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When Setting and Rules Don’t Mix

I love RPG settings. I love the worlds that are given to us by writers and designers to play around in. I enjoy the fiction, I like background material, Exalted, It's Like that. I like feeling like I’m playing in a world that could be real. World building is arguably the most fun for me as a GM and even as a player, I love being able to add to the campaign world with my own creativity through my background and my actions. Unfortunately, not every game has mechanics that live up to the setting that’s presented. The game’s setting may be exciting, fresh, and fun, but the game itself ends up being a slog, confusing, or boring. It might be badly designed rules or it might be rules that conflict with the feel of the setting, but whatever the case may be you end up with less than you’d hoped for. Few things disappoint me more than reading a game, getting excited because it sounds cool and fun, and then running headlong into a mess brought about by the game mechanics. So here are some of the games which I most wish would be remade using new and different rules.

Faded Suns
Faded Suns is probably about as close as we’re ever going to get to Dune The RPG, I think. It has that same far future setting with aristocratic families and ideals, byzantine politics, powerful religious or quasi-religious organizations, science and technology is futuristic but clearly stagnant, and so on. It may feel derivative in some ways, but that doesn’t stop it from standing out as different from most other RPGs out there. I love the way the game sets up the conflicts and gives you so many things to explore or introduce to your game. Religion versus technology. Religion versus government. Noble versus noble. Which makes the way that the rules seem to get in the way all the more annoying to me. My experience with the game as both a reader and (briefly) a player is that the rules are just kind of clunky, slow, and poorly organized. There’s supposed to be a revised 2nd Edition coming out and I wonder if that will fix the issues that I have with it.

Star Wars
Save the hate mail and angry comments for later. Let me first explain myself first. Star Wars is a universe which demands an RPG. The universe is too vast and interesting and full of possibilities to not have one. But I think that no version of the Star Wars RPG has completely done the universe justice. There are fans of the WEG d6 and you’ll find fans of Star Wars Saga Edition and if you look very very hard, you’ll even find people who enjoyed the d20 editions that were frankly pretty terrible. My contention is that while each of those games, even the d20 versions, did some things in Star Wars well I think that each one of them felt lacking in some other aspect of the rules or presentation and didn’t or couldn’t capture the complete Star Wars experience. Hell, I’m working on a FATE based Star Wars project and even I’m not sure if I succeeded at such a goal despite it definitely living up to my own personal expectations. Fantasy Flight Games is soon to release their version of the Star Wars RPG and it’ll just remain to be seen if it finally captures everything a Star Wars game should be.

Exalted is insane in the best and most awesome way possible. It’s a setting with mystic kung fu, really cool magitek, mecha, ghosts, world breaking spells, and loads and loads of interesting places, cultures, and things to see and explore. It’s a game where starting characters can probably go and conquer a small city without a lot of trouble. It’s a setting which seems to demand slick fast paced and cinematic action, like a great Hong Kong action flick or a summer blockbuster out of Hollywood. With Exalted, you might get the cinematic, but you are also going to get slow, confusing, slow, and strangely rules heavy where rules light would have probably been better. And did I mention slow? It all boils down to playing Exalted despite the mechanics, not because of them.

…just kidding.

The one time I got to really play KULT was one of the best and most fun games I’ve ever been in. KULT’s blend of gnostic concepts and soul-wrenching horror in modern times is awesome and makes for very interesting scenarios and characters. It’s definitely unique and interesting and it ranks high in terms of games that people seem not to have heard of that I think people would like. What KULT is really missing though is a ruleset which doesn’t blow goats. I hesitate to say that it’s unplayable, because it’s not. It is, however, the worst game on my list from a mechanical standpoint and will get in your way the entire time you play. What’s really kind of astonishing is that there have been 3 editions of this game and they’ve managed to make each one of them terrible in different ways.

The Firefly ‘Verse is one that should be well suited to have players roaming around and getting into trouble. There’s enough setting and mysteries and possible antagonists to get a GM or player started and keep their imagination burning for quite a while. There’s also enough that isn’t known about the setting to keep things fresh and every campaign unique. So what went wrong? Whether because of licensing or because it was an earlier version of the Cortex system (the Cortex+ is used for games like Leverage and the latest Marvel Superheroes RPG), the game really falls short. It kind of forces your character choices to be exactly like those from the movie in some combination. You can play a character like Mal, or like Mal with a little bit of Wash, or like Wash with a little bit of Book, but getting really beyond mixing and matching canon characters and their traits is problematic. It’s not a complete game. There are other flaws as well, but that one alone begs for the game to be revisited with another ruleset. I personally recommend Bulldogs! Sci-Fi That Kicks Ass, but that’s just me. An even better thing would be to have a Cortex+ version of the rules that incorporates the entire Firefly universe, not just the movie.

Subjectivity in Action
I suppose there are a lot more games I could mention here, but didn’t for one reason or another. I was never ever going to touch D&D or related games in this article, despite calls to do so. The shattered fanbase that is the D&D community means that’d just be begging for trouble. Another one that was repeatedly requested was Rifts, but the problem there is that I hate the setting too. A third game that I saw requested more than once was Shadowrun, which I didn’t mention because I don’t agree that the mechanics are horrible (I quite like them, actually). Some people out there are likely to disagree with me on my choices just as I disagreed with some of the suggestions put forth to me. Other people are possibly considering whether I’m sort of mutant to even consider divorcing a setting from the original mechanics. So, I’ll leave things off with a question. What game or games do you wish were made with a different or better ruleset? Let’s avoid the obvious bits of flamebait please.


WolfSamurai (a.k.a. Aaron) has been a long time roleplaying geek, starting back with 2e Shadowrun almost 18 years ago. Through the years he’s played everything from D&D to Call of Cthulhu to Werewolf to Kult to Big Eyes, Small Mouth, and many other games. Recently he's branched into more indie fare with Technoir, Bulldogs!, Wu Xing, Dungeon World, and Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple. Aaron hopes to eventually be writing his own game products as well as fiction.

6 Responses to “When Setting and Rules Don’t Mix”

  • I’m not sure I believe the following myself, but…

    …what if clunky mechanics make people RP more?
    I’ve been in a game or two where PCs semi-consciously avoided situations likely to contain dice-rolling because the system wasn’t our cup of tea (Rifts, ftr.)

    It seemed like there was more in-character interaction in that game than many others I’ve played in systems with “better” mechanics.

  • I’m sure in some situations it works out that way. With the right group and the right game, sure, bad mechanics can consciously or subconsciously push towards roleplaying more instead of rolling dice. But I think the majority of the time, unsuitable or bad mechanics are just going to make people enjoy a game less rather than push them to find a way to enjoy a game more. Back in the day where there were fewer games around, people might put up with something subpar, but I don’t think there’s much reason now with so many games on the market to choose from. If I don’t like D&D5e’s mechanics, there’s no reason to stick with it when I can play Pathfinder, D&D4e, Dragon Age, The One Ring, and so on and so forth.

  • I think Kult would run very nicely using the Solar System (the rules for The Shadow of Yesterday, also published separately by Eero Tuovinen).

  • I think part of the issue is that it’s hard to replicate a narrative universe in a game without some modification. In a narrative universe, the author can make anything happen the way they want. In a game, you need to make a system that works over a wide set of games. One example is in superhero games. In the comics you can have characters that have no powers or limited powers holding their own next to characters with extensive powers. In superhero games that tends not to work very well.

  • Seems like the more mechanics there are in a game, the greater the risk they will get in the way of an imaginative setting. In the best designed games the mechanics help create and support the setting.

  • I have found primarily the rules are less likely to get in the way, if the GM fully understands them. I have played all editions of D&D, ShadowRun, Mutants & Masterminds, Call of Cthulhu & Rifts, not much else so my experience is limited. The only game I really had an issue with was Rifts & it was because the GM said the game was great because you could do anything you wanted. I made 3 suggestions for PCs & I was told for each, “You can’t do that.” Though I was told by others, “You could do that, though it would have be difficult for a newbie.” I no longer remember what the PCs were, so I cannot even say if my expectations were out of line, but if the GM could have explained why it wouldn’t work or would have been a bad idea, I might have felt less cheated in the game & less like I was hampered by the rules.