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?

One Shot, Part Three: Brother Puddler Saves Humanity

Okay, maybe I’m revealing a little bias in the title.

Saturday, we had the third and final installment of the Robot Wasteland one-shot that I’ve talked about here and here.

We managed to save Junkyard, flying in on our scavenged hovertransport at about the same time as the Devourer army reached the walls. My character, Brother Puddler, was flying, because the others were better at shooting things with the transport’s weapons or with some recovered beam rifles tied into the transport’s targeting assist.

We went after a few of the bigger Devourers first, because we had limited ammo and wanted to do as much damage as possible  before we ran out. Unfortunately, the shooting rolls did not favour us, and then one of the big grinders chewed the cockpit off the transport. There was just enough of it left for Brother Puddler’s divine powers to cobble the control systems back together again, and then we blew one of the control Devourers apart as we headed back to the no-man’s land.

Why were we heading back there? Because our psychic had spotted a small band of humans on a small hill surrounded by ravager Devourers. We flew in for a quick pick-up and dust-off, saving the wounded and driving off the attacking Devourers long enough for the survivors to get inside a bunker. I also managed to bash the crap out of the transport with a bad piloting check, but it still presented a great cinematic image: a hovertransport, with the cockpit shredded and open to the sky, a heavily-armoured warrior holding the controls intact through sheer willpower, swooping in to a rough landing on top of a pillbox, the passengers blasting away at six-legged catlike robots the size of bears, snatching up the the wounded, and blasting off back to Junkyard.

Then the folks in the bunker activated the bombs hidden in a long line through the battlefield, blasting a fifty-foot wide, twenty-foot deep ditch about a third of a mile long through the advancing robots.

After dropping off the wounded, we asked the defenders where they needed us, and they suggested helping to reclaim one of the cannon emplacements on the wall. We shot up there, but were running short on energy for the weapons. The two folks with beam rifles tried to clear the cannon tower of little raider Devourers, while the gunner on the ship’s guns kept firing downrange at the advancing larger Devourers currently trying to cross the ditch. When she ran out of power, she took the ship’s controls and Brother Puddler leapt down onto the tower with his chainsword to show the upstart metal a thing or two about the will of man.

And he was promptly pulled down and had his arm mangled. Again. Critical hit by a raider coupled with a critical failure on my Dodge roll. The rest of the raiders dogpiled him.

But a lucky Strength roll let him burst to his feet, tossing one of the raiders over the battlements, and grab a plasma cutter tossed to him by one of the other characters. He drove off the bulk of the raiders, supported by beam rifle fire from the transport, and then used the cannon to take out one of the huge Devourers that happened to be crossing the ditch by the simple expedient of walking across on the back of another huge one that was stuck in the ditch.

At this point, the Devourers were starting to flee, and had less cohesion than they had previously displayed. That’s when we figured that the first one we had killed was probably some sort of Devourer brainbot leading this unprecedented army.

So, we wrapped up the game, and we each got to say what our characters were doing five years later: we had wandering scouts and troubleshooters, a research team set up in the old weapons cache we had found, and Brother Puddler leading a chapterhouse of the Cult of Iron, working with the tech cult to understand and use the transport and other tech devices we had uncovered.

All-in-all, a most enjoyable one-shot, for all that it expanded to three nights.

Thank you, Clint, for the enjoyable game.

And thank you, Penny, Fera, and Tom, for saving Brother Puddler so many times.

One Shot, Part Deux

I borrowed that title from Clint, so he gets at least half the praise or blame, as your taste dictates.

Last night we went back to the post-apocalyptic world of the Devourers, and continued our quest to warn Junkyard of the impending army of robots coming to eat them. We didn’t quite finish the adventure this time, either, so we’re looking at one last session.

No combat this session, which was nice in a lot of ways. There is a drive in a lot of games to have at least one good fight every session – I know I try and do that in most of the D&D games I run, because the combats are fun. But it’s nice to have a session where there isn’t any fight, and the whole thing comes down to roleplaying, with some skill checks, and player decisions.

Also, we were running somewhat low on resources, so best save those for the big fight we know is coming at the end.

Once again, Clint crammed a wonderful variety of post-apocalyptic tropes together into a fun-filled evening. We hid in ruined buildings to avoid scavenging robots. We ran from a Devourer that looked a little like a Veritech Fighter in robot form, only with guns and blades replacing the hands. We met a society of somewhat mutated psychics in the abandoned sewers of Many Police, and bartered with their God of the Pit, an insane Devourer that had developed enough of a mind for the psychics to affect it. We worked with the psychics to telepathically warn Junkyard that the attacks was coming, completing the most important part of our mission. We evaded a large group of feral humans, not wanting to risk the delay or combat that might result. We scavenged the communications panel from an old suit of powered armour, and used it to uncover a hidden cache of weapons from before the Harrowing, including an armed hover transport, which we plan to take back to Junkyard and use against the invading Devourers.

But it was late then, and we wrapped it up.

So, Brother Puddler is coming back for one more night to hack through the soulless Iron with his faith-powered chain sword.

I’m glad.

Saturday Night One-Shot

My friend Fera sent out this link last Wednesday.

Within a few minutes, my friend Clint sent this reply:

OK, anybody want to play a one-shot game this weekend.

‘Robot Wasteland’ – It is nearly a century after the holocaust, when the EATRs progressed from eating dead organic matter to ANY organic matter. Robotic killers roamed far and wide in search of sustenance. It was not long before the EATRs infested the first Manufacturies, creating the next generation of redesigned Devourers. From that point onward, human civilization was doomed. After a century, the remaining living creatures on earth haunt a ghostworld of shattered wasteland that expands as the Devourers exhaust their resources.

You are one of the survivors. What will you do to tip the balance of power back in favour of life.

At first I thought he was joking. Putting together a one-shot in that short a time is a lot of work. But a number of people were jumping on the bandwagon. I had lunch with him on Thursday, and asked if he was serious.

He said yes. I was soooooo in.

He decided to use OpenQuest, which is a hybrid system based on Mongoose Publishing’s RuneQuest SRD, remixed with some ideas from the original RuneQuest and Chaosium’s Basic Roleplaying. It’s a quick, fairly simple system, especially the way Clint scaled down some of the detail to speed things along. Fast to learn, easy to use and adapt.

The game actually didn’t finish in one session – it’s an easy system, but every system has some ramp-up time, and we had two people in the group who hadn’t played it before*. And, speaking from experience, it’s tough to judge how much of a new game people will get through in the evening. So it looks like the game may wind up being a two-shot.

Clint went with a tried-and-true scenario: all the characters are captured by the Devourers, the robot eating machines, in the ruins of Many Police. The Devourers are mounting an attack on Junkyard, the largest human settlement in the area. The characters have to escape captivity and make it back to Junkyard with a warning to save humanity.

He put together some nice pregenerated characters for us to use, too. I wound up playing an acolyte of the Cult of Iron, heavily armoured and able to “persuade” metal to behave in certain ways – repairing simple things, making my armour weightless, powering my chainsword. We also had a psychic with clairvoyance and healing ability, a gun-fu jedi-type, and a Gear Cultist with an EMP device*.

We started out locked in a cage, armoured but without our weapons and other gear. After the initial description of what was happening, my character, Brother Puddler, distracted the robots left behind to deal with us by trying to convert them to his faith* while the Gear Cultist jimmied the lock and the psychic located our gear. The others ran for the weapons, while I tore out an iron bar from the cage and used it to hold off the attacking robots. Did pretty well, too, except for a lucky critical in the early rounds reducing me to one usable arm.

After we got out of there, we headed for Junkyard, making our way through the ruins. And, of course, we got attacked by an old RuneQuest monster: rubble-runners. Think rats the size of bulldogs with mouths like aligators. They proved surprisingly challenging, and ate up the rest of the evening.

It was a fun game, and I’m eager to finish it off. Clint did a great job of putting it together, especially in so short a time.

And what else?

Well, it’s got me thinking about running more one-shots. OpenQuest is a simple system to adapt to other settings, and a nice choice to build one-shots. I’ve put off a number of interesting game ideas in the past because they’d only stand up for one or two sessions, but now I have a tool to turn them into something playable in an evening without it taking a month and a half of prep.

Now all I need is more space in the schedule to do it.



*Actually, they pretty much had, in my Call of Cthulhu one-shot, but that was a while ago, and the differences were just enough to disguise it. Back

*As you can tell, this wasn’t just a rip-off of Terminator. It was a rip-off of Terminator mixed with rip-offs of Fallout, Feng-Shui, Warhammer 40,000, and a bunch of other influences. Clint mixes and matches some of the tastiest settings I’ve ever played in. Back

*Primary doctrine of the Cult of Iron: metal subservient to the will of man, because metal is soulless, and man is too physically weak. Only by the joining of the two, with the soul of man providing the divine guidance, can the two species progress. At least, that’s what I decided it was on Saturday. Back