I was recently asked by a reader to cover how I would approach using one game system to run a different game or setting. And to be honest, the first time I read the request, I thought back to all the times I had seen someone try to switch a setting up or hammer an existing ruleset into place, and I found I hated the idea.
I have this hardlined response that a medium a piece of art is invented in is the place it is always going to its best version. I know it’s maybe elitist to say so, but it’s the way I am wired, and I have to fight hard against it.
Adaptations of my favourite properties don’t fill me with as much excitement as they maybe should, and I’m the same with games. The new wave of converting interesting game systems to 5e mechanics has left me cold.
So I sat back, took a breath and realised there’s a few articles in this concept. In the idea of how I would do it and how I’d be careful. Then I re-read the question again before responding and realised that the commenter had said they were using the cypher system – a generic system. And it dawned on me that I haven’t talked about generic systems either.
So here we are. We are going to look at system hacking and suggest ways to do it better than the last time a bunch of friends and I attempted it.
It was 1998. The Setting was Star Wars. We used World of Darkness rules. It. Did. Not. Work. I will not speak of it again if I can help it.
The Road Unwalked
As you might guess from this series title and the article previously published, I really enjoy it when a game embraces genre tropes and makes you feel like it’s a different type of story being told. That really leans into the game’s setting and lets you know it feels different.
For an example, let’s look at combat in three different games – in Dungeons and Dragons (tales of epic heroism and battling monsters), the game shows us second-by-second, round-by-round combat. We see each part of the combat and how it goes down. It’s perfect for the genre it happens in.
Contrast this with Uncharted Worlds, where the combat is over in one roll and then described by either the players, GM or both, depending on what was rolled. The game cares if you got hurt, won or lost, but it doesn’t mind much about accounting for the combat second-by-second. It’s a fast paced space scoundrel game.
Contrast again with Cartel, which is based on narcofiction. In that game, there’s a similar roll, but basically 40% of the time you pick up a gun and use it, you are going to die. Because that’s what happens in Narcofiction. If the situation has got to guns, people are going to get shot.
This sort of thing fascinates me. But it also means that I’ve not crossed the streams on games often because these games aren’t made for different genres. D&D to run narcofiction is just a terrible fit.
When we talk about hacking systems – using one system to run something it wasn’t originally designed to do, we have to think like designers. Start thinking about how and why a game does what it does. Is it trying to create a specific play experience? Why does it do social interaction in a really codified way? Because if we ignore these things and follow them, we end up in some strange places.
A great example of this was the D20 explosion where a number of games tried to force properties and ideas into a levelled D20 ruleset. Most of them were a terrible fit. Make sure that the game you choose ‘feels’ like it is interested in the things you are wanting portray on a mechanical level.
So when we look at adapting a system to a setting we have to look at what a game does during play too.
As well as filling those genre expectations players might have, we have to look honestly at what players will be doing during the game mechanically.
For example, if we take the popular Netflix series Bridgerton and attempt to make a game out of it, we might be tempted to adapt something like Vampire – a game with social focus, free from rules and often with interpersonal conflict. But once we strip out vampires disciplines (vampire powers), humanity score, supernatural elements, we aren’t left with a lot for the players to roll. There’s no need for a virtues roll, or to test against frenzy. There are no ancient plots to uncovers, no sabbat menances to fight in Bridgerton – no reason to choose brawling stats or conspiracy based ones.
So all the characters are built around the same 15 or so skill developments. It bottlenecks. Even though on the surface it seems like a great fit.
But if we take a game like Masks, originally based around teen superheroes, and look at the way that system is focused on self-image and has most mechanics based around influence of others on your thinking, learning how to become your own person in a oppressive society, the system begins to look like it might fly. You can have players affecting each others scores, hack the Masks playbooks into something resembling the members of the main households of the show and watch as the players gain mechanical systems rewards for pithy comments, subtle put downs, inspiring friendship and declarations of independence. All without throwing out most of the game or setting interesting. Choose a system that makes the setting its most engaging self.
We can already see in that when we choose a system, it’s not really just choosing ‘any’ system. Have to really think hard about how to tell the story we want to tell and places we might go. Any system you choose is a lens through which we view the universe we play in. Small decisions often create totally different styles of play.
Just look at Cthulhu mythos – Call Of Cthulhu runs very differently to Trail Of Cthulhu because of the latters focus on presenting a more robust mystery story. And they both play differently to the more players driven Tremulus, or the pulp action focus of Achtung Cthulhu. Yet they are all based, technically at least, in the same setting. But they provide vastly different takes on the mythos.
So think about what counts to YOU before you begin.
I hope that’s helpful with your thought process about running one setting with a different ruleset. I’d look forward to anyone doing this to add to the comment section about what they found worked and what they had trouble with.
Next time we’re going to look at what to do if this is making your head spin and how you can fill a gap with a less specific system and then build from there.
Creative Commons art credit: Mechanical Arm by Vega-Artworks, Medusa’s Lair by RobiComics, Creatures of chaos by Banished-shadow, and Erlking by IrenHorrors. Geek Native has made multiple uses of Iren’s creative commons art, it’s appreciated, and I urge you to shop at Iren’s Society6 store.
Readers like to you help to make Geek Native. Nip down to the comments below and let us know what you made of this blog post.