First attempt at putting some ideas in my head out for public consumption. Please feel free to give feedback, this is very much a work in progress.
Part 1: What I've done wrong in the past.
In the past, I've started working on RPG ideas from the ground up often by first thinking of the genre/setting, then moving to character creation rules, then moving to action resolution mechanics, then moving to advancement mechanics. Once all that's done, color/details can be filled in for areas where it's still lacking.
I now think this was a mistake. I had the first step right, of course. But most of the other steps I had out of order. I think I did this because many games are presented in more or less this order. To be a good game manual, it helps to inform you of the genre/setting, show how to create a character, discuss how to handle resolution of character actions, then show how by completing actions in the game the characters can advance and improve.
For game design, however, that's not the most efficient way to go about it. At worst, it ends up with a design that is incoherent (not in a Forge sense of incoherent, in the regular sense of the word). At best, it ends up with a game that is mechanically sound, but lacks something. It's one of those games that rests on the strength of the setting or genre, but the play itself is lackluster.
Part 2: How I think it should be done now.
Step 1: Genre/Setting
Is this game going to be set in a certain genre (heroic fantasy, space opera, noir detective/crime, romance), a certain era (Ancients, WWII, the Age of Sail), a specific fictional world (made up by the author or borrowed from other media)? That will inform all other choices.
Realize that trying to design a generic or universal game system is a valid option here. The choice NOT to pick a genre/setting informs the other choices just as much as picking a specific genre or setting.
Step 2: Advancement Mechanics
Yes, you read that right. The second step in designing a game should be deciding what types of play will be rewarded and what types will not. This can be informed by genre/setting, or may be free from the constraints of the genre/setting.
To do this, you need to ask yourself what you think the players are likely to want to do, and what you would like them to do, depending on the setting/genre. In D&D, collecting treasure gains XP, as does fighting monsters. So the decision was made somewhere along the lines that this is what players are "supposed" to be doing. It doesn't mean you can't do other things, and doesn't mean you can't reward players for doing those other things. It's just the default assumption. If players have no other idea about what to do for a session, they can find a dungeon and try to bring back treasure from it.
Other games have other assumptions, so reward XP in different ways. White Wolf Storyteller System games reward XP by answering questions about the session when it's completed. And the questions inform players what they are expected to do and how they are expected to play the game. The more questions you can answer after a session, the more XP you gain.
Next, you need to consider how to apply the advancement. In class/level games, it's usually pretty simple (following the precedent of D&D). Just keep a running tally of XP, and when you hit certain milestone amounts, you gain a level. In skill/power based games, XP translates into points that can be spent to improve different aspects of the character. In a few games, advancement is randomized, making it its own little mini-game.
Step 3: Game Resolution Mechanics
Once you know what you want the players to do to get rewarded and advance, you can then design the resolution mechanics you will need for them to do so. Again, the setting/genre will affect these choices. If the game is set in a war setting, combat rules are a must. If it's set in a high school, social interaction rules and ways to track your popularity make sense.
I don't have advice on how to decide on what sort of mechanics are best for what sorts of settings/genres, or for achieving certain play goals for advancement. Whether you like the d20, or a % system, or a 2d6 system, or a playing card drawing mechanic, or a mixture of various mechanics is pretty much up to you.
Step 4: Character Creation Mechanics
Now that we have the general idea for the genre/setting, what we expect characters to do, and how we expect characters to do them, we can finally get down to the question of who are the characters and what defines them. If it's a class/level game, we need classes and levels for them to advance, and need to decide what abilities/powers they gain along the way. If it's a skill/ability based game, we need lists of skills and abilities to purchase, and point costs for them. If it's a randomized advancement game, we still need a system to determine starting abilities and a way to add more random abilities or determine what abilities improve when advancement occurs.
Step 5: Fill in all that Color
Surely some color or detail to match the setting/genre has worked its way into the game already, but there's still got to be more. This is the step where you can design the spell system, tech system, monsters, magic items or technological loot, etc. It's also where you can flesh out the default game world, if there is one. Or you can add in all those notes for adjusting things in your universal system to fit specific genres.
Like I said above, this is still just a rough idea. It's been rolling around in my head, and this is my first draft attempt to write it up. If I get some good feedback, and spend a bit more time thinking about it, I'll edit and clean it up.
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