Let me share my random thought of the month.
Does the rules system used at your table matters?
This discussion must be as old as our hobby (probably older due to wargames). In 80’s, with AD&D 1st, Rolemaster, Champions, GURPS etc. one could say that system was all that mattered. In the 90’s, ruled by White Wolf’s Golden Rule, system didn’t mattered. The only thing that mattered was the story, the characters, the drama… blablabla. Then we got the 2000s (and the Forge) and system matters (again).
So, what is the verdict? Does system matters?
I don’t know.
In my gaming experience I saw Gamemasters doing awesome stuff without any notion regarding the system they’re using. I also played in games where the rules system gave us great moments of fun.
However, it’s hard to deny the fact that – as a player – I would rather have a great Gamemaster with a lousy system than the opposite (and yes, the perfect scenario is a great GM and a great system, but I can count in one hand how many times that did happen in my life).
But I’m digressing and this post isn’t about that discussion (so lower the pitchforks and dump your torches). This post is about a Pathfinder interlude.
You see, the catch for me is that even if system doesn’t matter, it does impact (a lot) on the way we interact and “feel” the imaginary world of our campaigns/games. Its, after all, our interface with the setting/adventure. A good GM can cheat through that interface, of course, but things feel a lot more fun and “organic” if everything in the adventure happens due to the player’s choices and interaction with the rules system. That’s the feeling that I get when I had a great game and the GM rolled all dice in our sight (the now famous Burning Wheel rule of “Let the dice fall where they may!”)
Anyway, what I mean is that the best way (for me) to get a “fresh” game experience without hassle is to invite my group to play in their most beloved settings, but using a different rules system. I’ve played Forgotten Realms using AD&D 2nd and GURPS and they were remarkably different (and exciting) experiences. I also have run the Realms with other systems, like Savage Worlds and FATE, and I was surprised to see my players doing things that they would never try in Pathfinder.
Use this to your advantage. Really, do this. Forget your pet system, or wonderful house system that you’ve been running for decades. Try something different, just to light things up a little. To get a different perspective, both as a GM and as a player. But keep your preferred setting.
Some of my best game experiences were due to one-shots (or mini-campaigns) where I run well known campaign settings with different rules systems. These games not only were a good change of pace, but also (re)awakened my players’ interest to new rules, tactics and roleplaying opportunities. Yes, roleplaying. When you see your old setting through new lenses, you’re motivated to try new approaches (like playing with that concept/race/class that you would never had dare in Pathfinder).
A few examples: Savage World is a rules system perfect for parties filled with hirelings, cohorts and allies. It also has a rules light mass combat system. When I run a D&D setting with Savage Worlds, I always give tons of NPCs to my players. Savage also has rules that clearly distinguish between heavy armored and swashbuckling types of fighters. It’s not just AC. [Bizarrely, Savage Worlds also is – so far for me – the best system to simulate “D&D fiction”. If, for example, I wanted to run I game where Drizzt and Artemis would clash, I would use Savage. Those fights with tons of strikes and parries, feints and acrobatic stuff, are the norm for Savage. Maybe because of the system clear Pulp-y roots.]
Now, if I wanted to run a social-heavy D&D adventure (like intrigue among Harpers or the divine-blooded nobles of Birthright), where the social aspects were supported by mechanics, I would use FATE. FATE is excellent for games where you want an open approach to magic (like the Arcana Age of Forgotten Realms or the weird magic of Glantri). Games about mystic quests, enlightenment and esoteric goals also are great for FATE – like Planescape entire cosmology of “Belief shapes the Multiverse”. An adventure among Sigils’ Factions using FATE is awesome.
If I really wanted a low-magic or gritty approach to some D&D settings I would use BRP, GURPS or HARP/Rolemaster. This works greatly for a “grunt view” of the world (I remember writing a one-shot where the PCs were soldiers in a famous NPC army or lowly hirelings of an adventure party). I can’t say why but I always felt that the Greyhawk Wars would be a great setting for these systems. These systems also do wonders for a horror-inspired setting, like Ravenloft (also Lankamar).
Changing systems may open your eyes to adventure/story opportunities that you’d never have dared with d20. Of course, you can always customize the various d20 systems to your needs, but sometimes I prefer to try something really different.
Finally, I also believe that there’re things for which D&D is just perfect. I can’t imagine, for example, running Mystara without the Rules Cyclopedia, or Dark Sun without AD&D 2nd Edition. I know that there’re good alternatives out there (I heard really good things about an AGE conversion for Mystara and D&D 4th version of Athas).
So, try to mix things. Do crazy shit with your settings and rules. Hell, mix rules systems. Steal Aspects from FATE, Krâsses dice from DK2, Bonds from Dungeon World, the Stunt Die from AGE, or even the entire Vampire the Masquerade Kindred for your D&D games (an old brazilian RPG magazine did this last one and it was a lot of fun).
Make stuff and see what happens.
Have great games!
Edit: Another idea that came to my mind. Want to play deities in D&D but don’t want to use the Deities & Demigods messy stats (or the cool rules from Immortals boxed set of Basic D&D)? Try Heroquest.