This article on TTRPG design approaches and their application is commissioned and authored by Ross Leiser of Outlandish Adventure Productions, one of the most successful class designers in the D&D 5e third-party publishing space. This article contains affiliate links that add gold to our coffers at no expense to you! Support our small business by using our links. Thank you!
Unless you have a plethora of experience in your field of design, beginning a project can be a daunting endeavor. Where do you start? Do you tackle the small details that actually allow functionality, or do you begin with the broad-sweeping scaffolding or composition that will hold everything together? Choosing an approach and sticking with it on a project will help keep you on track, in addition to any team you’re leading, and it’s helpful to be able to communicate how you’re approaching design on the project.
Enter the two most widely used design approaches: Top-Down and Bottom-Up. These terms may seem arbitrary at first, but think of design like a vertical spectrum. The Top of that spectrum is your high-concept, holistic idea, your elevator pitch. The Bottom of the spectrum is all of the granular, specific functions that actually make the project usable, the elevator’s foundation, cables, wiring, and programming that all make sure you safely get where you need to go while giving that pitch. Belabored metaphors aside, these two ends meet in the Middle to create your users’ experience, where expectation meets reality. Making sure those two line up is of paramount importance to good design. So, in a general design sense…
The Top-Down approach is beginning with what you want your consumer’s understanding of the project to be, and constructing each detail to match that vision.
The Bottom-Up approach starts with the development of functions, and later figuring out how they’re going to work together in a high-concept way.
Both end results include the same basic components — expectations, functions, and how they line up to create experience — but the journey to how they’re completed is entirely different.
How Design Approaches Apply to TTRPGs
So far, this has all been a general explanation meant to be applied to design theory in the many, many disciplines of design, so let’s discuss how these approaches apply specifically to tabletop roleplaying game design. Note: My six years in this industry has mostly been designing for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, in particular player-facing materials, so I’ll primarily be using that system and that type of material as frames of reference. However, the core principles we’ll be discussing are applicable to any system, any type of supplement, and even if you’re developing an entirely new system.
In tabletop roleplaying design, we still have the vertical spectrum with its high-concept Top and foundational-functions Bottom, but they have specific connotations. The Top is your design’s lore or narrative, which establishes player and GM expectations of what your design is supposed to look and feel like in play, and the Bottom is the functional mechanics that will be used to actually play it. The Middle, then, is what it feels like for the design to be used, how the lore and mechanics line up to create a play experience. So in TTRPGs…
Top-Down is starting with a lore or narrative concept, and then creating mechanics to bring that story or archetype to life.
Whereas Bottom-Up is starting with mechanical concepts and then later creating lore or narrative to tie them all together.
Let’s discuss them both in-depth with practical examples from my TTRPG career, as well as a much rarer third design approach I’ve come to term “Middle-Out.”
Top-Down in TTRPG Design
In my experience, most of the smaller TTRPG designs — character races, subclasses, and the like — use the Top-Down approach. Some specific examples:
- Subclasses based on particular characters or archetypes from fiction and other media — Legolas, the avatar from Avatar: The Last Airbender, Kirby, “like a Final Fantasy protagonist,” etc.
- Races based on monsters from the the various bestiaries through D&D’s history — like mind flayers or gnolls — or the species and societies from books, video games, television, and movies — Pandaren from World of Warcraft or Wookies from Star Wars
- A magic item based on a Portal Gun
- A spell based on a favorite technique of an anime character
- A paladin Sacred Oath that swears to find out which came first: the Chicken or the Egg
- An adventure or campaign inspired by the Ocean’s 11 series of heist movies, but fantasy
Each of these is using an established archetype or reference to inform the direction of the playstyle and mechanics, which is the core of what Top-Down design is. Your “lore or narrative concept” can be a clear reference to a favorite character, a whimsical joke, tied to existing system lore, or anything that you and the reader can in some way emotionally or intellectually connect to.
But this approach isn’t just limited to smaller designs; it can be used for full character classes, GM-facing products like adventures, and even full campaign settings and worlds. Star Wars was based both on classic Japanese samurai cinema and a commentary on how easy it can be for fascism to rise when we get complacent, but make it sci-fi with laser swords. Many epic and urban fantasy books and worlds, including many aspects of D&D itself, are at least in part based on classical folklore and ancient mythology. In all of these cases, the themes and narrative touchstones were established before the actual mechanics and details came in to fill the gaps.
Though I’ve noticed for myself a general proclivity for Bottom-Up design (more on that below), I’ve used Top-Down quite a bit in my own works. While most of my use of this approach has been those “smaller designs” I mentioned earlier, one of my most major uses of Top-Down design was in the Honor & Devotions collaborative work I created alongside David Adams, in particular the Yojimbo class. The Yojimbo was based on a lot of that samurai media that inspired George Lucas in Star Wars, as well as on the mythological use of spiritual power and self-mastery that permeates a lot of anime and manga.
To communicate these themes and meaningfully differentiate the design from 5e’s Fighter class, I took inspiration from the stance- and martial form-focus of many Eastern martial arts, creating a Stance mechanic that grants the ability to dynamically switch passive benefits and prepare the player for a variety of situations. I then implemented a “positive and negative” energy theme that could be channeled through the stances and your other features. These mechanics helped to create a measured and reactive playstyle that allows the player to respond to many different combat scenarios with a bit of anime flair. Without having the lore concepts in place, I likely wouldn’t have thought to combine that particular collection of mechanics, so the inspirations truly guided the design.
But no matter what you are designing, if you like to have a guiding framework or conceptual inspiration that helps inform your every design decision, Top-Down is likely for you!
Bottom-Up in TTRPG Design
I consider myself to be an “experimental designer,” which by my own personal definition means that I like to intentionally break core rule assumptions about games in my designs and see how they affect play. That means, while I’m sure others have different experiences based on their own preferences, I find that most of my larger projects — full character classes especially — use the Bottom-Up approach of beginning with definitive mechanical concepts. Examples of this approach:
- A class designed and balanced around having a companion at level 1
- A class whose spellcasting is the halfcaster version of Warlock’s Pact Magic
- A class designed around being in two places at once but sharing a health bar between those two positions
- A class that uses health as its spellcasting resource, instead of the Vancian magic-like spell slot system
- A class that imposes permanent downsides on the character, something 5e just doesn’t do, but making them worth it and/or fun to play around
Every bullet point above is a full character class that I’ve developed and released (my Dracoknight, Justiciar, Emergent, Odic, and Accursed, respectively), and every single one of them began as a design challenge for myself. Most of these challenges were some form of “What happens if I break this core design assumption/ethos and then create new rules or features to fill in the gaps?” They started with the mechanical concepts above, and eventually I determined a narrative framework to either inspire more specific features or to tie all the concepts together.
But these are all experimentally focused examples of my works. Bottom-Up design doesn’t need to be “experimental;” it can also be simple and straightforward, and even embrace the confines of the system you’re designing for. To use the core 5e classes as reference, they can be as simple as:
- Fighter — A new-player-friendly martialist class with damage scaling centered around additional attacks
- Sorcerer — A spellcaster with an additional resource that allows them to alter or augment the effects of their spells
- Warlock — A heavily customizable spellcaster with new-player-friendly casting mechanics
Or, getting back to my own design experiences, “an Intelligence-based halfcaster, but that isn’t a Spellsword like everyone and their mother on the r/UnearthedArcana subreddit are making.” This was the concept and driving force behind my first-ever full class, the Sculptor. Despite that I released a revised-from-the ground-up and massively expanded version of the class this past May (which is where the link leads) and I’ve removed the original version from sale, I feel that my original journey is informative about Bottom-Up Design.
In my early days of homebrew design back in 2016, long before I managed to go full-time in the TTRPG industry or even thought about selling/publishing anything I’d brewed up, I spent a lot of time on the r/UnearthedArcana subreddit. One of the hot topics in that community at that time, when 5e had only been released just over a year prior, was the lack of Intelligence-based options. Wizard was the only Int-based full spellcaster, and though the Eldritch Knight fighter subclass and Arcane Trickster rogue subclass were fun, they didn’t quite live up to the half-caster status that Paladin supplies for Charisma and Ranger for Wisdom. It’s difficult to describe, especially in an era in which Artificer has existed for years now, how large the appetite was to fill that void in 5e’s character option design in homebrew communities. Most r/UA users opted to adapt materials from previous D&D editions to fill that gap, especially the Spellsword, and there were a lot of them, so many that the community started to get a bit toxic about it (as Reddit so often, unfortunately, does).
Despite the vitriol, and partially inspired to try my hand at class design when I discovered Benjamin Huffman’s Pugilist class on the then-brand-new Dungeon Master’s Guild, I wanted to try my own hand at designing an Intelligence-based halfcaster. Up to this point, I’d only done subclass and race design, so taking on a full playable class was extremely daunting. But I took the time to study the 5e Player’s Handbook’s class progression tables and mapped out some patterns:
- All classes get Ability Score Increases at levels 4, 8, 12, 16, and 19.
- The (then only) two halfcaster classes — Paladin and Ranger — both get the Spellcasting feature at level 2, with access to new levels of spell slots at levels 5 (when they both also get Extra Attack), 9, 13, and 17. Other than at level 2 and 5, they don’t get an additional feature at these “higher spell slot” levels.
- Those two classes both get the Fighting Style feature at level 2, with a different suite of choices.
- They also both get their subclass at level 3, with subclass features at 7 and 15, though Paladin gets one at 20 while Ranger gets one at 11. That said, other classes with similar structures to each other can have different subclass levels, so I can change it up, too.
In an effort to be different and fresh, I decided that my attempt at an Intelligence-based halfcaster was going to get its subclass at level 1. But I needed to come up with a reason why. For Cleric, Sorcerer, and Warlock, they got their subclasses at level 1 — instead of 2 like the other full spellcasters — seemingly because their subclass was the source of their abilities. So, what could be an interesting ability source for my class that made them martially focused but still magical like a halfcaster should be?
Concepts Began to Flow
I then thought back to my previous works, one of which was a Barbarian subclass called Path of the Furymage (yes, I recognize now how horrible of a name that is, but I had only just started when I wrote this one) that, while raging, could summon weapons. Martial and magical, but not magical enough. Hmmmm, what if this thing shaped weapons out of pure magical energy? Wait, yes! Then the subclasses can each be a signature weapon you form and that determines your core combat style!
From there, the concepts continued to flow: if you can shape magic into weapons, you should probably be able to shape it into other things, too. But what is their spell list going to look like? Feels kind of arcane-ish like Sorcerer and Wizard, but they don’t have cool weapon spells like Paladin and Ranger do, and I’m not sure I’m ready to tackle writing new spells yet. Wait, Warlock gets some cool spells like hex that work really well with weapon combat. What if I just let you choose? Oooo, yes, then it’s like you’re also choosing the type of magic you shape! Hmmm, this is kind of feeling like an “artistic expression” sort of class, choosing both materials and medium; let’s lean into that!
And thus, the Sculptor, the Class of Artistry and Battle was born. After polishing it for nearly a year, I released the Sculptor on the DMsGuild and posted it to r/UA. To my surprise, instead of toxicity, I actually enjoyed a bit of acclaim, enough that to this day I’ll still sometimes get surprised exclamations of “Wait, you’re the Sculptor guy!?” when I’m talking to other 5e content creators.
Getting back to the point, despite not knowing it at the time, my design of the original Sculptor was textbook Bottom-Up: I began with a mechanical concept, built up other mechanics, and eventually found a narrative that tied all the disparate pieces together.
If you’re a mechanics-, challenge-, and/or function-oriented person that likes to jump into work and see where the project takes you, the Bottom-Up approach is probably right up your alley!
Middle-Out in TTRPG Design
Now, we get to the most nebulous and uncommon design approach. In fact, “Middle-Out” isn’t really an industry term so much as an observation I made about the way I approached one of my designs. As discussed earlier, in that vertical “TTRPG design spectrum”, the Top is lore/narrative, the Bottom is mechanics/numbers, and where they meet in the Middle is the way your product actually feels for a player or GM to use. While normally you’d start at either end of the spectrum and work towards the other, Middle-Out is beginning with player experience and finding/creating both mechanics and narrative to facilitate it.
If that seems confusing and difficult, you’d be right, and I’d have never even thought to include it in this article if not for the strange way my Shaman class came together. In 2019, with five years of GMing experience and about four years of design experience under my belt, I began noticing gaps that existed in 5e. Not really playstyle or narrative concepts, though those definitely existed and still do, but more in overall ways players approached the game itself. I observed that people didn’t seem to be making use of their rests or downtime, and more just built/specialized “one size fits all” sorts of character builds that mostly charged blindly into any given situation and used the abilities they had to adapt to the scenario they faced. Few players seemed to take moments to step back, assess situations, and prepare for the likely challenges ahead.
And it wasn’t just at my own tables. I saw it in Actual Plays and talked about it with GM friends, and even Wizards of the Coast noticed that players weren’t taking nearly as many short rests as 5e was originally designed around, which Proficiency Bonus per Long Rest was introduced (in lieu of Short Rest Recharge) as an attempt to address. There just seemed to be a gameplay feeling in players of “We have to push forward through the situation to get to the next one, then push through that, and then the next one…and the next…” and so on. What could I do to facilitate a gameplay experience for both players and GMs that slowed the game down, made them want to take quiet moments to interact with each other and prepare for the situations ahead?
As you can see, this doesn’t fall squarely in the granular mechanics of the Bottom of the spectrum, or the narrative references of the Top. It’s in the Middle, the gameplay experienced by the players and GMs. I had to take this “feeling” and find mechanics and narrative that would somehow meet in the middle to facilitate it. Given that the class didn’t actually release until 2021, two years later, you can see that it took some serious thought and time. It was a design challenge unlike any I’d ever experienced, and I desperately wanted to get it right. What mechanics encouraged players to stop the bull rush for a bit? To get them to actually take a breather? Short rests and downtime mechanics definitely weren’t working.
An “AH-HA!” Moment
Then it hit me: ritual spells. Both optimizers and heavy roleplayers alike enjoy conserving spell slots, and I’d seen the full range of players stop everything to take the 10 extra minutes in-game to cast a spell as a ritual so they could do so. So what if I made a class that mandated you take that 10 extra minutes because you literally can’t cast it the fast way?
That’s when I started thinking about ritualism outside of D&D. What real-world or fantasy connections could I make? I thought about witches and cults, but those had a bit too sinister of connotations for what I wanted, and I also thought about religion, but that’s Cleric’s wheelhouse. Eventually, I thought back to some of my own ancestral roots, the Cherokee blood that I carry, and the Cherokee shaman I used to visit regularly. Before life got hectic in my teens, before I had to prioritize extracurriculars and grades to build up my college apps, I would meet with her to connect to my native roots.
The connection between my D&D conundrum and my own shift in priorities earlier in life was too profound for me to ignore. I had left my roots behind because life got too fast, and now I was looking for a way to encourage my players to slow down. I took the opportunity to slow down a bit myself, reconnecting with my Cherokee spiritualism and determining that shamanism would be a perfect concept to facilitate this gameplay feel.
I didn’t want to explore just Cherokee shamanism, though, but the many shamanistic systems that exist worldwide, which inspired my Shaman class’s subclasses. For mechanics, specializing in ritual spells was the base, but I also incorporated the idea of bonding with Spirit Guides that you could channel for mutual benefit. Over those two years between concepting and release, I did a ton of reading and iterating and polishing, and also worked with a couple sensitivity consultants to make sure I presented my inspirations with respect and care. The end product is one of my proudest design achievements, and also one of my most beloved products by its players.
So, if you’re a designer who is at your core driven by play experience and the gameplay “feel” of your projects over the specifics or narrative, I recommend giving Middle-Out a try! It’s very difficult to get used to, especially if you’re familiar with the much more common Top-Down and Bottom-Up, but I’ve discovered it’s well worth it for the right project.
Top-Down, Bottom-Up, and Middle-Out are all distinct ways of approaching a design project, but no single one of them is necessarily better than the others. By following good design principles and knowing your audience, they all can arrive at the same results. It’s just a matter of which feels best for you, your team, and the project you’re working on. The biggest lesson here is just to try them out and keep designing! The best way to become a better designer is to keep at it, gain more experience, and get feedback from the voices you trust. These design approaches just exist to keep everything organized and your design intentional.
And, eventually, you’ll find which one(s) work best for you! I wish you all the best in your future designs!
Director & Lead Designer, Outlandish Adventure Productions
You can read about more homebrew and customization for D&D 5e and TTRPGs here at Flutes Loot!