Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Why Use a New System (RPG Design)

In my crooked journeys through the role-playing blogosphere, I came across a post by Monsters and Manuals entitled Ryuutama and the Tiresomeness of New Systems. It was an interesting read, and there wasn't anything in there I'd like to directly argue with. It did get me thinking on the subject, however.

Obviously, there are certain circumstances in which you want to make the switch to a different system. Yes, I could run D&D style adventures in GURPS, but would I want to? So the discussion becomes when and why would I want to use a new system, and when and why would I design a new system? The latter question becomes particularly important for me, as I enjoy designing systems and I'd like to think I knew at least a little about the subject.

When talking about a "new" system for play, the question is always "what does this do that my old system doesn't?" There are only two real working answers here. It either offers a different experience than the old system did, or it simply does it better. You can make an objective argument for the former, but the latter is going to be subjective. Even if we established that game B was objectively simpler / more elegant / whatever somehow, there will still be people who think game A's clunkiness is charming or desirable.

For me, the former reason is why I read so many game books. I'm very interested in how different mechanical design choices impact the experience of playing a given game. This is the main reason I don't generally play universal or generic systems. It isn't because I don't think GURPS or Savage Worlds are fine systems in their own right, they are. I actually like Savage Worlds a good deal (in fact, I have a supplement planned for it one day.. one day...) but when I decide I want to run a specific kind of game, it's hard to make an argument for using a generic system over a system specifically designed for the kind of experience I want to play.

Fortunately, that seems to be the direction modern RPGs are heading. Whether we're talking about Dogs in the Vineyard, Apocalypse World, Sorcerer, or whatever else, the indie-RPG community has been pushing towards focused games providing a specific kind of experience and doing it very well. The market has evolved past the point where "create a better D&D" is a goal post. The OSR guys are doing a hell of a job playing with the original formula, but even that experience is being honed to a sharper focus on what they believe is "old school play," as opposed to the way modern D&D is trying to broaden its horizons and become everything to all people. (Protip: that never works).

So if that's why to use a new system, the next question is, why make a new system? When is it worth the effort?

That's the question for tomorrow.

Until then,


  1. I don't know Savage Worlds very well, but the that GURPS deals with this is by being a game toolkit, rather than a game itself. There are so many sliders, switches, and dials in GURPS that nearly any effect, in theory, can be attempted, within the basic framework of designed characters, success/fail mechanics (with some measure of degrees of each), players/GM, and so on. There are options for narrative considerations or lack of same, levels of detail for various aspects, levels of grittiness, genre convention rules, and just about every other consideration. The expense of this, of course, is that each GM has to basically build the game out of the toolkit when setting up, though the publisher has gotten a little better about providing worked examples (Dungeon Fantasy, Action, Monster Hunters, etc; sadly for me they tend to focus on the flashy, superheroic, over-the-top action style, where I prefer a more sedate style of action).

    1. I looked a bit at GURPS, but it seemed like kind of a mess to me. Like you said, it is kind of a box of parts rather than a coherent game. Savage Worlds can be kind of the same way, but at least to me it seemed easier to organize and get a grasp on.

      I need to give GURPS a solid shot one day to make a fair comparison, but I've always got the nagging feeling that if I want something to do X, I'm going to be better off with a game designed to do X than trying to work a more universal system into the mold. The options in GURPS might prove me entirely wrong on this account, but I suspect even then you're requiring such a degree of system mastery on the GM's part that you may still have been better off just getting the game that does what you want it to in the first place.

      I think both of these fails to address the elephant in the room though: the reason most people play universal games is that they hate learning rules. The guys that swear d20 will do everything for every genre are generally people who don't want to bother learning a different system.

      Savage worlds is pretty great for that, actually. It just has its own idiosyncrasies I don't care for.

    2. Heh. As I get older, learning a complex new system is something that I don't really want to do anymore. I don't mind learning simple systems, but I really don't have the time these days, plus I have a number of complicated systems already in my head. I don't mind learning variations of the systems I already know (D&D-likes, for example, or Rolemaster variations, whatever), but given already knowing D&D (and variants, including the pretty far variants like Gamma World), C&S, Rolemaster, Shadowrun, White Wolf's system, Traveller and the GDW House System (including Space 1889 and 2300AD), Basic Roleplaying (RuneQuest, Call of Cthulhu, etc), Cyberpunk (2013 and 2020), Top Secret (and variations like Gangbusters), WEG's D6 system, FASA Star Trek, GURPS, Villains & Vigilantes, Flashing Blades, The Riddle of Steel, Godlike (and other ORE games), James Bond 007, The Fantasy Trip, TORG, Albedo Anthropomorphics (and Lace & Steel), Lords of Creation, CORPS, Warhammer FRP (and other Warhammer RPGs), HERO System, Chill (and the other Pacesetter system games), Jovian Chronicles (and such), Last Unicorn's system, and so on, which does not even include the more obscure games that I've forgotten how to play (but I'm sure I could pick up again quickly, having played them before) such as Beasts, Men, & Gods, Excursions Into the Bizarre, Celtic Legends, Bushido, Timeship, Man, Myth, & Magic, etc., or the games from the "story games" community that no longer interest me in the slightest. I've played literally hundreds of RPGs, and the small benefit that one could get from learning an entirely new system is not really worth my time anymore. Better to modify an existing system to reflect specific details of a particular setting. D&D-likes have shown how much this can remain useful - compare Starships & Spacemen (especially 2nd edition) with ACKS, and realize that both of those come from the same system roots, or the different approaches of Call of Cthulhu and Superworld that create entirely different tones using the same basic system with some small, though still compatible, differences (one could easily use the monsters of CoC in Superworld, or even adapt the SAN mechanic to the latter).

      I think that the main room for exploring a new game are in adapting an existing system to the specific setting. There are plenty of systems now, which cover just about every conceivable method of adjudicating the course of events in the game. It is a matter, then, of adapting that approach, rather than creating an entirely new system. FGU proved that adapting the BRP system was a profitable way of approaching a great many specific games. Why worry about creating a new mechanic, when it is not likely to be more useful than existing ones? Most new mechanics aren't even as useful as the existing ones. Heck, the ORE system is a case in point - it doesn't really give anything much more useful (perhaps slightly more useful) than Shadowrun's dice pool or LUG's dice pool or WW's dice pool, but it adds another layer of complexity to get what small benefits it does.

      So, it's not really about not wanting to learn a different system, but about already having so many systems available that pretty much every effect can already be found in one or more of them, and the rest is just adding appropriate chrome to match the setting's fluff.