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So You Want to Play an RPG?: Mechanics and Genre

April 30, 2013

Welcome back, dear readers!


Last week, I discussed the general concepts of running a table top RPG and how it might differ from what you’ve seen in the media. Of course, anyone with the most basic interest in table top roleplaying probably knows not to trust the media. Really at this point we should all know that a certain made-for-tv movie starring Tom Hanks was a bunch of bunk. Still, it won’t stop some lame screenwriters from confusing Dungeons and Dragons with LARP-ing or implying that these are somehow competitive games.

Hell, even people with lots of experience talking about gaming sometimes fall into that pitfall… for some reason.

To get back to the main point though, table top RPGs are a collective storytelling experience. They allow us anywhere from a couple hours every few weeks to whole weekends of escapism. You get to be the hero of a story that you and your friends are telling. A world that you get to help shape and influence. As the Game Master, you get to breath life into that world.

Sure, the players are the ‘heroes,’ but you get to be a wider range of parts. You’re the widow who lost her husband in a senseless war and is now worried her farm is going to be bought up by some cattle baron who is using some thugs (or ogres, hey whatever) to pressure her into selling. At the same time, you can decide if that cattle baron is just a mustachio-twirling villain or something a little more relatable and sympathetic. Are the thugs faceless mooks screaming nonsense, or do they too have their own little stories and hooks that the players might one day follow up on?

That level of complexity is up to you.

Whether the players engage with it is a different question. It’s easy to become a little resentful or sad when your players skip over scenarios you crafted or gloss over the parts of the world you thought were super-cool. Just remind yourself that this is ultimately a collective experience, and redouble your efforts on the things that they do care about. Remember, since the story is continuously progressing, there will be times when you’re just throwing stuff at the walls to see what sticks. Especially early on.

When you and your party are brand new to this, you might only have vague inklings if you guys are going to want to just get some hack and slash on, or be investigators, or run a game with lots of talking and minimal combat. And even when you’re more experienced, they might surprise you. People can get sparks of creativity out of nowhere.

By this point, you have some concept of how much time everybody has, and how often you guys are going to meet. You’re all champing at the bit to create your characters and explore some brave new world…


So… how does that world work?

Or more appropriately, what sort of rule set are you using?

This can be a big question even for experienced players. People have all sorts of opinions on what systems are best, or what systems are good for beginners. As I mentioned last week, a lot of people will just tell you to play D&D when you start because… well, it’s Dungeons and Dragons, it’s the roleplaying game. These same people might be surprised to discover that THACO is no longer a part of D&D. Other people will tell you to just play whatever they like the most, which can saddle you with all sorts of other problems.

What sorts of problems?

Well, if someone tells you to play Vampire the Masquerade, you’re sort of trapped in an urban fantasy game, and specifically a Vampire one at that.

Which brings us to a better question than what system, what do you want to run?

There’s a lot of fiction out in the world that you might want to emulate, and trust me there is probably some rule set that applies to the niche you’re looking for. Whether it does so well is a completely different question. The point is, you shouldn’t feel shoehorned into fighting orcs if you don’t want to. There’s stuff out there if you’re willing to look for it, and there are systems out there that will let you do a lot… if you’re willing to learn them.

I personally wouldn’t consider it to radical to say that there are two poles in how gaming systems relate to playable genres. They’re either extremely specialized on one end, or allow you to pretty much do anything on the other end. Neither is inherently better than the other. It’s really up to you and your group, and what you’re interested in.

So on the one end, you have games that are explicitly trying to emulate a certain genre or style. These games have built explicit rules to cover everything you might want to know for that genre, in addition to some more general information. While these systems may have grounding rules that could be applied anywhere, their design decisions flow from the idea that you’re using the system as a whole rather than in parts. Basically, if you don’t want to play that genre, you really shouldn’t be using these rules. The game that comes instantly to mind for me here is Shadowrun. If you don’t want to be playing magical cyberpunk, you probably shouldn’t be playing Shadowrun.

Now, there are plenty of genre games that might be part of an overarching system that’s modified across several books. It’s still there to help you simulate specific genres, and you are really expected to pick one rather than try and mash them together, but if you learn the system once you’ll generally be able to run games in any of the other books. The prime example here is the Storyteller System. It’s all based around the same mechanics, and they all require the same dice, but the rulebooks are designed to emulate a world from the perspective of one genre. You should only play a game of Vampire or Werewolf or Mage at a time, but it will allow you to switch between these urban fantasy settings, as well as their other couple of random products that allow you to play as Superheroes or generic Sword&Sorcery heroes, with ease.

I would say that at about the same level of flexibility is a game like Dungeons and Dragons. Dungeons and Dragons is designed to emulate “fantasy.” Now, like I mentioned last time, I feel like D&D is really a genre unto itself at this point, but this doesn’t mean that you’re automatically bound to everything D&D might suggest. Dungeons and Dragons has some moderate ability to be modified to suit your various fantasy tastes. I’ve run games where there was almost no magic using D&D mechanics, and I’ve run games where nearly everyone has magical powers. Still, you’re ultimately using the same system again and again to produce things that are slightly different. It’s flexible but only within that one genre.

A few years ago, Wizards of the Coast (the people that produce Dungeons and Dragons) created what was called the Open Gaming License. This means that people were able to take the basic mechanics of the D&D system at the time, the d20 System, and turn it into something much bigger. A bevy of licensed products were released allowing you to play in such niche settings as the Farscape universe. Basically, tons of select settings that served as modifications to D&D came about. Suddenly, you could play something like D&D in magical Africa or even a magical version of the Colonial United States.

This was alongside larger attempts from Wizards of the Coast to produce more flexible mechanics such as the d20 Modern System. The d20 Modern System was there to emulate everything from gritty police procedurals to pulp pieces to urban fantasy games. So, the d20 system itself became a home for tons of accessible and yet still niche products. A sort of wider version of the Storyteller system mentioned above. You can switch between lots of genres easily, and still be using the same basic rules.

Branching out of the OGL came a game called Mutants and Masterminds. A superhero game based vaguely upon a largely modified version of the d20 System. From Mutants and Masterminds came the eventual broader version called True 20, which allowed for the creation of any number of genres within its system. Basically, you’re always using the same rules but the genres are ultimately limitless as you have optional rules that allow you to build equipment, vehicles, bases, animals, enemies, and player characters all in one. The same rules that were used to build superpowers in Mutants and Masterminds could now be used to build magic or psychic powers or laser rifles in True 20. Like many d20 based systems though, it can be fairly straightforward at first glance but can get complicated very quickly.

This brings me to the opposite end of the spectrum from games like Shadowrun. Tool-Kit Systems, like True 20, are much more widely known for complexity as the two most popular are GURPS and the Hero System. Long have both been derided as needlessly complex or math heavy, with jokes regarding the need to know calculus to build characters. The thing about these systems is that they do have rules for every genre and scenario you can imagine. They’re systems that let you do anything. The drawback is that their learning curves are front loaded. The systems inevitably encourage you to learn more about them so you can build better characters and participate more both in and out of combat.

While the necessity to learn the system is true of every game you might be interested in playing. The need to front load a lot of your learning is far more necessary in tool kit systems than more genre specific systems. At least one person, probably you the GM, should know a lot of the rules, and the options available to the PCs during character creation, combat, and non-combat situations.


So what’s the real conclusion here?

You know how much time you have now, and how much time your players have. For all of these systems there’s a larger time component on you, and for some of them there’s a lot of front loaded learning for your players. Of course, even if you all only have a few hours where you can meet every two weeks, it doesn’t mean that you all don’t have free time where you can’t meet up for gaming or anything like that. You might all have the chance to learn complicated systems, if you want to.

Picking a system is a matter of looking at how much time you all have available to learning these rules and building your characters and balancing it with what you want to play. There’s no reason that you should all play D&D-style fantasy just because you don’t have a lot of time on your hands. Nor is there any reason that you should play a tool-kit system just because you have a lot of time on your hands. What matters is what best suits the style of game you want to play, and the genre conventions you want to stick to, while working within your time constraints.

All of these systems have their nuances, their strengths, and their drawbacks. It’s about finding the one that works best for you.

I’ve been playing the Hero system for many years, and I really love it. Yet, there are times when I’m trying to introduce new players to it in under half an hour that I realize there’s just too much information for me to relate quickly. That’s not to say that I can’t just build them a straightforward character that hits things hard and give them a quick overview to play (the equivalent of having them roll a D&D Fighter), but eventually they’re going to have questions that will need to be answered. Just like, eventually you have to explain in some systems that yes, it is better to be addicted to cocaine…

Like I said… there are nuances.

You might have to shop around before you find the system that works best for you, but hopefully these ideas will help you narrow it down just a little bit. Do you want a system of mechanics that works for everything, for a relatively narrow spectrum, or for one specific genre? Just remember that at the end of the day, it’s about what you and your group want to play.


Of course, what you guys want to play might be tied into why you’re gaming in the first place. An idea I’m going to try and delve into next week.


From → Opinions

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