- Gnome Stew - https://gnomestew.com -

System Or Setting?

Our group’s annual “pick the next game” exercise is in full swing. These tend to be a mixture of enjoyable, exhausting, and frustrating but, ultimately, lead to a good choice that satisfies everyone. It’s a process we’ve discussed [1] at the Stew before [2] and every group tends to have a variation that they favor. This time I took note that our decision-making process was driven primarily by two methodologies, each with their own pros and cons.


This one, admittedly, isn’t the one that I necessarily favor but has a couple of key elements. The first of which is that it leaves little confusion as to the “what” you will be playing. By defining the system upfront—while other items may still be in the air or in flux—you’ve established a foundation for the game. Some games are so tied to their systems—D&D for example—that once you’ve established your system of choice, a vast majority of what the game will entail is also defined. This promotes consensus, eliminates confusion, and can also lead to a faster resolution. That, in turn, means getting to playing faster! 🙂

The downside readily apparent in having a setting- or genre-neutral system is that you’ve focused on perhaps putting the proverbial cart before the horse. Do you really want to play a system at potentially the expense of the game? Now the two are not mutually-exclusive, but if you limit yourself to a narrow view of systems with no criteria beyond a preference for that system, aren’t you then wedging the game into that form, be it for better or for worse?


On the other side of the coin is likely the more traditional path that many of us take, defining the “game” portion of the exercise, or the setting, first. That, in turn, helps define the system to be used. Essentially picking the right tool for the job. The downside is that reaching consensus in this area is much more difficult.

For us this is where the stacks of books, descriptive game idea pitches, and PowerPoint presentations come into play. If that sounds like a lot of work, it can be – but the end result tends to be a very firm idea of what *game* we want to play. After that—or very closely in parallel—comes the system selection.

The disadvantage of this method, beyond its ability to take longer to coalesce into a firm idea, is that the system selection piece can also take a fair bit of effort and time. However the selection isn’t being done in a vacuum, it’s now guided by the campaign premise.

Ultimately both methods—or even a variation thereof—can get you where you want to go: a fun gaming premise that everyone will enjoy. It’s interesting to see how different folks approach this task. What does your game selection methodology look like? Let us know down below!

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "System Or Setting?"

#1 Comment By Silveressa On February 18, 2014 @ 5:22 am

Over the years my groups method selection has came down to setting over system. We usually convert any historical, (wild west and later,) modern day, or future settings into Cortex rules, (The BSG/Supernatural/Serenity version of the ruleset depending on the setting) and use a home brew rule set (mixture of D&D with Palladium Fantasy 2nd edition) for anything fantasy to pirates age.

With the rule set a matter of mutual agreement, (No one really has the time, or inclination to learn a new system so far.) the main question becomes “what kind of story do we wish to tell/explore?”

Once the group has settled on a rough fictional time period whoever wants to try their hand at GMing comes up with an elevator pitch or two for potential campaigns, and then the group decides via lengthy discussion which campaign (and GM) and it’s approximate length, will be featured during our weekly get together.

During this selection process the group still meets regularly and often watches movies/anime based around the current theme (or if one of the campaigns proposed is based off a specific tv show the first few episodes will be watched.)

This helps the group get in the mood for the type of campaign to be run, and helps give everyone ideas for characters, (and the Gm’s adventure concepts and NPC’s) and these “down time” sessions (about 2 -5 groupings before the next campaign is about average) also lets everyone’s creative energies recharge a bit and voice any rules issues or other group changes they’d like to see for the next campaign.

Once a campaign and GM has been chosen character creation usually proceeds relatively smoothly given everyone is familiar with the rule sets used, allowing the group to generate characters outside of the meet up session. (With frequent exchanges via email with the GM and each other to ensure a balanced/fun group.)

After the first couple times, this format is now second nature to the group. These days when a campaign wraps up, (by sudden death/implosion/melt down or a pre-planned finale) everyone knows what to expect in the coming weeks so the group mentality is easily refocused into “what’s next?”

Rather than lamenting the previous campaigns ending (especially if it was abrupt/unfulfilling) they instead look forward to the new sea of possibilities.

#2 Comment By Norcross On February 18, 2014 @ 10:41 am

It’s been my experience that no matter which system you choose, players have to be interested in the setting in order to want to play. Some systems are closely tied to the setting (Call of Cthulhu, anyone?) while others are very much not (Savage Worlds, for example).

If you ask the players whether they want to play D&D, they will be expecting classic swords-and-sorcery high-fantasy. If you show up for the first game and pull out Ravenloft, they are going to be disappointed even though it is the system they wanted. If you ask them if they want to play Savage Worlds, the first question is going to be “what setting?”.

On the other hand, if they want to play high fantasy, they won’t be disappointed by whatever system you choose. If they want to play modern horror, they will be happy with CoC, Chill, Savage Worlds, or whatever.

The system defines the out-of-game experience (ie, which dice to roll, or how long combat will take). The setting defines the in-game experience. In order for the players to really get into a game it has to be a setting they enjoy. The only caveat is if the system has something which really kills the experience, although the setting will be able to avoid most of these problems. Players don’t want to spend most of the session in combat? “Obviously” they would prefer Savage World to D&D – unless they have a choice between a D&D game who’s setting de-emphasizes combat versus a SW game which is nothing but fights.

#3 Comment By nymalous On February 18, 2014 @ 12:16 pm

I never really thought of PowerPoint as a tool that could be used in a roleplaying game… until now. What a great way to (possibly) pitch your new campaign idea to your players! Thanks for that, Don!
As for how we choose our next campaign, the method varies, it depends on whatever inspiration or idea I get, whether it’s from me or from one of the players. I’m sure all of us have been influenced by the various media we absorb, but since we don’t have any truly regular habits in that regard, I couldn’t point to anything in particular.
I can say this: we use a homemade system almost exclusively, and it has been able to handle just about any genre, setting, or campaign idea that we’ve thrown at it. Generally, the assumption is that we will use that system, so the real question would be “what setting?” Also in general, we favor fantasy, so that’s usually assumed as well. However, we have also run sci-fi, horror, cowboy horror, modern superheroes, and are about to run a sci-fi fantasy. And, although I can’t say anything about the sci-fi fantasy yet, the only campaign that really took hold that wasn’t fantasy was the cowboy horror.
I would say my group is open to alternative systems, but the expense is beyond us at the moment, and if it weren’t, the time required to learn the system would probably prevent us from ever really using it.
(PowerPoint… who’d have thought…)

#4 Comment By MuadMouse On February 18, 2014 @ 12:55 pm

Instead of system, I prefer to discuss style. I want to know when the dice come in, how cinematic the action should be, etc. After that we figure out which system provides what we need to have the game flow as intended – the laws of physics and drama, so to speak.

Setting tends to come up before style in my groups as it usually implies certain expectations on style, but style is given the greater effort of thought, if only because it dictates how the setting evolves from the moment the campaign kicks off.

Style/system is infinitely more important to me than setting – an unappealing setting is unlikely to ruin a game if I can get the immediate satisfaction of meaningful play, whereas an unappealing style in an interesting setting is only frustrating since I’d be better off reading the source material (or whatever inspired the setting).

#5 Comment By 77IM On February 26, 2014 @ 8:41 pm

This is what we do. Everybody says what kinds of stuff they are in the mood for, mostly in terms of tone (horror, mystery, adventure, intrigue, etc.) and activities (puzzle-solving, tactical combat, weird magic powers, etc.). Then GMs put those ideas together with suitable systems, and pitch campaigns (“it’s like a combination of Mage and Planescape, using Fate Core”).

#6 Comment By Kristian Serrano On February 18, 2014 @ 9:18 pm

I can’t help but feel that the second paragraph of the System-Centric section of this article is a bit leading and biased. Additionally, never does the author address the merits of focusing on one or two preferred systems.

Here are just a few benefits to using a preferred system:
1. Familiarity. A familiar system allows for players and the GM to hit the ground running with the focus of campaign prep being mostly on absorbing the setting and creating characters. It means the players and the GM know what to expect of the system, too, as well as how to design their characters within it to suit the setting.

2. Adaptability. Some “generic” settings aren’t really generic. They’re core, and they are designed to be adapted to different genres and settings via setting rules and character options. Savage Worlds and Fate are two prime examples, and it’s for this reason that they are both well-regarded systems. Just look at the breadth of published settings for Savage Worlds to see precisely how adaptable it really is.

3. Ease of use. This ties into familiarity, but it’s more from a usability perspective. Using the same system helps to establish patterns. Familiarity helps with rules comprehension while ease of use facilitates execution of the game during both prep and play.

4. Efficiency. For some GMs and players, focusing on one system means they don’t have to spend time or money to learn and master a new system for every new campaign. Not everyone has the disposable income to by a system/setting of the week, and not everyone has the time to invest in reading, comprehending, and remembering a new set of rules. The aforementioned familiarity also means faster execution when it comes to prep and play as well as faster adjudication and less confusion at the table. Everyone is able to focus on the story as the rules become second nature.

5. Effectiveness. Adaptable systems such as Savage Worlds and Fate can offer a level of effectiveness that is either perfect or at the very least good enough to still be fun.

#7 Comment By Weylin S On February 19, 2014 @ 5:07 pm

I have to disagree about The system defines the out-of-game experience vs setting defines the in-game experience.

System has a huge impact in my experience on what you can do character creation wise because of how characters are built in a give system and what options are available. Also system tell you how the game is going to play and what your options in game will be.

You wont be building a very good agility and speed based fighter in OD&D or a very good kitsune in Buffy RPG (at least not one even close to the the legends).

if the system is known for its lethality, you probably shouldn’t try to play GI Joe with it. Shadowrun and Cyberpunk and Interface Zero are all cyberpunk games, but play very very differently despite being set in extremely similar settings.

IN my experience, the feel of a game in-game is equal parts system and setting, with a big contribution from the story (theme, mood, NPCs) the game master is running. I have played a lot of VTM games and none of them have felt the same or even played the same (in some we were given more points to build characters with) and they felt very different from playing Vampires in Buffy/Angel RPG>

#8 Comment By Kristian Serrano On February 19, 2014 @ 5:52 pm

I completely agree with Weylin S. System can certainly change the in-game experience. It’s why I prefer Savage Worlds for Eberron over D&D.

#9 Comment By Weylin S On February 19, 2014 @ 8:05 pm

I have lost track of games for my group that were killed because the system and setting combination my group picked did not fit the setting or sort of game we wanted to play in that setting. We once tried to run Supernatural using NWOD Core (not huge fans of Cortex). Bombed hard because of the disconnect the system caused with the setting/source material. Dean and Sam get thrown around a lot, but NWOD is a fairly lethal system, especially if anyone brings a gun to your knife fight.

So for my group choice of system is vital to realizing a setting in game.

as a side, I can see Savage Worlds doing a better job of running Eberron than D&D3/3.5/4 did. None of D&D’s incarnations do pulp very well in my opinion, while Savage Worlds does it awesomely.

#10 Comment By Miri On April 23, 2014 @ 11:41 pm

I’m pretty much the only GM in my group of friends and I’m the one who got all of them into roleplaying, so that might explain our approach, but usually what happens is I have a few idas for games, picking the system that best fits what I’m able to/want to do with the story/world/idea that I came up with. Then I present two or three different ideas to my friends and they pick which one they want to play.