Building A Game System

I’ve had this love/hate relationship with creating my own game system since I started writing gaming material; in some ways, I see it as the apex of what a game designer is supposed to do, but I also think that it’s a pursuit that’s over-glorified. If I were a politician, this is the issue in which I would be grilled by the media for flip-flopping throughout the years since sometimes I am all about setting out to create a new system, others I’m perfectly fine using existing systems and calling it a day. The compromise I reached with myself was to design using system hacking, eschewing innovation, just creating something to fit my needs out of someone else’s LEGO blocks.

At this point in my work, and for reasons related to why I’ve come back to blogging, I’ve decided that I want to own my stuff, and have control over my creations, at least up to the point where I put them in front of other people for their use. Using existing systems for my work offers an existing audience, but it also imposes expectations that my work may not be designed to address, or have philosophical assumptions built into them that don’t match what I may want to highlight in my design. I’m all for “inspired by,” just not so much for “powered by.”

The good thing is that, because this is a topic that I’ve been thinking about for such a long time, I have a number of building blocks ready to go, including design goals for the system, and a core resolution mechanic that addresses those goals. I still have some work to do fleshing out the creation and interaction of characters and threats, so I’m not starting from scratch.

I’m not interested in creating the next [Insert Hot Game System Here]; that system already exists, and is cool and awesome on its own terms. I’m interested in creating something that serves my gaming needs, meets my design goals, and is creator-owned.


  1. I stopped being a third-party publisher (3PP) and began working on my own system for a number of reasons. There are both creative and business considerations to be had. It comes down to what you want to accomplish with your work.

    Let’s use Pathfinder as an example, because I created material under that license for a while.

    I was not only in competition with other 3PP, but with Paizo, the owners of the game.

    3PP are often regarded as little more than fanboys and amateurs, because a lot of the 3PP are, so truly good work goes unnoticed.

    The perception is that if you were good, you’d be working for Paizo or one of the larger, most established 3PP.

    The work is seen as inferior, because it’s non-canonical and merely compatible.

    Even though the license prohibits copying Paizo’s trade dress, fans expect a licensed product to look like the official stuff. Wealthier 3PP even hire the same artists as Paizo.

    Fans also reject most of what is innovative, or at least too different, favoring “more of same”, while in turn lambasting 3PP who do nothing by crank out more of same.

    It sucks when you’ve worked hard on a product and another 3PP releases something similar before you can. Worse, when Paizo announces they’re working on a similar product right before you release yours. The product gets tanked AND you get accused of being a copycat.

    I’ll stand or fall on my own merits, thanks. I won’t get the benefits of a built-in audience, but at least my fans are MY fans.

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    • Our conversations on the subject, plus posts you have made, were very much influential in making this decision, for the reasons you listed here. I’ve done the third-party publisher thing, and it worked at the time for what it was, but I want to go down different roads this time, stretch myself in new ways, build up my own hill to live and die on, so to speak.


  2. This is why I like the “hack” concept: start with something you mostly like and tweak it for your needs.


    • Without trying to get philosophical, I think all systems are hacks in one way or another. We’re all building from the original system, then branching off in different directions to fit our goals. I’ve done straight-up hacking during my d20 days, but now I’m looking to build something new, though obviously I’m inspired by things that have come before.


  3. I created my system when I stopped being a freelancer. I was burned out in 3.5 after leaving Zeitgeist Games. I lived Blackmoor and the work I did, but I wanted simple.

    Hence 12 Degrees which drives Colonial Gothic and Shadow, Sword & Spell. I have never looked back.

    Now, granted I just released a 5E adaptation of an SS&S adventure. Why? Figured why not? I can experiment which is why I decided to start doing my own thing.


    • Therein lies the freedom of owning your stuff: you can do whatever you want, like experiment with an established system. It really is about the freedom.


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