#RPGaDay: Day 5 – Settings Without Systems or something I guess?

midgardDay 5’s topic (on the correct day, no less!) is ‘Most recent RPG purchase’. This is a bit of a tough one as I don’t actually remember the last physical RPG book I purchased. I’ve been on a bit of a buying-new-books fast because we’re running out of storage space! However, technically the most recent RPG I bought was the Bundle of Holding I purchased yesterday, which featured a bundle of Midgard books. Midgard, Wikipedia reliably informs me, was the first German roleplaying game, but Wikipedia also seems to think it’s never been released in English, which I hope is not true, as my German is not up to scratch. I suspect, by the look of it, that a new edition has been released as a Pathfinder campaign setting. But anyway, I don’t own Pathfinder, so I mainly bought it for the setting information.

I do that a lot, as do many roleplayers. Settings are often more enduring than mechanics, as the charmingly old-fashioned elements of a setting are rarely as head-poundingly frustrating in play as outdated mechanics (the exception is when settings include prejudiced elements that were considered acceptable at the time but are now recognised for what they are). Mechanics do go through trends and fashions, just like anything else. Currently, we’re in an era where story gaming is king. The Narrativist and Gamist camps are working together to make fairly rules-light systems that enable and enhance the story without getting in the way of it. Simulationism is pretty much out of the window.

But, hark, on the horizon! It is the Old School Revival: it’s Old School mechanics with modern sensibilities. Some people are playing 2nd Edition for nostalgia value, but games like Dungeon World have taken overblown systems and kept the nostalgia while taking out the frustration. It does, however, mean that many games look needlessly complicated now. Who knows how our story gaming mechanics are going to look in twenty years time? But then maybe everyone will be plugged into sensory-immersive headsets and all the game mechanics will be based on how quickly you can eat a ham sandwich without using your hands.

Oh my God, Midgard is so pretty!

Oh my God, Midgard is so pretty!

Setting, however, is enduring. You can make settings that are reflected in mechanics and mechanics that are reflected in settings, and you can make generic systems like FATE, True20, GURPs, etc. However, it is very rare that you can’t remove a setting from its mechanics and run it with something else. The enduring popularity of D&D settings like Ravenloft, Planescape, Dark Sun and Eberron shows that innovative and interesting settings win through across drastic system changes. Unhallowed Metropolis, as I’ve mentioned before, is one of the best settings I’ve read, but the system…eesh. The skill system is fine and the Degenerating mechanic is beautiful. Plus the injury tables are delicious. But when I ran it, I sat down and played out a combat with basic zombies and some characters (the first game I’d run, so I wanted to make sure I had a grasp on the mechanics) and had to basically hack the combat system so it didn’t take a ridiculous amount of time to play out a single combat. And then it was still so bad in the game itself that I mostly avoided combat altogether, because it was a constant standoff as neither side hit the other. For hours. Answer? Take the setting and run it in WoD. Seriously, that’s what one of my friends did and it was super fun. The system wasn’t getting in the way of the story any more. If you have a system like WoD or FATE that is easily adaptable, as well, you can add in a lot of the stuff you liked about the old system, that the setting would suffer from removing.

There is definitely an argument to be made for creating pick-up-and-play settings and adventures with fully statted monsters, but you can also write a setting without a system in mind. Sure, it’ll take a bit more work to run, but the short-lived gaming magazine Arcane was stuffed full of campaigns that had a suggested system but weren’t bound to it. Some of those systems have since become games with their own systems (I believe Puppetland first appeared in Arcane) but the idea of talking about gaming without talking about system seems alien and weird. And, of course, gaming has to have some kind of mechanics. That’s what makes it gaming rather than traditional oral storytelling or improvisational theatre, but with systems such as FATE that are designed so you can hack them to suit pretty much any setting with an absolute minimum of effort, inherently saying that one system is the best for running your standard fantasy RPG seems odd, especially with the huge variety of systems on offer now.

Seriously, so pretty.

Soooooooo preeeeeeeeetty

Midgard, by the sound of this review, is primarily focused on setting, as it originally had its own system but has been released to be compatible with Pathfinder. That’s…actually pretty much ideal for me. Who knows what system I’d run it in? There are some great fantasy systems to choose from. I was disappointed that the recent Blue Rose Kickstarter specified that it will be written to run with the Dragon Age system, but on the other hand, the system (while good) wasn’t the be all and end all of the game. Besides, I still have the original book and the True20 book, so I can run it in whatever the hell I like.

So, I guess this disorganised ramble comes down to the idea that there are some neglected ways of writing games and settings that could be explored more, and maybe should be. There are some games where mechanics and setting are integrated so much that it would be a shame to pull them apart, but those are in the minority. Usually an enterprising Gm can pick up the setting, hack in a few mechanics from the original system, and make something that is optimised for their playstyle and the story they want to tell, but what would be even cooler is if they didn’t need to surgically remove the system in the first place.