There are games that work perfectly for people who want to pick up and play, but eventually, most DMs or GMs will want to start building their own world. It could start with a single village, a single dungeon, but then you add a road out of there, a forest beside the road, a town name on a mile marker. Before you know it you are writing about kingdoms and continents and the history of the first age of Elves.
Admit it, you are now a world builder. You are above the level of most casual DM/GMs. Quite possibly you are the forever DM who never gets to play. As your imagination runs riot, at some point you are going to run smack into a wall. From writing your own world histories and creating world maps you crossed the line into house ruling a playable race, profession or class. A restriction that doesn’t make sense in your world had an important part to play in game balance for the rules. You change the rule and your vision of elves as immortal, magical fey works, but suddenly they become the god race for player characters as you take away their level limits. After all, it made no sense that someone who has lived for 10,000 years could not learn 10th level spells. Then you spot the hard limits; what you can and cannot change is not always easy to comprehend at first blush.
Some games were never designed to go beyond their native style of play, or to stray too far from their native genre. Thankfully, other games revel in it. I am going to look at some of your options for setting your world-building creativity free.
1) Dungeons & Dragons
The great thing about D&D is that a lot of the work has been done for you. If you lump things like Gamma World and D&D modern in with classic D&D, as the core mechanics are pretty much the same, you have a great range of time periods you can play with and draw from. Most roleplayers will know the basic rules of D&D, it doesn’t ask too much of them to accept that Dwarves have canons and blunderbusses.
Where D&D worldbuilding falls short is that it is a game of hard limits. What makes one class stand out over another is that one cannot emulate the abilities of another. It assumes a balanced party with different skill sets. Drop that into a pulp setting and character classes don’t make so much sense. Even levels and hit dice start to look a bit weird when you are a 10th level Bomb Disposal expert!
FATE doesn’t have the same restrictions or hard limits as the classic d20 system. This is good in one way but asks a lot of the players and GM. The system puts its efforts into supporting collaborative storytelling. The players’ input is as valid as that of the GM. In a freewheeling game, this is great. For the worldbuilder, however, it is frequently troublesome. You see it one way, you build the structures to support it, write the histories and offer the players their hook into the world, and they see it differently and simply playing in your world they change it and shape it as they see it. FATE is great for broad strokes. Tell everyone they are Special Forces in a world of giant insects and magical elves and they will roll with it.
With GURPS we are approaching something that most worldbuilders can work with. Just about every genre under the sun exists as a supporting sourcebook. No one needs them all (an odd thing for a GM to say) but you can pick the sourcebooks that have the elements you want, mix and match and it will all work seamlessly.
For the most advanced GMs, it is still going to feel like you are playing in somebody else’s sandbox. That’s when you start making house rules! GURPS can be a bit of a love/hate system. If your group loves it, then you have everything you need already. Your quest ends here.
4) Hero System
I am going to admit to some bias here. I absolutely love Hero System and consider it to be one of the best systems ever written. Hero System is inherently setting neutral, and from a gameplay perspective, self-balancing. Every advantage is built with points and those are balanced with disadvantages. If your points balance out, then the game will work. I come from a Rolemaster background and I am used to seeing things cross-statted for Rolemaster and Hero System. In Hero System, the rules for building a crocodile are the same ones used for building a superhero or a space marine.
No system is perfect. Hero System is a rules-heavy game. Creating a character, a monster, a wild beast, or a starfighter is not going to be quick. All the creation systems and rules are math-heavy. At the table, the game plays nicely and fast. What the rules are doing is putting the workload most definitely on the worldbuilder, in this case, you.
3Deep is a rules-light game that freely admits that it takes a lot of inspiration from Hero System. It also incorporates ideas from Traveller and Car Wars, all iconic old school games. The name refers to the system’s reliance on three levels, weapons come in light, medium, or heavy, doing 1d6, 2d6 or 3d6 respectively, beasts come in small, medium or large, with stats being rolled on 1d6, 2d6 or 3d6 and so on. Difficulties are measured on a scale of +3 for extremely easy to -3 for extremely hard, they can get harder but in most play +3 to -3 is all you will ever need.
3Deeps consistent approach allows you to place game mechanics directly into your worldbuilding without having to stop and refer to rulebooks. If the north face of a mountain is terrible to climb (-3), the difficulty is just dropped into the text.
As mentioned above, the game shares something with Hero System: it separates special effects from game mechanics. A firebolt does 1d6 to 3d6 depending on how big it is but the same rule or mechanic applies to a pistol (1d6), a carbine (2d6) to an elephant gun (3d6). The difference is that fire burns and bullets cause bleeding.
This system is front and center in that it was built for the worldbuilding GM. It even says so in its product description. This makes it unusual in that it focuses its appeal toward the GM and not necessarily the player.
Hero System and 3Deep both say they are built for the worldbuilding GM. This is quite unusual. When I look at games on DriveThruRPG nearly all of them tell me what sort of character I can be, how I can discover the world. In game publishing circles, it is held up as a universal truth that a compelling setting is what sells games. No one is ever going to get excited about 1d8 damage, but skyships and dark gods are evocative. To target the GM is a brave move, but the most experienced GMs are going to end up looking for the rules that allow them to really express themselves. Of course, we can all hack any rules we like, and there is a lot of flexibility and variety in d20 systems. It is just a question of when will you bump into the edges of the railroad tracks, regardless of how wide they are.
Peter Rudin-Burgess is a gamer, game designer, and blogger. When not writing his own games he creates supplements for other peoples games to sell on DriveThruRPG. His current obsessions are Navigator RPG, Castles & Crusades, and Zweihänder.
Header image is in the public domain
Amazon Prime is streaming the Tales from the Loop series based on Simon Stålenhag artwork, the same inspiration for the award-winning tabletop roleplaying game.
“Inspired by the wondrous paintings of Simon Stålenhag, Tales from the Loop explores the mind-bending adventures of the people who live above the Loop, a machine built to unlock and explore the mysteries of the universe – making things previously relegated to science fiction, possible.”
The pitch is vague on details begging the question, is this sci-fi ensemble series worth checking out? To answer, the creators behind the Doctor Who RPG, Gimmerspace, CAPERS RPG, and more, as well as bloggers, a Youtuber, and fans share their [mostly] spoiler-free thoughts on this series.
"Tales From The Loop is living up to my expectations, a genteel series of mysteries blending old school Twilight Zone stories and more modern Black Mirror themes with the community spirit of Eerie, Indiana, and, yes, a modicum of Stranger Things."
~ Tim Knight, Blogger, HeroPress
[NOTE: Read Tim’s full review on HeroPress (here) or check out his “Musical Monday: Soundtrack Visualizer - Music to Relax To (Tales from the Loop)” article.]
“The series is beautiful, moving and emotionally powerful. The pacing is slow and glorious, letting you take in every second of how gorgeous it is, while presenting you with a series of interlocking stories that explore life, death, time and being. The score perfectly echoes the timeless scenes, and the flash-glimpses of what has happened, beautifully tells each story with very few words.
But at the heart of each episode is a character caught up in the very real world of The Loop, where you should be careful what device you switch on, where you go, and whether you have made the right choice.”
~ David F. Chapman, Tabletop RPG Designer
[NOTE: David is the designer behind the Doctor Who RPG for Cubicle 7, and worked on Star Trek Adventures for Modiphius. You can follow David on his website, Autocratik.]
“I’m thoroughly enjoying the Tales from the Loop TV show. Thoughtful, deliberate stories on very human themes in a quietly bleak setting. The weird sci-fi tech is icing, not the cake.”
~ Craig Campbell, Game Designer, NerdBurger Games
[NOTE: Craig is running the CAPERS Offworld RPG Kickstarter based on his award-winning game, CAPERS, through April 23rd.]
“Tales from the Loop reminds me a LOT of those low-budget, high-concept indie sci-fi films where ‘the science’ is irrelevant compared to the deeper character study elements of deeply flawed individuals that the creator of the movie wants to get into.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind would be one of ‘the most popular’ examples in my mind -- that movie was technically about memory erasing technology but it was very much less about ‘the technological spectacle’ of a blockbuster sci-fi movie (say Avatar) and more about using the premise for an interesting story that would be hard to tell without the crazy premise/tech being possible. Vanilla Sky might be another example (in terms of big films a lot of folks would know). There are hundreds of solid indie films that folks wouldn't as readily see in this category.
Anyways if those interest you, check out Tales from the Loop on Amazon Prime. If those annoy you, you might not enjoy TftL. It might still interest you, but yeah...”
~ Lucus Palosaari, Project Manager, Fat Goblin Games
“The music is so moody, and it’s so not techno-babble sci-fi; how something affects people on an emotional level is so much more important than some pseudo scientific explanation.
Seeing the events of the Loop through the children makes it more effective since nothing is explained, as Loretta's mom says, ‘You wouldn't understand it anyway.’”
~ Bill Paulson, Sci-fi Media Enthusiast
“It's marvelous, gentle and chilling by turns. Atmospheric. Very Scandinavian. It's also technically sci-fi, but when I watch I'm reminded of Clarke's famous dictum, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ And that's certainly the approach. It felt very urban fantasy to me.”
~ Lou Agresta, Co-founder of Iron GM games and Co-creator of Grimmerspace
[NOTE: These quotes are from the “Write Club: Urban Fantasy Fans” group on Facebook. Lou invites you to check it out and, if it’s your bag, join.]
“Just watched the first episode. Highly intriguing. And I really felt for all the characters. The measured pacing (I wouldn't actually call it ‘slow’) is what made the characters real for me.
Episode two was… brutal and tragic. And frighteningly real in how it got there. This is quality work.
Episode three maintains the quality level, and breaks your heart in a different way. But not in the brutal, this-is-broken-and-lost-FOREVER way that episode two did. I continue to be enormously impressed. There are no wasted words or actions in these stories, and they are finding fresh angles on old tropes. Impressive.
I have mixed feelings about episode four, but there are reasons to believe that we haven't seen the whole story yet.
And episode five asked me to believe a few things I just wasn't willing to. For me it was the weakest one so far. Still very well done, and if you grant its precepts it was consistent. But I have trouble granting the precepts.
Completed my binge. Mixed feelings and, in the end, mixed score. But I'm glad it exists.”
~ Connor Cochran, Writer, artist, editor, and producer who has been working in various media businesses (publishing, music, film, TV) for the last 47 years
“Having been a fan of Simon Stålenhag art, and of the Tales of the Loop Roleplaying Game by Fria Ligan, after watching the first episode of the new Amazon show has me eagerly awaiting my chance to watch the next episode. It was atmospheric, beautifully rendered, and had me at the edge of my seat and emotions.”
~ Jodie Brandt, Host of the QuestWise YouTube channel
“The show is gorgeous and full of poetry. I almost cried before the end of the [first] episode.
Actually, I cried at the end.”
~ Jean-Christophe Cubertafon, Freelance Writer and Translator
[NOTE: You can follow Jean-Christophe on Facebook and Twitter.]
“I enjoy the slow burn, it takes it's time. Just finished the series and it’s hands down one of the best I've ever seen. Simply amazing.”
~ Jeremiah McMillan
“To give an idea of the level of quality I wanted from this series, let me say that I’m a fan of the Tales from the Loop RPG and I’ve interviewed Tomas Härenstam, Free League’s CEO, about the game. The RPG won numerous honors (Golden Geek Award for Best RPG, voted Best RPG on the UK Games Expo, and five-time Gold ENnie award-winner) as it brings ‘roleplaying in the ‘80s that never was’ to your gaming table. I attended the ENnie Awards at Gen Con in which TftL took home five metals (though, while attending that, I missed playing a legendary session of Tales at the con). All of that is to say I wanted to see this series, but I knew my demands of the show were high.
After seeing Amazon Prime’s Tales from the Loop, I can say it touched on everything I wanted the series to bring to the small screen. A realized world of robots and almost magical technical possibilities, its stories are told through the eyes of children that just accept this is the world, their world. Despite telling the story of children, it’s not a kid’s show. The imagery is crafted to reflect Simon Stålenhag's artwork and heighten its dramatic flair. Each episode is a short story, deliberately paced and enriched by poignant music, acting, and directing. The production comes together to evoke emotions I rarely feel when watching a sci-fi property.
As backstory for your RPG, it’s crucial world building. As a dramatic sci-fi TV series, it deserves recognition for the beauty and art it achieves. While I know it’s not for everyone, I’d still recommend trying it out because, if you connect with it, you’ll never forget these tales.”
~ Egg Embry, Freelance RPG Journalist
Tales from the Loop is streaming on Amazon Prime. You can pick up the tabletop RPG through Free League Publishing’s store. In addition, Free League is kickstarting the Tales from the Loop – The Board Game until May 7th.
Egg Embry is a freelance tabletop roleplaying game journalist writing for EN World, Knights of the Dinner Table, RPG News, d20 Radio, the Tessera Guild, the Open Gaming Network, the AetherCon Convention Magazine, GAMA’s Around the Table, and more. His areas of focus are RPG crowdfunding projects and RPG reviews as well as interviews with a range of gaming professionals from freelancers to CEOs. Beyond journalism, he dabbles in freelance writing and producing gaming zines for the roleplaying zine-aissance.
Egg Embry participates in an Amazon Associate. These programs provide advertising fees by linking to Amazon.
Picture Reference: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1192053011/tales-from-the-loop-the-board-game
My favorite roleplaying system to run is Legend of the Five Rings (L5R): a fantasy samurai setting where characters find themselves fighting just as hard in the political ring as the martial fields. I find myself naturally drawn to systems where the pen is at least as mighty as the sword. Because of this, I was naturally drawn to L5R’s social combat: intrigue scenes. So I quickly was drawn to Fantasy Flights newest edition of the game. Characters in L5R have to rely heavily on their social skills as well as combat prowess in these scenes where progress toward predetermined political or social goals is tracked mechanically, similar to progress in a combat encounter. This is the feature that drew me to L5R, but I recently realized that in my year and a half of GMing it, I have almost never used the social system, and now I have to know why. Is this an inherent flaw in the idea of a mechanically-heavy social encounter? A flaw in the specific rules L5R uses? Or my failure as a GM?
1) What’s The Point?
In any roleplaying system, by the time combat begins, the players already know their objective; the question the players are answering is how not what. Typically the heroes will win; it is simply a matter of how much damage they will take, what price they will pay, and how they accomplish their goal. This allows combat to give player choice in a way that structures without hindering the GM’s ability to let the world respond to them.
Social combat should ask the same questions. The purpose of social combat is not to seek an end result but rather to ask questions about a known end. Who will the players owe a favor to? How many different weaknesses of their enemy did they uncover? How many of their own weaknesses did they reveal in the process? Starting a social scene by trying to determine the player’s next course of action is like rolling initiative before knowing if there is even a monster in the room. L5R even pushes players towards this end by having players decide beforehand what their goal in the scene is. Both social and martial combat aims to answer how and if players are successful, not what players are successful in doing.
2) Breaking Plot Armor
Asking the incorrect questions in social combat leads this to become a tool to take control of characters out of the GM’s hand. The main reason why physical combat is so mechanical is that the GM doesn’t govern the physics of the world, just people in it. In many social situations, player success is determined by the people in the world, not the world itself and it’s mechanics. NPC’s can choose to be unreasonable but they can’t always choose not to be on fire. The more interesting parts of roleplaying are watching players decide what kind of deals to make and what kind of solutions to take. Any social combat should support this goal while still leaving its questions open ended. Social combat needs to be more than rolling to see how a character reacts to something said to them. Players should be asked to problem solve not simply to construct what they are saying.
3) Social Battlefields
Of course, the tools that we can use in our systems are only as good as the setting that we put them in. One game that does this well is another one of my favorite roleplaying games, Urban Shadows. The heavy focus on political factions, not individuals, is what makes this stand out to me as opposed to the L5R intrigue system. Urban Shadows continually focuses on the setting as the true main character of the story. The landscape of a game of Urban Shadows sets a political battleground that presents players with multiple options. Social combat often wants to track how successful you are at convincing a political leader to assist you without accounting for options to go around them like working with that political leader’s enemies. Players need to be given the space to choose which characters they want to work with.
L5R’s equivalent “battlefield” needs to present the players with more options than the standard “what do you say to the one person I told you to talk to”. This is why these systems work better when the subject matter involves vying for political control. L5R’s intrigue system has a scope that is a bit too small. Focusing on individuals rather than groups and individuals’ roles within those groups. L5R and several systems have the capability of this but don’t give the necessary backdrop often enough to support it. Focusing on this bigger picture gives the players more options to attack a problem without being overly restrictive with rules.
More codified social conflict rules can give a game system a lot of strength, however I feel like they can be really hard to use. It’s harder to set a stage where talking your way out is actually the correct answer. However, a lot of my most memorable sessions don’t revolve around a large combat encounter. Rather, they are centered on my players coming up with unique manipulations of the characters in the story. A lot of the community inherently associates story heavy systems with rules light systems. This leaves ideas for mechanically heavy story-driven games unexplored. I believe that the correct implementation of this kind of system could make a really unique and interesting system that we are currently missing out on.
Bo Quel is a Legend of the Five Rings Fanatic From Virginia. He plays and GMs several systems where he focuses on telling enriching stories and making characters that are memorable. He also is the GM/Host of Secondhand Strife, an L5R RPG actual Play Podcast.
Picture provided by the writer.
All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games