Respecting Player Interest in Roleplaying Game Design (1/3): Themes and Concepts

Respecting Player Interest in Roleplaying Game Design (1/3): Themes and Concepts

One thing that I constantly struggle with as a tabletop role-playing game designer is making sure that my designs match the interests of the players who will play my games.

This requires a process, there’s no magic “players will like this because…” formula that you can plug into game design. The first step of this process is to figure out the promise of your game.

When I say promise, what I mean is that you will offer players something that they can do with your game. Where things most often go wrong in game design is when the promise made to players doesn’t match the actual focus of the game itself.

There are a few ways that you can make sure you keep your promises, but there are two parts that I’ll break down here today: building a theme or concept for your game, communicating the game in such a way that players can understand what it is about, and crafting mechanics that facilitate the promise.

Today we’ll focus on coming up with a theme or concept that reflects the game’s mechanics and storytelling focus.

Themes and Concepts

The first step here is to settle on a theme or central concept that governs the game’s content. This doesn’t mean that everything in the game has to be limited to one narrow domain, but you want to have coherence.

An excellent example of this is Traveller. Traveller is a science-fiction role-playing game that relies heavily on setting conceits. It promises that players will explore and a live in a science fiction universe that fits somewhere in the middle of classic sci-fi settings like a mixture of Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and more classic sci-fi like the works of Asimov and Heinlein. 

Starting from that theme, Traveller tries to do what it can to orient itself around the concepts it covers. Characters are (often) made using a life path system that helps them fit into the universe, and many of the more complex mechanics are related to particular elements of science fiction, like building your own spaceship.

There are universal games, which attempt to represent a broad variety of events, settings, and genres. However, one thing to note about these systems is that they often focus on being tailored to individual circumstances from a broader core. GURPS and WEG’s D6 system both spin a single unified system into setting-specific games, though GURPS also offers a generic book with content divided into categories instead of solely focusing on setting-specific books.

Universal games that can run a broad array of settings out of the box often focus on storytelling and raw quality of play; games like Savage Worlds or FATE, where you get a simple system that can handle almost everything but also concedes that it won’t be giving loads of detail.

Staying On Point

Most games have some rules to handle things outside their central focus.

You can make the case that you want to focus players around single concepts and themes as much as possible, but simple resolution methods that are applicable across broad fields (like a skill roll in D&D) are a must-have for games, and systems that don’t have these can easily bloat if their concept is too broad or feel shallow if their concept is too narrow.

As a designer, one of your goals should be not only to pursue your vision but also to make a game everyone can play. Being inaccessible for the sake of pursuing a particular concept drives away people who would otherwise love your game, and often reflects poor design decisions. It is possible to have games that cover things outside their focus and still do a good job of centralizing themselves around a particular theme.

So how do you do this?

Simple (or at least coherently consistent, if not simple) unified mechanics are the first step. Personally, I dislike games where certain chunks of play happen in entirely different modes than others: for instance, games which focus heavily on having a distinction between combat flow, skill use, and special abilities in terms of mechanics. This isn’t to say that everything has to be uniform, but you want to be following the Pareto Principle; if 80% of play is handled by 20% of mechanics, that takes a huge workload off of players and lets you save complex elements for very distinct places.

It’s also worth noting that you can design around different modes of play.

Mechanics frequently appearing in play need to be painless. If gameplay involves frequent cross-reference, you will give everyone a headache.

One bunch of games I love but which absolutely causes grief during play is the d100-based family of Warhammer and Warhammer 40:000 roleplaying games. Specifically in combat, the use of table-based hit locations and critical effects creates a mandatory reference point on top of character sheets and other game elements, leading to a point where one of the distinctive and flashy bits of the game wears thin quickly.

It is acceptable (and even good) to have rules that modify core mechanics in specific cases. Giving characters individual abilities that defy normal function is fine, so long as they do not serve as a distraction from play and serve a legitimate purpose that is not better served by using the central mechanics.

Feats in Dungeons & Dragons or perks in the Fallout series work well. The best of these do things that you can’t get elsewhere in the game; a boost to hit points is a boring bonus, but having special combat options or unique abilities that shake up play styles are great.

Special Mechanics

One of the selling points of most games is the special mechanics that they offer. Working from my anecdotal experiences, combat is the most common “special mechanic” in a game, in the sense that it’s handled using additional elements of characters and the system that don’t relate to the core mechanic itself. Magic is another common special mechanic.

Special mechanics let you stress the things that are most important to your setting so you can reward the players for engaging with it and let characters be distinct in how they approach them.

Special mechanics are also going to represent the flip-side of the Pareto Principle; they’re the 80% of a ruleset that cover 20% of the content that needs very particular representation.

Special mechanics will exist for domains where you need characters to be interesting, and domains where you need to handle things that don’t work with your core mechanic.

Done Right and Done Wrong

A word of caution: If you feel the need for special mechanics to cover something, you need to stop and ask two questions:

  1. Are my core mechanics are doing their job right?
  2. Does my special mechanic pay for itself?

Too Much: Shadowrun Matrix Rules

A central conceit of the cyberpunk genre is breaking into cyberspace and misusing other people’s computers. Despite having a very well done skill system, Shadowrun instead relies on a massively bloated set of rules for cyberspace actions. Not that there shouldn’t be some special added focus for this, but a separate chapter of the book provides just the rules for hacking, with additional hardware and software found elsewhere. 

Because of the sheer magnitude, a game master trying to learn the entire game to run it will rarely fully comprehend the rules, and players using the system often get caught off-guard by unexpected mechanical interactions and losing options.

By comparison, a simpler system in which the quality of a decker’s gear and the system they are attempting to infiltrate could allow hacking to synergize more closely with the combat system, allowing generalization of concepts (e.g. letting players transfer what they know about combat to the Matrix rules).

This would still give more detail than the central mechanic, including letting each decker have a particular focus (and letting each hostile system have its own distinct traits), but not require separate maps and charts like the system that exists in most editions of Shadowrun.

Too Little: D&D in King Arthur’s Court

Dungeons & Dragons fails with its handling of skill checks.

Both the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide of various editions provide options to make the skills system more robust, but the core of every modern D&D skill system is “roll a d20 and hope for a high number.”

This works well when you’re playing a war-game with characters, which is what D&D started out as, but runs into troubles when games rely less on combat and sorcery and more on skill-focused actions.

Each edition handles this in distinct ways; 5th Edition probably does it best with its rules for Inspiration, giving a bonus for players who roleplay their character well, but it remains a system where characters’ interactions with skill is nothing more than “I am good at this” or “I am bad at this” and rarely delves into the nuances of characters (e.g. being attractive or cunning).

This doesn’t mean that the game fails inherently. It’s simply that courtly intrigue is outside of its focus, and most players who want a game with this in its focus would be better off either using a game like Pendragon (if they want more complexity), or a game that strips off Dungeons & Dragons’ comprehensive class system, which aims more to provide combat options to characters than to make them interesting off the battlefield (despite some attempts to avoid this in recent editions that generally failed to overcome the core thrust).

Wrapping Up

The important thing to remember about themes and concepts is that they flow outward. They are the central building blocks of the promise you make to your players and define how your work comes across.

Defining a theme and concept makes your game distinct and sets natural boundaries and expectations. Lacking a theme or concept leads to confusion and disappointment.

Part 2 of this series talks about how to communicate the central ideas of your game to align player interest. In Part 3, we focus on making sure that the mechanics match the promise of the game.

K is the Head Honcho of Loreshaper Games; you can find more of his writing on Hive, and his games are available at and DriveThruRPG.

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  1. […] Part 1 of this series, we talked about using a theme and concept to center a game on what players are […]

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