System and Setting

I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes up a game the past few weeks, thanks to my intended change in gaming habits. It’s got me examining that age-old balance in RPGs – system and setting. As I examine games that I might like to run, I look at both aspects, and I’ve been exploring the relationship between the two.

So, for the purpose of clarity in the following article, let me lay out my definitions:

System is the combination of mechanics that allow the modeling of the game world in play.

Setting is the fictional world of the game, including the campaign world and all the assumptions that go into it.

Essentially, I’m saying that the system is the set of tools that allow you to participate in the setting. Forgotten Realms is a setting, and D&D 4E is the system you use to play there.

We good? Good.

As I look at games to play, I’m struck by the observation that games tend to fall into two camps with regards to system and setting. One camp ties the system and the setting tightly together, so that the system reinforces the feel of the setting, and the setting pulls the necessary system elements into the game. Here, I’m thinking of games like Unknown Armies, Don’t Rest Your Head, and Polaris.

The other camp tends to divorce system from setting, so that the system can handle pretty much any aspect of any setting, and the setting uses only those aspects of the system that it needs to. Games in this category are things like GURPS, Basic Roleplaying, and d20 Modern. Now, I’ve chosen those three games specifically because they are at the extreme of this camp – they are essentially generic systems.

There seem to be real advantages to both ways of doing things. In the first group, you have games that are very rich in flavour, mood, and theme by default. You can feel the postmodern horror in Unknown Armies everytime you have to make a terrible sacrifice to power your magic. You feel the desperation and lurking insanity everytime you count up the dice colours in Don’t Rest Your Head. You feel the doomed fate of your characters with everything you do in Polaris. This is stuff that’s really lacking in the other camp without building a lot of specialist mechanics in, which, of course, moves you more into this category.

On the other side of the street, you tend to get systems that fade out of the spotlight and let you concentrate on the roleplaying. You can adapt the systems quickly and easily to pretty much anything you want to do, and your players won’t have to learn a new set of rules. This gives a fair bit of flexibility, and can emphasize the storytelling aspects of what you’re doing. But it can also limit the ability to mechanically implement creative ideas, both as a GM and as a player, that may require separate mechanics to produce.

Let’s look at an example I’ve currently been working on. I’m starting an episodic Hunter: The Vigil game, but I involved the players in the worldbuilding part of setting the game up. The result of that was a world where a lot of the specialized H:TV systems didn’t fit anymore. So, I developed a new framework for granting minor supernatural powers and/or special abilities to the characters, one that I planned to be fairly loose and rules-light. I wound up having to create different mechanics for about twenty different things that the players wanted to be able to do. This game of H:TV isn’t going to much resemble the default play style put forward in the book.

Now, that’s not bad, and that’s not necessarily good, but it involved a fair bit of effort on my part and negotiation with the players. It also illustrates both categories of game I cited above: World of Darkness is fairly setting-light, building a more generic system at the sacrifice of specificity of setting. the Hunter: The Vigil book provides specialized mechanics to integrate more closely with the setting. I wound up stripping several of those specific examples away and building new ones based on the generic stuff.

What’s my point?

My point is that I’m in a bit of a quandary. I want to run a number of one-shots over the next several months. Some are specific tightly-bound system-and-setting games, while some are just ideas that I need to put a system to. My buddy Clint put together a great three-shot game using OpenQuest, but he had to build some specific mechanics in to make the game do what he wanted. I’m not sure that the system is robust enough, or models things in the right ways, for some of the setting ideas I have. Another great generic system I like, FATE, could handle some ideas better, but I find it to walk a very fine balance between rules-heavy and rules-light – combat, specifically, doesn’t always have the tactical feel that many of my players like, and many settings would benefit from. And for the games where I’ve already got a system, there’s the problem of getting the group to learn the new rules.

So, anyone out there got any suggestions or comments? If you were going to run a game based on the movie The Prophecy, for example, what would you use?

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One Response to System and Setting

  1. I have been looking over Savage Worlds again and wondering about it. Our only experience with it was with Fifty Fathoms, which turned out to be a fairly light game. However, I don’t know if that was due to the system or other factors. I like the system, though it is another generic one of course. I don’t know if it can handle the fairly grim atmosphere that would likely be found in a game based on The Prophecy. But then there are some of the tweaked system settings for it, like Necessary Evil or Solomon Kane, which suggest a meaner, grittier style [though I haven’t had a look at them, so I don’t know how well they pull it off].

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