Tabletop Tuesday: Pen-and-Paper RPGs I Want to Design

I’ve been inventing my own games ever since I was a kid. I loved to the pieces of different board games and try to mix them together, or to draw my own cards for them or use some of my toys as new pieces. Before I was old enough to realize I was actually supposed to listen to the sermons during church, I’d take a notebook with me and doodle Mario Party style boards on the page and then draw little diagrams of moving the characters around, keeping track of their coins and stars and deciding who was winning the mini-games. When playing make-believe with my siblings and cousins, I’d play shopkeepers and make up a currency system to provide them with the items they needed for their day-to-day lives.

Once I got older, this tendency naturally developed into an interest in pen-and-paper role playing games. And while I’d be in college before I got the opportunity to play one for myself, once I did I immediately started having ideas for my own tabletop RPGs.

Actual picture of me having ideas.

So today, I thought it would be fun to talk about some of the ideas I have for tabletop RPGs. While I don’t know if I’ll ever make a legitimate attempt to break into the industry, I’ve certainly used ideas like these in past campaigns to change things up for my players, and maybe you’ll be inspired by one of them to try something unique in your own campaigns!

In my early days of being a Game Master, I tended to make references that were far less subtle. By which I mean I outright just ripped material from games I had played previously. It’s kind of a natural instinct until you find your own voice as a creator. Anyway, during this campaign there were two occasions where the characters were whisked away to an alternate universe by very loosely-explained in-game justification, and these events (which I referred to as “vacation sessions” because they were a break from the norm) often heavily borrowed elements from video games the group mutually enjoyed.

In the second vacation session I ran, I decided that the group needed more than just a break from my very heavy, gore-filled story (again, subtlety is a skill I would not develop until later); they needed a break from the game mechanics of Mutants and Masterminds. So with this vacation session, I was going to totally change things up by removing dice from the equation entirely. Instead, we would use playing cards.
KH Chain of Memories.jpg
My inspiration came from Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories. The idea was that the characters were warped to an alternate universe where all of their items and powers were trapped in cards. They could play those cards in order to unlock their abilities and use them in combat. Using a few decks of Bicycle playing cards, I created miniature decks for each player and developed strategies based on their abilities.

Characters went in Initiative order and would play a card. Their opposition could then try to counter that card with one of higher value, or had to accept that they were taking damage. Numbered cards were their literal value (2-10) and face cards trumped each other in their usual order (Jack is less than Queen is less than King). Aces were high or low, like most card games, and in this instance they represented the “zero” cards in Chain of Memories – they could stop any card but could also BE stopped by any card. Face cards were special moves like the characters spells or superpowers, while numbered cards were basic attacks.

Each character had a passive ability that allowed them to interact with their deck in a special way or that affected how they could play cards. One player whose character possessed super strength and toughness played his cards at a higher value than displayed. So a 5, for example, played like a 7, which meant that in order for me to break it I needed to play a 7 or higher. Another character had super speed and so his “sleights of hand” (special moves chaining three cards together) happened so fast that I couldn’t block them, even by playing Aces. Yet another character whose focus was intuition and adaptability had a larger hand size than the rest of the group, and she could shift cards in her deck in order to find what she needed in a pinch.
Playing Cards.jpg
Despite the fact that Chain of Memories is pretty much the most hated Kingdom Hearts game ever specifically because of its card-based mechanics, my players actually really enjoyed playing this way. And ever since, I’ve wanted to find a way to craft totally unique rules for a card-based RPG that uses standard playing cards. Playing cards are more accessible than the hobby dice used by other tabletop games – most households I have ever been in have at least one deck of them. People understand cards and they recognize the basic rules that apply to almost every card game (number cards reflect their value, order of the face cards, aces high/low, etc). My goal would be to develop a basic system that governed combat, puzzles, interactions, etc with cards, and then the different classes in the game could interact with cards in special ways.

I have two main barriers when it comes to this idea. First off, I only have a concept for the game mechanics, not for the setting of the game. What kind of game world is appropriate for a card-based RPG? Should I go for the typical sci-fi or fantasy approach common with most tabletop games, using the cards as an introductory element to whet the appetite for more “serious” tabletops? Or should I develop a totally unique setting for this style of game? Second off, cards lend themselves pretty easily to a combat scenario but not necessarily to other elements of an RPG. Should cards be currency? Should they represent witty jabs in a passive-aggressive conversation? Should mini-games played with cards represent puzzles? Determining how to use cards in every aspect of the game would be a pretty daunting task, and it’s not one I’m ready to tackle without some concrete ideas.

Final Fantasy XIII Paradigm Shift.jpeg
This idea is pretty specific in that the inspiration from it came from a certain video game: Final Fantasy XIII. In this game, combat is turn-based on an active time battle system. Each character has anywhere from 2 to 6 ATB bars which fill over time. Actions take a different number of bars. A basic attack uses 1 bar, a more powerful spell might take 2 bars, etc. The spells and abilities that your character has access to is based on his or her role.

There are six roles in the game. The Commando is the party leader and they indicate who everyone is attacking, as well as slowing down the target’s “break gauge” to make it easier to overwhelm them. The Ravager capitalizes on enemy weaknesses with damaging abilities and fills the break gauge very quickly. Sentinels draw enemy aggro and protect the party from harm. Medics heal HP and status problems. Synergists provide helpful buffs to the party, while Saboteurs affect the enemy with crippling debuffs.

Each character has three main roles for a decent portion of the game. The main character Lightning, for example, can lead the party as their Commando, deal damage as a Ravager, or heal allies as a Medic. The thing is, any character can only occupy one role at a time, and there are only three characters in your party at any given time. Since each role isn’t useful at all times (no point in having a medic standing around if everyone has full health), you need to strategically choose when to have which characters in what roles. This is managed by the paradigm shift system.

FF Lightning.jpg
Lightning’s roles are simple but always useful, so I  like having her in the party.

Paradigms are pre-designed combinations of roles that you have for the party. Say you have Lightning (Commando, Ravager, Medic), Snow (Commando, Ravager, Sentinel), and Hope (Ravager, Medic, Synergist). Some basic combinations you might have are a damage oriented paradigm (Commando-Ravager-Ravager), a fully defensive paradigm (Medic-Sentinel-Medic), a paradigm for getting powered-up (Medic-Sentinel-Synergist), or a paradigm that mixes defense and offense (Commando-Sentinel-Ravager). During battle, you can switch almost instantly between these in order to change your strategy to fit the situation.

What I want to do with a tabletop RPG is to design a system that utilizes this concept of role-changing on the fly to suit your needs. Look at your typical four-party set up for a fantasy RPG: fighter, thief, mage, and cleric. You have someone focused on damage and defense, someone who whittles the enemy down, a glass cannon with serious firepower, and a healer. Maybe each player’s character fits into two of those four roles. The party agrees on different tactics they can employ, I.E., specific combinations of their available classes. Then during battle, they change between them to adapt to the situation and have access to the appropriate abilities.

Say you’re fighting a massive troll as Geoffrey (Fighter and Cleric), Analise (Fighter and Thief), and Renfield (Mage and Cleric). You decide in the beginning to give the troll everything you’ve got right away with a Fighter-Fighter-Mage attack approach. The troll seems to shrug off all damage and deals a devastating blow to the party, and now everyone is gravely injured. A quick paradigm shift changes the party to Cleric-Fighter-Cleric, Analise holding down the front line while Geoffrey and Renfield heal the group up. Realizing that the troll’s defenses need to be whittled down first, they change again to Fighter-Thief-Cleric, Renfield keeping Geoffrey healthy while he distracts the troll from Analise, who sneaks up behind the troll and plunges an envenomed dagger into its back. Now that the troll is poisoned, it’s vulnerable to attack, so the group changes back to the Fighter-Fighter-Mage approach to deal as much damage as possible and defeat the troll while they have an opening.

To me, having a character with the versatility to play multiple roles in combat could be really unique and interesting. And crafting the rules so that different roles have advantages against specific kinds of opponents would make each one necessary and make different combinations viable and important. As with the playing card example above, the main problem I see here is that this concept mainly applies to combat and could be hard to effectively integrate in other aspects of the game.

Sixteen post
If you’ve been following Adventure Rules for a long time, then you probably already know that this is something I’ve delved in to pretty deeply in the past. In fact, it was a posted blog goal for a long time to get this RPG into the playtesting phase. So what happened? First, I think it’s important to talk about what made me interested in an MBTI RPG in the first place.

Back in college, taking the Myers-Briggs type indicator was something that happened for a class at least once per semester. Honestly, I have no idea why. But it seemed like I was always in a psychology class or first year experience class or a theology class or creative writing class that wanted to use the MBTI for some kind of object lesson or just as a better way to know yourself. When I wasn’t in a class that was taking one, inevitably one of my friends would be. As such, at least once a semester everyone in our group was taking this test, using different websites to compare results and to see different descriptions of what our type is like and how it interacts with other types.

If you’re not familiar with the Myers-Briggs type indicator, here are the basics. There are eight preferences that exist in opposed pairs: Extroverted versus Introverted, Sensing versus iNtuition, Thinking versus Feeling, and Judging versus Perceiving. Each one is abbreviated as one letter, and since each person has one preference from each pair, you end up with a four-letter combination that categorizes your personality. As an example, I am an INFP (introverted-intuitive-feeling-perceiver). Depending on what site you use, you get different names for these, but the one I see most often for my type is “Healer.”
FF White Mage.jpg
We all see where this is going, right? These different personality types (there are sixteen in all) all have these cool RPG-style names, and they even fall into four broad categories called temperaments. The four temperaments are Guardian, Artisan, Rational, and Idealist. Guess what those concepts seem to line up with quite nicely? Fighter, thief, mage, cleric – yep, this personality theory is pretty much begging to be turned into a tabletop game! Combine that with the fact that pretty much everyone loves to take personality quizzes (if you don’t believe me, ask Buzzfeed) and we’re looking at a concept that pretty much sells itself. So why, then, am I not selling it? Why would I start to develop such an RPG and then just let the idea get away?
A big thing for me is that I am having a lot of trouble settling on just one concept. When working on this RPG, I actually tried combining it with both the ideas I discussed in detail above. I thought cards could be a great way to capture the more psychological aspects of a game based on a personality theory. Elements like betting, bluffing, and finding tells appealed to me in a game that focused on psychology. But in pursuing that idea I encountered the barriers that have prevented me from making a playing-card RPG of any kind.

I was also drawn to the idea of the paradigm shift concept for the MBTI RPG. Each personality type is made up of four preferences. My idea was that each preference could represent a different strategy, and each character could only be in tune with one preference at a time. Maybe being in the extroverted role would be the direct, combat-oriented approach while the introverted role would be more of a stealth character. Someone with my type (INFP) could then maybe have overarching passive abilities that color each individual role to fit the idea of the class as a whole, a healer. However, developing eight unique roles that could potentially be applied to situations of combat, puzzle solving, social interaction, etc all ended up being pretty complicated, and my concept wasn’t playing out the way I envisioned in my head.

And this is the crux of the problem when it comes to me working on this RPG: I haven’t narrowed down my concept. I’m thinking about marketability and originality and also trying to incorporate other psychological elements and fantasy roleplaying and I don’t know if I want it to be rules-light or narrativist or or or or or – I’m pulled in so many directions and haven’t narrowed my vision to one concrete idea that I care about. Until I find the concept for this game that really gels with me, that really means something to me, finishing it won’t work. It’s just like blogging in that sense – you need to have a vision and your own identity. Total focus just on what’ll get clicks is poor motivation and it often leads to a lack of success. I’ll probably come back to the idea of a Myers-Briggs game someday – but I want to do it on my own terms, with an idea that I am truly in love with.

Oh…well that explains a lot.

That’s it for today, adventurers! I appreciate you taking the time to read today’s post, and I hope you enjoyed it. Now I’d like to hear from you: what are some ideas you have for a tabletop RPG that you think could be really cool? Do you have any thoughts on the ideas I discussed above? Let me know in the comments!

UPCOMING POSTS: March 1st monthly update post
Zelda-related post Friday in honor of Breath of the Wild
Tabletop Tuesday I’ll be discussing a brand new tabletop RPG!
UPCOMING EVENTS: Nintendo Switch and Breath of the Wild launch Friday!!!!
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: Fire Emblem Fates Character Guide: Conquest
Tabletop Tuesday: Editing a Custom Class – The Aberration
The About This Blog page has been updated

4 thoughts on “Tabletop Tuesday: Pen-and-Paper RPGs I Want to Design

Add yours

      1. Yes and no. Most individual games have their own website for folks to talk about that specific game. For tabletops in general, social media sites like Reddit or Twitter are probably the closest thing to a central hub for folks to talk about the hobby. I personally follow a lot of tabletop players/developers on Twitter.

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Website Powered by

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: