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Ars Arcana: ROIL System for Campaign Design

ROIL System for Campaign Design
Travis Joseph Rodgers

Open-Endedness and Randomness
You are a role player. You roll dice. You assume ridiculous voices. You might even don the garb of your character. You spend hours working on back stories, excruciating over the name of your great-great-uncle. You don’t want a random world to play in. You want the world you play in and the system you employ to do so to reflect the thought and planning you’ve put into it. You want open-endedness, not randomness. So, how does a GM (Game Master) or GD (Game Designer) manage to do such a thing?

I think there are many ways to accomplish this, but I want to suggest one very helpful path for navigating a few desiderata on a gaming experience. On one hand, many players and parties want fast start capabilities. They don’t want a session zero. They want to be able to sit down and begin playing in the very first session. I’ll call this characteristic INCIPIENCE. On the other hand, parties want the structure of some sort of character creation system that not only lets the players know what their characters’ general capacities are but also gives a sense of that character’s position in the world. I’ll call this LOCUS. The players want that OPEN-ENDEDNESS, so why not call it that? And finally the players want a world and a system that demonstrates RESPONSIVENESS to their characters’ action.

Let’s reformulate and create a handy acronym. The ROIL system is born. A ROIL game is one built from these principles, though presumably nearly any gaming world/campaign conforms to most if not all of these desiderata. So, how does one build a ROIL world?

Step 1: What is the general flavor, location, and standing of the characters and the world, at least at the start of your game? This is the LOCUS.

Step 2: What are the degrees of freedom you’re willing to allow, at least from the start, to your PCs? This is the OPEN-ENDEDNESS.

Step 3: What are the general major forces at work in the game that PCs will eventually have to deal with, one way or another? This establishes the terms of the campaign’s RESPONSIVENESS.

Step 4: What is the minimal guidance you can offer your players to help them understand the 
campaign they are in, what some fulfilling goals might be, and what some immediate and more long-term obstacles there might be? This is the INCIPIENCE piece.

A ROIL campaign. You open the artifact (a cardboard box, a PDF, an audio file, a START menu), read a quick introduction to the scenario, and then the players begin deciding upon what sort of characters they will play. Some rules are listed to guide their creation – classes / levels / skills / points / races – and they can crank out a thoughtful character in under half an hour, for all involved players. 

There’s a general trend – like a series of modules to work through, a villain, a series of unfortunate events, or the like. Optional story tie-ins are offered, rules for character advancement are included. At the end of the first session, the players are left with a sense of attachment – as they have created a character they now have some investment in. They have a sense of accomplishment – as they have tackled their first issue as a team. And they have a sense of purpose – for they have a future before them with some sense of where they’re headed.

Is it cookie-cutter? Perhaps, but remember that ROIL is simply one way of accomplishing these goals. There are likely others, and some may be superior in some or all regards. It’s my personal preference, and it has been for three decades. Try it, and if you have feedback, please offer it. If you have other methods that have worked well, please reach out and let me know. For all human inquiry begins in wonder.


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