While Dragon Magazine broadened my exposure to the wider world of role-playing games, it couldn’t do much to overcome the two major obstacles keeping me from going all-in on the hobby — a profound shortage of cash and a dearth of local retailers who stocked more than the typical TSR fare.
Being an ambitious and industrious youth, I attempted an end run around the problem by crafting my own game systems. All were crude affairs, reverse-engineered from mechanics lifted from other games and scrawled hastily in the margins and blank pages of my notebook during study hall. These confusing and contradictory collections of hand-drawn tables and rules were specifically created for in-house use. I knew little and cared less about things like playtesting or game balance.
Only one of the three attempts I made at RPG design ever made it to a playable state. It was an attempt to create a modern military adventure system somewhere between the Rambo movies and a James Bond flick. I don’t recall if I bothered to actually give it a proper name. If I did, it was probably something pretentiously badass as would befit a fifteen year old hepped up on huffing the fumes of Reagan’s America.
Despite the “modern” and “realistic” setting, the game was just a pen-and-paper iteration of playing with GI Joe figures. Weapons and vehicles were heavily drawn from that toyetic well — alongside pyrotechnic action movies and random issues of Soldier of Fortune — and given stats based more on the perception of coolness than on real-world design capabilities. Ability scores and resolution mechanics were handled through percentage rolls, with little in the way of penalty modifiers or restraint in general.
It was a system where a pair of commandos lugging five tons of hardware on their backs could blast their way through an entire platoon of Red Army cannon fodder — which is exactly how the games one and only live play session went down.
Emboldened by that success, I turned my attention towards creating a superhero role playing game. I got as far as cataloging potential powers before realizing that the effort required exceeded both my interest in and ability to see the project through.
My final stab at whipping up a homebrew RPG took place during high school, after I had a little more insight and perspective into how game systems should function. It was an attempt to try something different in terms of setting and mechanics. The goal was to create something remotely publishable, that golden ticket into professional status so many fans dream about.
The concept was a far future Earth where a transhuman singularity triggered a mass migration of humanity. The players would be “Remnants” belonging to the hundred thousand or so people left behind to scavenge and survive in the slowly decaying ruins of continent-spanning arcologies filled with memory-rotted utility robots and mutated fauna. The goal was to be more entropic and apocalyptic, and it was heavily influenced by Blade Runner and J.G. Ballard’s short stories, as well as the “Rapture-ready” nonsense that filtered in from evangelical relatives and acquaintances.
Most of the time I spent on it involved world-building, for both the general setting and random generation tables for micro-environments within the superstructures. A good deal of effort also went into figuring out a basic and intuitive mechanic for handling a strictly barter economy, which doesn’t sound that exciting yet still occupied my attention for a surprising stretch of time. I never got around to working out the character creation and combat mechanics, apart from writing up a list of standard weapon archetypes to be fleshed out at a later date.
That date never came, for some reason. Like most of my creative endeavors, the flame of inspiration blazed white hot for a short while before guttering out completely once the initial novelty begins to feel like actual work. The physical records of all my homebrew efforts have long since vanished from this world, but I only regret not having the foresight to save my notes for “Remnants.” It wasn’t something I’d ever go back to or rework, but it would’ve been an interesting artifact of my teen years to examine.
My amateur hour forays into scratch-built game design ended for reasons I’ll be getting to in upcoming posts. When it came to creating campaigns in non-traditional or unsupported settings, I moved on to reworking existing rules systems to fit my needs. It was less work-intensive, and let me focus on the “fun” parts instead of trying to figure out vehicle combat rules or cover mechanics. (And, again, those efforts will be covered down the road.)