Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Dear Gamer: Orienting a Newcomer to TTRPGs

Recently, I was asked to speak to a young family friend who’d expressed tentative interest in RPG design and publishing. After an initial conversation to establish their interests and potential goals, I wrote them up an orientation email covering the extreme basics of where to start with RPG publication and where they might look for next steps and broadened horizons.

Below is that email (slightly re-organized, but mostly unedited).

Pictured: Tucker, prospective gamer.

If you’re also at the very beginning of an interest in writing RPGs, or maybe you know someone else who is, I hope you’ll find this useful. While extremely far from a comprehensive guide to RPG publishing, this shotgun approach should equip the reader with enough leads to get started making something.

Note that the letter’s recipient was particularly interested in publishing for D&D 5th edition and Call of Cthulhu, two games which I have no professional experience with. Consequently, I kept my advice highly general.

A Modest TTRPG Orientation

Dear [GAMER],

Per our chat yesterday, I'm sending over all of the links and advice I was able to compile from research, experience and talking with my graphic designer friends. Please let me know if you have any questions, but all this should hopefully help get you started!


I spoke to a couple graphic designers, and they recommended you avoid Homebrewery or other similar 5e layout programs that we discussed, and that Google Docs is your best bet for starting out formatting your ideas into a usable PDF.

Here's a very good tutorial which covers the basics of doing layout in Google Docs (a free word processing program): 


Here's an example of an RPG with attractive design that was completely laid out in Google Docs. You can get a free copy if you scroll down to the section that says "Community Copy":


And some the advice that one of my designer friends passed on:

  • Keep it simple!
  • Pick two or three fonts at most.
  • Pick one basic body font.
  • You can get more creative with the heading fonts, I linked a few good options below. Just make sure the headings are readable.
  • Stick to black text on white, without any page background.
  • Any Google font can be imported into GDocs, just select "More fonts" from the dropdown menu and search for the one you want.
  • Use GDoc's built in heading styles, but update them as you see fit. You can do this easily by changing text to the style you want, selecting the text, then hovering over an option from the text Styles dropdown on the toolbar, and finally clicking “update ‘Heading 1’ to match.”
  • Include a proper footer, it's easy to do and will increase the professionalism and usability of your document.
  • Also include a title page, GDocs has a feature to do this.
  • If you want art you can either Google public domain art (wikimedia commons, flickr are good sources to start with), or you can use something like unsplash for photography.
  • GDocs also has a built-in diagramming tool that is good for things like very simple maps.

Here are some 1920s/Cthulhu-esque heading fonts to choose from (pick just one to use):

And here are a couple appropriate body fonts (also pick one):


This might be an overwhelming amount of information, here's a giant resource compiling tons of blog posts and other guides covering all aspects of game design and publishing. If you're ever wondering about a specific topic, this site might have answers for you: 


Like I mentioned on our call, I have my own blog where I sometimes post game design and publishing advice. Here's a couple posts that might be useful to you:

Early publishing experiences: 


Playtesting advice: 



Game jams are a great way to find cool, low-effort and quick-turnaround TTRPG projects for inspiration. Creators host game jams on specific themes and with specific parameters, and give participants a limited window to make something for the jam. You can join a game jam to motivate yourself to just make something!

An example of a cool itch.io game jam: 


And another one: 


A game jam tracking website to find upcoming jams: 



Be sure to check out the projects being run for Zine Quest (a month-long crowdfunding initiative held by Kickstarter to encourage short form RPG projects) to get a sense of projects that are a little more ambitious than game jam projects, but still feasible for a beginner-intermediate game designer.

Here are the active Zine Quest 4 projects (it typically runs during February, but it was August this year): 



While compiling your home rules like we talked about seems like a solid first project, adventure modules/scenarios are generally the best things to create. For one, adventures are easily the most popular and useful game material out there. For another, they are easily accessible to a beginner designer—much less tricky to figure out than rules and mechanics. I would strongly recommend writing adventures as soon as possible, they're the best way to learn good game design.

Here's a link to the D&D "Open Games License" I mentioned, which you will need to include in anything you publish for 5th edition: 


Definitely take a look around DrivethruRPG to find other things related to your subject, there’s a good chance someone else has already made something similar to what you’re working on and you might take some useful lessons from their efforts:


If you're interested in exploring more systems outside of Cthulhu and 5e, the contemporary "indie" TTRPG design scene is the most creative and knowledgeable group around. Here's a couple free, cool indie TTRPGs you might be interested to read:





A friend of mine also recommended this as a good independently designed take on Cthulhu RPGs: 



That's everything I could think of! If you take any advice from our conversation, it should be that the best way to learn is by doing and you should just start making stuff. I hope this helps you get started, and good luck with your first project! 

Feel free to email me any time if you have any other thoughts or questions about TTRPGs.