Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Importance of a "Go To" System

Yesterday we talked about how important it was to play multiple different systems whether you are a GM, a Player, or a Game Designer. While doing that, I briefly made mention that it was also important to have a 'Go To' system, a system that you know frontwards and backwards. I want to expand on that topic today, including the comparison I made of a Go To system being similar to a home track for a Race Car driver. Just what madness is this? Read on and find out.

A Familiar Place
The first thing a 'Go To' system gives you is a place to relax. It is an old familiar friend, somewhere you know well. In short, it is an amazing place to relax and unwind. See, whether you know it or not, when you are learning a new system - especially as a GM - there is stress involved. You have to figure out how these new rules work, you have to communicate them to the players, you have to deal with the fact that you're more likely to make a ruling mistake, and last,but not least, the danger of an accidental TPK as you don't know the system is higher than ever. It can get to you, and a lot of people will claim they feel they worked harder, and are more mentally fatigued after a session, when running something unfamiliar. This is only natural, after all, you are flexing muscles harder than normal to keep track of something new.

On the other hand, your old system is known. Less stress because you know it so well. You can probably customize an encounter to be the exact level of challenge you want, or need, in your sleep at this point. Running it feels like a load off, you don't need to worry about learning, or remembering, mechanics because you already know them. Instead, you can just focus on the play, the fun, and the story.

This stage of relaxation is important for more than just destressing though. This is also when everything you learned over the other session is going to decompile and be assimilated into your brain. Think of it like a day of rest for someone preparing to run a marathon. Sure, technically they're relaxing, but while they're doing so their body is healing and incorporating all the strengthening that they've given their muscles into them. The person is doing more than recovering, they're giving their body a chance to make itself better. (these rest days are part of why you're recommended to only do 3-5 days of exercise a week).

A Place To Experiment
This is more for the budding, and/or aspiring, Game Designer, and is where the comparison to a home track comes in. A 'Go To' System is, as said above, a familiar place. This is much the same way that a home track is a familiar place. The driver knows the bends and curves intimately, because they've driven on that track more than anywhere - and quite often they drove on it while learning. A driver's best times are usually on their home track, because of the feeling of safety and security it gives. This also means though that the home track is the ideal place to experiment. New ways to take corners, new ways to set up the car, new ways for everything. What better place to try them out than the one place where you know all the other factors?

A 'Go To' system can be this for a game designer. See, starting out you'll have a few ideas for things. This is often the stage while you're still a GM and haven't fully looked at the games as something you want to build. You'll want to add in rules, change rules, balance classes, essentially you want to change something. The Go To system gives you a safe place to try this out. To see where changing one thing can have far reaching complications in other things.

Sure, it seems a simple thing to let a mage have more spells per day. Until you get a few levels higher and suddenly the mage is able to infinite combo any monster you come across. Feats every 2 levels instead of 3 are great, until you realize how much harder it makes to balance some characters. Neither of these are bad ideas btw (in fact, I prefer D&D 3.0 with a feat every 2 levels), but they change the game and help show how things are interconnected. Only, with a 'Go To' system you will understand this and will possibly see other solutions to it other than going back.

I did this myself with Roll and Keep, and didn't stop until I had made a system for handling modern weaponry in a system that had been built for fantastical samurai and sword fighting. I need to post those some day...

A Good Place to Start
The last thing a 'Go To' system does that I'm going to talk about is giving you a place to start. When you're branching out into other games, or looking to start building your own games, a Go To system is a wonderful resource. By looking at the system you can find out what you like about it. What you don't like about it. Most importantly, what is it about the game that makes it fun for you. Once you have that knowledge, you can look for that in other games, or look for a way to build that into the game you want.

Essentially, the Go To system forms a starting off point for you to jump off of, a grounding for you to support your own work on as you make it different and tweak it. If you're building your own stuff, don't copy it but take inspiration. If you're just looking for a new system, you can better explain what it is you like about gaming. "I'm looking for a game with tactical combat like D&D, but not D&D" or, if looking for something brand new, you can say what you are not looking for.

Final Thoughts
There are likely a lot more things a Go To system can give you then that. If nothing else, familiarity will bring speed making it easier to do emergency one shots. Don't be afraid to break away from your Go To system, but don't abandon it completely. You liked it this much for some reason, shouldn't you at least find out why and return for that every now and then?


  1. Oddly enough, I'd been thinking about this very thing last week. Without a doubt, my 'go to' system is D6- my own version of it, evolved from a mish-mash of 1st and 2nd Edition Star Wars with a lot of evolved house rules thrown in for good measure. I love the D6 system. It fits my GMing style to a tee. It is also versatile- I've run a fantasy setting with it and a horror setting with no problem. It is good for pretty much any 'cinematic' style campaign type you can think of (and by cinematic I mean emphasis on speed of play and dramatic elements rather than realism or tactical detail and accuracy).

    I'll admit, its tough for me to leave this 'comfort zone', but there are some settings and game styles that (to me) just demand another rules set. For instance, Fantasy gaming just feels different when you use D&D. There is an 'charm' to those rules (however archaic some versions may be), and a feeling they evoke that is distinct from all others. To me, it is almost as though a rule system carves out its own 'genre' within a larger setting. D&D fantasy is one distinct animal, D6 fantasy is another.

    I am rambling at this point, but I have, for years, been tinkering with my own 'streamlined' D&D system- oddly enough a mish-mash of the Basic/Expert stuff and 3rd Edition, with some 2.5 thrown in for good measure. So with that, and my D6 modifications, I think I would definitely qualify as a 'designer', however amateur.

  2. Everyone starts out somewhere. Heck, I have started thinking of myself as a Designer too, and I haven't put anything out there yet either.

    My own go to system is Roll and Keep, which I believe I mentioned. But I can make that system dance and do almost anything. Even modified it for Star wars (did rather well too) for a time.