Shaper & Maker

See the front page

to access the most popular
contents of the site

Finding your game system - what can you tell by just reading the rules?

A while ago I wrote a post about how I ended up with Savage Worlds. The post got some critique for me judging games just by reading rules; it's true, you can't tell how a game plays without actually trying it. But there are other factors that may matter when choosing a game system than just how it plays.

New system for old players

If you have a regular group of players you've played with for a long time, you know pretty well how they play and how they react to different things. They may have jobs they are very dedicated to, families and other hobbies. They may not be very enthusiastic about learning new systems, so if you introduce a new system to them, you may want to be pretty confident about the system you present them. It should fit both to your and your players' tastes; if you want to play games in various genres, the system should fit well for all of them.

D30? Err, which game uses d30?These were all things I had to consider. I wanted to find one system I like, which is fun and easy for the GM and would still have solid rules system and preferably supported use of miniatures. I wanted a game that I could easily use for random one-shots, some mostly improvised, and I wanted good support for various genres and game worlds.

My players tend to share a dice pool and everyone is looking for the dice they want once in a while, and I don't think buying new dice would help this. They tend to find any system flaws and exploit them, and character generation tends to take a good amount of time. While I hadn't actually tested Cortex, mainly these facts that closed that system (using RAW) out.

All groups have some distinctive features, that will affect how a system will be used and how will it play in practice. Think about your group, what kind of gaming habits do they have?

Similar systems or mechanics

I first tried to venture away from D&D by using Iron Heroes, Star Wars, Wheel of Time and True20, which were d20 games so my players could jump in easily. But when 4E was announced I felt relief as D20 system has many cumbersome special rules, and after getting into it I felt there was no going back to 3E -based games. But as I wrote before, 4E wasn't a dream come true either, even if we got (and still get) a good amount of fun from it.

Trying all those d20 games was an easy solution at the time. By being very familiar with the core system allowed to get pretty good picture about how the game plays, and there was little learning. Other game systems may also have rules or features similar to a game you know; this helps you understand how the rules work, but be aware that it is always possible that the rule in question interacts differently with different core rules.

Matter of tastes

Tastes can't be ignored. Sometimes you just don't like something, and you can't get over it. If you just don't like it on paper then try it - it's always possible that it actually works in the game. Good example of tastes getting on the way is when I tried D20. Rolling different dice is something I really missed in it, and realized I really want a game where different dice can be used. I was ok with those dice being used just for damage, but ended up using different dice for all rolls.

Some things work well on paper, but not in practice

This isn't really surprising. Have you ever  tried to write your own rpg system and had an idea of a great rule? Often this kind of innovations won't work. The idea may get so stuck in your mind that you become obsessed of it's goodness. Or perhaps the rule actually is good, but it may be in conflict with the rest of the system, and therefore should be discarded. And one of the hardest things in game design is being able to let go of some ideas you think are great. If conflicting rules are left in the game, they may do the game a lot of harm.

Of course non-working rules may be personal issues - people's brains work in different ways; generally a rule should work for a majority of people.

As a personal example of rules that don't work in practice is True20's damage system. I liked it on paper; you have static damage from weapon (plus strength in case of melee), and the target makes a toughness save after being hit; How well or badly this save goes tells how much damage you get - a scratch, wound, serious wound or worse. The system has it's fans, and I think this is a matter of tastes too - there were damage house rulings on the forum though, so I'm not the only one who didn't like the damage in practice.

Some things work well in practice, but not on paper.

Many rules may sound strange, especially if you're used to a specific formula how rules should work. In well-designed games, rules have been iterated repeatedly to get a streamlined result that takes most things into account, one way or another. When looking at a rule for the first time, it may look really strange. I realized Savage Worlds was full of this kind of small details - something that couldn't be told at first sight.

Mongoose Traveller had a few things that look odd on the paper; especially strange to me was auto-fire rules. You roll amount of dice and then pair them to get attack rolls you can assign to wanted targets. In addition to generic 'oddity' feel, the problem I saw with this is that it can be a bit of a bottleneck in practice, with players trying to think which number is enough to hit which target. The rule may simulate concentrating the spray more on some target(s), and I'm curious how it works in practice.

I also felt it's strange in MT to give difficulty modifiers for easy or difficult tasks, and always trying to get 8 or more - assigning difficulty as target number would remove need for one operation which would make playing faster.

If you have experience with MT I'd be curious to hear how these rules work in practice, how they feel. If you think I'm wrong with my doubts go ahead and prove me wrong!

Surprise yourself, try something different, experiment

If you can, then you should try different games, experiment, change your gm'ing style, play, have fun! A system may work better in practice than on paper, your players may surprise you, or something else surprising may turn out.
Some things you can tell by reading the rules, some things you think you can tell by reading the rules, and some things you must just try. But if you know your players and know your options are limited, you may have to do with just reading the rules. One way to test rules would be to run some con games or a random one-shot at local gaming club or test the system some other way, but especially in cons people expect to play, not to be test subjects, so if you try this you should prepare well and be ready to improvise without a second's thought.


Average: 5 (1 vote)


Interesting post and

Interesting post and certainly the beginning of checking a system out has to be reading it. Experienced GMs are easily able to determine if the rules set has the flavor they like by reading it and then can subject it to play-test. As far as testing the game goes I would test it with my regular group or a game store group. With my group after testing a system with a subset of players we always do a short multi-session game so everyone gets an idea of how it works, before creating characters and investing in a game that will go on for several years.

The only objection that I have is that people spend hundreds of dollars to go to a convention and probably will feel a little burnt if the game is not polished. I personally never run a game at a convention without running it one or more times first and if there is to be play-testing at a con it should be in open gaming or have a clear disclaimer.

I completely agree that RPG gamers should be open to new systems. There are a LOT of good games out there!

I'd say you're mostly right

Submitted by Shaper and Maker on

I'd say you're mostly right about con games Andre - I believe a good gm that has learned the system well that has a good story which is more important than the system could pull it off. I've been only in two con games as I've spent my time doing everything else, and both of those were story-over-system games. Rules checking during the game is out, so ability to improvise without moment's thought is very important. And it perhaps should be mentioned that the game isn't for rules experts for that game as they might be disappointed - those seeking for a good story will be happy.

And this depends on the system to be tested too - simple games (like Barbarians of Lemuria?) could work very well this way.

Sorry Andre, forgot to

Submitted by Shaper and Maker on

Sorry Andre, forgot to approve your comment when I answered it - I want zero spam on this site and while the current captcha is GOOD, there's someone once in a while that gets through.

Anyway, it's good you have a group you can experiment with - of course it's the best way if the group is interested in trying new systems!

Add new comment

Notice! All comments will be approved by me personally. I will tolerate no spam on this blog!