With her year-long Pathfinder campaign finally wrapping, Gemma couldn’t wait to get started on her next campaign.

“What an awesome finale!” she said excitedly. “Starting next week we’re starting a new campaign. I’ve decided to run Shadows of Esteren, which is a gothic horror fantasy game with Celtic trappings.”

“Excellent!” Adam grinned as he eyed the pile of Pathfinder books on the shelf behind her. “Time to roll up new characters! Are there any class or race restrictions?”

“Actually, Shadows of Esteren has its own system. I’ll be teaching it to you as we go.”

“A new system?” Patti looked mortified. “It took me the better part of a year to learn Pathfinder! Why are we changing now?”

“I agree,” Renaldo nodded. “If this new game is still fantasy, why can’t you just convert it to Pathfinder?”

Gemma was crestfallen. She really loved the atmosphere of Shadows of Esteren and she felt it simply wouldn’t work well with a different system. Worse, she didn’t want to eat up the time she had to prepare between sessions doing stat conversions. She shouldn’t have been surprised. This was a battle she always waged whenever she wanted to change systems; her players simply didn’t want to learn them.

Does the above vignette sound familiar? For me it happened recently, as a Star Wars: The Edge of the Empire (SW:TEotE) campaign was sort of wrapping up (more on that later) and I was pitching new campaigns. Shadows of Esteren actually was one of the contenders, but I’ll have a hard fight with the players if I don’t convert it to Pathfinder or GURPS.

This is something I’ve frequently encountered over the years, especially when my players have settled into a particular rules system and simply don’t want to waste time getting used to new rules. It’s especially difficult when it’s not the setting/campaign that the players are objecting to but the mechanical bits. As GMs, we can sometimes forget that character generation is exciting for players and there are likely many rules combinations that the players want to try out with new characters rather than change systems.

On the other hand, we GMs have reasons for wanting to change. Sometimes the rules are a better fit for the particular genre, sometimes we have a wealth of adventure material that would be a pain to convert, and sometimes we just want an easier rule set to use. Thus, we approach a change of systems differently than our players.

Here are a few common points to consider when you and your players aren’t on the same page regarding system changes.

Is there a compelling enough reason for changing systems?

Necessary Evil is a Savage Worlds superhero setting with an awesome premise: aliens have taken over the world, killing the heroes that tried to stop them; now it’s up to former supervillains to save the day. That said, is there anything particularly compelling about using Savage Worlds  as the rules engine if your group prefers Champions or Mutants & Masterminds? Conversely, Rotted Capes is a superhero-zombie apocalypse mash-up where the PCs are low-powered heroes and sidekicks. If the group’s preferred superhero system doesn’t feel “gritty” enough then that may be enough to change systems.

If the reason is simply “I have a prepared campaign and I don’t want to do conversions” then the campaign pitch needs to be compelling enough to get the players to switch systems. Even then, you’ll need to be prepared for passive-aggressive acceptance, as the players continually compare the new system to the old. Sometimes, they’ll be pleasantly surprised; other times, you may find yourself agreeing with them.

How difficult will the conversions be?

Presuming that you’ve determined that a change in systems wouldn’t harm the overall feel of the new campaign, how difficult would it be for you to swap out mechanics? Some systems convert better than others, and if one of your reasons for using a new system is to reduce your workload, saddling yourself with conversions may not be appealing.

Remember that “difficulty” does not equal “complexity.” Pathfinder, for example, is a relatively crunchy system, especially if the PCs start at a higher level. That said if your group has been playing it for several campaigns, you are probably familiar enough with it to easily convert from another system. By comparison, Savage Worlds is not as crunchy, but if your experience is limited to a quick read of the rulebook then you likely have little experience with the ins-and-outs of the system and may have difficulty determining the appropriate challenge level of NPCs. I once ran a GURPS campaign where I pasted the PCs because I threw one too many Ogres (or Trolls, it’s been a while!) at them at once, as I’d misjudged their combat effectiveness.

How compelling is the campaign?

It’s been my experience that even the most intractable players will accept a new system if the fluffy bits really interest them and you’ve made it clear that conversion is not an option. If your players are really excited about adding some cyberpunk or steampunk to their fantasy, then they’d probably be open to learning the rules for Shadowrun or Victoriana if you’ve made it clear that you can’t convert the systems.

One way to make this easier is to highlight the aspects of the new system that each player would find most appealing or useful. If one of your players enjoys combat, tell her how combat works in the new system and what character generation bits would help her succeed. If one of your players enjoys magic, tell him how magic in Witchcraft differs from the way his sorcerer uses it in Mutants & Masterminds.

Highlight the fun bits!

One way to entice players to try out a new system is to show them the most interesting and fun aspects of the new system. Back in the 1980s, I was a sucker for more “realism” (defined as “more detailed combats”). Ninjas and Superspies appealed to me because of the plethora of martial arts styles and moves, which all sounded a lot more interesting than the AD&D monk’s mere “open hand” attacks (in spite of the latter’s assumption that “open hand” was code for “various sweet unarmed attack maneuvers”).

As another example I have one player who normally doesn’t like to change systems, but if I show him how easy it is for him to grok his character’s abilities in the new system, then he’d definitely get on board.

A word of warning: if the fun bits of your new system can be easily grafted onto the old, your players would probably rather you do that than drag them into a new system. Victoriana, for example, puts an emphasis on social class. Many systems have something similar or easily emulated through feats/talents/abilities. Call of Cthulhu‘s Sanity mechanic can, and has been, easily incorporated into other systems.

Another word of warning: you may find that what you think are the fun bits just aren’t that interesting to your players. Call of Cthulhu is an awesome game of horrific discoveries and descent into insanity, but if your players would just rather confront and destroy evil beasties then they aren’t going to be swayed by Sanity mechanics or their relatively low pool of hit points.

Does the new system offer as much for the players as the old?

Here’s where I get back to Star Wars. We had a few growing pains with SW:TEotE, including dice that were hard to grok and a high combat lethality. I investigated the old West End Games version of Star Wars (SW:WEG) and found it to be a much easier system with a wealth of ready-to-play material. Given the grumblings in the group over SW:TEotE, I thought they’d embrace SW:WEG with open arms.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. As it turned out as much as the players had issues with the SW:TEotE rules, they enjoyed the various bells and whistles that the PC talent trees offered them, something notably missing from SW:WEG. I realized that my pitch, which seemed compelling to me, really boiled down to “it’s easier for me to create NPCs in this system.” That’s hardly a convincing argument for the players to give up the “fun” aspects of their characters.

Are you fixing something that ain’t broke?

Another lesson I learned from the Star Wars Incident was that while I found the combat lethality to be an issue, it didn’t really bother most of the players. They’d been used to playing characters that steered clear of firefights and that parley was a preferable alternative. All I was really doing with changing systems was encouraging them to use more “blaster diplomacy,” something that didn’t appeal to them.

Also, while the players still have trouble adjusting to the rules (especially the SW:TEotE dice), they still thought the rules held together well enough that they didn’t see the need for change. All I’d effectively be doing is swapping out one set of rules with which they weren’t comfortable with another set of rules in which they definitely weren’t comfortable.

Wrapping up

If your players are really reluctant to try new systems then sometimes you just aren’t going to get them to switch. While this may mean that you have to discard a great campaign idea, it’s often better to let it go than try to force your group to play it. That said it may be possible to find common ground, and I hope that some of my experiences may aid you in determining whether that is possible for your group.

How stuck are your players on a particular system? Do you enjoy that system as well or do you favor another? How do you get your groups to switch? How have you accommodated your players by adding new bits from one system to another so that they can stay in their comfort zone while giving you what you need for the new campaign?