Here's an interesting question which, for many people, will be something that we don't think about much.
For most of my gaming life it's always been something like this:
- "What kind of game do we fancy running?" - by which we mean genre, like fantasy or SF.
- "What kind of adventures do we fancy playing?" - by which we narrow the genre.
- "Which game do we like to run?" - by which we take the genre-fitting games and pick a fav.
- "Ok, which part of the setting shall we explore?" - by which time the GM is reading the relevant book.
- "What character do you wanna play?" - 'nuff said.
My question is simple: is this the best way to go about setting up a game?
Let me caveat this question by pointing out that my best way is likely to be different based on my group's needs, but the question is still one that got me thinking.
Turning the Questions Around
What if the first question was, "What setting do we want to create?"
Yesterday, when I sat down to think about the possibility of teaming up with another GM, I asked myself a side question which was similar to this. The question, although a familiar one, set my mind going off in all sorts of directions... but also threw up a mental roadblock at every turn.
Allow me to give an example:
"What sort of setting would you like to run?"
"Erm, a kind of modern or near-future setting in which technology and magic are being blended. Maybe a kind of cyberpunk-meets-technocracy-meets-spies-in-Japan groove."
"That sounds cool. Which system would you use?"
"Dunno... let me just lookie here online for ideas." (Hours pass researching systems, to little avail, as the idea is so specific to my head that nothing fits).
"I guess we have to think about adapting a system, which sounds like lots of work... do you really want to play that setting?"
And so on.
What's the Problem?
"What's the problem?" the demon in my ear is saying... you just use a generic game system - like Savage Worlds, 'cause that's really easy to pick up and run. And yes, I could do that.
The problem, however, is that once I start to think about adapting Savage Worlds, GURPS, or even Hero System to my setting - all of which are cracking games with increasing levels of detail - I am still setting myself up for a spiral of thought which is constantly referring back to systems rather than setting.
Let me put this another way. The problem is not really "which system" but rather "why am I allowing the question of system to limit and stall my creativity?"
When I set up the just-about-to-begin Heroic Mykenaea campaign setting the system was pre-decided: we are running it to playtest the forthcoming new edition of Rolemaster. Suddenly back into an old groove, I just got on with the creating. Referencing back to the rules, which isn't really possible until they are available, was very minimal... because, in truth, we just adapt the system to fit our setting.
The real question, then, is "Why does not fixing the system upfront cause a mental block?"
No Fetters Is Limiting?
Is it really possible to discover that, by having no fetters to your creative thinking, the sheer open-space of choices causes the mind to freeze and look for a nice solid thing to hold on to? The system question is really the mental equivalent of running back to some safe, warm place when faced with the enormousness of the world.
Boundaries need to be set so that the mind can channel thoughts... but not so set that the mind just opts to do someone elses' idea.
Does choosing a system set up too many limits? Depends on the system.
While using an existing setting-based game is by definition likely to limit your thinking to questions like, "How do I adapt this to fit my idea?", in point of fact, generic systems like Savage Worlds, GURPS and Hero don't massively help either.
With generic systems you face two problems: firstly, you get paralyzed by the sheer volume of options and waste time narrowing them by looking at what other settings have done; secondly, you find yourself dithering over which sub-system you'll use to emulate X item in the setting.
Is the answer to write your own system? Possibly... but eek on the time and effort stakes!
I have another idea: forget about the system question for a long time. Work on your setting.
Work on the Setting
Here's the way to go if you face this problem: drop the system question altogether. Focus on the setting.
Narrow down the focus to create the setting that you want to run.
Here are 5 questions to get you started:
- Which timeframe, location and basic genre are you working with?
- What makes this setting unique and worth playing?
- What style of play: story or sandbox?
- What are the top five elements that you want to include in the setting?
- Why would your players want to play?
From here you focus on building the setting you want to run. What broad categories of heroes do you imagine offering? What kinds of cool gear and/or powers do you fancy including? Can you describe each thing in detail?
That's the real key: focus on description as you are creating. This is the grist-to-the-mill which will, very much later, translate your ideas into specific game elements. Once you know what the Gaiman-Tech 6070 Pulse Rifle looks like, feels like and does in descriptive terms then it becomes a lot easier to convert it into some game stats for the system of your choice.
For me, it's about altering the way that I approach gaming for certain projects. As stated up front, certain groups of players have different needs... and I'd stick with a pre-defined setting and system for most newbie players. Yet, as a GM who is stretching their wings a little, I'd recommend parking the system question and focusing on the setting YOU want to create.
Labels: GMing, musings, roleplaying