How do you choose the right game system?
It’s a great question, with answers that seem superficially simple but become more profound as you probe deeper. My approach, as it is with most questions I ponder, is highly analytical.
The simple solution is, in the same way as with any other decision, you establish the field of possible answers, establish criteria on which to base choices from amongst those possible answers, and continue to refine your list until you end up with the one best answer.
But that’s an oversimplification. The sequence in which you apply these criteria can be just as important as the criteria themselves. It is my philosophy that the game system affects the style and tone of the campaign as much as the players, their characters, and the GM’s design; and that house rules should be employed to custom-fit the standard rules to the campaign style, genre, and concept you want to employ.
The logical implication is that house rules can modify the fit of a rules system to the criterion currently being considered, and therefore there are three possible assessments that can result from such criterion – yes (game system stays in consideration), no (game system eliminated from further consideration), and maybe (game system, with house rules, stays in consideration).
As a general rule of thumb, I like to answer such questions in two groups – those in which House Rules have no impact on the answer, in the order from most restrictive to least restrictive, in the first group, and those in which House Rules can apply, changing the suitability of a game system to the campaign. In other words, one group that give hard yes/no answers, and a second where value judgments of relative merits come into play.
That’s the process that lies at the heart of my system of choosing a game system. With that out of the way in the absolute minimum of space, I’m now free to move on to the real meat of my answer to our inquiring GM’s question: the criteria that I consider, and the general order in which I consider them.
Questions Of Availability & Desire
1. Do my players and I have access to at least two copies of the core rules?
The dead minimum for play, so far as I’m concerned, is two copies of the rules – one to be shared amongst the players, and one for me to use for campaign and session prep. We don’t need to have both copies on hand immediately, but someone has to be able to afford a second set fairly quickly. My campaigns delayed switching from D&D 3.0 to 3.5 for more than a year because of this criterion.
2. If a specific expansion or supplement is needed, do we have access to it?
If we were talking about a Pulp Campaign, “Pulp Hero” is a lot more suitable than the standard Hero System, but it’s not a cheap supplement. In general, only one copy of any such supplement is needed, but more are always welcome, just as more copies of the Core Rules are always handy.
If we’re talking 7th Sea, or Eberron, there are a whole heap of supplements that are necessary unless the GM intends to severely restrict the scope of the campaign and the choices available to players.
GURPS had a phenomenal number of genre- and setting-specific supplements, exceeded only by the total number of 3.x supplements – I don’t think that there are enough official WOTC releases to beat the output of Steve Jackson Games, I think you have to drag in 3rd party publishers – but again, not all will be needed for any given GURPS campaign.
3. Am I interested in refereeing the game system?
This is an integral question that is often overlooked. To make a campaign last, the GM has to be interested in using the rules system! If there are parts of the system that he considers clunky, or fiddly, or too much work, or that he simply doesn’t like, or if he’s tired of the system, or for any one of a dozen different reasons, things can quite quickly get crossed off the list at this point.
It’s also possible that a system that failed to make the cut in the previous two criteria might make a re-entry at this point purely because the GM is interested in the system – though it’s been a long time since any new RPG excited me that much.
4. Can I be sufficiently knowledgeable about the rules to referee the game system in the time available?
This question is all about the time-pressures that mastering the game system to an adequate degree bring, and it’s double-barreled: the first question has to be what the GM (and his players) will consider adequate; when you’re all just starting out, it’s fine for everyone to learn together.
As soon as one experienced player enters the picture, however, the standards of expertise required of a GM shoot way up, and rocket even higher if that experienced player is already familiar with the Game System.
Novice players are more likely to look to the rulebooks and game system to tell them what they can and cannot do in play, growing beyond those limits at a pace the GM can keep up with (even if he is also a novice); an experienced player is more likely to push the GM into new territory, and can take advantage of a GM’s limited experience. I have seen prospective GMs completely shattered and disillusioned by such treatment (which I consider unacceptable player behaviour), some so humiliated they have dropped out of the hobby completely.
The second part of the question is whether or not the GM can commit enough time to the rules system to master it, if there is some difference between his current level of expertise and the minimum identified in the first part of the question. At a dead minimum, I want to read the rulebooks from cover to cover at least twice if I don’t already know the system; that will take a certain amount of time on top of campaign prep, possibly too much so, depending on other time commitments. (What am I saying – I’m always squeezed for time!)
5. Are my players interested in using the game system?
This is the other side of the coin, and is just as often overlooked. Sometimes you might have to ask your players about their interest levels, sometimes you know their level of interest from general discussion.
I could probably round up players for a Pathfinder campaign in the blink of an eye, but would have trouble getting players for a D&D 4th ed campaign. I could easily gather players for Ars Magica, but would be lucky to get three for TORG.
I’ve had players signed up for a Babylon-5 campaign for 5 years (they even have their character concepts worked out!), and even have the campaign mapped out – but have had no budget to buy the rules, and had no time to read them even if I could afford them.
6. Am I interested in the core genre that the rules are supposed to represent?
The very best game systems integrate their core genre at their heart, using rules that imbue every aspect of game activity with the flavour of the genre. The next best is for the game mechanics not to actively disrupt genre flavouring. Most don’t even rise to that standard, having some game mechanics that interfere for reasons of practicality or realism with the immersion in the genre, while having other rules that are specific to the genre being simulated under the rules.
As a rule of thumb, you have to assume that the intended genre has informed the design of every aspect of the rules, with some compromises for practicality. That, in turn, means the genre the rules represent will leak through into what the rules do well and what they do poorly.
If you aren’t interested in the core genre the rules are supposed to represent, you can’t take advantage of the strengths within the rules, even when the campaign you propose falls outside that genre. You give away too much of the potential of the premise-plus-rules combination and weaken the foundations of the campaign. Hence this question, which asks whether or not the rules genre is of interest, even if that is different to the proposed campaign genre.
And, since this question has us thinking about the subject already, and is the last of the “Questions of Availability & Desire”, it forms a natural transition to the next group of questions. We should now have a shortlist of candidates, and so it’s time for the more subjective questions.
Questions Of Genre
7. How well does the overall game system suit the genre of campaign contemplated?
Different game systems do specific genres better than others. I would choose Call Of Cthulhu for a horror campaign over GURPS Horror, simply because I feel it captures the flavour of the genre better. At the same time, careful choice of game system can imbue a uniqueness to a campaign, simply by virtue of all the additional rules and game infrastructure that they bring to the table.
If I’m thinking that a James-Bond styled superspy campaign would be fun, then I have identified the campaign genre. The resulting campaigns would be very different if run using the Hero System (traditional superspies) as compared to, say, D&D (superspies in a high fantasy setting), or Call Of Cthulhu (superspies vs cultist conspiracies), or Babylon-5 (superspies in deep space and alien societies).
On the other side of the coin, a poor choice of system can work at cross purposes to the style of game you want. The mixture of superspies and the Toon game system, for example, would be problematic. The genre would combine with Dawg the roleplaying game, or with a wild-west game like Aces & Eights, only with difficulty.
That’s not to say that these combinations can’t work, just that the two genres don’t dovetail in any obvious way, and hence would make a campaign built on the combination much more work; as proof, consider “Wild Wild West”, which was a TV series that was Spy Genre in a Western Setting. Would a Western rules system be better than an espionage rules system for a “Wild Wild West” campaign?
8. Does the flavour and pace of the combat system suit the genre of campaign contemplated?
There are very few campaigns that don’t incorporate some sort of combat. It is so ubiquitous that the tone and style of the combats must match the genre reasonably well or it will be a perpetual millstone around the campaign’s neck.
Where the previous question was general, this is more specific. How long does it take to resolve combat? How quickly can the variations in combat action be resolved? Is a simple combat resolution system preferable to a comprehensive and detailed approach?
9. Can I devise or design an interesting campaign within the genre?
Finally, the ultimate genre question: does the combination of game and campaign genres yield an interesting idea for the campaign? Does it inspire you?
And, just as the last question of the “availability” section led logically to considerations of genre, so the last question of genre leads to….
Questions Of Campaign
10. What is the underlying premise of the proposed campaign?
So what is the campaign going to be all about? What is the most interesting, entertaining idea you can come up with? Remember that you aren’t committed to anything yet, and by the time you’ve finished designing the campaign these ideas might be as dead as the dodo, so you don’t have to have a rigorously-designed, completely-fleshed out concept.
This is just a starting point, and its only purpose is to help you pick the most suitable game system to build a game around. Once you have a rules package selected and you start campaign development, these ideas can be tossed aside if better ones arrive, and once real PCs enter the picture, all your planning is revealed to be a straw house in a hurricane zone anyway!
But the players will (in theory) be inspired by what you are putting on the table right now, so these initial thoughts remain essential.
11. Do the underlying assumptions of the rules suit the proposed campaign?
Every game system contains rules built on assumptions that may or may not be relevant. I would never attempt to run a high-fantasy campaign using Aces and Eights – or Empire Of The Petal Throne!
The more experienced you are as a GM, in a variety of systems, the more skilled you become at identifying these underlying assumptions (often subconsciously). For example, key assumptions from D&D are that magic works, something godlike can empower its followers, supernatural beings and powers are real, and that society is medieval in technology and scientific understanding. Time travel and Deep Space Exploration form no part of the assumptions in the D&D system, and if those concepts are important to your campaign idea, D&D – and d20 Modern – should not be on your shortlist, or (at the very least) they should be near the bottom.
Of course, house rules can be written to cover these needs, but I would only consider using them if everything else about a rules system fitted. It’s one thing to modify or reinterpret an existing underlying assumption – “all supposed magic is actually psionics” – and quite another to add a new one. You can’t do it haphazardly without courting disaster, and house rules are always relatively fragile (inherent from the lack of playtesting) and add substantially to the DM’s workload.
That said, tailoring and tweaking the core rules to better suit the final campaign is an activity I always consider worth the effort required.
12. Does the implied background of the rules suit the proposed campaign?
Many game systems have implied background elements. The D&D rules give a very different perception of Elves to that of The Lord Of The Rings RPG, which may well be different again to the idea of Elves that you have for your campaign.
Politics, Sociology, Economics – just about every mechanism of interaction in the real world are touched in some aspect by these implied backgrounds. The goal is to have to make as little change to the core rules as possible.
But beyond that, you want elements in the implied, inherent, and implicit background that will inspire you. Anything that doesn’t should be ignored at best, and discarded at worst.
13. Do the rules permit the characters to interact in the ways most important to the proposed campaign?
If you’re playing a campaign with a lot of gambling – James Bond again – then the rules system should make it easy to do so. A simple die roll may be good enough to resolve the action of a card game, hand-on-hand, but the flavour is lost.
If you have the choice, you should choose a rules system that assists and supports the character-interaction modes that will be most important to the proposed campaign instead of one that detracts from them.
14. Do the combat rules suit the most prevalent style of combat expected in the proposed campaign?
This is a similar issue. A Western genre rules setting will have some rules for knife-fighting and maybe even for dueling with sabres or epee, but longswords against chainmail are outside the comfort zone.
Anything the rules don’t cover by default will mean a house rule, and if the combat mode required is going to be a recurring feature of your campaign, you might be better off looking elsewhere, or integrating a whole slab of rules from a different system.
15. Do the skill handling rules suit the most prevalent needs expected in the proposed campaign?
In the course of any campaign, the characters will want to do things, and there are lots of different ways of handling the resolution of attempts to do so. Sometimes, these will be just fine for the campaign you want to run, and at other times they won’t really suit.
Are there rules for Starship Navigation, or will the GM need to handwave that? How about Nuclear Engineering? Psionic Surgery? Whatever tasks you expect the PCs to want to attempt to perform, you will need skill handling rules that cover them. And if the rules don’t provide them, you’ll have to.
16. Do the specialist rules suit the proposed campaign?
D&D has rules for magic item construction. If the campaign premise is all about Mecha in conflict, magic item rules aren’t likely to be all that desirable, and Battletech would probably be a better choice. Every game system has specialist rules – the campaign should take advantage of them.
17. Does the character advancement subsystem suit the proposed campaign?
Another mark of distinction amongst fundamentally different systems; there are essentially four approaches so far as I am aware:
- Incremental, points-based;
- Incremental, usage-based;
- Stepped, Level-based;
One of the big problems that occurred in a friend’s previous 7th Sea campaign is the campaign’s incremental system relies on the concept of “one session, one adventure” and not the continuity-heavy campaign that is actually being played, which played hob with the development of the PCs. Prior to encountering these problems, I would not have considered this to be as important as its place in this article suggests.
Questions Of Inspiration
18. Does the campaign premise plus rules combination excite and interest me?
Now we’re getting down to the nitty-gritty. By this point, there should be no more than 2 or at most 3 game systems still on the table, and one or more campaign concepts around which they are to be fitted.
So here are 2 Questions of Inspiration, 5 Questions of Style, and 2 Questions of Capacity, that I consider before making the final selection from that shortlist.
The first of these is the question above, and there’s not a lot more to be said about it. You would have to pay me – and pay me well – to get me to GM a campaign where the answer to this question isn’t yes.
19. Does the campaign premise plus rules combination excite and interest my players?
This is equally straightforward. I’m in a slightly privileged position compared with most gamers, in that I play at a club where there are several different campaigns operating concurrently, and if a player isn’t interested in a proposed campaign, they might be happy to simply sign up to one of the others. So, I actually rephrase this question to “Does the campaign premise plus rules combination excite and interest enough of my players?”
Not everyone has that luxury. What’s more, the whole question requires yet another subjective judgment – how many players are “enough”? It depends on the campaign concept and the rules and the GM’s preferences. (As an aside, we have an Ask the GMs coming up on single-player gaming.)
Personally, I prefer 2-5 players, can cope with just one, or with six, and struggle with more. I have once refereed a game with 12 players, but I wouldn’t want to do it again. There have been circumstances where I have recruited an extra five players for a one-off event where they were to be in opposition to the usual players (and an extra pair of GMs to assist). That experiment went well enough that I might have been persuaded to make it a recurring – if not regular – event. So this is a circumstantial thing.
Questions Of Style
20. Does the campaign premise suit my GMing style?
The final major category is all about GMing style, and this is something that is never easy to assess. I like systems where I don’t have to think terribly hard about the game mechanics, permitting me to focus on roleplay and the game action and the players and the plot and the narrative.
But other GMs have been quite successful while discarding any pretense at plot, simply permitting the players to go wherever they find interesting, and leaving the game action to sort itself out as it unfolds, so they can do quite well with a more intrusive game system that happens to better fit their campaign premise.
Just as different actors have a different range of characters they can portray convincingly, so different GMing styles have strengths and weaknesses, and some ideas suit a GM better than others.
This specific question demands an assessment of the suitability of the GMing style with respect to the Campaign Premise. I once thought up a campaign for use with the Rolemaster system set in early 19th century Florence, which I called “The Age Of Romance.”
I got halfway into trying to convert the premise into an actual campaign and ground to a halt; the campaign premise simply didn’t suit my style at all. More recently, I took on the task of co-GMing a Pulp campaign. Pulp is not really my Genre, and I would never have tried setting up such a campaign, but by bringing my strengths – plot and character and knowledge of the game system – to the gaming table, I was able to shore up the weaknesses of the campaign’s creator in a way that has proven very satisfactory to us both.
21. Do the combat rules suit my GMing style?
This is more important than it first appears. Some people have trouble with the action sequence chart of the Hero System, for example, finding the system very slow to resolve battles.
Me, I had problems with the “phase 12, everybody acts” feature of the system, so I developed an alternative that spreads things around a bit more and suits my style better. Rolemaster is another system that I liked a lot on paper, but could never quite get my head around in actual play. So this is an important consideration.
22. Do the skill handling rules suit my GMing style?
And here’s another aspect of the same question. For many players, the rules can actually be broken into just two significant parts – the combat system and the skill resolution system. The requirements and foundations of those two systems, in turn, define the character construction system. That all means these are the two parts of the rules that most frequently are called upon in actual play.
Most skill handling systems, so far as GMs are concerned, are pretty much the same; the key is how easily the GM can determine what a reasonable target number is in relation to the perceived difficulty of the task a character is attempting.
With some systems, this is easy; with others, there can be trouble. It requires a nearly-instinctive feeling for the range of possible results, so it’s vital for these rules to suit the GMing style. That’s not to say a GM can’t use a system that doesn’t really suit him, but it’s an added handicap that a game has to overcome.
23. Do the specialist rules suit my GMing style?
I’ve talked previously in this article about the specialist rules and why they are important. But even when the specialist rules suit the genre and the planned campaign, they may not fit the GM’s style. Again, this is something that can be overcome, but you would generally favour not having to do so.
24. Does the character advancement subsystem suit my GMing style?
This is the final question of style that I ponder, and perhaps it’s the most important in some respects (and least important in others). Some level-based systems require characters to train before they can advance to the next level, for example, and that can impose additional requirements on the GM’s scenario designs.
You can always ignore any such requirement (and I usually do) but that has it’s own implications, removing a cap on the amount of XP that can be earned between training opportunities, and potentially permitting character levels to escalate out of control.
Questions of Capacity
25. How much work will the campaign be to set up?
With the last 7 questions being rated on a scale of 1-10 (10 being great, 1 being abysmal), I have a score out of 70 for each combination of rules and campaign concept. I may well be assessing three different campaign ideas, one for each of three different rules systems, all at the same time.
So, the final factors are issues of practicality. Since the campaign only has to be set up once, I’m generally more forgiving of necessary setup time than I perhaps should be, getting caught out at times with overcommitment.
26. How much work will the campaign be to maintain?
This is the final consideration in deciding what game to run, and it’s so important that I score it out of twenty instead of out of ten. It’s so easy to underestimate the commitment that an additional campaign requires (especially when you’re already running several), and the time when additional demands seem most likely to crop up are the occasions when you’re already time-crunched – just ask Johnn!
Again, this is an issue in which my circumstances are quite different to others, so this might need to be reassessed in light of your circumstances. As a matter of general principle learned through harsh experience, GMs ALWAYS underestimate the amount of maintenance time you’re going to need to run a campaign; the wiser ones make allowance for it.
So that’s the process – I winnow the number of game systems down to a manageable few, cut the number of campaign ideas down to a few that interest me, try to marry the two lists into a sufficiently small number of combinations for intelligent assessment, then rate them according to considerations of style and work required. If you add up all the ratings from the final nine questions, you get a score out of 100, which makes comparisons easy.
Much of this process I carry out subconsciously – one of the benefits of experience. The first 8, for example, I wouldn’t spend more than three seconds thinking about. Questions 9 and 10 I’ll spend a bit of time on, but questions 11 to 17 don’t take much longer to answer than 1 through 8 did. Questions 18 to 24 take a little more time, especially 18 and 19, but the questions I most focus on are 25 and 26 (your priorities may be different).
Hope that answers our inquiring GM’s Question!
Mike, you’ve answered the question admirably. I have only a few additional comments.
My first consideration would be genre. Then I’d make a shortlist of potential game systems that do that genre well.
My second consideration would be complexity. What degree of realism, depth of rules, and rules-based options do you want. D&D vs. FUDGE, for example, gives you different game experiences though the roleplaying parts can play out the same.
Next, I’d decide if I needed a lot of supplements and community support, or if I would be ok with creating my own setting, campaign and adventures. If you are fine with do-it-yourself, then you can look at a wider array of game system options.
I’d then create a final list of desired systems and pitch the games to my players to get their opinions. A clear winner might emerge, or you might have a small list, or perhaps you end up with a larger list because of player suggestions.
Regardless of how I came up with my list of candidate game rules, I’d then go out and search the internet for “actual play” reports from GMs using the systems.
I’d also try to run one-shot game sessions to give candidates a try before investing time or money. Many games offer free lite versions, and many games are 100% free. If trying to learn several game systems is too much (it would be for me) then I’d just run a couple combats with one or two willing players to try what’s usually the most complex part of the game out.
If a player knows the rules for a candidate game then you might ask them to run a one-shot for you and maybe the other players. It’s always good to have someone who knows the rules of a game step you through – it’s often better than trying to figure things out yourself from just reading.
Finally, I’d take the winning game system and run a trial adventure of two to five sessions. I’ve found that some games get very good once a group passes further along the learning curve, so it’s worth persevering for a few sessions with a rules set before deciding against it. The trial period sets expectations properly, so everyone knows a game switch might be coming up if things don’t turn out well.
Good luck with your game selection. Please let us know what game you finally choose.
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