Practical advice for indie RPG production: a discussion with Dario Nardi on Radiance RPG from start to finish

In a very real sense, everyone who has played a role-playing game is a designer. We have all tweaked rules or made new ones whole cloth to fit our games. That said, there is a world of difference between the informal ideas we throw around the table at one another, and taking the time, effort, and money to publish a full game. Recently I sat down with Dario Nardi, a college professor, operator of a neuroscience lab, publisher of multiple books on psychology, and creator of Radiance RPG–a steampunk fantasy game that is completely independent of any RPG companies. He got his start writing several Pact Magic books for the D&D 3.5 and  Pathfinder game systems, all of which are still available.

He was good enough to share his experiences with Gaming Trend, finding the ups and downs of taking a product from its  inception into its final stage: a physical book with multiple supplements that players can share in and enjoy.

To start with for those who don’t know, what is Radiance RPG?
For fans of the d20 system, I think they will find something familiar, but with not as many subsystems. It is meant to be easy to prepare for the GM, and I wanted something that allowed fantasy as well as more modern elements. That means it’s incredibly modular, to allow you to make it yours. A variety of other games inspired me, from Star Wars to Blue Rose to Call of Cthulhu. All of those are possible, with what I felt was a streamlined approach.

I have personally been surprised with how well Radiance delivers on those concepts. Relatedly, for someone of your background I have to ask: what got you into RPG design?
Well I have been a fan of games for a long time. I had the basic set and then AD&D (first edition) back in 1983. For fans of Stranger Things, I too was 13 then, playing D&D in the suburbs. I remember it all well (except there were no actual monsters).

As much time as I spent with AD&D and then second edition’s rich settings, I was impressed with 3.5’s potential, even though that went in some pretty muddy directions. I enjoyed it, but after a while I was collecting all of these books, and I realized how busy I was and how difficult it was to play. Looking at other games, and realizing I had published other books, I asked why I couldn’t write my own. That’s when I came out with Secrets of Pact Magic, and later Villains of Pact Magic focusing on a medieval horror element.

Talking about making your own game products, where do you have to start to take a game from concept to reality?
I’d say it’s a lot like the hero’s journey or a 12-step AA program. It really isn’t a straight line, and there are problems along the road. Three REAL questions to ask yourself with any venture:

1. What problems already exist?
2. What benefits will you offer to create a life free of that problem?
3. What are the details of the solution?

I also want to highlight how important that is. Please, when you start making a game, think about these questions.
Yeah. There is competition out there, competing for someone’s time and attention. That is why finding a niche that hasn’t been addressed yet is so important. One of the core issues I wanted to attack: prep time. Especially at higher levels, games are just a tremendous amount of work unless you go pre-generated.

Another question that comes up fairly quickly is math, and it definitely helps having a PhD in engineering to really dig into that. It’s not like there is one solution to the math. The real question is which  combination of math elements are optimal to create the experience you are going for.

Can you delve into that a little more? What kinds of things are you looking at when analyzing a game’s numbers?
One of the things I did is make the entire process math based. It really was the basis for creating everything. I wanted a way to quantify everything, whether it be a basic spell or attack, and the same for everything else. For instance, I asked myself if I wanted money integrated into the system or hand-waived. In an industrial world, where people can potentially amass thousands or millions of GP, I decided to codify money into the game.

Skills are another good example. In Radiance, raising skills is not automatic and you have to choose carefully whether to be more skilled or, for example, to be better at combat. At the same time, skill bonuses definitely have an impact (for example, +5 rather than +2). The impact on PCs turns out positively, and the other effect is to make everyday NPCs who have those skills, which the PCs lack, more relevant to the story and more valuable. The everyday townie (as I call them, having lived in upstate New York) becomes more important. I was inspired by AD&D, where it was assumed you had hirelings and such. Also, I wanted NPCs to be meaningful and specialized, to fit the feeling of the 1850-1950 world that I was trying to create.

The Townies section may seem strange, but this quick listing of NPCs implies much about mundane people in the setting while giving you a tool you can use consistently in your home games

Also, skilled NPCs also made followers more important. I wanted players (not characters, players) to develop leadership skills, so I gave them more reasons to work with and rely on non-player characters.

With feats as well, I decided to silo those into relevant narrative themes, such as whether you would be a protector or romantic or a leader. I just want to emphasize how important it is to think about all of these things and develop them before you even start putting pen to paper.

And I note that Radiance, from 2008, made that decision, something that would later be adopted in Fifth Edition. Keeping on the subject of creation, once you have these ideas down and the first draft done, how does the process of playtesting work?
The first thing I do is develop some prototype pages. For example, I’ll create several distinct classes and see how that process goes and develop a template that I can follow. It’s also the time to pick your writing style and create a style guide. Every book needs a style guide. For example, I didn’t want Pathfinder’s lengthy explanations and magazine-style layout, which includes numerous references to other pages and books. I wanted one race per page, one class per two-page spread, etc. without needing to reference, say, a separate chapter on spells. It makes playing and GMing a lot easier. I also choose how to bold, italicize, etc. in a consistent way. And please know that writing is different than speaking. “Their” is plural, not singular. Avoid ending sentences with prepositions. Avoid clauses that are too long. Decide on British or American punctuation. And so forth. It’s not that there’s a right answer, though there’s likely a best answer for your game, and above all, be consistent. You want to decide all this early, rather than trying to go back later to try to make things consistent or getting 30 red marks per page from an editor.

As for play testing, make sure to give your book to people who are not familiar with it. You want them to be running it on their own, out of your presence to hear their responses. They will surprise you with the things that they come up with, and you need to make sure you listen to them.

One incredibly important aspect: give your game to a powergamer. You want to see how someone who wants to break the game might to so. In my game we had a highly optimized fighter who was big and powerful but was countered by a witch. Witch abilities in Radiance do no HP damage, but their powers make them threatening to physical characters. It’s important to create options for your players. Even a big burly warrior can be threatened by a flying invisible witch with her powers to beguile, and those moments create great stories.

Make sure that you get them to run encounters of all sorts, especially those that aren’t necessarily combat. You have to get their feedback to gather as much information as you can about as many variables as possible.

You also have to devote plenty of time to reworking it. Find out what works, what doesn’t and what needs to change, and be ready to get rid of things you were attached to if the feedback goes that direction.

So once you have this basic text you need to fill it out. How do you go about working with artists?
Make sure to look to their individual strengths for the different areas of your book, but also to ensure that those strengths work together. I had so many themes, be they robotic or Lovecraftian or fantastical, and needed to have them all look like they were from one artist in a way, to be consistent. I did that by making sure their styles complemented each other and the theme I was going for. Even before that point I had to be careful that they would individually fit those separate areas, looking through their portfolios for the best fit and their highest potential and then hiring in their specialty.

You need a good idea in your mind of what the book will look like before you ever start talking to artists, and once you do, you need to work with them consistently. They will be willing to do re-edits, and do them if you have to, but even more importantly be sure you are prepared before you get to that stage. For example, write art briefs and find out how you and the artist can best communicate. In general the more preparation you do, the easier it will be down the road.

In one image we have four or perhaps more art requirements at play. It took work to make them fit together this well

An unexpected consideration you need to keep in mind: page look. It’s incredibly important and easy to get wrong. Remember that background means background. It can’t stick out too much or people won’t be able to read the text. At the same time, that page design is how people remember your work and you will likely be using it in the future in follow up books.

Now I had the luxury of being able to pay the artists, but make sure that you get quality out of their work regardless. Because I prepare a bit and hire carefully, I rarely ended up asking for re-edits, and whatever stage you are at you want to seriously ask yourself if a piece is worth putting in your book. This is what makes art direction overall so important.

So what do you do when you think you have a finished book and want to put it all together? Make sure you spend a lot of time on layout. It really shows in the final product. This is how readable the game is, how many typos there are, how easy to navigate it is, and more. Another area that seriously influenced my design: I didn’t want page flipping. If you look in Radiance, every class fits on a two page spread, and that’s with everything. You have to think about not only what information you are presenting, and how it looks, but how the reader will use it

Also, make sure to get an editor, especially if you have limited writing experience. And please at least have a proofreader. Do your best to minimize spelling errors, and ask people to read it through as much as possible. Crowdsourcing is great for that, if you can do that. Even with multiple proofreaders, you WILL have typos. The challenge is that the usual professional editors in the book universe are not usually savvy with game books, and people who advertise as game editors might be fantastic or crummy. Also, check to make sure rules interact well, and get people to look at it despite how technical it is. Mostly my editors have been great. Even catching 90% of errors is impressive on its own. But in some cases, I went back and made changes after the proofreader or editor, and that was a mistake.

Crowdsourcing on content is one of the most important parts, because the most important aspect, that being the rules, is the most boring to read through except for fans, and then they are likely to miss the mechanical issues like typos. Reading through page after page of abilities is incredibly boring and tedious, considering usage and mechanics, but it’s the only way you can make sure your book actually works before you take the final step.

Along those lines, make sure to print out your book and look at it before you move on. Seriously, go to Kinko’s (or FedEx printing now), make a round, and see how it looks in physical form before you start worrying about printers. Give it to people and let them write on it so they remember what they thought. Give it to dozens of people (if you can). Generally, the more input the better.

I know this is a horrific eldritch abomination that defies all decency in the universe, but this pose makes me like to think he is angrily walking to pick up after his misbehaving children in the supermarket

Printers can be a big problem. How do you navigate that critical aspect of the process? Step one, you have to learn the ins and outs of printing. There are tons of little technical details that you probably know nothing about right now, but if you want to release a game you have to learn them. Things like ink levels, which sound totally meaningless but make or break your book. The printers are used to dealing with professionals and they don’t really care if you don’t know. I learned because I called them after they kept telling me something was wrong. I got to a tech guy and he gave me a step-by- step list of where to go in InDesign, Acrobat Reader, or Photoshop to get it right. That list still sorts on my desktop years later.

In terms of the companies, each printer has its own quirks that you need to discover and find out for yourself. The technical details really do matter and you really have to find out what they are to move on. This is the most boring aspect of getting your book out there, but you just have to pay attention to it. It can ruin a book if you don’t pay attention to it and cost you a ton of time and money.

Once you do get to that point, how do you measure success for something this niche? You have released a supplement, so I imagine that Radiance was successful in its way, but once the game is out there how do you consider it a success?

Money is definitely not necessarily the best measure. You get the satisfaction of knowing that you finished something, and the best part of it for me is knowing that people are out there enjoying my product. There was a time on Drivethru when Radiance House scratched the top 10% of game companies, and that was a great feeling, knowing there were many people looking at my game.

I think releasing the core book, the Radiance Players Guide, for free was a great move. Last I looked it had around 20,000 downloads, and that was an amazing feeling. Even if only a portion of those are actually playing the game, it still means that something I created is getting seen pretty widely, especially for a hobby this niche. I looked at the Masters Guide and Expansion Kit, which aren’t free, and there were hundreds of downloads within hours of me putting it up, and that tells me that I am making something that people are attracted to.

This shows is that releasing a product for free can make it a success. It meant more people looked at my game and more people ended up buying the supplements and physical version. It’s sort of counter-intuitive, that not changing for the core PDF likely lead to more dollar sales later on.

But to reiterate, dollar amounts are not the way to view it. Pact magic over the course of 10 years made around $11,000. If you want to make a profit this is not your industry. I saw it as a hobby; the way some people buy skis and go skiing I would buy art and take time to design the book. Unless you are trying to really be a professional publisher, you don’t want to see this as a money-making venture.

I know that your work in neuroscience in some ways deals with how people process games and game like tasks. Has this influenced your game design in any way?
You know I never thought of that directly before now. In 1999, Wizard of the Coast once did a large study of much of their player base and came up with a core four player types, keeping in mind the goals they have going into a game. [The results are reported by Sean Reynolds in Breakdown of RPG gamers] I like to always keep those types in mind to make sure my games have something that appeals to all four of them.

Is there any advice you have yet to mention that you hope new designers keep in mind?

Absolutely. Number one, block out time for yourself to make sure you get work done. You might be able to write a page a day, but not me. I worked best by blocking out full days, or ideally several days a in row without interruption. For a few years, Radiance sat in a drawer, and I had to ask myself if I was going to finish the manuscript or throw it away.

As I said at the start, writing a book is like the hero’s journey. For example, there is a lot of excitement at the start, and there is a malaise in the middle of a project where that often happens to everyone, but even worse it at the end when you have to finish that last 5-10%. It’s so difficult to get through those last infuriating details, but you have to do it. Don’t leave a “see page XX” in your book! Those details can be some of the most important, so push through it and make sure you keep up the effort.

Lastly, and maybe most importantly, learn when to STOP writing. People seem to always have more and more ideas they think they can pack in there, but there is such a thing as too much and it can keep you from ever finishing. For example, with the Radiance Players Guide, I set myself at a hard cap at 300 pages (it ended up at 284). Focus on what’s necessary. Then consider what’s at least relevant. Setting limits makes products better. You can always create a follow up Supplement.

You can find more about Dr. Nardi from his website, Facebook, and at an upcoming Eve Online event October 6th , where he will be discussing the brain patterns behind leadership in the context of Eve. Additionally, tune in to his Reddit AMA page September 20th to ask him more about these subjects, Radiance RPG, or anything on your mind.


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