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.
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As a reviewer I get to read a lot of games and almost without fail fantasy games come with magic fitted as standard. When faced with 90 pages of spells for forty three different professions I am simply not going to read every spell. I dip into each one. I read a few of the simpler spells that starting characters have access to, a few mid-range spells to see how things develop, and then some of the most powerful magics to see what greatness a GM will get to throw at players at the climax of their campaigns.
That is... normally. Sometimes you find a system that, before you know it, has you reading every word and that little devil on your shoulder is whispering, “How can I house rule this into my own game?”
Magic is one of those fantasy gaming essentials that is extremely difficult to separate from the setting. When I see a game pitching itself as “setting neutral” I wonder how the creators are going to justify the existence of magic in their world. If a setting has no gods, exactly how does divine magic work?
Setting neutral magic can be done, however, and what I consider the best magic system of all time is indeed setting neutral. In fact, I have played this game on and off since the late 1980s and I only learned last year that there was an official setting for it.
So here are my top three. Each is very different and it made little sense to try and put them in any other order than my own personal preference.
1) HERO System by Hero Games
HERO System is now in its sixth edition. I first played it as Champions back in the 1980s and it was my first introduction to ‘point buy’ as a way of creating characters. HERO System doesn’t really have a magic system at all. What it does have is a system for creating any special or super power, and that includes magic.
The tools provided for creating powers fall broadly into two styles. The first is all about defining one explicit power, or in this case spell. Each would be unique and one would end up with a very long list of such spells. The second set of tools are for grouping powers. A variable power pool is bought using the point buy system and that pool can be reused repeatedly for different effects. The size of the pool balances the magic in play but the sorts of magic that can be created are limited only by the player’s imagination.
You see, it is not the point buy or variable nature that makes Hero System’s treatment of magic outstanding. It is HERO System’s treatment of special effects that make it outstanding. To quote the rules, “If you read through this book, you won’t find any specific rules for things like ‘fire blasts’ or ‘lightning bolts’ or ‘magic’. Fire, lightning, and magic are all special effects, and HERO System rules let you pick the special effects you want.”
What the rules do provide you with are basic power descriptions such as Invisibility, Teleport, and Energy Blasts. You can then apply limitations on those basic powers so a Flame Arrow may be an Energy Blast but you can tailor the effects to emulate its fiery nature. You can also apply advantages that enhance the basic power to further get that spell effect spot on.
It is the coming together of pools of power that can be shaped any way the player wishes, limited only by their imagination, the visual effects that are also limited only by the imagination, and a set of mechanics that support but don’t restrict that makes this a genuinely universal magic system.
2) 7th Sea by John Wick Presents
7th Sea does not go down the setting neutral route. It is the setting for 7th Sea, Théah, that helps make this a standout game for me. The magic system for 7th is perfectly interwoven with this setting and so, naturally enough, it fits it like a glove. The rules define six explicit types of sorcery. Each one is a complete entity in its own right: they do not share game mechanics, and they are most certainly not a shuffling off of spells into piles so sorcerers get these spells, summoners get those and so on.
With 7th Sea each type of magic is a complete magic system. Each could easily have been the core magical system for a different game. Each is related to a world culture within Théah and reflects that cultural flavour. It is analogous to how the magical culture around Haitian Voodoo is totally different to European Wicca and to Native American Spirituality, the latter of which does not see itself as magic at all.
It is this individual treatment of each cultural tradition that makes these magical rules so strong. Nothing has to be compromised to fit in with a guiding mechanic. If one form has a dozen effects and the next two dozen, it doesn’t matter. No one is trying to make everything entirely equal, balanced, or fair. Your magic is your own and you make of it what you will.
When I read these rules the first time I didn’t skip from spell to spell. These pages deserved to be read and actually once I read them rather than moving on to Dueling, the next chapter in the rules, I found myself reading the Sorcery chapter again simply for the pleasure of it.
3) Zweihänder by Grim & Perilous Studios
Zweihänder claims to be setting neutral but it has a certain style, and that style is grim and perilous. The core of the Zweihänder magic, or magick in Zweihänder parlance, system is professions and those professions have lists of spells. This may not sound like a groundbreaking system. It does mean that should you want to translate your existing game into the Zweihänder rules, or play a Zweihänder powered game, in your favourite setting then it will work. The professions will most likely exist and they cast the sorts of spells you expect them to.
That alone is not really enough for an accolade, but there is more. Zweihänder has a rather simple mechanic that works for every single action in the game. It is a d100 game at its core and if you roll an 01 or a double, 11, 22, 33 etc., then that is a critical roll. If it is critical and successful then you get some bonus or beneficial effect. If you get a critical failure, as you may guess, things do not go well for you. Remember I said that this applies to every action? It applies to spell casting as well.
Every single spell in Zweihänder has a list of effects for Critical Success, Success, Failure and Critical Failures. As these are built into the actual spell itself this is not one of those, “Oh you failed, we will roll on the spell failure table,” games. Zweihänder criticals, be they successes or failures, will happen in one in ten attempts to cast a spell. You will fail, and critically fail, at some point.
It may seem odd to praise a magic system for its handling of failure, but this has more to do with its recognition that this is a real part of the magical world, integrating that failure into the spells themselves, and then using that failure to move the story forward.This isn’t a situation wherein a player misses their turn if they roll poorly. In this magical world stuff happens and it is not always good.
These three systems are so very different, with the ultra-flexibility of HERO System, the tightly integrated sorcery of 7th Sea, and the built in fallibility of magic of Zweihänder. What makes these three stand out is that they all have incredibly high design standards. I don’t mean page layout and pretty pictures. I mean that they have coherent and tight design goals and they hit them spot on. I think that their efforts in striving for excellence that makes these three that extra bit special.
Peter Rudin-Burgess is a gamer, game designer, and blogger. When not writing his own games he creates supplements for other peoples to sell on DriveThruRPG. His current obsessions are Shadow of the Demon Lord, 7th Sea 2nd Edition, and Zweihander.
Permission for picture given to writer for use in this article.
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