Alan Bahr, creator of Heirs to Heresy & co-founder of Gallant Knight Games joins Diagonal Move to discuss his approach to RPG design.
DM: Hi Alan, thanks for joining us. You are now well known as the creator of many Role-Playing Games (RPG’s) including the ‘Tiny’ series, Tombpunk and most recently Heirs to Heresy. You are also the co-founder of publishing company Gallant Knight Games. Thinking back to the early days of your gaming career, could you tell us about how you first began playing and then creating RPG’s?
AB: Hey! Thanks for having me and I’m really excited to be here. I started playing RPGs in the early 2000s (the ‘3.x’ D&D era, as it were), and I was semi-active in various design forums and contests during that time. Nothing fancy or notable, but it let me cut my teeth.
I kinda kept at it, homebrewing and just doing my own tinkered designs until an opportunity appeared from a local friend who was doing an RPG based on their comic. Planet Mercenary was my first real design effort (2015ish) and the project did really well (mostly due to the strength of the comic audience!)
I enjoyed it so much, I launched Gallant Knight Games and started with Tiny Frontiers and it kinda went from there! I felt I had something to offer, and I wanted to work at it.
DM: Can you tell us about your approach to writing an RPG…how much of the creation is mechanics and how much is story writing/world building?
AB: My favourite bit of RPG design is rules and mechanical design, so I tend to structure my games around that. I usually start with a “I have a cool idea for X mechanic” and work the rest of the game around it to support it.
This usually involves either a settingless game (with an implied setting) or a very barebones toolbox setting to support and justify the mechanical framework I’ve created.
I tend to create settings with either collaborators or have a very strong idea of what I want to do and lean into it after that. Settings aren’t my favourite thing to write, so they tend to come last (or be non-existent.)
With Heirs to Heresy, I actually started with the combat system first when designing the game (as that had a lot of the innovations I wanted to support) and the rest of the game came around there. Obviously, because the game is based in some elements of history, I had an easier time with a setting overview, so I didn’t have to start there. I could decide which elements (like magic or relics) were required by the setting and tone of the game, while designing others were a natural by-product of the combat system as the foundational piece of the game.
DM: How do you approach character creation within your game designs?
AB: Oh wow, that’s a big question. For me, each game is different and based on the feeling I’m trying to evoke. In the case of a game like Tombpunk, I was deliberately trying to create that classic dungeon crawler feel, so I leaned into the “Warrior, Thief, Mage” aspect of character creation.
As a general approach, I tend to prefer a more “unshackled” brand of character creation, where you can combine various elements to create something unique to you. I’m a big fan of combining discrete choices into a single character (so pick X options from Y lists and that’s your character). A few impactful decisions seem better (to my and my design ethos) than a series of nuanced, really detailed character decisions.
Heirs to Heresy was designed to follow that “make a few very impactful decisions”, with a bit of the player control over how your attribute and skill points are spent. I wanted something that was relatively quick, but still afforded the player a lot of nuance about how their character was defined.
DM: Given that so much of the RPG experience is player created, how do creators of RPGs innovate in their designs?
AB: Geez, that’s a hard question, and I wonder if I’m the right creator to answer it! I’ll give it a try.
In my opinion, I think a lot of the big innovations of recent years have come from how we orient conversations between players and GMs, as well as the upsurge in “partial” success mechanics. While a lot of this has been rediscovered years over years, the modern digital age means we’re less likely to lose these innovations, as well as be able to have bigger discussions around them.
There’s so many RPGs out there, and a lot of the great ideas are so subtle and clever that it can be easy to miss and hard to define. Games like Apocalypse World, Blades in the Dark have built on ideas and codified them in a way that makes those ideas a lot more accessible and approachable for audiences and new creators have taken those ideas into a whole new sphere.
A lot of design choices have moved into the presentation of RPGs as well, with books like Mork Borg that are literal works of art, focused on aesthetics and presentation in a way that changes the conversation around what an RPG can be.
I’m not sure I can put Heirs to Heresy in those luminous categories, though I think we did manage to present a combat system that provokes some ideas about how combat in an RPG can (and should) work!
DM: Can you describe the playtesting process for an RPG?
AB: Honestly, we just play the game a lot. For Heirs to Heresy I think I ran 5 campaigns, the longest being 30-something sessions, and the shortest being three. I probably spent close to 300 hours playing the game. I can’t control how you play an RPG, so when I playtest, I focus on making sure the text communicates the following core ideas:
- What should this rule do at the table? How do you know if it isn’t working?
- If it’s not working, did the game communicate enough about how to change the rules for the GM to make the call?
- Does the text make it clear how this works?
- If not, fix it.
- Does every rule in the game exist for a reason? Does it support the narrative, the sort of events/conflicts/encounters that are going to come up?
- If the game doesn’t have a rule, is the underlying mechanical apparatus clear enough that the GM can figure it out and make an informed decision based on my design work?
These are rules I’ve slowly (and often subconsciously) pieced together from making lots of mistakes throughout my career. I’m sure I’ll make more design mistakes and learn more about what I should be doing when I write these games!
DM: How has the blurring of the lines between RPG and other tabletop games – narrative and campaign board games, characters in tabletop mini’s games, and use of map tiles in RPG – allowed RPG creators to pull in elements from other tabletop genres?
AB: I think there’s a lot of potential for crossover, but in the end, I think RPGs have an option that no other media has: the fact that the story creator is also the audience is (and will always be) unique to an RPG, regardless of the form-factor.
Lots of media (board games, video games, etc) have borrowed great ideas from RPGs, and I think it’s fair game to borrow back. I play a lot of board and wargames with the express intent of seeing what I can glean to improve RPG designs I do.
The Heirs to Heresy mass combat system is deliberately inspired by rules-light small-scale (6mm scale) wargaming and something that’s easy to pull into the game that still evokes that feel!
DM: There are a vast range of RPG’s available – to the point where it can be difficult to know where to start. Can you recommend any beginner RPGs for someone approaching the hobby for the first time?
AB: There’s lots of great options! I think there are a few choices, each with different benefits:
- D&D or Pathfinder beginner boxes are both a great price and chock full of options. Both games also tend to have high concentrations of local players, no matter where you are. That can make it really easy to learn and a really appealing option.
- My own Tiny Dungeon 2e is designed to be rules accessible and easy to understand so you can run games quickly, as well as teach and create quickly with it!
- I’d also suggest Osprey Games’ excellent Sigil & Shadow by R.E. Davis, as a really accessible toolkit RPG.
- And finally, obviously I like to think Heirs to Heresy does a good job teaching you how to play and RPG, and I spent a lot of time focus on the “how” of structuring a campaign, which can often be opaque or hard to learn.
Honestly, the best advice is just go to your local game store and ask if they have a game night and join! Gamers always want to welcome new RPG-ers so don’t hesitate to ask. It’s a great and rewarding hobby!
DM: RPGs are primarily a social activity, however, not everyone has access to a gaming group? Can you offer any advice on how can players enjoy an RPG without a group?
AB: Sure! There are lots of two-player and solo RPGs out there! A quick search online will turn up tons. Some are journaling games (like A Thousand Year Old Vampire), some are more traditional in their approach to solo RPGs (like Ironsworn), some are two player (like Starcrossed) and some can do it all.
Lots of creative folks release great solo mods for existing games as well! If you have a particular interest (like creative writing) a journaling solo RPG is gonna be a lot of fun for you!
There’s also robust online RPG platforms and groups. I play almost all my weekly RPGs online now. Joining a FB group for a game you like and seeing who is offering RPGs or asking if there’s an online group looking for players will often turn something up!
DM: Are you able to tell us about anything you are working on currently?
AB: Oh sure! I got lots going on. We just finished Kickstarting Mecha & Monsters: Evolved and will be releasing that soon hopefully. There’s more TinyD6 coming, like the Tiny Dungeon Campaign Guide, more Tiny Superssupplements. I’ve got some expansions for our historical swashbuckling game Swordpoint coming, and I’d like tackle more historically themed games (I’ve written a few that are in various stages of completion). We also have more games come with our various publishing partners at GKG!
DM: Finally, can you offer any advice for someone thinking about creating their own RPG?
AB: The biggest and best advice I can give is: play every RPG you can. Spend as much time playing as varied a group of games as you can so you can see what everyone is doing. There’s so much to learn starting at the origins of the industry, and the more you know, the better your designs will be!
Download verisons of Alan’s games can be found at Drive Thru RPG.
Read more about Gallant Knight Games