrative-focused ‘Powered by the Apocalypse’ TTRPG. It literally walks you through the steps you need to take in order to create a very workable game, with a proven game framework/engine, for free.

Once you have your basic game written out into a first draft, you playtest the Hell out of it, and in doing so, refine your initial game into something more like what you had in mind. Then, when you have a TTRPG that you are comfortable with, and players find balanced and fun at the table, only then do you move forward towards writing it out into a completed form, with a mind towards publishing.

Of course, many of these games will never make it to a first draft, let alone survive playtesting, before you decide they simply aren’t worth moving forward with, at least at this time. Maybe the engine you are using (be it your own, or something you can use for free, such as PbtA, Mörk Borg, or a variety of different System Resource Documents) just isn’t vibing with the setting, or there is something inherently wrong with the overall concept of the game, or maybe it just isn’t very fun to play/run. Regardless, sometimes you just have to scrap a game here or there, or set it aside for future reworking, and so on.

That’s the way things go. I mentioned earlier that I have developed many games over my 40+ years in the roleplaying hobby, and only felt that one of them was worth printing, right? Turns out, that one wasn’t very good, either, but I liked it, as did my players. These would-be developers seem to think that every game they come up with will be a smash hit, once they actually write it out, slap some cheap/free art in it, and toss it up on Kickstarter.

Note: Those games will fail.

But this does bring up a couple of other points I’d like to discuss. First of all, artwork. With Artificial Intelligence being all the rage right now, AI-driven artwork is finding itself being tossed into many new TTRPGs, because it is a quick and usually free way for new indie developers to make their games all pretty and professional looking… or so they think, anyway.

AI-derived artwork is a quick and easy way to ruin your reputation in the TTRPG community, as well as make your game unsellable on any crowdfunding service, let alone DriveThruRPG. Sure, your game looks really nice with that AI art in it, but it is dead in the water if you resort to that.

There are plenty of ways to get free, public-domain artworks to use in your game. Stick to that, if you can’t afford to pay real artists, then you’ll be fine.

Of course herein lies the biggest problem for these aspiring developers: NO ONE KNOWS WHO YOU ARE! As far as the TTRPG community goes, you are just another one of the thousands of up and coming game developers, whose games clog up the search section of DTRPG, let alone Kickstarter.

Now let me ask you this: Why should I, as a frequent customer of DTRPG and a Superbacker on Kickstarter, buy your game on either of these services? I don’t know you, I have no idea how good your game might be, let alone if you will actually deliver it in a reasonable timeframe, or at all (speaking specifically of crowdfunded games on that last point). I have been burned way too many times to take another chance on some unknown developer, as have many others like me.

There is one solution to this, though: Don’t even consider crowdfunding a game until you have at least a few games up on or DTRPG, for free or “Pay What You Want”.

Seriously. You need to give your first few games away, for free.

This is a proven strategy, just look at Shawn Tomkin and Kevin Crawford. These guys built up their fanbases by offering the digital versions of their early games for free, while in the case of Crawford, he continues to offer the base version of his games for free, and only charges for the ‘Deluxe’ editions, which have a bit more content added.

They spent the proper time building up fans, not worrying about making it big immediately, and instead focused on producing games that people enjoyed. Then, when they had a nice community of fans, they took their wares onto Kickstarter to see how well they would do.

Turns out, that’s a winning strategy. Who woulda thunk it?

Anyway, I just think that way too many potential TTRPG game developers have their focus on dragging in those phat Kickstarter dollars, when they haven’t even gotten their basic game concepts down. Or they are too focused on reinventing the wheel to just get a basic game down on paper, to start playtesting with.

In either case, I commend their spirit, but suggest maybe they just focus perhaps a bit more on the basics for now?

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