Miscellaneous Musings: Look Beyond Your System

This post was requested and sponsored by one of my patreons.


So, as you all have seen by now, I enjoy a wide variety of different systems. This, in itself, seems to be rarer than one would imagine, as there is a thoroughly baffling (to me) split in the RPG-community that generates a dichotomy that is not necessarily there.


This central dichotomy would be rules-lite vs. rules-heavy. It is funny, really: In my time as a reviewer, I have been accused of not getting either, for different reasons. Rules-heavy games tend to require a higher degree of system mastery, and some designers obviously don’t like when I point out flaws in rules-language, conventions, etc. On the other side, there are designers among the rules-lite games that think that just because there are not many components of rules-syntax, that is enough to warrant flaunting it altogether, potentially creating needless confusion.


Here’s the thing: Regardless of the complexity of a system, writing roleplaying material behaves very much like a variant of programming. Certain terms are loaded and refer to rules-concepts. This is a system-immanent truth and true regardless of system employed. Most games e.g. differentiate between spells and magic as a whole, using specific formatting conventions to point towards specific rules; most famously, spells are often italicized, feats are capitalized.


So that would be a basic component of the crafting-component of a RPG-book. There is another complaint I hear rather often, namely that “You can’t do XYZ with a given system.” That, ladies and gentlemen, is more often than not, patently false. Since our imagination is all that limits the potential modifications we can provide for a given system, we ultimately can do everything with every system – it’s just a manner of how many modifications you wish to add to a game. Heck, I ran a Ravenloft-campaign for over 8 years where every offensive magic had the potential to drive you insane, where you only got a precious few hit points and a fireball could annihilate even higher-level PCs.


Now, there is some truth to some systems doing some aspects better than others. Most famously, both Pathfinder and Starfinder excel at tactical, strategic combat with a lot of rewarding PC options; in contrast to that, e.g. GUMSHOE has been explicitly designed for investigative scenarios and thus sports a lot checks and balances to make that type of gameplay work smoothly. While basic GUMSHOE combat is not exactly exciting compared to PFRPG, it can be enhanced – just take a look at what Night’s Black Agents and Double Tap did for the game. Similarly, Ultimate Intrigue by Paizo and Everyman Gaming’s Skill Challenge Handbook have vastly improved the sleuthing options for PFRPG.


But what about rules-lite games? Well, there is a reason I love OSR-games: The lack of complexity in the base rules for adversaries puts a different focus on the adventure design, one that often favors creative puzzle-bosses and unique modifications of player interaction – LotFP’s puzzle-monsters would be a great example here. Similarly, there are quite a few adventures and supplements for OSR gameplay out there that excel by virtue of almost being art, of focusing on unique atmosphere.


There is no reason why you should not be able to mine the system-agnostic components, or to adapt such a book to your system of choice…and vice versa. If you can read PFRPG-statblocks, you can easily extrapolate NPC and monster capabilities and run e.g. the modules of an AP for e.g. Swords and Wizardry.


As a rule of thumb, extrapolating from complexity into simplicity is simpler than vice versa, obviously, but the matter of fact remains that our favorite hobby is one of imagination; as such, it is limited by our own needs and desires. It is, for example, very much possible to replace PFRPG’s spellcasting with that of DCC. Yes, it takes time and effort, but the argument of a system in itself not allowing for a given playstyle, is, as a whole, moot. A good example would be 5e here – there are archetypes in 5e that provide their own sub-system; you don’t have to play with the added complexity of such a sub-component, but you can, if you enjoy it.


Take one of the most rules-lite games I regularly cover, Fat Goblin Games’ Vs. Stranger Stuff Season 2. With just two attributes and a card-based mechanic, it looks like there isn’t that much to do with it in terms of longer game progression, right? Wrong. You can, for example, generate sequential, skill challenge-like group challenges; monster-conversion is simple. You can add degrees of failure, make a given card point towards a specific value – if you set your mind to it, you can add pretty much any degree of complexity you’d like to the system, and both e.g. traits or feats or races could be represented by Gimmicks etc..


To sum up: While RPG-systems are designed for specific gamestyles, the systems per se are not responsible for the limitations you can perceive in gameplay; it is, ultimately, just a matter of deciding and how to tweak the game to work in the way you want it to.

Yes, noticed something? You have just taken the first step to being a game designer! As soon as you start thinking about those things, really think about them, you’ll be en route to changing the system. Not all of your hacks and tweaks will work as anticipated; that’s part of the learning experience. For rules-heavy games, you’ll need to know some stochastic processes and have a proper level of system mastery, but even small tweaks can help.


Now, obviously, not all of us have the time and effort available to do such tweaks – and to a degree, that’s why I’m here, right? To help you find your customizations for your game. I assume that you’ll be familiar with a lot of the PFRPG-options out there from my reviews. At the same time, I think that anyone can benefit from looking beyond the confines of one’s favorite system and come out as a stronger GM, player or designer.


Thus, here a couple of recommendations for the purpose of expanding your horizon when looking at games, rules, etc.:


Dungeon Crawl Classics by Goodman Games: Remarkable for the weird dice used and the volatile magic system; also has glorious adventures and translation to and from PFRPG and 5e is remarkably easy, considering that all games are relatively rules-heavy.


Vs. Stranger Stuff Season 2 by Fat Goblin Games: My go-to rules-lite game for quick fun and card-based randomization. Simple and easy to grasp, yet studded with a plethora of options. The game can be explained in less than 5 minutes and is perfect to introduce RPGs to newbies.


The Esoterrorists 2nd Edition by Pelgrane Press: Great example of myth-weaving in a modern context; if you have issues constructing investigative scenarios, then analyzing this system can help you, regardless of the game you play, in making them work.


B/X Essentials Core Rules by Necrotic Gnome Productions: Crisp and concisely-presented old-school gaming; it helps to know one’s origins and the core rules, separated from setting components, illustrate rather well how they can carry a variety of different genres, settings, etc.


Lamentations of the Flame Princess by…well, Lamentations of the Flame Princess: While needlessly opinionated in its tone, the game is a crisp old-school system. It is remarkable for the way in which monsters are treated in the variety of adventures – more often than not, the only way to survive, is a focus on brains, and many issues cannot be solved by rolling dice, only by player-ingenuity.


So yeah, I love all of these systems. They all have influenced the way in which I design for other systems and I’d be less of a designer and GM without having experienced them. If you can, take a look beyond the confines of your preferred game-system – you don’t have to like everything out there; you can hate or love certain design-paradigms; but even cursory knowledge can vastly enhance your prowess as a GM. Alternating, once in a while between systems can also really invigorate your appreciation of one system for its virtues. I certainly know that I’ve come to enjoy PFRPG and 5e more after broadening my scope.


So, here’s to diversity – not only among gamers, but also regarding systems – as in every situation, there is something to be learned from looking beyond the borders!


If you enjoy posts like this, let me know! Also, I’d really appreciate it, if you checked out my patreon.

Reviews take a ton of time to create and every little bit helps to keep the reviews flowing. Thank you.


Endzeitgeist out.


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