Friday, February 18, 2011

Discussion: Setting and Mechanics

When it comes to designing games, there seems to be two schools of thought. One, that the setting should be interwoven with the mechanics of the game, making one seamless entity. Two, that the setting and mechanics should be able to be separated.

Now, obviously with two the mechanics would still need to work for the setting. Encourage the same kind of themes, tropes, and stories that the setting was made for, but it would be easier to simply lift the system out if someone wanted to.

Personally, I've found myself fond of this method. Being able to dust the system off, shake it free of the trappings i found it in, and re-purpose it to whatever I want to do with it. However, I've heard people swear by the other method. Liking it when a game's setting and mechanics have been joined together at the hip.

So, for today's discussion I figured I'd ask you, the readers, which do you prefer? Also, can you point out some great examples of either method? L5R's Roll and Keep system is probably one of the more prominent examples in my head right now for type 2. The same with the Cortex system, which is used to power a bunch of vastly differently themed tv-show based RPGs. What about Type 1?


  1. I suppose at it's core any system can be reflavored to fit with any setting if you're up for it; some systems just aren't made for it. One example of a system that has its mechanics interwoven with it's setting is Shadowrun. The rulebook is practically a novel with the rules in there somewhere. Misspent Youths is another example of a system built around a setting, or at least the idea of a rebel group of teenagers fighting against an overpowering authority. 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons depends heavily on magic items and character powers that to make it into something other than fantasy takes an awful lot of effort and changes to the rules.

    Then there are games like BRP and WR&M that are specifically designed to be reskinned into many different genres.

    I, like you, prefer type 2, especially for one-shot sessions as I don't feel forced to stick with a certain genre. With campaigns I don't really mind if a system can be reskinned or not because I can just pick the system that works for the genre I want to run. Of course, I am a rules-light junkie, so if you show me a system with few to no rules, I'll show you every possible genre that system can easily fit into.

  2. I find that games with rules taylor made to the game run lighter than a game that is generic. Look at the Gurps Tactical Shooter PDF that just came out. It does a good job of tailoring rules to a "Universal" system but takes piles of rules to hone itself to any one setting. Some players love that (I used to now I don't have the time for it). Others are so lost they don't know where to start.

    Now there are universal rules light systems out there like Risus. It's great for a one off adventure because there's only a few simple rules to learn.

    I guess my point (if I had one) is that the type 1 style can achieve a lot more of a single goal with less. If it's a one off game, I don't know that I'd care to learn a whole new system but sometimes those whole new systems can be so lean that they take all of 20 min to learn.

  3. Mechanics should be integral to the setting. For example, a Blade Runner RPG should have mechanics to determine, during play, whether you are a replicant or a human. That's a big part of the story, and there really should be a mechanic for it. Thus using a game system that is "generic" enough to be repurposed, you would need to develop this additional rule structure.

    I have no problems with repurposing systems, but I definitely feel that part of it should involve building a few mechanics that make the game match the theme.

  4. Dyson,

    I'm not sure you would need a specific mechanic to know if you were a replicant or not. Just somewhere to jot it down on the sheet. From what I recall of the movie, the whole point was you couldn't really tell the two apart until the replicant ended up out performing a normal human.

    That being said, I am curious what type of mechanic you would be looking for for it?

  5. OneDTwelve, what is BRP? Not sure I am familiar with it.

    Emmet: Have you checked out, I believe it is Pelgrane's stuff? They do Robin D. Laws' gumshoe system, but one of their rules is "fast to learn, fast to play". The idea being that you should be able to read through, and learn, their system in 40 minutes or less, and explain it in 5 or less. I haven't had a chance to run the EsoTerrorists for my group yet, but am hoping to get a shot soon.

  6. BRP is Basic Role-Playing system. It's the same system used by the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game.

  7. A.L: I've heard of it but never stumbled across a copy I'll check it out. For even more examples of very fast systems to pick up on take a look at 1KM1KT especially at the 24hr challenges. And BRP is a system that uses a roll under percentile system. I don't know how far that stretches, Star Frontiers started out as BRP and then had other stuff tacked on in Zebulon's Guide. The Artifact is sort of BRP except there's progressive levels for contested rolls.