Check for Traps
Let There Be Law

Alexander Macris | 22 Jun 2010 17:00
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So before I begin building a world, I always decide what rules set I'll be using and what genre I'll be simulating. The choice of rules needs to be made simultaneously with the choice of genre. Some rules really can support multiple (if not all) settings and genres - Steve Jackson's GURPS and Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying come to mind. Other rules sets support particular genres marvelously, but fail spectacularly outside of them. Palladium Games' classic RECON is a brilliant war movie RPGs, but is dreadful for heroic fantasy. D&D is great for heroic fantasy but lousy for investigative horror. Some rules sets are so narrowly tailored as to support not only just one genre, but just one setting; due to the career and magic system, it's hard to extract Warhammer Fantasy from the Old World setting, for instance.

It's possible to "hack" a rules set to support different genre conventions and settings, of course. And if you are trying to use a particular rules set (say, D&D) with a genre or setting it's not built for (say, the American Old West), you will need to. But with so many game systems available, and so many other challenges to gamemastering, it's probably better to find a game system that lines up with the genre and setting you want, unless you just love tinkering with rules.

I personally find universal games like GURPS or BRP to be so broad as to make the setting feel bland. On the other hand, I find games like Exalted, Warhammer Fantasy, and Castle Falkenstein exceptionally flavorful, but hard to modify or extricate from their assumed setting. My personal sweet spot is a lightweight rules set that is easy to modify, nicely tailored to a specific genre but not tied to any specific setting.

Here are the rules systems I choose when world-building in various genres:

CyberpunkCyberpunk 2020 (R. Talsorian Games)
Hard Science FictionTraveller (GDW/Mongoose)
Heroic FantasyClassic Dungeons & Dragons (TSR/Wizards of the Coast)
HorrorCall of Cthulhu (Chaosium)
Post ApocalypticMutant Future (Goblinoid Games)
Space OperaHard Nova II (Precise Intermedia)
SuperheroesMutants & Masterminds (Green Ronin)
Wild WestAces & Eights (Kenzer & Co)

If you are familiar with these games, you can probably identify why their mechanics support the genre. As already noted Cyberpunk 2020 has a "live fast, die young" game mechanics loaded with crits and botches. It also has an almost fractal depth of technology and gear combined with a clever "humanity loss" mechanic, where cyberwear slowly eats away your character's empathy as he becomes more machine than man.

Traveller gets the hard sci-fi nod for its career path system, which creates characters who feel like they are part of a high-tech society, not isolated wanderers in the post-apocalypse. The original game even suggests that the "game statistics" are actually part of a universal hexadecimal rating system actually employed in the galactic society the characters live in. My rating is UPP 677BA8.

Dungeons & Dragons is an obvious choice because of its widespread popularity, but the popularity is not coincidental. By accident or not, D&D's class and level mechanic perfectly encapsulates the enduring myth of the hero's journey, wherein a youth is called to adventure and rises to greatness thereby. The reason D&D campaigns tell the same story over and over is because it's the best story.

Reasons of space preclude further annotation but each system above has similar implicit or explicit mechanics that support the genre. Consider these my recommendations as to systems, or if less charitably disposed, a disclosure of my biases. Either way, let me know what you think in the forums.

Next time, we'll look at top-down versus bottom-up design, and how to balance between consistency and openness.


Alexander Macris has been playing tabletop games since 1981. In addition to co-authoring the tabletop games Modern Spearhead and Blaze Across the Sands, his work has appeared in Interface, the Cyberpunk 2020 fanzine, and in RPGA AD&D 2nd Edition tournament modules. In addition to running two weekly campaigns, he is publisher of The Escapist and president and CEO of Themis Media. He sleeps on Sundays.

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