Choosing Your System

Robin D. Laws’s Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering has a section called Picking Your Rules Set. It has the following mock discussion:

First Arguer: “Rules system X rules. Unlike rules
system Y, which sucks!”
Second Arguer: “Clearly, you possess the morals
and common sense of a rabid baboon! Everyone
knows that system Y rules and system X sucks!”
Third Arguer: “A pox on both your houses!
Everyone knows it’s the GM, not the rules, that makes
a good game!”

It then goes on to state the true problem with this discussion: None of the participants are actually stating the purpose of their choice.

Although people like to think the system choice is secondary and doesn’t actually matter, they are overlooking many things. Often this is the viewpoint of people, who have been playing since the days system didn’t actually matter that much, since they weren’t designed very well when compared to the modern systems, and therefore they don’t really see the difference.

Is there a difference? Obviously I’m trying to prove there is.

I’m not even going into quality of systems. Clearly some systems just have a superior design and simply work better no matter what you are doing. Yes, people, its time to let Palladium and all its inbred siblings go, but proving this is not going to be the point of this post.

First and most important difference between systems is what they communicate to the players.

If I make a character in any of the million or so Savage Worlds variants, I’m basically making decisions on how I’m going to contribute to the combat efforts of the group. Granted, there are rules for things outside of combat, but they are purposefully light and don’t really contribute to the experience. If I want to make a smart guy, I do that to be able to cast spells or be able to buy Level-Headed to be able win most initiatives. I make the character for fighting and thus I expect the game itself to revolve around fighting. This is what the game tells me to do.

On the other hand, if I’m making a character for HeroQuest (narrative method), I’m thinking about what I want to tell about my character. I’m totally free (well, obviously there are genre and world limitations, but still) to make any character I want. If there’s GM input I should take it into account, but I just have a set number of words (default 100) to just tell you about the character. Granted, 100 isn’t much, but its enough.

Clearly, there’s a difference. If the GM brings in Savage Worlds version of Deadlands, I’m going to go in expecting fighting zombie indians and wendigos. If the GM brings in HeroQuest version of Glorantha, I’m thinking about how my barbarian fits into the clan.

Second, players have different styles and expectations. Some are more interested in characters, some in narrative, some in tactical aspects, some in character advancement and some in just kicking ass. Obviously not everyone clearly fits into these categories and all of us fit into all of these categories in at least a small way. If your major interest is in tactics, kicking ass or advancement, you should probably find a game outside of this form, because there are plenty of other types of games (MMORPGs, board games, miniature games, MtG) which are better for satisfying such needs, but I’m not here to judge (today). Different systems will cater to different players.

The guy who enjoys the tactics wants a clearly defined set of tools. He isn’t getting everything he wants out of the game if he can’t plan meticulously and find innovative ways to use the tools he’s given. He’ll enjoy Savage World for sure, but the very freeform way HeroQuest plays out isn’t something he’s really looking for.

People who are interested in the narrative are going to get much more out of HeroQuest, where the fail-forward mechanics make it much more interesting – for example – to simply lose a fight than in many other games. The tactical player doesn’t necessarily dislike losing any more than those interested in the narrative, but they won’t knowingly make the decision to lose, because that’s not the way he thinks.

Third, if you are running a oneshot or a short campaign, using a complex system (unless its familiar to all players) is counterproductive no matter how well it works for what you are trying to do otherwise. The complexity of the system is clearly an issue even in longer campaigns. Many players simply won’t learn rules. Its just not in their nature. They’re not stupid. They just don’t live in the same paradigm as those interested in the rules do. You should be especially wary of systems where rules knowledge gives players too much of an edge over those who are not aware of all the intricacies.

Of course, there are times when you should just take the system all the players are more or less familiar with. However, if you are only doing this because you have a system you are overly familiar with and automatically default to it, no matter what, you are probably doing it wrong.

Choosing the right system is actually easy, if you have enough experience of different systems. Of course, getting that experience might not be easy, but openness to new games is key. That doesn’t mean you have to be on the cutting edge. I’d rather wait a few years to try a system. On the other hand, can you even discuss choosing a system if you aren’t aware of at least some of the top games out there? I mean how many GMs do you know, who are only familiar with one or two of these games. I don’t agree with the list, but at least I’ve tried or read many of the top games. Not as many as I’d like, but quite a few. This gives me at least some basis for my decisions and analysis on the differences of games.

The thing is, its hard to find good players. Its hard to hone your skills as a GM. Compared to these problems, its easy to find a good system. Not only that, but its actually the easiest way to make your games better.

Of course, often you don’t really even have an idea and then develop it and find a system for it, but rather take a system and make something up for it. This is fine, too. I won’t go into this too deeply, since this goes into the quality question which I said would stay away from.

3 thoughts on “Choosing Your System

  1. There are different kinds of RPGs, but often these non-traditional games aren’t exactly popular (though things are getting better in that regard as far as I know). Pathfinder, Warhammer 40k RPGs, Dragon Age, World of Darkness etc. work pretty much the same, so it’s kind of right to say that all (popular) RPGs are the same.

    Trying out new games might also not be that simple. After all, it’s not so much about the rule mechanisms, but about how the whole play act is structured. You just can’t play, say, Fiasco, using the same skills you use in Pathfinder. A better game system doesn’t produce better gaming if you don’t know how to use the better game.

    This comment is, of course, not about disagreeing with your post but trying to explain why people don’t try out different games.

    • I get that not all will be equipped to try just any game out there, but my thinking is that those people will not read this blog anyway, since they probably think what they do is perfect anyway, whereas I try to strive for perfection, even if I know I will never achieve it (and don’t take this so seriously as the word ‘strive’ might imply). I’m hoping my readers are more or less in the same camp.

      Anyway, if there happens to be someone out there, who has played D&D and its variants all their lives, I’d say with the right people, its not too difficult to take the step. Obviously, trying Fiasco with your usual group of players, who cling onto their level 47 Wizard they have been playing since the early 90s, is not going to be easy, but I bet even that player would get into the spirit, if he is the least bit open to the idea that there is something else out there.

  2. Some people – most of my other gaming group, actually – aren’t interested in systems to begin with. They can tolerate systems they dislike if the fictional premise suits them. For example, three out of four disliked Mouse Guard, but they would’ve been willing to continue playing because they dug their characters and the premise of the game. However, as the GM I wasn’t interested in continuing because I felt it was very much a system you have to invest in.

    They do appreciate a simple and fun system, however; currently we’re playing Dungeon World and they like it. It stays of out the way most of the time, and when it doesn’t, it contributes good stuff into the fiction. I’d argue that that’s exactly what a well-designed system does (you’re free to substitute “fiction” in the previous sentence with “combat” or whatever you’re after) – but in practice I think the system makes little difference to the social relations in the game. They know each other well or really well, and they’re not willing and/or able to let the system supplant their natural communication. The fictional elements of course do interfere – friends can play characters who distrust each other. But that’s not a matter of the system any more.

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