Behind the Screen – Chapter 6: What System?

So you want to start up a role playing game, you head down to the local game store to find something to play, or you look up online for something. You then realise the vast, staggering amount of games that exist, and the variable number of editions that exist within each game. It could seem a little overwhelming for new people on which system to use with so many options, and with the amount of expansion material that some games have, it can make those options even more difficult.

In this chapter, I will hopefully help a GM or group sift through all those games and find something that they will enjoy.



I’ve played a lot of games over the years, from a number of genres and types. I read even more than that, either in anticipation to play (even if I didn’t get around to it) or just because the system sounded interesting. The first role playing game I remember trying was Judge Dredd: The Role Playing Game, originally published in the mid-80s. I remember it being brutal, one gunshot wound was enough to kill you, and I’m pretty sure my character died very early on in the session. After that we moved to fantasy based games. We would have played a few different ones, I can’t remember what they were, except I remember THAC0, and any older gamer knows exactly what that is. It is something I never fully understood, and still don’t now, though I could probably learn my way through if I wanted to. To those uninformed, THAC0 is an acronym for To Hit Armour Class 0 (zero). It is part of the combat system for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Second Edition. Through that mess of games (I think GURPS was in there as well), my group devised our own set of rules. We obviously borrowed heavily from other games (being only 10 or 11 at the time), but we made something that worked reasonably well. It was D20 based, but I don’t remember much else about it than that. We invented a setting and populated it, and proceeded to play a lot of sessions in that world. We started modifying it as we progressed, introducing time travel elements, post-apocalyptic elements and dark fantasy themes. The inevitable power creep came into it because we didn’t restrict ourselves. When we ended it, I had a half-vampire, half-demon character that was essentially immortal and another character who had managed to acquire a very high powered sniper rifle, an invisibility suit and radiation poisoning. Things went down hill fast.

But beyond that, I’ve played in and run a large range of games, so I like to think I know what I am talking about here. First, lets have a look at some genres of game, only rough ones, I’m not going into too much detail here, otherwise this article would turn into a novella.


Fantasy – This is the default, as it were, for role playing games. Dungeons & Dragons is considered the first commercially available role playing game, and set the trend, being in a Fantasy world all but dripping with magic, dragons, swords and maidens. Tolkien essentially invented the modern Fantasy setting, and everyone else uses it to the Nth degree, with relevant changed due to copyright and authors putting their own spin on things. This provides a vast array of choices that one could choose from when it comes to games. The two most popular fantasy based role playing games are Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder, but that is only in general. In Germany, Das Schwarze Auge (The Dark Eye) is extremely popular, outselling Dungeons & Dragons.

I can’t say what makes a person prefer one thing over another, but when it comes to me, I prefer Fantasy over Sci-Fi (except for hard Sci-Fi, but I’ll get to that later). Which, as I think about it, is odd, because I don’t really have much to do with magic within a Fantasy setting. Maybe the appealing nature of the Fantasy setting is the brutalistic nature of the combat, enemies toe to toe in a melee, hacking at each other with hunks of metal. I would probably still be happy with a no-magic, medieval-type setting.


Sci-Fi – A very popular genre in many types of media, Sci-Fi generally covers anything futuristic. Advanced technology, space travel and a phased plasma rifle in the 40watt range, all things you can look forward to in a Sci-Fi setting. Sci-Fi has been around just as long as Fantasy, any person imagining the future or alternate worlds with advanced tech is essentially imagining Sci-Fi. Probably the singular most popular Sci-Fi franchise in the world is Star Wars, and there are several role playing games based in that universe. Some popular games with Sci-Fi settings are the aforementioned Star Wars, Traveller, Warhammer 40k and Dr Who.

I mentioned earlier about not being a big fan of Sci-Fi unless it is hard Sci-Fi. The difference between hard and soft Sci-Fi is largely down to the technical details. Hard Sci-Fi tends towards scientific accuracy and feasible engineering. Of the Sci-Fi role playing games I’ve played, none of them (that I remember) were hard Sci-Fi, as it probably doesn’t lend well to the enjoyment of the game. Technology and magic fill roughly the same role in these two genres, they do things that normally can’t happen in our reality.


Our World (Past and Present) – A fair amount of games are set in our world, or a very similar version of, either in a modern time, or in some historical sense, such as Victorian, the 1920s or Western. This type of game is fairly easy to familiarise with, as we all know our own world. As mentioned, sometimes there is a different factor in the world, something that marks it as an alternate version of our own. A prime example is Call of Cthulhu. It can be set in one of three different time (the rules give details for those three, but really could be set at any time) and is essentially the same as our universe, but with the inclusion of the Mythos. Another good example is the World of Darkness, a game set in modern times, but with the inclusion of mythological creatures, such as Vampires, Werewolves, Fey and so on.

I am quite a fan of these types of games, because you really don’t have to learn as much as other games. Real world elements are the same in both, the way the world works in general is normally standard across the board. A gun works the same way in our world as it does in Call of Cthulhu and World of Darkness. If learning Pathfinder equals 100%, then learning something like the two previously mentioned games would be more like learning 20 – 50%, the rest you already know. While there are many


Super Heroes – The name is pretty self explanatory as to what this genre involves, super powered heroes, or sometimes villians, clashing it out with each other. Generally, this is set in a modern world, any everyone knows about super heroes, so it is a pretty easy genre to get into. One of the first super hero games was Vigilantes & Villains (As I’ve looked up some of this stuff, I’ve noticed they really liked to stick to a very standard naming convention, two words, both starting with the same letter, separated by an ampersand), and a more modern game is Mutants & Masterminds (that naming convention has even flowed through to modern times).

The only super hero game I’ve played is Mutants & Masterminds. It was an interesting game, with the option to create some truly over the top characters. One character I made was a permanently incorporeal being who either hit enemies with telekinetic-ally controlled pieces of the world or would go inside their heads and whisper things to them to make the enemies do things to themselves. This ended rather badly for one enemy, who was convinced to firstly destroy his powered armour and then to inject himself with acid, because there were “demons” in his blood. Needless to say, he was not the best ‘Super Hero’ by any sense of the word.


Dark – This is more a prefix than a completely stand alone genre. I am putting it as a separate one, because I want to cover horror games as well. If you take Fantasy or Sci-Fi, add a layer of brutality, bleakness or horror, you have a darker version of that game. The Warhammer Fantasy or Warhammer 40k role playing games are two prime examples of dark versions of those two classic genres. Both are gritty, brutal and unforgiving, which is par for the course for anything Warhammer. Call of Cthulhu is also quite a dark game, but from a horror perspective.

I also very much enjoy dark games, I’m not sure why. It could be a similar reason why I like my characters to be flawed. Call of Cthulhu is excellent even though it is essentially guaranteed for the characters to end up dead, insane or both. Dark games add another dimension to the proceedings, add more flavour.


Blank Rules – There are a few systems are just system, no setting. They require a setting to be applied on top of the rules. Granted, you could strip the setting off any system and apply your own, but the Blank systems are designed to work with any setting. Pulling the setting from Pathfinder will still leave a setting better suited to Fantasy than Sci-Fi. The best example I can think of with this genre is GURPS, stands for Generic Universal Role Playing System. With it, you could play any setting you could think of, the rules either support or are easily adaptable to fit. Another, not quite so broad, is BESM, or Big Eyes Small Mouth, a system designed to work with Anime. You could take any Anime setting and lay it on the BESM rules to have a workable role playing game.

I’ve not played any from this genre, so I can’t make much comment on them. I have heard though, that having a generic system means a generic game. Sometimes flavour is built into the rules, and generic systems lack that.


Mash-ups – These games that are ones that take elements from multiple genres. The best single game I can think of that most accurately borrows from multiple genres is Shadowrun. It takes all the fantastical races and magic of Fantasy and crams it into a Sci-Fi Cyberpunk setting, creating an interesting conglomeration. Realistically, most games can probably fit into this genre, either on their own or because of additionally published materials, separate from the core rulebooks. Pathfinder has Iron Gods, introducing Sci-Fi into the world, World of Darkness is a Dark version of Our World, with some Fantasy sprinkled in.


Now, I think I’ve gone on long enough about the setting of a system, what about the system itself? I’m talking about the rules behind the story, that integral part of the game that ensures it all runs along and means it isn’t just a bunch of people sitting around a table yammering at each other with no direction or sense of purpose. Rules provide the backbone to any game and facilitate balanced progress so people are not just constantly arguing with each other.

A lot of games will have a unique rule system for each one, which can make it harder to choose, but often those systems can be fairly similar to each other, with minor changes to change some of the feel of it. Want some more paragraphs about the separate varieties of systems? Too bad, I’m going to do it anyway.


d20The d20 System – This is a fairly common sort of system around these days. First time I saw it was Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition, though I’m sure we used something similar back when my friends and I made our own game, so we must have pulled it from some other system. The basic premise is to use a 20-sided die to roll a number, add some other numbers to that, and see if it is higher than a pre-determined number. If yes, you win, if no, you fail. There are other things involved, of course, depending on how complicated the system is, but that is the general overview. The d20 system is quite easy to understand and requires a minimum of dice, a single Adventure set can supply a whole table, if need be.


The Percentile System – Like the d20 system, the Percentile system needs minimal dice to be run effectively. It uses two d10s, one standard (ie 1 – 10, sometimes the 10 is represented by just 0) and one 10s ( ie 10 – 100, sometimes the 100 is represented by 00), so when rolled together, will give a score somewhere between 1 (1 and 00) and 100 (10 and 00). If the number rolled is lower than a given value for doing a certain task, then it is a success. For example, Bob wants his character to shoot a gun. The characters gun skill is 60, so Bob needs to roll 60 or less on his percentile die to succeed. There can be variable factors that could either add or subtract an amount from the roll, making it easier or harder.


great_success_by_merionminor-d4xmjryThe Success system – The Success system is largely based around having a pool of dice, and using those dice to get ‘successes’, generally meaning a certain number or higher on the dice, and those successes can mean various things depending on the system. In some games, the number of successes must be higher than a given number, such as Shadowrun, whose dice pool can be monsterous. In other games, such as Dark Heresy (Warhammer 40k), one success means the action succeeds, but each additional success will improve the action by degrees. The dice used are not always the same; Shadowrun uses d6s, whereas Dark Heresy and World of Darkness use d10s. The dice pools are populated by the stats of the character, ie how good they are at a given ability or task. These systems require more dice, especially Shadowrun, where 15 d6s for a single roll is not uncommon.


As I mentioned earlier, those three above are just basic explanations of the various rulesets. Dungeons and Dragons Editions 3, 4 and 5 all use a d20 system, but are all different in their own ways, due to character creation and other things. But once you know one of them, the others are all very easy to learn. Sometimes a system will come along that is very similar, but different in some fundamental way that makes it just a bit harder to learn. A prime example is a new game I reviewed late last year, Fragged Empire (if you haven’t already, go and have a read of my review). The ruleset is quite different to anything else I’ve seen before, while at the same time being very similar. It most likely resembles d20; roll dice, add numbers, try to beat a given number, but instead of rolling a d20, you roll 3d6. The end result is essentially the same, just with a reduced pool of numbers that can be accessed. A d20, obviously, has a pool of 20 numbers, 1 through 20, with an equal chance of getting each number, but 3d6 only has a range of 16 numbers, 3 through 18, and using three dice means a greater chance of rolling mid range numbers, but less chance to roll very low or very high total numbers ( I think, measuring chance can get very tricky). But to change it up, Fragged Empire also uses successes to power its critical system, so you can get more than one in a single attack roll, whereas you cannot with the d20 system. From my experience, it is a basic system at heart, but has allowances for complexity if it is required. I quite like it.

c20d95a9be009c21466a96fa850e79606985b1e83c90ca3981fd7f77c6b78854Late last year I was given a game to look over and possibly review, it was called Sol. Another member of ATGN, Ewan, ended up reviewing it (his review), because I was given Fragged. The ruleset is significantly different from other games and does not fall into any of those previous categories. It uses d6 dice as its standard form and most rolls seem to be handled by 3d6. It differs from, say, Fragged because the rolls are not standardised. Like in those three systems above, most rolls are handled by a standard rule and function in the same manner. But not in Sol, where, dependant on the function, one must refer to a table once a roll is made to see what the outcome may be. And different tables are present for different functions, so the book must be referenced copiously. This can slow game progress significantly. There is more I could say about Sol, but Ewan says it more eloquently than I, so I will limit myself to saying the rules and setting of the game were needlessly confusing.

However, you should not base everything on what it takes to complete a task or action in a given system; character creation is also a huge influence. Generally, the way I get to know a new system is to create a character. Reading through character creation and then making a few of my own teaches me a vast portion of how the game functions, and gives me an indication on how the game would progress. Some games have a very streamlined character creation process where a character can be put together in a relatively short period of time. I see Call of Cthulhu as one of these. Character creation can be done in an hour; make a few rolls, do some math when placing points in skills, throw a few items at it, and done. You don’t need to do much in it, everything is self explanatory, the only thing you might need to look up is what the skills cover. In comparison, Pathfinder has a much more involved creation process. Some of that comes from the amount of available material, the rest from having to look up a lot of things. In Call of Cthulhu, a class may define your skills, but that’s all, it grants nothing special otherwise. In Pathfinder, a class has so many extra powers that need be explained, and thus read for the class to be completely understood. Then one must move onto the skills, which are not quite so self-explanatory as in Call of Cthulhu, so more reading is in order. Feats and traits must be read and chosen following the skills, and spells (if the class has them) after that. It is a lot of information to be consumed.


The last considering factor in choosing a system to play is the group. A GM should talk with their group to decide on the style of game to play, the genre to choose and what ruleset best suits them. A rules heavy game like Pathfinder might not suit a group who wishes to focus on role playing, and a system not focused on combat, like Call of Cthulhu, might not suit a group who wants to kill everything they can see. My previous article, Handling Players, might give some insight into your group, to help choosing that perfect game that will appeal to everyone.


After all that, you could just be like me, and try any and every game. I’ll read a bit on the game first, and if I find the setting appealing and the rules at least somewhat comprehensible, I’ll give it a go. After playing the game for a few sessions, I might decide the system is horrible and stop playing it. There are so many systems out there, I suggest looking at as many as you can, finding one that sounds interesting and giving it a go. Don’t limit yourself to the big name games, there are some really awesome ‘indie’ games as well. Kickstarter is a great place to find some new games, or DriveThruRPG for already published stuff.


I think I’ve rambled on long enough now. I didn’t intend for this chapter to be this long, but once I get going sometimes, I find it difficult to stop. Some people who read this will know it all already, but I hope this does help the other group, the newer GMs and players. As always, comments are encouraged, welcomed and expected. Let us here at ATGN, and all our readers, know what you think about this, we want to know.



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