Introduction: Pen and Paper RPG

This weekend I am going to host a classic game night at my place ! Everyone who attends has to bring their favourite game, and after a nice dinner we will get the fun started ! I had already sent out the invitations, when I noticed that I do not possess a game myself since I recently moved out and left all board games at home - awkward. That led me to create my own little pen and paper game called Nova - it's a role playing game that uses only a few pens, a few pieces of paper and at least three six-sided dice to play. In this instructable, I'm going to show you how I did it.

So, before anything else: why didn't I just use an existing system like Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, Shadowrun etc. etc. ? That's a good question ! Actually, I have never tried DnD myself - I once checked out the rulebook and it seemed quite intimidating to me. Also, for the purpose of a single game it was just too "big". Additionally, with my own game I can adjust it how I like and could change it on the fly in case I notice that something's not quite right. I did not "completely" make up everything myself, but I did cherry-pick stuff from other systems and neglect the things I didn't like. There's probably systems out there that are pretty much the same as mine, and there's system that would have probably fitted much better, but anyway, here goes what I came up with !

Step 1: How Does It Work ?

I had following requirements for my game:

  • Easy to understand: Not all of my friends are gamers (be it video or pen and paper) and therefore do not know anything about stats, races and classes for characters, therefore I tried to reduce it to the absolute minimum so I could guide them without having to hold a lecture for half an hour what they could and what they could not do.
  • Quick to start: I wanted to get started within 10 minutes of preparation, which means that I also reduced much of the character-creation to what was really needed.
  • Needs to be played with maximum three "regular" dice: As this is all I have at home, I couldn't create a system that has fancy 20-sided dice or anything like that.
  • No level system: As I will only be playing it once (or at least every scenario I come up with), the characters don't need to

Actually, the RPG "Risus" (and probably other free systems) would work for most of these requirements, but I do not like the fight-system in Risus (eventhough you could probably easily tweak it) and had already done some work, so I continued with my own one.

You might ask: okay, but what is a RPG and how does it work ?

Alright, RPG stands for role playing game. You create a character on a sheet of paper, and you start playing and acting as if you were this character. You, the other players and your characters will be provided a setting/scenario by the person who leads you through the game, often called the game master or dungeon master. This game master is the "narrator" of the story that you are going to experience. As I made this game system, I am going to play the game master on our game night.

How does my game work then ? I'll give you a simple overview of the mechanics:

Every time a character in the game wants to do something (apart from standard actions like breathing, standing, sitting and so forth), the player needs to roll three six-sided dice - this is called a check. The player says what he/she wants do to, the game master decides (secretly) how high the player has to roll in order to do the action successfully and then they see what happens. The outcome of the roll is changed slightly based on what attributes a character has and what kind of class the character has - more on that on the next page. When an action happens successfully, the game master goes along with the story, if not, the story changes. Sometimes the characters encounter enemies with wich they have to fight. When a fight starts, the game master asks the players to roll dice for initiative. Again, the outcome of the roll is changed slightly based on what attributes a character has. Then they take turns (based on highest roll) and attack, which is more or less the same as any other check. The difference is, that they have to roll higher than a pre-defined "defense-value" that each character has, instead of a decision by the game master.

Some people mentioned to me that RPG is the ultimate "geek-dom" to them, because they associate it stereotypes of the "living at home in the basement nerd thinking about dragons all the time". I do not know if this is true (I'm not living in the basement of my parents house and don't really consider myself a nerd, though I think about dragons all the time), but in my opinion, it's just a very fun way to create a story together with friends - also, the game doesn't need to be about dragons or fantasy, it can be about anything you ever wanted ! It's your game ! For myself, I wanted to create a game that is more based on story-telling than on fighting, and thus dropped any miniatures and maps right from the start.

Step 2: Character Creation: Classes and Attributes

So with my requirements set, I could start with some basics. Every role playing game lives on it's characters, and I wanted to help my friends getting started making exciting new personas. If you make your own game, you do not need to do what I have done (creating classes and attributes), but I thought it would be more exciting and would give me some statistical evidence about each character. For this, I defined three classes and three attributes. What does that mean ? In my setting, all characters (those played by the players and those played by the game master) have a role and and personal traits inside their world. These roles are called classes in my game (and in many others too), the traits I call attributes. To simplify, I boiled it down to those three classes:

  • Gladiators: Think of a big, muscular person that is doing well in hand to hand combat, heavy lifting and kicking in doors. In classic games this would be the warrior-type.
  • Runners: Runners in my game can be imagined as lean, athletic type of guys that are very acrobatic and do well in espionage and disguise. In classic games this would be the rogue-type.
  • Medics: The medics try not to get involved in hand to hand combat and rather fight from a distance. Also, they have the ability to heal their compagnions, which the name sort of indicates. In classic games this would be the healer-type.

Why did I create these classes ? First of all, it can be a help for my friends to have some guidelines what their character can be, as I imagine it's quite hard to grasp for them that they need to come up with a character "out of the blue". On the other side, for me as a game master it is easier to decide how hard certain things are for each character. Additionaly, every class has it's pro's and con's. For example, every gladiator gets to add +1 on every dice roll they make for strength-related challenges, and -1 on intelligence-rolls, but more of that later. Most games have more than three classes, and you can make up as many as you want, or leave this out all together.

After I had created the classes, I thought about attributes that a character can have. Each person in real life is different and can do certain things well or not as we know, and it's the same with our game-characters. To keep things simple, I created three attributes. Of course, you could have many more to make the game more realistic, but for the moment I thought that three would do well:

  • Strength: How strong is your character ? A high number on strength shows how tough he/she is, how hard he/she is and so on. Preferably, as a player you would want a character that is a warrior (class Gladiator) or something like that to have a high number here.
  • Dexterity: How acrobatic and skillfull is your character ? A high number on dexterity shows how well the character can handle situations. Preferably, as a player you would want a character that is a spy

    (class Runner) or something like that to have a high number here.

  • Intelligence: How wise is your character ? A high number on intelligence shows how well the character can communicate and how well the character perceives situations. Preferably, as a player you would want a character that is a paramedic (class Medic) or something like that to have a high number here.

How are those attributes defined ? Easy: each player roles three six-sided dice (from now on called D6) three times, and writes down the number after every roll. Then the players can assign those numbers to the attributes as they like. Important here is that you gain or lose advantages depending on what you roll, and therefore the players should think what would suit their character best.

Why does that all matter ? As explained, every outcome of an action a player's character wants to make needs to be figured out by rolling dice. Of course, a 2-metre muscular character weighing 110 kilos should find it easer to kick in a door than a 1.60 metre chubby character. There, the attributes come into the game. Depending how high each attribute has been defined, the player gains advantages or disadvantages (called modifications) on the outcome of such an action. I had created a table that either adds or subtracts numbers on a dice roll. This 2-metre mountain of a character has a solid 15 on the attribute of strength - on the table I made this is a +1. Additionally, because this character is a gladiator by class, he/she gets an extra +1 on strength (based on a second table for classes). For example, the game master defines the minimum to be rolled for kicking in doors on 14. The player rolls three D6, and gets a result of 12. Under normal circumstances, the character would have failed to kick the door in, however, because of the advantages he/she has from the class and because this character is strong, the player can add +2 on the roll, which leads the character to succeed. I have added the tables I created as a picture. It might be that I change those values after the first play, if I notice that the characters are uneven.

Step 3: Character Creation: Talents and Background

Creating attributes and classes would already be enough to start playing - actually, you can even skip those and let every player just tell you what their character is ("My character is a 2-metre battle-hardend viking" - you as a game master then just need to decide when what needs to checked: the viking is awesome at brawls, drinking and kicking ass). With the attributes and the classes, you have more of a pre-defined statistic, just how strong that viking actually is.

Every character also has some sort of armor, and a predefined number of health points. In my game, the armor (I call it "defense-value) is given by the class. The health points are always 20 minus or plus the strength modification. You could also add an extra system where each player can choose an armor and the attributes change accordingly, but I decided not to do that.

Then, I added a bit more: every player could choose a talent, where they would get extra points on the role. Again, I have added the selection of possible talents as a picture. You can come up with anything, or you can skip this part as well.

In order to get my friends more into their character, I will ask them to write down some background ! This backgrounds includes, but is not limited to: gender, age, size, weight, clothing style, traits, body type, haircolour and eyecolour. This should just help them (and me) imagine their character !

So, this character creation might have sounded rather complicated, but I hoped to make it easy to learn. If you don't get it, I have attached an excel file with all tables and automatic calculation - just fill in what class you have and what attributes you got by rolling dice, and the rest will come automatically. You just sum up the class modification and the attribute modification, and you get your advantage or disadvantage on each roll. Or you just decide as a game master that a 2-metre viking needs a 10, and a smaller character needs a 14, if you don't want to work with attributes. It can be as simple or complicated as you want it to be.

Step 4: Setting

I know that now all of my friends are into fantasy, that's why I created a setting that they hopefully like. Here you can let your imagination run wild, you can create entire worlds and place your characters inside of your world !

The setting I choose for my players was a dystopian, "orwellian" future (not too futuristic tough). My friends would play their characters as part of an underground movement in the city called "Nova" (hence the name), that fights against the current system, which separates people by birth between the so called "Nobility", "Executors" and "Plebs". The "nobility" is the leading political party that lives in wealth, while the "plebs" are the workers. "Executors" are spies, police and soldiers who capture anyone who denies the system. Very much like 1984, a hint of soylent green here and there, some influence from Equilibrium, a punch of mirror's edge as well as Portal and then of course star wars without the Force. There's plenty of inspiration from hollywood or books if you don't want to make up your own world. I have added my basic idea of the adventure I have prepared - it's more or less a scenario description for the start, I will see what my friends come up with and adjust accordingly. Probably I'm going to invent some riddles and puzzles upfront and adjust them to the situation. Important note: I have not play-testet the scenarios nor the enemies - it could be that they're overwhelmingly hard to beat, I would of course adjust them in case I notice that it's too hard.

Over the course of creating this game, I added details and things I thought would be important (laser weapons: YES !, fighting robots and aliens: no thanks) and started creating a story outline where I would drop my friends into. After I had a general idea about my stories, I started creating riddles and enemies for my friends to solve and defeat. The enemies are defined just like you would define a player's character, except that you set the modifications and the defense-value as you think should be fitting. You don't necessarily need a backstory either (tough it might help for important non-player characters). In my world, battle is mostly fought with melee weapons, just because I thought it will be cooler to explain what happens. What you're going to make out of it is up to you !


Step 5: Fight System

The fight system is an important aspect of the game, even tough I rely more on story-telling than on actual fighting (I want my friends to feel chased and small in this big evil political system I have created, so letting them fight against hundreds of enemies and using tons of ammo and sweat would be rather unrealistic in this scenario; hopefully, it will be a fast-paced "explaining-what-happens-next" game with riddles and an occasional encounter). Nevertheless, here is what I did:

At the beginning of every encounter, the game master asks the players to roll for initiative. That means every one of them needs to roll three D6, and they will add their modification for Dexterity. The game master will do the same for the enemies. The player that had the highest roll starts the fight and explains to the game master, what he/she wants to do. Then they roll three D6 again, and add or subtract their strength modification. The game master then lets the player know, if the enemy's "defense-value" has been met. If not, the players attack misses , if the value has been met, the player can roll again with one D6 to see how much damage he/she inflicts. The game master then explains in a fancy way how the player hits, and then the game continues to the next player with the second-highest initiative. When a characters health points are reduced to zero, this character is disabled.

Regarding enemies: I used the same character sheet I made for my characters for my enemies, however, I did not roll dice to define the attributes, but defined them myself based on what I thought would work.

There's many ways to come up with a fight-system: you could let the players roll dices while you as a game master do the same and just the higher number wins, you could make up some kind of card system that drives the fighting and so on, there's really many many posibilities !

Step 6: Playing !

Here I want to explain how I actually intend to play my game (from a game master-perspective): The introduction should be quick and easy, I will let my friends know what the setting would be, then I ask them to think of a character while showing them, what classes are available (I will not show them the modifications/attributes at this stage). They will write down the appearance of their character, and then I will ask them to roll dice for the attributes. While they do that I explain what the attributes represent with an example, and then I will make the "calculations" of the modifications for them and just tell them "every time you check for strength/dexterity/intelligence, you can add or subtract that many points to your dice roll". Afterwards, I'm going to explain the first "scene" and see how they interact.

Some game masters want that their players stay in character most of the time, or that they raise their hand (or give any other signal) when they "speak as their character". I think I will not ask them to do this, as I think they will feel more comfortable just discussing in the group what they're going to do and then adressing the game master as their characters. I will explain to them that they can find out more about the world I made up by simpy asking me as a game master and making checks. If they forget something, I will remind them "in character", because that's what every realistic real person would do (for example, if my group decides just to "walk" off without having a clear goal, I will ask them in my characters voice what they think they're doing). You as a game master can deicde how much of acting you feel confident with - I like to do different voices and faces for each character, as I believe it makes it more fun for my players. Also, the level of detail is up to you: when a player hits an enemy, you can either describe it by saying: "Your character runs up to the enemy and stabs him !" or you could say "As your character makes way to his enemy, his shining armor is glistering in the moonlight. He swings his mighty sword, and the heavy blow of his weapon tears the armor of his enemy apart right across the chest. Blood splatters and leaves dark red stains on the characters face, while the enemy cries out in pain". Here it really comes down to personal preference, whatever feels right for you and floats your boat !

As a game master, often you need to make new things up rather quickly ! You might have a pretty detailed idea of your story, but be aware that your players do something unpredictable all the time and that you can adapt to those situations. It is always interesting to see how different groups "work" with your story and interact with it. Also, keep in mind that a characte once dead cannot play anymore (unless he/she gets resurrected), so I try to keep it as fair for everyone as I can - in my opinion it's okay to "punish" the players for silly actions, but don't slaughter them off in an instant, because that just takes the fun away for everyone (as I said, my opinion).

Step 7: Additional Ideas to Expand and Links

As you might have seen, my game is very basic. You could add so many rules that influence the games, or you could take away some of the rules I made - however you like. In this section, I would like to add some ideas what you could do:

  • Character races: in any setting, you could add different races additionally to the classes that have advantages and disadvantages. In a fantasy setting, why don't you let your characters choose between playing as trolls, elves, humans or werewolves ? You could for example say that an elf gets some additional modifiers on dexterity and intelligence, but because they are nimble they get some minus-points on strength. However, they have have the ability to see very well (also at night) which gives them +2 on every perception check. Something like that ! It's all up to your imagination !
  • More attributes and classes: the more attributes and classes you introduce, the more statistic evidence you have what kind of action a certain character does well or not. A lot of traditional pen & paper games have around five or six attributes.
  • Statuses in fight: send your characters to sleep, have them paralised by a laser beam, do what you want - this gets fighting to a whole new level.
  • Character level of detail: how far can a character walk in a single move ? How fast do they lose morale when something goes wrong ? You could add many options to make the characters more detailed.
  • Cash system: In my game, the players get their weapons for free and don't need to buy new ones. However, if you are meeting for a weekly session, it might be usefull to let them buy weapons, armor and equipment to keep the fun up. Also, it could be an additional goal to gain money for every adventure your group successfully masters. This would also mean that you can trade things which adds a level of realism.
  • Ressource system: Additionaly to the cash system, you could make a ressource system to limit what equipment the players get and to make them more aware how to spend it.
  • Level system: Again, because my game is a one-time session, I neglected this part. If you meet more often and keep your characters, it would certainly be interesting to see them gain experience and evolve. You could add experience points that each player gets after handling a situation. When they get to a new level, you can let them distribute new attribute-points which in turn increase their chance to master checks successfully.
  • Special moves: My fight system is very basic, but why don't you add more exiting actions ? Let the players chose from a catalogue of attacks (say: you have 3 points to distribute, standard attack costs 1 point, heavy blow costs 2, double attack costs 2, rage attack costs 3 etc) during character creation, or introduce special attacks to choose from when they roll the same numbers twice (like in Dragon Age RPG, it's called a stunt there); or make "critical" attacks when a player rolls the maximum of points where they get to roll for damage twice - there's tons of possibilities !
  • Equipment: create equipment that they can choose from (or buy) with different abilities, for example make tables which weapon changes what attribute and how often they can be used until it's blunt or broken.
  • World: you could draw a map of your world or your dungeon, or let the players draw their character, or you could show them pictures you found on the internet what exaclty your world looks like. I for example hired an artist (I have been working with him before) for a character to show how I imagined it (also, it makes my title page look so much cooler).
  • Miniatures: You can buy or create your own miniatures of your characters and let your players move them around on a pre-defined map !
  • Different dice: instead of using "regular" D6, you can start using different dice with 20-sides, 10-sides and so on, or you use something else altogether to get some randomness in there !

As you can see, theres a lot of options, and there's many more that I have not listed. If you make your own game, you can make rules up as you would like, there's just the potential that your mechanics in the beginning are not properly balanced, but you can adjust over the course of the sessions. Also, there's many systems already available, either free or with beginner boxes that you can purchase.

Please find some links here that might be helpfull to you:

Will Wheaton plays the Dragon Age RPG with his buddies (also, his channel is just very fun to watch and a great source for inspiration, you can find so many different games and systems).

Vin Diesel plays Dungeons and Dragons (I realy like the way the game master tells the story in this one).

Risus RPG (very easy, very simple and free).

Discussion, which RPG is good for beginners.

Wikipedia Article explaining, what exactly RPG is.

I hope this was in any way helpfull and entertaining, and I would love to hear with what systems and what kind of settings/adventures you have come up with ! Thanks for reading !