The GM Matters Most
My initial response to my friend when he mentioned the system being bad for some of the games was to ask if he meant the system or the GM. It was my stance, and it still is my stance, that a proper GM can run about any type of game in any type of system because the GM trumps the system when it comes to that. However, we do have different systems for a reason.
John Wick's 4 Questions
When it comes to game design, John Wick (creator of Legend of Five Rings, 7th Sea, and a whole host of other games) has four characters he asks:
- What is the game about?
- How is the game about this?
- How does the game encourage players to do this?
- How is this fun?
Question 1-3 are the important ones here for seeing how a system hinders or helps certain tones.
So what is your game about?
D&D is about clearing dungeons, fighting monster, and accruing power until you are an epic level hero able to challenge the gods in a high fantasy universe. It does this by primarily giving out XP for killing monsters, and those monsters hoard treasure full of powerful equipment that makes it easier to kill more powerful monsters down the line.
The World of Darkness games are about awakening to a world full of monsters - maybe being one of those monsters yourself - and trying to hold on to your humanity in spite of the plots and events that are going on around you. It does this with your Humanity stat and the fact that the higher power you get, the harder it is to hold on to humanity. And when you go to 0 humanity you lose the character.
Legend of Five Rings is about playing honorable samurai in a high fantasy east Asian mythology inspired world. It does this with the Honor stat, where the more honorable you are the easier it is for you to do certain things like resist fear, side step being ruined through temptation and bribery, and flat out having a big once per session re-roll to succeed where you otherwise would have failed.
But what about your game?
Mechanics That Help
One of my favorite mechanics I've seen in any game is the Dramatic Sequence from 7th Sea. Done right, the Dramatic Sequence gives players a limited number of "change" they can give to a scenario. You then run through the scenario and players spend their points to overcome obstacles, change things in their benefit, and find what they need to achieve their objectives. However, unlike in a normal game where each objective is defeated with its own dice roll, the Dramatic Sequence adds tension because how much you can do is limited by that pre-defined pool. You can end up in a situation where you've only got 3 points left and the villain goes into a backroom that's guarded. You can follow, but you only have 3 points left. What if that's not enough?
The Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic in D&D 5e is another great mechanic. It lets you do so much so easily. Did the player set things up well? Give them Advantage. Are things against the player? GIve them disadvantage. The mechanic is simple, but flexible and works well for a lot of things.
Love it or hate it, the honor mechanic in L5R encourages people to play more honorable characters when the GM uses the tables to boost and lower honor based on the actions of the characters.
What about in your game? Does it help your tone? Hurt it? Do you have to overrule the game?