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
All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games