Tag Archives: game design

TTRPG Design Mastery — The Impossible Road

Welcome to a guest post, here on Rising Phoenix Games. Kim Frandsen is here to talk about the difficult road TTRPG designers have to walk to becoming masters of the craft. Enjoy.

Hi everyone! Rodney asked me to share some thoughts that I’d been having recently about the TTRPG industry.

In most creative industries, such as tabletop roleplaying game publishing, there are — at least to me — seemingly three levels of “achievement” a creator can reach:

  1. Apprentice
  2. Journeyman
  3. Master

Cruel Trinkets

The Road to Mastering RPG Design

To give an example of what I mean, let’s compare the TTRPG industry to the film industry. Hollywood’s movie business is well known and has similar requirements to our own, in that it requires a lot of creative input and technical knowledge to achieve a coherent and appealing final product.

So an apprentice within the TTRPG world is someone who is just starting out. They may be self-publishing or they may have a few years of experience working as a freelancer for smaller publishers. In the film world, these are the folks putting out their first films, or who are just out of film school. They may have acquired some technical knowledge along the way, and they may have great creative ideas, but they still need a lot of help executing their ideas to a level where an audience can understand their work.

Masters are of course at the other end of the craft. They’re the ones who do the work that you always hear about. Within the gaming world, they’ll be people like Chris Perkins, Owens KC Stephens, Jason Buhlmann, and Skip Williams. They’re exceptionally capable and experienced designers who have had their hands in hundreds of projects. They not only have creative vision but also the technical know-how to realize that vision.
In the film world, these are people like Alfred Hitchcock, Stephen Spielberg, and Francis Ford Coppola for direction. They may be the Chris Evanses, Ryan Reynolds, and Scarlett Johansson for actors. They could also be the “invisible” people like John Williams, known for the soundscapes that complete the film experience. These are the creators that everyone has heard of,  and who have staying power.

In between these two, you find the journeyman level. For films, these are the people who can live off their work but haven’t become famous. They might be the supporting actors on big-budget films, they may be the camera or sound crews, or they may be the director that does documentaries for the BBC — people that those in the business have potentially heard of, but who aren’t well known to the public.

And here comes the question: where is the journeyman level in the TTRPG Industry?

Making a living off your work in this business, even if you have multiple years of experience and projects behind you, is tough. In my case, I started in 2016 and at this point, I have more than 100 projects behind me as both author and editor, and I’ve started dabbling in layout, but I cannot make a living off what I do — even though I’d love to. (Editors Note: Kim has multiple credits for Paizo, including Pathfinder and Starfinder work. He was also an alternate in the top 32 for RPG Superstar, Season 9. Kim also wrote Heaven & Hell for Pathfinder Second Edition.)


The figure that you need to take home to live (please note I said “live”, not “survive” — there is a difference) varies by where you live of course. Generally, if you live in the West, things cost more. That’s just how it is.

But how big does the RPG industry have to be to support the Journeyman level folks? Nobody knows how much money is in the business, and the few who have an insight into that are really not interested in sharing that information. The fact is though that there are only a few companies out there that are big enough to supply more than a handful (5) employees full-time. This includes the juggernaut Wizards of the Coast and all the way down to smaller companies with permanent staff. Even just finding out who belongs in that category is difficult. (Truth be told, the industry really isn’t doing itself any favors on this, by being so opaque, but I digress).
Unfortunately, until we know what the business is worth in total, and where it has been in the past, it’ll be difficult to say where the “break” point in size is for the RPG industry, but there is one factor that we can comment on.
We’d like to see more people make a living by making TTRPGs, wouldn’t we? After all, it allows us to see more people progress to the master level, so we’ll eventually enjoy the stuff they put out. And it’d allow others who have the skill and knowledge to live off their earnings from roleplaying games too.

Do I have a personal stake in this? Yes. Of course, I do, and I’m obviously one who’d like to reach the Journeyman level. But more than that: I’d like to see my friends remain in the business. I started at a time where I was connected with something like 20 or 30 other people. Today, only 2 of them are left, with a 3rd on hiatus and a 4th mostly being too busy with his day job to work away at game design. So many people have fallen by the wayside that I know had the ability to make it, if there had been a future for them. For all of us, it wears us down. And while those who survive the first 3-4 years tend to stick around, I’d really like to see more of the talented newcomers staying with us.

Thanks for listening to my rant.
Catch you on the flip side.
Kim Frandsen
You can find Kim on Beyond the Horizon.

Build a Minis Game, Ep. 2 – Initiative – MM 43

It’s Mini Monday, where I share customizing, scratch building, kitbashing, and miniature painting projects for your roleplaying and tabletop gaming. This week we’ll continue building a miniatures game by adding an initiative system and a turn order. When we’re done, we’ll make a simple prototype game so we can get playtesting!

Mini Monday Logo

Last Mini Monday we looked at a concept and theme for our little miniatures skirmish wargame, Dagger Lords. Now we’ll get started on an initiative system (woohoo, stealth pun) and the turn order. This is an important bit to get right because everything else we do will happen in the order this subsystem dictates.

Once we’ve got the activation mechanic worked out, we can put it into a simple prototype that we can test out. That’ll help us see if our rules are fun on their own, if they take too long, and if they’re intuitive enough. We also want to be sure our rules tap into our theme of fantasy crime lords fighting a turf war. That might sound like a big ask, but I think we can do it.

Episode 1: Concept and Theme
Episode 2: Initiative and Turns
Episode 3: Movement
Episode 4: Combat
Episode 5: Powers and Playtesting
Episode 6: Polishing the Game

Remember that, as we go, we’ll update a public document so that you can see the latest version of the game.

Design Goal

I’d like our activation system to do a few things:

  1. It should be fun
  2. It should involve a wager, supporting the “crime lords” theme
  3. It should allow for up to six players taking turns, but without too much boring wait time

Example Initiative Systems

Not too long ago, Tabletop Minions posted a video about wargaming misconceptions. In it, Uncle Atom mentioned disliking Warhammer 40,000’s simple and boring activation system. In 40K, you roll to see who goes first, then take turns in that order.

In the aforementioned video’s chat, a bunch of wargamers weighed in with some great activation systems from other games, including rolling against a target number to activate, pulling dice from a bag, or activating one unit per turn.

We can also look to games like Dungeons & Dragons and other tabletop roleplaying games for ideas. Personally, I’m a big fan of systems that let players make choices about who goes when, such as Marvel Heroic Roleplay that lets the players decide when heroes and NPCs act. In those rules, whoever goes last picks who starts the next round, so it’s always in the PC’s favor to have one of their group end off the round. This gets especially interesting when there’s a chance of finishing off the enemies by going before them: miss, and the baddies are going to get in a lot of shots before you can do anything about it.

Dagger Lords Initiative System, Draft 1

Here’s my proposal for both the initiative system and the structure of each round:

  1. Each miniature gets between 1 and 3 Reflex Points, which are replenished at the end of the turn. Because the average is 2, we’ll assume all minis have 2 Reflex Points for now. We can specify the exact number for each model later in our design process.
  2. A model can spend a Reflex Point to jump the initiative queue, but it’s a gamble.
  3. A model can spend a Reflex Point to interrupt another miniature’s movement or attack.
  4. A round consists of the following phases: Initiative, Activation (Movement and Combat), Top-Up

Dagger Lords — Prototype Game 1

Let’s break these concepts down a little more by jumping into a prototype game.

Setup and Rounds

Each player controls 3 gangster miniatures, with the player representing the gang boss. A game can have up to six players. Any miniatures can be used, and for these rules, only close combat weapons are considered because of powerful magic influencing the battlefield. Each mini has 2 Reflex Points and 3 Hit Points.

The game is played in a number of rounds, and each round has three phases:

  1. Initiative
  2. Activation (Movement and Combat)
  3. Top-Up

1. Initiative

Each player rolls 2D6 for their gang. Each miniature can spend 1 of their 2 Reflex Points to add +2 to the roll. Play proceeds in order from the highest to the lowest total. The player with the highest score regains 2 Reflex Points to share among the models in their gang.
Dice off for ties.

2. Activation

Each mini then acts in initiative order and can do any two of the following:

  1. Move up to 6 inches
  2. Make an attack

To make an attack against an enemy model within 2 inches of your model, you much roll a 4, 5, or 6 on 1D6 to hit. If your attack hits, you must roll another 1D6 to deal damage. A roll of 4 or 5 deals 1 point of damage, and a roll of 6 deals 3 points of damage.

Any model can interrupt another model’s movement to perform one action from the list above by spending 1 Reflex Point. If two or more models from different teams wish to act at the same time, they dice off to see who goes first. The order is decided in the order of declared interrupts, so it’s possible for a model to interrupt another model that is interrupting its turn, the player only has to declare their interrupt after the interrupting player does.

3. Top Up

After all the models have activated, each model that isn’t destroyed regains 1 Hit Point and up to 2 Reflex Points. A model can never have more than their starting amount of these points.

Winning and Losing

The last team with any remaining models in it is the winner.

Some Final Thoughts

Reflex Points might be compared to actions in D&D, but they also let a player play when they want. Reflex Points are replenished at the end of the round, and no Reflex Points are carried over, so there’s plenty of motivation to use them. They’re our currency for the action economy, and there’s some risk involved in spending them, especially if you’re trying to go early.

We’ll be able to tie abilities to the Reflex Points later, which could get interesting. Imagine if ghouls can spend their RP to steal RP from other minis, or if wizards can cast a haste-like spell to grant their allies bonus RP.

Our prototype is very basic, and probably not tons of fun yet, but it does let us test out some ideas that’ll be at the core of our skirmish game. In fact, we already tested an earlier version of the initiative system and found it needed major tweaking. We want to get this core right, so it pays to test it out and tweak it before we continue. If you do play our little game, please drop your thoughts in the comments below. What worked, what didn’t, how do you think the initiative system could be improved?

You can check out what we have so far by clicking on the button, which will take you to the Dagger Lords working document.


Let’s Build a Miniatures Game, Ep. 1 – MM 42

It’s Mini Monday, where I share customizing, scratch building, kitbashing, and miniature painting projects for your roleplaying and tabletop gaming. This week we’re building a miniatures game!

Mini Monday Logo

We’ve been building up to this.

I’ve always got a few game projects on the go, like my private He-Man boardgame expansion, but I thought it’d be fun to build a game. With you. We’ll be building a small, miniatures agnostic skirmish wargame, and hopefully it’ll inspire you to build your own.

How’s this going to work?

Each Mini Monday we’ll look at a different aspect of the game. We’ll look at many game design concepts and practices, and get our hands dirty with some prototype games. I’ll present a few ideas, pick the best of them for our game, then discuss why I think they’re great.

Sound off in the comments with your own ideas and feedback, and I’ll do my best to reply there and work the best ideas back into updated versions of the game. It’s also possible that you’ll only see these posts well after we’ve moved on, in which case you can follow our process or modify our results to make your own game.

Here’s a breakdown of what we’ll cover in this series:
Episode 1: Concept and Theme
Episode 2: Initiative and Turns
Episode 3: Movement
Episode 4: Combat
Episode 5: Powers and Playtesting
Episode 6: Polishing the Game

As we go, we’ll update a public document so that you can see the latest version of the game.

Concept and Theme

If our concept is to build a small, miniatures agnostic skirmish wargame, then we’ll need a theme to support that.

Our theme could be anything, like monkey pirates with banana grenades, or humans surviving in the grim darkness of space, but none of those ideas are worth pursuing if it pulls us away from our initial concept, unless we’re okay with changing it. For now, let’s assume the concept is rock solid. So we can’t build a Warhammer 40,000 clone, because that’ll need too many miniatures, and a monkey pirates game will need some very hard-to-find monkey pirate minis. Those themes would pull us away from our concept.

I like the basic premise behind Necromunda: gangs fighting it out in a massive hive structure. Gangs are easy to find miniatures for since they could be humans, aliens, robots, mutants, or even undead.

We could flip this on its head to get our own concept: You’re a fantasy crime lord fighting a bitter turf war.

Hey, that even gives me an idea for a name: Dagger Lords.

The theme of gangs of fantasy creatures supports a miniatures agnostic game and doesn’t need to get any bigger than 2-3 minis on a side. It screams Dickensian characters with a fantasy twist, or maybe a Steampunk, Peaky Blinders inspired skirmish game, but with goblins and scummy elves.

With that, we’re on our way to building a miniatures game!

You can check out what we have so far by clicking on the button, which will take you to the Dagger Lords working document. There’s not much there yet, but we’re just getting started.


Write – Design – Program: 1 Year in Games

July 25th, 2017, marked a year since I finished 5 years of teaching in Japan and began working full-time in the games industry. That’s 1 year in games! It’s been an up and down ride, but I’ve learned so much. Here are some of my reflections.

Write - Design - Program
Write – Design – Program

Once Upon a Career Crisis
In 2011 my wife and I left for Japan. I didn’t like the route my career was taking—working predominantly in web design. I felt I could do more elsewhere, and wanted out. Five years later I walked out of the classroom and into the games industry.

Go. Go Now
I started Rising Phoenix Games on the last day of 2010. Over the next five years, in my free moments, I worked hard to learn my craft and build the company. When I realized there was only so much I could learn on my own I started freelancing, which taught me loads more, but also brought new opportunities my way. None of that would have been possible without the five plus years of banging on my craft.

Starting and starting early was critical.

Incarnate Hybrid Class Cover

Build a Runway
Jake Birkett (Grey Alien Games) mentions this principle in his GDC talk, How to Survive in Gamedev for Eleven Years Without a Hit. A runway—or savings—helps you weather the time between project launches. I’m not a big drinker, never smoked, and love a bargain, so was able to step away from my last job with enough money to see me through till sales came in. There were sleepless nights, but it really helped. I still relish the opportunity to save, and am busy installing a rain water tank to cut down on our utility bill.

More Money Saved = More Money for Game Dev.

We had this slogan at the summer camp I worked at: “TEAM: Together Everyone Achieves More.” Cheesy, but true. Partnering up has, in every instance, taken me further than I could have gone by myself.

Because of this, being a team player is important. Time is short, and people want to work with someone they know has their back and will deliver.

Together Everyone Achieves More.

I aim to stay in the games industry,  one, five, ten years and longer. Write – Design – Program is part of that, because this series is all about sharing insights. If you’re working in games, tell us what’s working for you.

Rodney Sloan is a game design, writer, and programmer at Rising Phoenix Games, a line developer for Steampunk Musha at Fat Goblin Games, and a freelancer. You can find him on Twitter.

Imagination by Design

Are video games killing our imagination?

Imagination by Design

Berin Kinsman of Asparagus Jumpsuit, when talking about creativity in our play experiences, wrote on his blog, that
“The thing I like most about tabletop roleplaying games, and the reason I’m not overly fond of video games, is that aspect of creativity and imagination…”. In other words, the great thing about roleplaying is that we can freely create and imagine, creating our own play experience. On the other hand, we can’t get this same creative freedom in video games.

Video games have to deal with a number of limitations. To work, they are designed and created to be a complete whole that fits within those limitations. The story, characters, setting, graphics, available actions and even the possible endings are all set. There isn’t room for more, and the players’ imagination is usually bound up within that whole. Play Batman: Arkham Origins and you’ll spend your time imagining that you’re Batman. Play any First Person Shooter and your imagination will be bound to the paradigm of the FPS.

Is this something we can solve with clever design? Can we design for the imagination?

Berin mentioned LEGO in his post, and the comparison with Markus Persson’s Minecraft is an obvious one to make. Minecraft is fun because the player creates, and when we create our imaginations go into overdrive.

That’s the key, create gaps for the player to fill.

Create + Activity = Creativity

But we don’t need to build games about building. We just need to make those fill-able spaces. The character in silhouette, who we never learn much about. The evil tower on a faraway hill that we never get to visit. The coin in our pocket that we started the game with. The things we hear moving around under the floor boards. These all help to engage our imaginations on some level.

What do you think? This topic certainly has a lot of depth. Leave a comment and let’s talk about it.

Showing off your TCG

Japan has some great ideas when it comes to card games, with games like Yugioh, Pokemon and Vanguard being super popular all over the world. Here’s an idea for showcasing a new TG game that caught my attention. The game is called “Zillions of enemy X” or ZX, which sounds a little like “sex” when you say it in Japanese.

It’s my first YouTube vid, so please be kind.

You can find out more about the game at www.zxtcg.com (Japanese only).


Inspired in Japan


Claustrophobia! – New Advancement Rules

I’ve been working on the experience and advancement system for Claustrophobia! The original game didn’t have rules for XP because I figured gnomes would die before they had a chance to level, or that sessions would be once off affairs. After play-testing and thinking about it more, I figured it was necessary and an important way to award players for creating an entertaining story.

In designing the system there were some specific considerations. The system needs to reward players for the following:

  1. Entertaining role-play.
  2. Interesting, dramatic or creative character death scenes.
  3. Creative use of a gnome’s name in play.
  4. Creative use of a gnome’s gear.
  5. Completing missions, overcoming challenges and defeating monsters (the bread and butter stuff).

I didn’t want a clunky system with loads of tables and calculations, like the rest of the game it had to be rules light and easy to run. Also, since gnomes should always be expendable, I wanted to award the player, rather than the character. Some games that stood out to me for their experience systems are the Mouse Guard Roleplaying Game and the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game, which I recently picked up, so I drew inspiration from them in part too.


Trophies of Triumph

For the Beta I decided on a simple awards system, with award recipients decided by group voting. Players have four awards to give out and, like in Mouse Guard, need to give them to different players. If there are fewer players than awards then awards are dropped from the list until there is one award per player.

The Golden Gnome: given to the best role-player or the person who delivered the most interesting scene using their character and the circumstances before them.

Drama Queen: given to the player with the most entertaining death scene.

I Name Thee…: given to the player with the most creative use of a name during the session.

I Never Leave Home Without It: given to the player with the most interesting use of gear during the session.

Players who win an award get 2 experience points. Each player also gets one further point for each scene in which they faced danger. Once six points are accumulated, the player can increase one sphere by one point or gain two health. Sphere scores cannot be increased above 5 or a total of 14 between the three spheres of Social, Mental and Physical.

Lastly, when a gnome dies, the player can take half of its total XP, rounded down, to create a new character. This represents crew members of the HMS Keeton rising up through the ranks to take their place in the spot light.

What do you think about this simple system? Any ideas or comments, please let us know!