Screw You D&D: Designing Your Own Game System

This week we take another delve into some more of the basics of DMing and Roleplaying as we discuss designing your own game system:

Hello, old friend!

I’m designing a new system from the ground up. When I started, the game process was as follows: wing it, and if the DM deems an action or use of a power reasonable, it goes. I’ve been re-tooling it, giving it more structure… to make it less like the characters are gods.

The problem is that every one of my players is either a virgin RPer or still hasn’t quite played enough to know what they want in a campaign… and I’m not all that experienced myself. The battles, so far, have been less than challenging. And its setting is post-apocalyptic, so there aren’t many NPCs.

What all could I throw at them to better gauge what type of game they want to play? How can I immerse them in the world so that they’re not just playing a game, but influencing a story?

Your Padawan,

Designing your own Roleplaying Game System is no easy task, so I applaud you good sir.  And for someone with limited Roleplaying experience, it can be beyond daunting.  There are a multitude of things to consider when devising a new system, but in my opinion, the first thing you need to ask yourself is, “What kind of game do I want to play?”

Every RPG is different, each one has its own unique take on things, and consequently, each one has a different focus.  I break all Roleplaying down into 3 basic categories:

1. Roleplaying/story focused
2. Combat focused
3. Everything in between

The best way to get started is from a selfish point of view.  Ask yourself what YOU want out of the system.  You’re the one spending all the time and energy on it, and in the end the ultimate pay-off is going to be your own.

For basic DMing tips, I would recommend you check out my three-part Passing on the Craft series and how to be an awesome DM post.  For plot ideas there are some random plot generators that you might find helpful when you’re low on ideas, though they’re not exactly the best way to write stories.  Warpcore SF has a multitude of fun generators, and there’s also this detailed random plot generator by Marnok.

As for writing good stories, the best way to get better at any sort of writing is to do it.  Any time you come up with an interesting idea, character or storyline, write it down.  Even if it doesn’t fit into the current adventure, it will probably come in handy eventually.

The story element is especially important when you’re talking about immersion into the Roleplaying experience.  I have written quite a few posts about NPC and PC character development, and how important it is.  Players need to feel like their PCs matter,  and that things they do have a real and lasting impact on the Universe.  Don’t just walk them through a story, let them lead the story in their own direction. Incorporate their backstories (and encourage them to write rich backstories), and they will feel like their characters matter.

Now for the harder part: Rules.  This is especially important (and difficult) when designing game systems that are heavy on combat.  There are two really basic things to keep in mind when devising your combat system:

1. Keep it Simple
2. Make it Challenging

These may seem contradictory at first, but they’re not. 
Many combat systems fall short because they’re too complicated or not challenging.  If either of these components is lacking, combat will be boring.  When I say Keep it Simple, I don’t mean make combat overly simplistic.  Complexity is good; it’s what makes combat interesting and fun, but the basics of the system need to be easily understood and followed.  If Players have to constantly ask questions, it makes combat frustrating and stalls it out.

One way to do this is to minimize rolling. Some Game Systems have you roll to hit, then the defender rolls their defense, then you roll damage, then the attacker rolls their strength/toughness.  It takes a while, and there’s way too much adding and subtracting involved.  It’s not terribly complicated, but it’s more than is necessary.

If you can limit rolling to just the attacker, by making defense, toughness, etc. static, than you make combat happen about twice as fast.  D&D has only Armor Class, while I prefer a little more depth than this, and have a Defense rating and a Toughness rating.

Making combat challenging is much harder, and something that takes a lot more trial and error.  An often used remedy, is to add more enemies, or up their attack and damage rolls.  This works, but it does little for making combat interesting.  When you’re trying to challenge Players, think more about unique and interesting powers and attacks, and less about adding more and more bonuses to the enemies.

Rolling to hit, and subtracting hitpoints every round until someone is dead doesn’t do much for anyone.  It gets old real quick and your Player’s will wish they were watching an awesome wall of paint drying.

Instead, think about ways to add other Skills into battle.  I always like to think about Luke taking out the AT-AT in The Empire Strikes Back.  He didn’t just shoot it until it blew up.  He had to aim his magnetic grappler, slice the AT-AT open, toss an explosive, and fall down and not get squished.  That’s at least 4 different rolls, none of which are just his standard Attack roll (except maybe slicing it open).

“Does this harness make my butt look big?” – Luke Skywalker

Get creative and your Players will thank you.  But beyond all this, EXPERIMENT!  Don’t be afraid to change the rules every week.  You’ll need willing participants to do this, but if your Players are okay with it, you’ll be able to develop a rich and interesting game system.  Over time they’ll figure out more and more what they like and dislike and you can alter things appropriately.

I realize a lot of this post is somewhat vague, but as you continue to develop your system, please send more specific and detailed questions my way, and I’ll be more than happy to delve a little deeper.

Good Luck, and Happy Rolling!
The Dungeon Master

Please submit more questions! 

If you wish to submit a question to the Dungeon Master, please e-mail them to, or you can Tweet me a question @AskthedDM. And make sure to review the disclaimer.

You can also see me in action in One Die Short.

This entry was posted in DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, General Roleplaying, Player Advice and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Screw You D&D: Designing Your Own Game System

  1. says:

    Exactly what I was looking for, thank you for posting.

  2. Lord Karick says:

    Interesting article. It does leave me wondering why someone would want to reinvent the wheel though. Over the years numerous D&Ders, myself included have asked the same question. Some have written their own systems, others have bought them. Some are combat focused, others story focused, other mixed. Unless you have a really clear idea of game mechanics, your time and effort would be better put into researching the systems that are out there and going with one of them.

    • Ask the DM says:

      This is true to a point, but if you’re ambitious, and it’s something you enjoy, desiging a system is a heck of a lot of fun. I love it, and on top of all that, it saves lots and lots of money, which is a good motivation for anyone except for Richie McRichenstein.

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