Running and working on tabletop RPGs is one of the best ways to practice game design. It’s how I started learning how to do videogames. Now that I’ve been a videogame designer for years, I’ve been going the other direction – pulling ideas from videogames and using them to level up my tabletop RPGs. I made a twitter thread where I promised one cool idea from videogames for each like I got, with a 50 idea limit. I went to 51.
Follow me @designerdanf if you want regular design-thoughts. I post there a lot more frequently than here.
1) Unlockable Races. Have special races players can unlock as character options by discovering them, earning their loyalty through quests, and therefore making it plausible some of them might join your group. New characters can be made with that race now.
2) Milestone EXP. Give XP rewards for accomplishing goals INSTEAD of killing monsters. Keep the players focused on completing the quest, not feeling bad about avoiding unnecessary fights. Also opens up creative solutions to problems and minimizes book-keeping.
3) Bonus objectives. Players like to do more than the DM expects. Consciously work in opportunities for players to go above and beyond the minimum (and reward appropriately). Main objective: Free rebel leader from slave camp. Bonus objective: What if they freed ALL the slaves?
This gives players a chance to do something cool rather than just something the GM expected, and lets parties pick their own difficulty. Don’t say “this is a bonus objective” just give bonus XP for players going above and beyond, working in opportunities to do so.
4) This probably relates to the biggest core issue with most GMing – the straightforward, obvious solution is the optimal solution. In this case, the GM is deciding what should be done and it’s my job to facilitate. I want to PLAY my character, not “run” my character.
5) Unlockable classes. A great way to expand out of the core books and allow weirder stuff that doesn’t fit easily into your setting. Also works with prestige classes. The player must find someone willing to teach them the ways of the class, becoming a quest in itself!
6) Turbo mode. It’s fun to have a small currency to go above and beyond normal limits, figuring out where to spend it. I give each player 3 “Valor” each day. Spend 1 Valor to gain and extra attack, or +10 on a d20 roll (before you see the roll). Also lets you use “save or die”.
Can’t overstate how much this helps. Players now have an interesting decision on every skill check (do I spend valor on this or not?) and every turn of combat (do I spend valor for another action or not?). And solves the “must-make-or-die” skill check problem.
7) Quest-for-Miracles. Create requirements to gain access to the OP divine magic, going on quests to earn your god’s favor. “You hath journeyed to the Temple of Primordial Fire and driven out the desecrating Ice Devil. I grant you… The Sacred Flame.”
8) Customize and upgrade your equipment from pieces of your foes. Allow players to forge fire dragon scales into their armor to gain some fire resistance, or into their blade to gain the fire enchantment. You can always give foes have more health if the players get stronger.
9) Achievements and titles. Players love it when the game recognizes their achievements, even without a reward. When they do something significant, tell them to write the achievement on their sheets. You can even provide a list ahead of time like “Lich-Slayer” and “Died in Glory”.
10) Campaign structure. It’s incredibly helpful to base a campaign structure on something you can play yourself to see how it works. That’s hard/time consuming in ttrpgs but very doable in videogames. Base story-rich games on Bioware/Telltale, base open world on skyrim/botw.
11) Flip spell components. Instead of learning a spell being hard and spell components being easily accessible, give wizards knowledge of how to cast most spells but require rare spell components. A level 2 wizard can cast meteor swarm… IF they use the heart of a fire dragon.
12) Tie NPC relationships to tangible gameplay rewards. Persona is a good example. Murderhobos quickly start caring about helping NPCs and being in good standing with the community when doing so unlocks better crafting, combat bonuses, and other things.
13) Give the PCs mechanics that express their interparty dynamics. One PC is another’s protector? Give them the ability to jump in front of an attack targeting that PC once per day. A PC sees another as a rival? Give them a boost whenever the other crits, motivated to outdo them.
14) Provide multiple approaches to solve every problem. Deus Ex and Far Cry games do this well. Allow for stealth, rambo, diplomacy, or a mix. Don’t make all equally effective for all problems, so players do still have meaningful decisions, but allow freedom of playstyle.
15) Roguelikes are a goldmine. Try providing players with random options for awesome treasure or new spells rather than having them pick out anything they want from the book. Means optimizers get a new problem to solve each time and you don’t worry about broken power combos.
This also reduces the homework players have to do upfront, because they aren’t obligated to pick from ALL the powers, and means RPG designers can relax on balance. Players lucking into an awesome synergy in your power designs is added fun, not a consistent problem.
16) If you have players that often can’t show up to a session, give players access to a fast travel teleport between the group and town (like a link between a stone the group carries and one back in their guild base or tavern). Their PC is just staying home today.
17) Faction reputation. Groups and guilds care about how the PC’s actions affect the society. Codifying this with faction rep, which leads to rewards/consequences, encourages players care about the geopolitical situation too. “This job might upset the mage’s guild…”
18) If you’re doing perma-death, DEFINITELY study roguelikes. One great idea is having a character’s efforts in the first life power up their next life, and you HAVE to die to “cash out”. Try building up a “karma” resource for cool stuff you can ONLY spend on your next character.
Ragnorok: Fate of the Norns is a cool ttrpg themed around Vikings and has a system for this, based on getting your characters into Valhalla through glorious deaths, which powers up your descendants of the heroic bloodline.
19) Real-time combat. Turn-based combat is great, but it takes a long time – especially with lots of players. I’d like to see TTRPGs explore real-time combat for the adrenaline hit common in videogames. Boardgames like 5 Minute Dungeon and Escape are proving its workable.
20) Class Changes/Respecs). It’s good for gameplay, because I don’t have to commit to things forever. It’s good for story, because I want my warlock to change to paladin for a redemption arc without being punished. Just figure out a story or in-world justification.
21) Ludicrous side-quests. Many games put the most insanely unfair or difficult challenge off the critical path, and tell people “if you go here, prepare to die”. That’s so fun. Creates agency and tension, and when players DO go there you get to go nuts. “I WARNED YOU!”
22) You’ll notice an ongoing theme, and one I’ll keep pointing out specific executions of, is “Create tangible gameplay consequences for something you want players to care about”. A survival videogame has gameplay consequences for running out of food. It works.
23) If a videogame would track it for you, then the process of tracking it probably isn’t fun – and you shouldn’t make your players do it by hand. Better to just cut it. If your game isn’t themed around logistical planning, don’t make players care about equip load.
24) Power Ups. Linear power progression is boring, even games based around it like Diablo give temporary power-ups to shake things up. Give amazing potions or blessings of a powerful spirit to give them a massive power boost for a few fights against epic foes.
25) Items that temporarily change gameplay, like SSB or PvP shooters. Gameplay in TTRPGs gets repetitive. Players cast the same spells and basic attack endlessly. Give them an awesome magic item that lets them use special attacks, but only for a limited time (or has limited uses).
26) The AI Director from Left4Dead. Some games auto-tune difficulty based on how well the players are doing, to provide an ideal exciting experience. Do it too. If a fight is boringly easy, bring in reinforcements or “reveal” a new attack or trait of the enemy.
27) Multi-Phase Fights/Enemies. Have the disciplined enemy fighter fly into a rage when he’s brought to half health and swap his stat block for a berserker’s. Have the evil wizard polymorph themselves if their ritual is disrupted. Keep stuff changing to keep players interested!
28) Attack the weak point for massive damage. Nothing’s more boring than saying “I attack it”. Give players interesting decisions in combat that reward them for paying attention to the enemy’s description. Encourage them to flip a crab onto its back and go for the underbelly.
29) Introduce mission-specific mechanics. Fighting monsters in hell? Make it feel like Doom by letting players to describe their over-the-top kills in exchange for a bonus (inspiration?). In a haunted land? PCs only heal to half health from rests, unless they’re on holy ground.
30) Show players cutscenes from stuff they’re not present for. Usually better when there’s an in-world justification, like a secret scrying, but it’s cool to see what the villains are up to when you can’t do anything about it. Games use this for a reason.
31) Make the enemies meaningful to the players beyond just a one-time fight. Far Cry 3 nailed this, though the boss being in arm’s reach is dangerous. Arkham Asylum had the Joker taunt you through broadcasts. FFX had Sin constantly showing up and wiping stuff out.
32) Legendary Weapons. Players LOVE these, they want the coolest loot in the world. Work these goals into your gameplay. If you’re running high narrative, make getting some legendary weapons part of the necessary stuff to kill the baddies. If you’re open world, even better.
33) Players also love personal weapons. If you aren’t loot-focused, you can let the players forge their own legendary weapons by using normal ones in battle. When a blade kills a dragon, give it the Wyrmslayer title and a big buff.
34) Provide bonus or replacement XP for the stuff your game is about. Is your game about exploring unknown lands? Provide XP for each new region they map. Are they playing traders? XP for establishing profitable trade routes.
35) Videogames sometimes give big bonuses when characters progress their major goals, or something massive and bad happens to them. Try giving out a unique, thematic benefit for major moments. Freed your Homeland? Gain “Slaves No More: You are immune to mind control effects”.
36) Let players set their own goals and provide systems to encourage them accomplishing them. Whenever a PC accomplishes something they care a lot about, give the whole group bonus XP. “Yes, we should save your family!”
37) Goals should be more than “stop bad thing from happening”. Players want to accomplish stuff they care about, not protect the status quo. Work is what a body is obligated to do, so when the villains obligate the PCs to stop them – the game becomes work.
Instead, focus on promising rewards for going on quests that players will care about. Sometimes it’s loot, sometimes XP, but often it’s winning the trust of an NPC they admire, or finding a lost and wondrous city. Put enemies in the way of that to create conflict.
Videogame Examples: God of War 4: Honoring your wife’s dying request to bring her ashes to the highest peak in the realms.
Metroidvanias: I’ll beat the boss later, I want to do this side-objective to get an upgrade.
Journey: … That looks like a pretty mountain.
38) Build curiosity always. If your players are curious about something, they’re motivated to pay attention to the game. Videogames use this all the time. Hint at NPCs with hidden secrets, rumors of secret areas, have a mystery happening in the background, tease future betrayal.
39) Embrace F2P. If someone brings good snacks for the group, or buys a module the group wants to run, give everyone a boost and them a slightly bigger boost. I’m only half-kidding. Just make sure that the actions you reward are benefiting the whole group, not just bribing the GM
40) Your puzzles should be FUN to solve, not hard to solve. Look at games like Tales of Monkey Island, Portal, antichamber. Solving a puzzle easily, or making frequent short progress, makes the group feel smart. If you must use hard ones, let people work on them between sessions.
41) Give players meaningful decisions in combat. If I could write a 500 word set of instructions to someone about how to play my character optimally in all fights, things are going to get boring fast. Games are about making decisions. Work them into core combat mechanics.
42) Write your TTRPG to be customized. Include difficulty level modifiers, optional rules you encourage GMs to think about turning on or off (like VS. rules in Super Smash Bros), and talk about the value of including or excluding each rule.
43) Mod the heck out of your RPG, and if you’re making a new one provide players with modding tools. It made Skyrim and Minecraft great. Playgroups just need a little guidance and advice to make new classes, weapons, and spells – with some balancing numbers too.
44) CARE if the GM is having fun. They aren’t your robot. The live GM responding to the players and shaping the world is what makes TTRPGs irreplaceable. Videogames have better graphics. As such, care if GMing your game is FUN, not just EASY. Ask why a player *wants* to do this.
This could be a whole thread itself. GMs being treated like a necessary evil is one of the biggest, saddest trends of the last decades of RPG design. At best RPGs care about their workload, and compensate by giving the most fun parts of the GM job to players instead
45) Town building! Seeing a civilization rise up is just so fun. Players can discover mines and similar for their local town, and do other things to make them rich – attracting more useful NPCs and gaining attention from more important people and enemies around the world.
46) GM Gameplay. Instead of writing your adventure “X happens” give the GM a simple choice.
“Here are three people that COULD be the murderer. Pick one. Here are their clues.”
“There are rumors the Duke is a traitor. Decide if they’re true.”
“Here are 3 options for a fight.”
47) Make gold useful. Gold is the easiest thing to give players and they instinctively want it, but many systems provide few outlets. Games like Diablo, WoW, and more provide gold sinks. Blowing gold on epic parties to gain XP is fun. So is upgrading ships, or supporting factions.
48) The nemesis system from Shadow of Mordor and Shadow of War. Awesome, cinematic stuff that can normally only exist in a TTRPG is done even better here. Random foes become your unique nemesis, they come back stronger after losing, they gain unique powers. Make a table for this!
49) Lean into the setting. Make/hack classes and abilities that can ONLY exist in your setting. Bloodborne’s Hunters are Hunters – there’s no mistaking them. Wizards in Magicka feel like absurdities that are ignorantly combining magic and blowing themselves up and it’s great.
50) Real world time limits. Give players 2 hours real time to beat the dungeon before they all die. Give time extensions whenever they accomplish an objective in the dungeon. Just work in an in-world justification. Keeps things focused fast paced, exciting. Works WONDERS.
51) One bonus (and only one): If you’re using consumables, have them expire or limit your player’s consumable inventory slots. If players can only hold 3 consumables at once, they will actually use them (because there’s a limit to how much they can hoard). Works great.