System and Setting, Part I

How important is a game system in a particular setting? I’ve had this conversation many times with many people, and I’ve heard just about as many opinions as I have had conversations. I suppose I’m a kind of in the middle on the subject but leaning in favor of having a specific system for a specific setting. Over the course of this entry I’ll share my thoughts on the advantages of system specific rules versus generic rules.

Game systems aren’t important to everyone. There are lots of folks out there who are comfortable using any system for any setting whether it be sci, fantasy, horror, or whatever. The multitude of generic game systems on the market is testament to this. Let’s start with GURPS (the Generic Universal Roleplaying System) by Steve Jackson Games. GURPS was an early entry into the generic system market and it was wildly popular in its day. I know people who still swear by it. GURPS has sourcebooks for almost any setting you can think of. From generic fantasy, sci fi, and horror to licensed properties such as Star Trek, Wild Cards, Discworld and so on. They’ve also licensed many existing games and converted them to their system. On the surface, GURPS is a very simple 3d6 system where you roll the dice and try to roll less than the stat that applies to whatever you are trying to do. The Advantage and Disadvantages are where the game really opens up and allows it to be used for nearly any kind of game from a gritty detective series to a high-powered superhero game. Advantages can be nearly anything a character could want to do and are purchased by using a point buy system. A GM running a campaign can tell what Special Abilities are available and the players get to pick and choose what they want for their character. In the previously mentioned superhero game the special abilities might be things like flight, super strength, fire blast, etc. In a detective setting characters might be limited to things like, high pain threshold, languages, or ambidextrous. Many other generic systems follow a very similar pattern of core stats and skills and then lists of special abilities that can be purchased based on the setting.

I my personal experience I find that these systems tend to work better from some settings than they do for others. They’re great if you have an idea for a game that you want to run but there isn’t an existing system out there. However, they often get a bit unwieldly when they stray too far from their roots. Using the GURPS example, I’ve found that it works great for more mundanely grounded settings: low fantasy, sci fi, or even horror. However, its in the high fantasy or supers settings that things tend to break and the system just doesn’t feel right. On the flip side, the HERO system was born out of the superhero RPG, Champions. The HERO System was their attempt to make the game a generic system that could be used for any type of setting. It works… but as much as I love Champions, I never felt that the system really worked well for other games. Like with GURPS it’s a great fallback if you need a generic system, but so much of the system was centered around superpowers it always feels a little empty to me when used for something else.

These days there are a ton of really good systems, that are generic to one degree or another, on the market. There’s AGE, FATE, D6 System, Savage Worlds, Gumshoe, Powered by the Apocalypse, etc. (Apologies to anyone I missed.) Each of these does a solid job of creating a framework around which a setting can be built or applied. I have noticed in recent years the tendency for even generic systems to specialize a little. Some work better for story-driven and roleplaying focused games and FATE and Gumshoe stand out here. Some are better for action, with Savage Worlds being an excellent example. And the others are better for investigative type stories with AGE and again Gumshoe being the shining stars.

This is getting to be a long post so I’m going to pause here and will pick up with part two in a week or so. So far, I’ve written a fair amount about generic game systems. Next time I’ll get into some details about how a good system can complement and support a particular setting. Until then, be safe!

P.S. Don’t forget, if you want to see these earlier, and keep up with all the games I’m working on including my new RPG, Nevermore: Tales of Gothic America, check out my Patreon:

Links & Stuff:


HERO System

AGE System


D6 System

Savage Worlds


Powered by the Apocalypse

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