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
In any creative medium that lasts long enough, there’s bound to be stretches where it seems like everybody is just copying what everybody else is doing. (In art history, they refer to these periods as movements.)
Tabletop roleplaying games are no exception. An acquaintance of mine once lamented that so many games were using Powered By The Apocalypse, but not really doing anything to really make their game unique, and made the leap in logic that they were just doing so because everybody else was making a game that used PbtA.
I remain largely unimpressed if a game bears a logo signifying that it uses a certain ruleset. However, I have also witnessed a few instances of people reacting strongly to such labels, both favorably and not. I try to remain dispassionate whenever I notice a trending game engine or game style in our hobby. I’ve seen it happen numerous times before. More often than not, it’s just that: a passing trend that in time, will be mostly forgotten.
In light of that sentiment, for your reading pleasure, I present you with “5 Creative Movements In The RPG Fandom” so as to celebrate the unique inventions of our hobby.
1) The Fantasy Heartbreakers
A term coined by Ron Edwards of the web forum The Forge, Fantasy Heartbreakers is a type of game that Edwards identifies being prominent in the 1990s. They were independently published games of the fantasy genre that seemed to be products of people trying to bring their own take on what Dungeons and Dragons could be.
He describes many of them as having great ideas, but being trapped behind the shortcomings of D&D, for one of three reasons. They don’t play to what truly makes them unique, they make some minor adjustments to some of the apparent problems D&D had at the time, or they just flat out keep some of the absurd themes that D&D was stuck with.
The reason these are titled Fantasy Heartbreakers is twofold: they were obviously fantasy games, but more importantly, this was a considerably more difficult time to self-publish. The internet was budding, and some of these games did take advantage of having websites, but DriveThruRPG didn’t quite take off till some years after 2000. This meant the cost of self-publishing was considerably higher, to the effect of thousands of dollars just to print. (The cost of commissioning artwork, if you could even afford it, would compound the issue.)
And so, a fantasy game designer’s dream of being the next Gary Gygax would often end in a broken heart -- so much effort, so much investment, all to be forgotten in a market too small for them.
2) There’s A GURPS Book For That
Generic Universal Roleplaying System is the flagship RPG of Steve Jackson Games, the company that may be better known for the Munchkin franchise. While now typically scoffed at as having way too much math to be enjoyable, there was a time when GURPS addressed issues of contemporary games. Issues such as character creation being too rampant, or playing in a different setting requiring learning a completely new game.
In the 90s, GURPS was all the rage, and much like how Steve Jackson now licenses out Munchkin whenever he needs to pay the rent, he did the same with GURPS during its heyday. While both Steve Jackson’s own web-store and Drive Thru RPG boast staggering collections, this isn’t the complete library.
There were numerous books published that bore the GURPS logo, including the now out of print Vampire: the Masquerade GURPS sourcebook, and even a few Japan-only exclusives such as GURPS Runal. The heyday of GURPS may be over, and large swaths of its library may now be difficult to find, but it’s hard to deny that it’s an important artifact of tabletop gaming history. (Especially since the Secret Service once seized all of Steve Jackson Game’s equipment over one of their GURPS sourcebooks!)
3) D20 System
After the Fantasy Heartbreakers bled out, but before the weight of GURPS’s massive library collapsed on itself, Wizards of the Coast acquired the remains of TSR, and brought us Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition, and with it, the Open Gaming License and the moniker d20 System.
With the freedom to use the rules to D&D to make one’s own supplements and games came a deluge fan made splat books, along with officially licensed games. Some of these were good, or at least well received, such as Mutants and Masterminds, or Blue Rose by Green Ronin publishing.
I’ve read through Blue Rose; frankly, this was much like one of the Fantasy Heartbreakers opined upon by Ron Edwards close to two decades ago. It added a few new mechanics and a different setting, but at the end of the day, it was Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition with a different coat of paint.
Most games either fell into the above category, or showcased some of the flaws of Dungeons and Dragons’ core mechanics. Big Eyes Small Mouth d20 is one such example of the latter. It tried to include the freedom of a point buy game with the structure of a level based one, and failed pretty miserably at both with a kitchen sink setting.
The surge of the d20 system died down some the flop of Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition, and the revival of D&D in the public eye with 5th edition. Though somewhere between the 4th and 5th edition being released, a new movement gave way.
4) Powered By Fate (Or The Apocalypse)
Sometime before Dungeon and Dragons 5th edition being released, FATE and Powered by the Apocalypse picked up in popularity. I remember some of the ways friends of mine initially described FATE when its 4th edition was released in 2013. They described it as being “easier to understand” and “letting you do anything.”
Which brings us to where we stand now. We’re in the middle of a movement marked by narrative games using FATE or Powered by the Apocalypse cropping up, either as fan made games like the numerous Star Wars FATE games, or as independent publishing, such as a Nahual, a Mexican game about urban fantasy, set in (surprise) Mexico.
Social movements have a strange way of not being all encompassing, though. The Fantasy Heartbreakers were happening at roughly the same time GURPSmania was, which dragged on sometime into the era of the d20 System’s reign. Moreover, with Dungeons and Dragons having some of its rules released under the Open Gaming License, we’re seeing a second wind of extra Dungeons and Dragons material during our current age of FATE and PbtA, including High Level Games’s own addition to this canon: Snow Haven.
5) Bonus! Standard Roleplay System
To illustrate that this isn’t exclusively a trend in the English speaking roleplaying game community, I’d like to touch on something similar that’s happened in Japan. The game publisher Far East Amusement Research is one of the big names in publishing RPGs in Japan. They’re known for two things: having published Tenra Bansho Zero, as well as creating the Standard Roleplay System.
The Standard Roleplay System is exactly what its name implies: a standard set of rules that FEAR’s games use, creating a similar wave of games in Japan as we’ve had in the West. One of the most bemoaned examples from Western fans of Japan’s RPGs is a game called Monotone Museum, which was designed to prove a point about SRS: anybody, even those who don’t have much experience in RPGs, can make one.
The rules deviate very little from the SRS document, and shares a lot of common themes with other FEAR Games, including Tenra Bansho Zero and Double Cross. Themes such as stacking multiple archetypes to make your character, having a cosmic force that both empowers and corrupts your character, and having to take steps to avoid being lost to said force.
I’ve initially bemoaned how similar so many different RPGs can all be the same, but as I wrote this article and took the time to organize my thoughts on the matter, a few things did dawn on me. The first is that every so often, something truly new does come around and shake things up. The other is that even within a familiar framework, there can still be room for something interesting to be made.
After all, despite basically being a clone of JRPG video games of the time, Earthbound is still one of the best games of its kind.
While Aaron der Schaedel has been in the RPG fandom for a very long time, he’s spent most of that time in the fringes of it, where he’s found all kind of wonderful, bizarre, and even horrifying things. You can (and should) ask him questions about the things he’s found via twitter: @Zamubei
Picture Reference: https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/224851/GURPS-Fantasy
All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games