Pick Your Poison

or, What is the best system to use

In the last post, I offered the two simple rules of reff’ing.   So, now you need to consider what rule system you want to use.  First of all, that’s easy!  What rule systems do you have available to you?  Then those are where you start.  “But Master,” I hear you whine, “I only have first edition AD&D, but I want to play a game like Star Wars, but with dinosaurs!”

Well, that’s OK, say I…and that is why we come to this post.  Game designers spend a lot of time trying to build a game system with an internally consistent setting.  Often, they work very hard on Game Balance issues as well.  But that does not mean you must play their rules in their setting!  True, AD&D is best suited to a high fantasy almost Tolkienian setting and appropriate stories.  The same way the Traveller rules are best suited to a high-tech, far future SF setting with starships.  But let me pass on another ref rule:

Any story can be told with any rule set!

The thing that you will need to keep in mind is that the farther away from the intended setting, usually, the more modification you will have to do.  If you are a beginning GM, I’d not recommend venturing too far away from the setting.  In fact, I’d encourage you to acquire either A) A game system with a setting much closer to what you want to run, or B) acquire one of the several generic systems, such as PEG’s Savage Worlds, Steve Jackson’s GURPS, or Chaosium’s Basic Role Playing.  However, if you can’t, or don’t wish to get a new system here are some things to think about.

Before attempting to modify a game system, you need a pretty good idea of both the normal, expected, game setting, and the setting you want to use.  With this in mind, you can see what does and doesn’t need modified.  In the hypothetical I posed above, we need to change the character races into dinosaurs, create a magic system like the force, create star ship and robot rules, even figure out what character classes are needed, which ones are not, and how we need to modify them to fit the new story line.  Is a Jedi a cleric, or magic user?  Could they be a Ranger or Paladin?  If we made them a Ranger, then they would be more fighter types, with access to some of the new FORCE, instead of MAGIC.  If we decide to create a new class all together, then we need to start considering the game balance built into the character classes.  What if we use a dwarf template to create our new scaled Bear-a-saurus…who use specially designed Laser slings…“But Master, a Dwarf is short and disdains the use of slings!”   Again I hear you thought, but this leads us to the next consideration:

Why change the rules if you can just put a new paint job on it?  In other words, Our Bear-a-saurus is stout, a little slow, but very strong.  Hey…that fits the dwarf, or maybe a Half-orc.  Well, so rename them, re-describe them, but don’t make any changes except maybe take away their infravision, and give them Hunters sight…What’s the difference, and what can you see with Hunters sight?  Well, it detects movement in low light…not much use in an underground dungeon, but in a forest, or town…LOTS of things move…The less you need to change then the better to preserve the balance built-in by the regular designers.

One more thing to consider: Special Effects!  This is something that struck me like a lightning bolt when I first read it in Masterbook: What is a laser blast?  Well it’s a beam or missile of light.  Oh, so kinda like a magic missile, but it can miss, and come in a wand, uh gun, that has charges, um…ammo in it?  How much damage does it do?  Well…a magic missile already has a damage listed.  Not enough?  Well, is it more like a lightning bolt?  Something that causes damage: a fireball or grenade or catapult or dagger or pocket pistol…does damage!  That’s it.  What does it look like?  Well, they all look different.  What about something that heals damage?  A healing spell, or health potion or first aid kid or spray skin…well, they all heal damage!

Well…this is just a taster of all of the possible considerations.  And it may be better suited for quite experienced refs, but I want people to consider the possibilities…Could you use the Shadow Run rules to tell a Deadlands game…yup   without too much change.  Could you use the Chivalry & Sorcery Rules to tell the story of a post zombie apocalypse? Sure!  Using them for their own genre is easier, and converting a generic system is the next easiest thing…but with patience and a will, it could be done

Some Common Ground

In an effort to make certain everyone knows what I am talking about, I want to start with a bit of a glossary.  This will probably be referenced a lot.  I will present the info in pairs of opposites.  Be aware that very few things fall all the way to one extreme or the other, but somewhere along the continuum   I don’t intend to get into the various merits or problems with these, as they will probably all be posts of their own.  My intention here is simply to explain some of the terms I use, so you can expect to see in these posts. The TSR – FGU Scale: Back in the early days of our hobby, there were two big companies.  TSR (Dungeons & Dragons (hats off), Top Secret, Boot Hill) and FGU (Space Opera, Chivalry & Sorcery, Bushido) who, in general approached the games from two different sides. TSR (Originally Tactical Studies Review, but became just TSR by the time RPGs were coming into fashion) tended to make games that were very easy to pick up and play, but they tended to make it very difficult to suspend the disbelief because of game play decisions that were made for the sole purpose of game balance.  FGU (aka Fantasy Games Unlimited) decided to more closely represent real life by making the game simpler to suspend disbelief, but made character creation and rules in general much more complicated. Epic – Episodic Game: Epic games cover from the start of the story to the end.  This includes the mundane as well as the fantastic.  The depth and length of these games tend to create very deep and detailed characters.  Episodic games are more like TV shows in that they go from important scene to important scene.  These tend to make highly specialized characters. Monty Hall – Pauper:Monty Hall (or haul) games (named after  the game show host: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monty_Hall) are games where the rewards (money, magic and/or experience) are very high, some might even say way out of proportion…1000GP for killing the rats in the cellar.  These games often end up with 50gp mugs of ale.  Pauper games have the characters scrimping to buy their next meal, and hoping to make enough to repair their second hand armor.  These games tend to have a more realistic economic model. Top Down – Bottom Up: World, town, universe design models.  Top down creates the Universe first, then the planets, then the terrain, then the empire boundaries  then the capital cities, then the small cities, then towns, hamlets, castles, dungeons…resulting in very rich tapestry, sometime light on local differentiation.  Bottom us is exactly opposite…start with the tavern, then the village and it’s inhabitants, then the haunted forest…can lead to patchwork worlds. Narrative – In Character: Play style.  In Character Players and NPCs speak as the character.  Great for adding accents or speech characteristics.  In Narrative, the actions and speech of the characters are described rather than word for word spoken.  Very handy when the player and the character have very different verbal (or knowledge) skills. Story – Character: Arc styles.  In Story arcs, The characters are involved, but do not have a great deal of influence on the overall outcome but specific pieces of the arc.  In Character arcs, the characters directly affect the story, and are not only main characters of the stories, but critical to it’s outcome.  Although this sounds perfect, it can present significant challenges to the ref, or leave characters with little to no guidance. Persona – Idealized- Munchkin: This triumvirate is broad stroke player styles.  They Persona player makes and plays characters to escape or explore.  These players usually have the most difficulty creating a character that fits (easily) with in the rules.  The Idealized player makes and plays characters to be the best at what they do.  They often find their character idea in the archetypes set forth by the rules as representative of their desires. The Muchkin, or min-maxer makes and plays characters to “Win,” to be better than everyone else.  They often are great during play-testing as they tend to push the rules to limits to see where they break, by taking as many advantages and as few disadvantages as possible. If there is anything that is not clear in this post, please let me know!  Remember, there are no stupid questions, just stupid people!