On-Demand, Custom Role-Playing Games: The Future of RPGs

I believe that the current business model for role-playing publishers of selling books or PDF files is inefficient and does not satisfy the changing demands of the gaming consumer.

For many years, publishers produced games using a base rule book and supplement business model. Gamers purchased the base book, liked it and then purchased supplements as they came out. This provided a semi-regular cash flow for the publisher and gamers got new content. This was a perfectly reasonable system until the internet arrived.

The main problem with paper books is that the flow of content is strictly one way. Once the book hits the printer, the content within is irrevocably fixed and the consumer has no ability to change or alter the content before purchase.

Strangely, this paradigm extends to the internet as well. Publishers use PDF files or subscription websites, but the results are the same. Publishers produce their games and then the public decides if they like the final product to purchase it. The entire final product.

The internet is literally built around the idea of interaction between disparate groups and if the game publishers want to survive, they have to forget the old methods and move on to a more interactive approach.

Customizable, on-demand role-playing games.

All role-playing games share the same basic components; rules, story, monsters, and equipment. My idea is to de-couple all of these pieces from each other.

My new paradigm is a website that sells separate “modules” for each of the components listed above.   Rather than foist a rules set that may not be to the player’s liking, give them an option.

–Amber Diceless
–4E Dungeons and Dragons
–3.5 OGL

In this example, I move from a very “light” rules set to a more mathematically complex rules set. My hypothetical player enjoys some math in his system, but not too much so he chooses the “Cortex” system. This is just the basic system, how to fight, perform actions, etc.

Now that the rules are sorted, he moves on to story. This section contains the story background and PC generation rules/skills. PC generation rules and skills based on his previous rules choice (Cortex).

–High Fantasy
–Battle of the Gladiators

Our gamer is feeling the need for some violence, so he goes with a “Gladiators” campaign.

Monsters are a key part of any game, in this case though the monsters are all humans. No fantasy creatures allowed in this campaign!

–Human Melee/Ranged Fighters
–Fantasy Jungle Beasts
–Magical Beasts

Choosing the “Human Melee/Ranged Fighter” module adds dozens of useful cannon fodder to the campaign. Again, the system automatically provides NPCs based on the previously chosen “Cortex” system.

A gladiator without weapons is no gladiator at all! Equipment is a critical part of any RPG, so just pick up the module you need.

–Melee Weapons
–Ranged Weapons
–Ray Guns
–Pistols and Rifles

In this case, our gamers buys the “Melee,” “Ranged” and “Primitive” modules. He plans lots of bloody, primitive combat! Weapons with “Cortex” stats, of course.

The rule book is now complete and the gamer checks out, paying for each selection on an “a la carte” basis. Since this is all electronic, the modules come assembled in a single PDF and our purchaser has the option of buying a “print on demand” bound, paper version if he desires.

The benefits for a setup like this are numerous. Notably it allows game authors to specialize. Many games have amazing stories and plots, but badly designed rules kill the game. Still other authors cannot write prose, but produce balanced, fun rules sets. There is no reason not to leverage each of their strengths for a superior final product.

This model also enhances competition. Rules sets are now compared directly to other rules, without the quality of the art and story getting in the way. Prose writers directly compete with other prose writers, free of bad art or sub-standard rules. The market will quickly decide who is doing the better job and reward the skilled accordingly.  Since each section is relatively small, I foresee more “semi-pro” game designers joining the fray. Creating a complete game book is daunting, but creating a single section is reasonable for a single person or small group.

From a business perspective, no longer will a single company force fans to endure a specific rules set to go with a campaign world. Financially this helps game publishers now reach many more potential customers. No longer is a system associated with a “fantasy” world, so sci-fi fans might reach out to use it. Secondary sales are also a nice benefit as customers return to upgrade their purchase (I want aliens in my gladiator campaign!) or they want to try a new game of their own design. Adventure modules (“modular modules,” I like the sound of that. I now claim “Modular Modules” as the sole property of livingdice.com, all rights reserved, copyright pending) also work in a similar fashion. One story, with many system options. With only a few options, the number of potential configurations becomes astronomical and each configuration sold is another dollar on the bottom line. Unlike previous business models, a great campaign does not expire with a new edition or a company going out of business. It lives on with whatever system the purchaser chooses. As new systems become popular, modules are modified to support the new rules set. Not every module is available for every rules set. The market decides when a publisher wants to support a new system.

I understand that many of you will disagree with my assessment.  The amount of work to get this system up and running is significantly more than current publishing efforts. I am also aware that this type of “modular” game system is not new (GURPS, Cortex), but to my knowledge no one has tried it online with digital delivery or with the level of granularity I propose. Or with the level of system integration. Remember, the modules are not rules agnostic, they are rules specific. No modifications are required.

Of course, all of this can be done by a dedicated game master with the time and inclination to port a game world to a new system. The key words in that sentence are “time” and “inclination.” Most gamers I know barely have enough time for gaming, much less re-writing a complete campaign world. Some do, but I think they are the tiny minority of gamers and a low-cost off the shelf option is worth it to most gamers.

Large publishers will hate it. Hate letting others mix and match with their copyrighted material and weakening their monopoly on famous brand names. Honestly, this is not for large, existing companies. They have too much to lose and little to gain by joining this community-driven game publishing model. Tomorrow belongs to small, dedicated groups producing something they love for the world to enjoy and making money while they do it. It is the heart of the game community and, in my opinion, all too often forgotten.

As a gaming consumer, I want more flexibility in my game options. I think this is the way to leverage the internet and bring game publishing into the 21st century.

Feel free to let the comments fly about this post. I know this solution has some some large issues to work out, but I am interested to hear your thoughts.

Venture capital for this project is welcome as well. ‘-)

Trask, The Last Tyromancer



Trask is a long-time gamer, world traveler and history buff. He hopes that his scribblings will both inform and advance gaming as a hobby.

9 thoughts on “On-Demand, Custom Role-Playing Games: The Future of RPGs

  • June 10, 2009 at 5:43 am

    West End Games will actually be doing it this way with the upcoming OpenD6 game. On the OpenD6 website you’ll be able to choose the features your version of OpenD6 should have and you can then download your personalized rulebook as PDF for free.

  • June 10, 2009 at 9:42 am

    Thank you for the tip. I did some checking on the Opend6 project and it truly smacks of vaporware. Opend6.com does not even have a placeholder site and the WEG website has not been updated in 6 months. It would be nice if this gets off the ground, but I am taking a wait and see approach. Also, it is somewhat of a “closed” system in that it would only support the opend6 system. My setup is broader based and would be based off of any system that someone wanted to contribute.


  • June 10, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    I doubt this is a realistic suggestion, but if a suitable platform exists the idea is worth implementing. Maybe someone will grab it and run with it.

    Some years ago I participated in a wiki where we designed modular rpg systems (and had theory articles and whatnot). Unfortunately that project died due to the number of active participants being around four. The wiki files might still be intact somewhere, if you are interested in, say, taking on that particular project.

  • June 10, 2009 at 12:44 pm

    On the surface this seems like an interesting idea but the real flaw here is that a great RPG is more than the sum of its parts.

    A great RPG isn’t just a set of game mechanics or setting fluff any more than a movie is just a script. For me, it’s also the presentation of all of the elements that really hooks me in and begs me to play a game. It’s the amazing art that was tailored to the specific game, the layout that makes the whole thing look good, and, above all, the passion that the creator had for his creation that brought the entire project together into a cohesive whole.

    The Frankenstein’s monster that you are suggesting would likely be missing that last piece. Imagine going to the movie theater and having the theater giving you a list of options for the movie that you would like to see, then creating it on the spot based on your choices. Could this possibly be a great movie? Could it even be a good one?

    I’m a fan of the internet age as much as the next guy, but there’s no reason to force it on to things that don’t need it.

  • June 10, 2009 at 10:42 am

    You might want to check out a new game called Untold – we’re doing exactly what you’re talking about — and we’re an entirely new type of game: a card-based RPG! 🙂


  • June 10, 2009 at 4:20 pm

    Interesting idea, but I agree with Jay Adan – I think it’s unlikely that a “gladiator” campaign that is written so generally that it can work with everything from humans to dragons and from melee weapons to ray guns would be worth much money.

    Part of the problem is that RPG’s are about storytelling. They require crafting and designing the individual parts to complement each other. I could see something like a “select the game system” sort of thing, with downloads customized to the system, but the level of customization you’re describing would preclude a lot of the design space you’d usually have open to you for RPG design, I think.

    Still, I’d love to be proved wrong. It would be an interesting design exercise to try.

  • June 10, 2009 at 5:02 pm

    I think you have some good ideas, though I don’t think doing everything you say is feasable from a business perspective. What I see as a more likely approach is taking a proprietary system and then choosing which example characters you want, which mooks you want statted, and which power set you’d want to have (say magic/psionics/superpowers. And then you could choose a particular theme for the adventure model included. Or you could be a player and just buy the core rules you need to print out. That I think has real value and would do well. A compromise to the quick-start guide, being “just the stuff you need”. Could be an excellent idea, especially if the print copy is a high-value item such as Alpha Omega.

  • June 10, 2009 at 8:36 pm

    @Tommi: I admit, this is Wiki-like. Though with some money behind it you might have more follow-through

    @Jay No argument that my solution turns rpgs into commodities. That said, there is always a place for the fine craftsmanship of an artisan. Complete, single author RPGs will still exist, just in a much less common form.

    @CC I disagree. Integration is nice, but I always thought I could do “better” than the author in certain areas. Now I can get exactly what I want without having to rewrite the entire game.

    @Helmsman true enough. I hate buying all the fluff when all I need is character generation and some stats.

  • June 11, 2009 at 6:21 am

    I see some uses for this idea, but what would bug me the most is the lose of identity. if it doesn’t matter what I’m playing I could just skipping plaiyng at all. That’s why some the community is split in 3.5 and 4E, because each has its own identity and have your community to have fun with it. If you lose this the whole hobby might cease to exist.

    I still like the idea of giving the buyers more choice, but this would be more on the “buy on the spot” thing. I hate buying a book for 30€, when I only need a part of it. If they could split it into smaller and cheaper parts I could imagine even spending more money in the end. Instead of having an Martial Power book with content for four classes, having 4 seperate books for 10€ (not hardcover, softcover would be enough for me) would get me buying just for the class I need instead of skipping the book as it is to expensive.

    The same could be true for monsters. Having smaller monster manuals for “kinds” of monsters (Undead, Dragon, Lizards, Gonblins, etc…) with lets say 64 pages softbinding for 10 Euros. I could see myself buying one each month for a new adventure.

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