‘It’s a rule system, Jim, but not as you know it!’
After I started playing RPG’s and for something like 7 months, I only played D&D, and it was amazing. I love it, good old D20s, they are predictable, trustworthy and there are loads of resources out there.
Until one day, in between adventures, one of our older players brought in a dusty, old rulebook. It was something called ‘Traveller’. And it was very clear, even to us noobs, that it was Firefly in a bottle. Smugglers and traders, in a huge human empire? FTL (Faster Than Light) travel and Space Stations? Yes please!
The doors of perception had been blown asunder, and since then, I started to play (and often run games in) other rule systems, belonging to other games. And these the 8 that I’ve recently come across, each great in its own right.
1. D&D –
The juggernaut. Fantasy-based, although some of my friends have adapted it to contemporary environments. A D20 system, you roll, add your skill bonus, and see if your roll is high enough to succeed at whatever it is you set out to do. Character creation is straightforward, and can be as shallow or as detailed as you desire. The standard.
2. Traveller –
A sci-fi background, as old as D&D. Smugglers, traders and military in the distant future. As the original rules came out in the 70s, it still has a very gritty, low-tech feel to it (hence the usual comparison with the iconic series Firefly).
Character creation is fantastic, you start at 18 years, and you carry on trying to get jobs and/or studying, improving your skills as you go along (including simply being a space wanderer), and stop at whatever age you want. Famously, in previous editions, you could DIE during character creation (as in, for example, your character died during basic military training), and had to start again. You roll 2D6, add your skills, and see if you exceed 8 for a success. Space opera at its best, there are websites collating the tens of thousands of star systems of the galaxy, and most are fan made.
3. Through the Breach / Malifaux –
Through the Breach is the RPG sister game to the miniature game Malifaux. The background is perfection (steampunk, with horror and magic components). The titular Breach is a portal open to an empty city (Malifaux) in another world. There, and with the discovery of soulgems, Victorian tech met the atomic age, or close to it, as well as magic. Late 19 century intrigue with magic and a frontier feel...All of this said, the game rules are different enough from more common RPG’s that it does have quite a sharp learning curve, even if I found Character Creation positively engaging. I think that at the end, I didn’t have the time to dedicate myself to the game as it clearly and absolutely deserved. I used some of the background in other games and moved on. If you like any of the genres I mentioned, it is really worth a look.
4. Call of Cthulhu –
Another one of the Old Ones (get it?). CoC is deep, engaging, horrific and damn fun. Character Creation is trivial, and it uses a D100 skill and play set. Your skills are now percentages, and it works like this: If you have a 60% on Ancient Hieroglyphs, you roll the D100, and if you get any number between 1-60, you did it…..And now that you can read that inscription, you know your insignificance towards the Things From Beyond Space With Way Too Many Tentacles/Eyes, so you’re probably insane. You don’t WIN CoC, you SURVIVE CoC temporarily. The game isn’t even geared against you, it’s like the game doesn’t acknowledge your existence at times. You’re humans trying to mess about with things older than time. You’re not going to win, but it is amazing to try.
5. The Laundry -
And the day came when I said the words “Wow, playing CoC set in the present with modern gear would be cool!’ and someone set down a copy of The Laundry rulebook in front of me. The Laundry is almost an extension of CoC and follows pretty much all of its rules, with only a few exceptions (most of the skills have been updated, as well as gear).
Now CoC is horrendous. Delta Green, detailing a shadowy US organization that deals with Cthulhu-like entities, is very X-Files... And then there is The Laundry. Based on the books by Charles Stross, The Laundry is the English Civil service answer to Lovecraftian obscenities (During WWII, the HQ of the organisation was above a laundry, and the name stuck). Sure, they might be able to stop those Deep Ones, but only after submitting Form 34RG-T56-B. In triplicate. By tomorrow morning. Also, the key to magic is using mathematics to get energy from other dimensions, so you perform spells with PC’s, mobile phones and tablets. The nickname for said phones? The Necronomiphone. Perfection.
I simply LOVED the silliness and pluckiness of an organization where you fight a losing battle against Old Ones, and also have to explain where your paperclips went. One of your skills is Bureaucracy, another is Status. The latter will dictate how far up in the organization you are, and how much gear you can requisition. On my first Laundry adventure, I included shapeshifting tentacled sheep. BECAUSE I COULD! :)
6. Savage Worlds –
A gem of a rule system. The first I came across, that was designed to be agnostic, fitting in with any and all backgrounds. Character creation is great fun, your skills now have dice associated with them (say, Melee is a D6 and Shooting is a D8). When you want to do something, your GM gives you target numbers that you need to equal or exceed. Obviously, the better the skill, the higher the die, and the more likely it is you’ll succeed.Not the key issue about SW is that it is totally and completely adaptable and transferable. Every single creature and/or character has the same type of stats. All of them. So you can pick and mix, and play.... whatever. There is no reason why you can’t play a dragon, or a mountain of goo, or a giant Mech or anything else in between. There are loads of sourcebooks, and the system is easy enough to adapt to any environment.
7. Cypher –
Cypher is a fairly new system that I think has loads and loads of potential. Character creation is intuitive, but a little bit more time consuming than usual. That said, it has A LOT more possibilities than your run-of-the-mill system, and the characters, from the gates, are much more rich, as you picking small bits of your background come with character creation. It’s the play that I find fascinating; Cypher has distilled EVERYTHING you could conceivably do into one D20 roll, of varying difficulties. If say, you want to punch a door, and it is a solid door, the GM might want you to roll a 20. Then say you’re really epic at melee, that lowers your difficulty by one level (which translates to 3 points on the die). Then you have brass knuckles, one level less, 3 points less… So you now only have to roll a 14. Difficult still, but by no means impossible. Also, you use points from a pool to lower difficulty in the way I just described even further, and that pool doubles as your Health. So if you do a lot of effort, you get weaker. Fair, methinks. The simplicity of the one-roll-for-everything is very attractive, and as mentioned before, this is a rule system that can be adapted with some ease.
8. Fate –
Fate is my current passion. As easy to play as Cypher, with Character Creation as easy as Savage Worlds, this is a rule system that is designed to be hacked and adapted. They say so on the core book, make your own skills, make your own rules. In a nutshell, you roll 4 Fudge Die, that can show +, - or 0. You can then get a roll of -4 (terrible beyond belief) to 0 (meh….), to +4 (Epic). Then you get a tree of skills, some at +4 or 5, and others all the way to +1. These will add to your rolls, and make them higher. The adaptability of it is staggering, the prices of the corebooks are modest, and once the character sheets are changed, you really do feel like you own your game.
These are the ones I’ve tried so far. What have been your experiences with different rule systems?
Rui is still an ex-scientist and teacher. He is currently working on a FATE adventure in a cyberpunk city (New Hades, a city he originally designed around Savage Worlds, www.welcometonewhades.blogspot.com), and a Cypher adventure in space. With superpowers. Updates will be forthcoming. He can be reached at @atomic_rpg
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.