When you buy a car, you look for a model whose performance suits your needs. The generic car, equally good at all tasks, doesn’t exist. This observation also applies to RPG rules: their designer has, hopefully, a clear notion for what purposes his game is intended.
So, when I start working on a new set of RPG rules, I first visualize a key issue: “What do the adventurers do here?” In other words, what kinds of story/movie/TV-series do you wish to emulate? Your decision takes you to the next question: “What important features does your choice require?” (Dogfighting spacecraft? Sneaky espionage gadgets? Clever heists?) Hence, you must establish a set of precepts to serve as the foundation of your project.
My favorite example is West End Games’s Star Wars D6 from 1987, designed by Greg Costikyan. When I read that game for the first time 33 years ago, it was like seeing an intricate piece of machinery put together by a master craftsman. Greg knew exactly what the Star Wars setting required and he designed the game accordingly, scoring a Gold+ medal for his efforts.
One year ago, I decided (at the spur of a moment) to write Expert Nova. From hour one, I knew for what types of campaigns its rules were intended. My intentions are summarized in the following precepts (central ideas are underlined):
- Milieu: Expert Nova is intended for action and adventures in contemporary settings (circa 1880-2050) with technological underpinnings, that is, near-future science fiction, steampunk, dieselpunk, solarpunk, spy thrillers, pulp adventures, alternate history, etc. I also apply two Classical maxims to the game: pántōn chrēmáton ánthrōpon métron eínai* (“man is the measure of all things”, Protagoras) and homo homini lupus est** (“man is man’s wolf”, Plautus), that is, Expert Nova deals with our species facing the universe while simultaneously presupposing that we are our own worst enemy. Hence, moderate “weird technology” lies within Expert Nova’s scope, whereas horror and supernatural entities don’t.
- Mood: The players’ adventurers are supposed to be competent people with agency, free will, and a desire to make sensible decisions. That is, a campaign may introduce powerful NPCs with malicious intentions, but there are always ways of opposing them; a setting may be grim, but the adventurers still get the choice to “do the right thing”. For those reasons, railroading adventures, moral nihilism, and “let’s embrace the darkness” attitudes are out of bounds.
- Mindset: Adventurers are supposed to think outside the box when facing challenges. Therefore, I encourage clever schemes, cool stunts, and witty repartee.
A Swedish game designer recently asked me whether he could use my rules for a new game project. When he explained its setting to me. I saw that it lay within Expert Nova’s scope, so I granted him permission. I’m looking forward to see what he will accomplish with the Expert Nova “toolbox”.
Expert Nova is available in Swedish and English …
… as paperbacks — link >>>
… as PDFs — link >>>
* Människan är alltings mått.
** Människan är människans varg.
Thanks for the insights! I find them very useful. I think I used a similar method, though less explicit, when designing The Sword of Cepheus. There I had the constrains of a given engine (2d6 OGL/Cepheus Light) I wanted to use, but it does work wonderfully well for the kind of milieu I had in mind – Conan, Elric, and John Carter.
It should be noted that a similar process you described above also works for settings; I usually start a setting by writing “Ten Commandments” for it, i.e. ten principals of the base design and what I want out of the setting.
Great that you appreciate my reasoning. Yes, I understand that Cepheus Light has a more cineastic approach to campaigning, whereas Expert Nova leans towards a grittier one.
I’ve got an upcoming Transhuman campaign set ~2100AD. I’m working on it for after our Twilight 2000 game plays out. Still researching an appropriate rules system; got a number of contenders. Went ahead and bought Expert Nova PDF to see if it’d be a good fit.
Nice. When you get moving, please let me know.