Curious about TTRPG Design Challenges

Q: For Tabletop RPG Designers: What are your top 3 pains or challenges and why is that?


Working from such a tiny niche it could really be a fleahouse. (“niche” means doghouse in French), far below “RPGs are D&D” itself far below “RPGs are videogames”. The immensity of this tinyness is a burden.

Keeping up with the amount of production. There are few games that have new things for me and the newness is often well hidden. Among a plethora of visually charming works it’s really like skimming for a glitter of gold.

Specialism. Language varies between the various crowds, making interunderstandability the exception. This blocks a lot of probably good works off my radar, with very few translators, and that’s a pity.

Each of these challenges is also a reason to like RPG design : a tiny area of hyperexpertise with a lot of visually pleasing production.

  1. An expectation in the Indie design space that adventure/scenario design is less useful or meaningful then system design. This not only seems to mean that adventure designers aren’t valued as part of the scene, but also that the theory and of adventure design is largely ignored or unknown. This results in the frustrating situation where there’s 100’s of new “games”, mostly with very minor changes to their mechanics, and nothing to play with them. Even successful designers tend not to support their own successes by producing adventures or setting material, instead moving onto a new next system. If I’m learning a new system or playing something one or two times, I’ love someone to have designed an adventure for it.
    In my own niche of Classic RPGs based on early D&D this isn’t as bad, but instead tends to mean that while almost everything is playable with the 1981 Moldvay rules, there’s a new big retro-clone every couple of years with its own minor shifts and changes, demanding updated stat-lines and confusing newcomers to this niche of the hobby about what system they need to use to play adventures from 1979.

  2. Scope and scale of adventure design. The amount of material required to run a decent procedural dungeon crawl from someone else’s work is considerable, yet the ability to read and hold information in ones head while refereeing and the willingness to read longer works as part of prep is understandably limited. Trying to balance these goals in key/location design is especially tricky if one isn’t leaning on vernacular fantasy to fill in description.

  3. Expectations that fantasy RPG settings which aren’t firmly rooted in the vernacular fantasy, or aping its appearance are “weird” and thus will be so focused on their deviations from these expectations that they will be under-realized and/or be difficult to use or play.


Lack of motivation or clear goals, really. I right now do the part of game design that I find interesting or fun, but then stall out when it comes to finishing, publishing and promoting games. Because those tasks are work, and I don’t want to put in the effort without some idea of what benefit I’ll get from doing so. And it’s clear that I’ll never make significant money in RPGs and I’ll never achieve widespread acclaim. If I put in twice the effort making a game and earned ten times as much money? Well, I’d still be better off getting a part-time job at McDonald’s. So then the question is: why spend more effort?


As weird as this sounds, the parts that don’t have to do with TTRPG design are what gives me the most challenges. Designing a game is simple and fun enough, but collecting art for a guidebook, finding playtesters, and advertising is something which require a different set of skills and resources entirely. For my last project I felt like every hour I spent designing the game and I spent two networking and advertising, and still got the bare minimum of people to actually play it.

  1. Breaking roleplaying game conventions. I think too few things that are questioned in tabletop roleplaying game design.

1a) Solving mechanics without randomness (dice, cards). I’ve already made progress with this, but I still going back to using randomization as an instinctive first solution. My goal is to create a strategic TTRGP without any random factors.

1b) Writing adventures and roleplaying games in a new way. I think TTRPGs are written poorly, not being able to convey how to play - only what to play with. Why have character creation first when we don’t know how to play a TTRPG? Separating the three main elements - mechanics, settings and game master chapter - is not the way to go, and we can even see this structure in indie/story games. I haven’t been able to find any other resources to be inspired from, but I’m currently writing TTRPGs as boardgame manuals. They are shorter, more clear, and adaptive, but I still fall into the same trap of separating the three main elements.

1c) Asking questions about what certain basic design elements results in. Should we have skills/moves? What does mechanical rewards actually do, and are there other, non-tangial, reward systems to use? These things are mostly added without any hesitation, in my opinion, and I need to look beyond that. The WHY part of designing, and I would like to add pinpointing the target audience and write for them, and no one else. Which is hard to grasp, before the game have been written/playtested.


An expectation in the Indie design space that adventure/scenario design is less useful or meaningful then system design

I too wish people would stop publishing systems and publish more adventures. Of course, I recently published a system :roll_eyes: but here’s the rub… I think of systems are a personal thing and thus, understand why there would be so many. I mean, I need another Color Hack like I need my mind flayed… same can be said about my WoDu hack… but I wanted a system that allows me to GM the way I want; that works well with my style. Given that, it becomes necessary to write it all down; hop-skip-jump you’re a publisher :man_shrugging:

NOW, I’m working on what I want to be working on: adventures. Hopefully good ones :crossed_fingers:

In a really high abstract level, what’s really the difference between “adventure” and “system”? Both are, from a helicopter perspective, just telling you how to run a session.

I’m a little bit confused and curious about what you said about systems being personal - because I don’t think adventures can be run without any modifications, because they are usually too personal - in most cases even just a summary of what happened when the author of the adventure playtested the adventure. Which means that the author jots down some series of events, instead of what really sparked the interaction between the players and the GM/adventure.

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A system has tools that help me adjudicate a game. An adventure is a bunch of stuff the players can/could/might do. A space helicopter could not get high enough to see them as the same, IMO. Also, I might ignore either as I see fit.

No, for me, I need a system that supports what I want; how I run a game; plays to my strengths. Systems are all about me. An adventure is for the players.

This might also be why there are so many systems vs. adventures… :laughing:

To me, there’s nothing personal about an adventure. I don’t–nor should I–feel the need to play an adventure by the book. Maybe some people think you should… but that’s absurd to me. I take what I want and change what I want… sometimes I steal just an NPC from an adventure… in rare cases (looking at you Prison of the Hated Pretender), I run the adventure RAW.

Now… what sparks me to like an adventure OR a system… that’s pretty personal I suppose. Maybe that helicopter has a point there :smiley:


Interesting, but it makes me wonder how you construct an adventure.

To illustrate my point of view, where I think they are the same (a game designer and an adventure designer makes the same thing to me - the ability to run a session). An adventure sets a certain mood, follows a certain genre, and even tells something about the play style. You can play a D&D adventure in Call of Cthulhu, or you can railroad a sandbox, to give some examples how one might want to run a game.

… and to turn this around, some people think of game systems as a toolbox, where they can pick whatever they want to build their own system.

I think adventures are the most important part in roleplaying games, because they say what to do in a session. In the rulebook, it’s usually the combination of rules, characters, setting and game master advice that forms an adventure. I like how some games have gotten rid of the adventures, and instead focused on a structure of play, because I hate having to puzzle together bits and pieces in the rulebook in order to figure out how I should run a session.

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I’ve been running a campaign for two years with the same peeps. I’m trying to figure out how to transfer my session adventures to a module (ie. a publishable adventure for strangers). I’m not exactly sure yet… but it seems like even those two things will be different :thinking:

In my campaign, my players do what they do and I connect the pieces. There’s an über bad and various minions that are doing things regardless of the PCs and/or in response to the PC’s. Tools for me the GM. You’re quite right on adventures having mood; genre; play style. It’s why I like to weave modules into my game… change up the mood/tempo/vibe.

For example, I wedged part of Death Frost Doom into my game. Not the dungeon… just the top level things: Zeke; hanging tree; body; cabin, etc… Scared the hell out of my players :smiley: I didn’t run the module… I used the module. I love this; using the parts that spoke to me and inspired me to use them in my game.

But… it’s all about the players. My adventure design (whether I wrote it or stole it) is in response to their choices.

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  1. Writing the game & making the product: I like to design games: to think how to execute certain ideas, how various mechanics or procedures could work. I like to assemble things together.

However, I really despise writing the game into a form of finished product. Nice and attractive writing (copyediting, but also style), then attractive layout, finally: the product that convince you do buy and play it just by cover art and first page(s). Possibilty that my game can be thrown out of window (or just straight ignored) just because it doesn’t look attractive enough, gives me anxiety and undermines the purpose of making a TTRPG…

  1. Making sure that the framework connects itself from the beginning of play, to the end. In simpler words, if I design some one-shot TTRPG, I need to ensure that the game will work consistently in desired fashion, and it will have some desirable outcomes in the end. There must be something more than one or two gimmicks (which hooks the reader/player) overused for the duration of a session. I want to ensure, that picking one of my games will matter in terms of entertainment.

For example, I have huge issues of balancing “resources of PCs vs how the heist grinds out them” for October Rust. My intent as designer was to ensure, that in every OR’s session, there will be at least 1 PC who will perish (lose the character), some Sin reveals will be shown and the Storm Clock will be full in the second half of a session. No matter the game master’s ability, player’s manners or else. It’s about making several clocks ticking with their own pace, to make them click in certain way…

  1. I always ask myself: Does already exist a game, which meets the premise of my idea? If so, I don’t see the reason why I should invent certain model of a wheel once again and propably not even as good as the previous one.

It’s not a challenge per se, more exercise of thought. For a very long time, I abandoned my initial works on my heartbreaker just because games like Burning Wheel, TSoY/TSS, certain PbtA and BitD titles, exists. Why bother to design, if already a convenient game exists and can be played?


I mean I also have my own system of house rules - all very unique and special (this is a lie, they are an aggregation of various popular Mid-OSR/G+ era hacks for easier procedural dungeon crawling that me and my friends came up with back in 2014 or so). I’ve thought about wiring it up, I even got about 85% done with an intro version, lacking explanations of how the rules work and additional character design content – because - GASP - I use kits of a sort for subclasses. But, do I think I need to do the work to inflict CRAWL on the world? Another fantasy dungeon game based on the 1974 whitebox’s design? Not really.

Sure I think it’s great, I’ve play tested it, used it for years, tuned it up to deliver the style of play I want … but at the end of the day, it’s just house rules for a well established system, and I can write adventures for it or I can write them for more general use and a more generally known system that lets people use there own hacks and house rules.

I’ve chosen the second option (using OSE, but really it’s just the ubiquitous Moldvay B/X) because I like writing adventures far more then insisting my specific hacks and work-arounds are what’s best for the old standards of fantasy RPG play. Inventing mechanics makes people (or me at least) feel mighty clever, but they so rarely change play or play style in a meaningful way. For me it’s also better to share my ideas in the form of something people might actually use, an adventure.

Here’s some pics for my abortive CRAWL layout - I like them, but haven’t figured out what to do with them:

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HA! You sir are much smarter than myself…

Publishing my system (also mostly house rules) got me publishing… for good or ill. So there’s that… but yeah, mostly it was my own self-imposed hurdle. And now I am free to litter the world with adventure :laughing:. Your extremely helpful examples and discussions aid my aim to do just that!

Thanks a bunch, Gus

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Welcome to the community &/or thanks for posting, @Mansfeld, as appropriate!

My top 3 challenges are:

1. Mechanics. I have a ton of ideas for games but I struggle to convert a concept into an actual TTRPG because I never have any idea which mechanics the game would need to have. As a crutch, I started hacking systems like Lasers & Feelings or Push. Unfortunately, 2 of my games don’t actually do in play what I had envisioned, which means I’ll need to go back to the drawing boards and work on them again at some point in the future.

2. Graphic elements. I’m not an artist. I don’t know how to draw or how to use programs to create your own graphics, which means I am always stuck either having to commission art for the cover of my games or improvising something half-decent using free assets from sites like Freepik.

3. Layout/Proofreading. Tied in 3rd place are the layout and the proofreading. After the game is actually done, making it “look good” is almost as important as the actual mechanics and, once again, I don’t know how to use any layout programs so I have to improvise (and keep fighting with MS Word for it to do what I want). It also means that I gave up trying to make character sheets/playbooks because they always looked terrible. Proofreading comes right after that simply because, no matter how many times I read and re-read my own games if I read it again the year after publishing, I always find more mistakes, which is a bit annoying.

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Number one for sure is being stuck in this kind of limbo where I’ve a tiny local scene in a small country but do not benefit from any eventual insularity. On one hand, we’re very permeable to the cultural influence of the anglosphere, everyone plays RPGs from english books. And on the other hand, our own native language is very close to that of a much larger country, so we’re like a secondary market in this cultural space. All of this means that my designs have to compete for people’s attention with some of the best in the world in terms of how well-supported they are by thriving local scenes.

Number two is not being able to conjure up artwork, wether by paying for it, publishing as a team or doing it myself. I like to do creative stuff, but I don’t work professionally in any of the skills generally required for publishing an RPG. And I only partially agree that with some graphical design tricks you can get away with not having any real artwork. You can, but I feel that the indie RPG scene is fundamentally hampered by not having enough artistic visual references.

Number three currently is my layout workflow. I can write a draft, create some design elements, get all the pieces more or less ready, but laying everything out in a PDF is a pain once you need to start making adjustments like cutting out a paragraph or needing an extra sentence. I’m amazed at how authors like Luke Crane say they work directly in their publishing tool.