The setting is an integral part of any roleplaying game, because no one can roleplay in a vacuum. Sometimes the setting is adapted from a pre-existing story, and sometimes it’s created from scratch with a specific game in mind. A game’s setting can even be an entire genre. Regardless, a roleplaying game’s setting dictates what kinds of stories can be told, while the the rules determine how the game is played.
Different settings require different rules, and it’s beautiful when the two work seamlessly together to create a superior whole. Of course, that isn’t what we’re talking about today. Even the best settings can be brought down when the rules don’t hold up their end, and the results aren’t pretty.
1. Serenity and Battlestar Galactica
These two go in the same section because they are only slight variations on the same rule set: the Cortex System by Margaret Weis Productions. They’re the designers who thought it was a good idea to put Impossible on the difficulty chart. The two systems are so similar they are almost interchangeable, and both games are hindered by what’s missing.
The Cortex system isn’t completely awful by any means, but it lacks several key elements that seem like obvious requirements for either Firefly* or BSG. The most apparent are the limited rules for space combat. Like most roleplaying games, Cortex has complex rules for when two people have a fist fight, but the moment they hop into a Viper cockpit, the game shrugs and wishes them luck. Since a lot of the action for both settings takes place in space, this is a big disappointment. How is Wash supposed to be a leaf on the wind without some decent rules?
Cortex is also missing a mass combat resolution system, which is something BSG fans could really use. Epic battles between Colonial Battlestars and Cylon Basestars have to be hand waved by the GM, because there’s nothing in the rules to support them.
Finally, neither game has any kind of resource management system beyond the coin counting method. There are no rules to simulate the constant resource shortages of BSG, which was a huge source of dramatic tension. Firefly feels the pain as well, because so much of the story was focused on getting another job so they could afford to keep Serenity flying.
2. Spirit of the Century
While Spirit of the Century does have a specific setting with its own metaplot about important people born on specific dates, it’s really a game for simulating the greater genre of pulp action stories. Zeppelins descend on unsuspecting cities, Atlantis rises from the sea, and mad scientists create unstoppable monsters in their secret laboratories. These are tales that embrace the over-the-top nature of PCs and run with it, so they’re natural fodder for roleplaying games.
Spirit of the Century also has one of the best character creation systems out there. It’s almost more of a short story writing exercise; you go through each stage of your character’s life and determine what mechanical traits their experience grants them. You even get to write a blurb for your character’s first pulp novel, with titles like Red Alice vs. The Zeppelin Menace!*
Each player starts the game with an awesome character they’re excited to play, and that’s when they smash head first into Spirit of the Century’s combat system. Put simply, combat is a long, LONG battle of attrition. The participants take turns making the same die rolls until one of them falls over. There’s little tactical input from the player, and it takes forever to finally resolve. This is essentially the worst case scenario for a combat system, and it goes directly against the setting’s natural fast pace. Pulp heroes are supposed to zoom from one colorful set piece to another, not get bogged down in an extended slugging match.
The combat system is also difficult to house-rule because so many other mechanics and character abilities are tied into it. If you make even a small change, it has ripple effects for the entire system.
Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is perhaps one of the most unconventional fantasy settings out there. Wizards do everything they can to avoid magic, elves are beautiful but terrifying monsters, and adventurers cause more problems than they solve. Any GM who takes it on is in for a challenge, so they’ll need a system that’s firing on all cylinders.
Too bad their only official option is a GURPS module that barely makes any effort at all. To be fair, the story material in said module is well written. Much of it was created by Pratchett himself. The problem is that no matter how good the suggestions and tips are, they won’t help if there are no rules to execute them.
GURPS Discworld uses all the same rules as normal GURPS for combat, magic, and everything else that matters. These rules will not lead to anything like a true Pratchett story. In a Discworld book, a fight between the main character and the main antagonist will almost never be resolved by which of them is better at swinging sharp pieces of metal. Instead, there will be some formerly insignificant detail that will turn out to be of huge importance and probably resonate with earlier plot elements. In The Fifth Elephant, Commander Vimes does not defeat the werewolf Wolfgang by chopping his head off, but by tricking him into playing fetch with an exploding firework.
In Discworld, things are rarely what we expect them to be, and that’s part of the fun. If a roleplaying game in such a setting is going to deliver the experience that Pratchett fans crave, it needs rules for things like dramatic irony and genre savviness. The meta storytelling mechanics are much more important than details like physical combat, and the GURPs adaptation simply does not fit the bill.
4. Seventh Sea
This one may sound a little odd at first. After all, the Seventh Sea setting was created specifically for a roleplaying game, so how can the rules not live up to it? Pretty easily, it turns out.
Seventh Sea is a swashbuckling game that takes place in a fantasy version of 1600s Europe. There are pirates and pistols and parrots, oh my! Also featured are more overtly fantastical elements like the mysterious Sidhe and unbreakable Draken Steel. In short, it’s a setting primed for all sorts of exciting adventures, depending on what players and GM are in the mood for. Of course, no matter what people are in the mood for, they will have to deal with Seventh Sea’s extremely haphazard game design.
This first manifests in the area of game balance or, more accurately, the complete lack of it. It honestly seems like there was no effort put in here whatsoever. On one extreme, Archers of the Goodfellow School are living artillery batteries, doing more damage than anyone else from much farther away. At the other end are the Pyrum Mages, who spend more than half their points so they can fail their roll to turn into a bear.* Rather than picking options they think are cool and fit their characters, players have to go through the rules with a magnifying glass to make sure they don’t accidentally take an ability that turns out to be worthless.
The magic systems are particularly afflicted with game balance issues. Access to sorcery requires a huge expenditure of points, and what the character gets in return isn’t usually worth it. On the other hand, it’s possible to min-max Sorte, or Fate Magic, into a never ending source of bonus combat dice for one’s party members.
As if the game balance issues weren’t enough, there are also pitfalls scattered around the character creation process that can be a real problem for new players. Anyone making a fighter-type character absolutely must have a Finesse of three, or else they’ll be unable to hit any enemies of consequence. At the same time, there are vast numbers of skills, many of which don’t do what it sounds like they should. The Traps skill* is only for traps to catch small animals. You cannot use it to trap a person; there’s a different skill for that. Did you want to use your Stealth skill to follow someone unseen? Too bad, you need the Shadowing skill for that.
Even with these obvious defects, there’s a lot to recommend Seventh Sea. Its system of flesh wounds and dramatic injuries, for example, is fantastic for a Three Musketeers type of story. The problem is that players must always be on their guard for mechanical issues that will trip them up. Finding out your handsome duelist can’t hit the broadside of a galleon will put a serious dent in any swashbuckling adventure.
5. Mage: The Ascension
Another setting created specifically to roleplay in, Mage tells the story of sorcerers hiding in the shadows of a world that no longer accepts them. On a practical level, it comes up short on the rules for magic. A big draw for many players was the free form casting that eschewed D&D’s rigid spells per day in favor of something more dynamic. Unfortunately, the rules weren’t quite able to deliver. They work fine at low level, but as characters get more powerful things fall apart. Not only is it difficult for GMs construct plots around characters who can literally travel in time, but many of the high level powers are extremely vague. They say you can do something, but aren’t clear on how.
What’s more troubling are Paradigms. These are the different types of magic that exist in the world, usually known as traditions. A mage from the Order of Hermes has a classical European tradition, with ancient spell books and words of power. A Son of Ether, on the other hand, uses steampunk machinery and weird science. The problem is that mechanically, every tradition is the same. A magical attack uses the same rules, no matter if the mage is using symbols passed down from Lost Babylon or focusing their inner chi through the final chakra. The result is that players often don’t connect with their tradition. They just do magic without bothering to describe any in-game flavor, because it’s all the same.
Perhaps the biggest issue is a more existential one: inconsistent handling of something called Paradox. At it’s heart, Mage is a story about conflicting views on reality. When a mage does something that contradicts people’s consensus, like opening a portal or raising the dead, a backlash is created. That backlash is called Paradox. In the setting material, Paradox is changeable. Groups like the Technocracy have spent centuries shaping people’s perception of reality so they can use Paradox against their enemies. However, mechanically, Paradox only limits how many spells characters can cast.
There are no rules for a mage surrounding themselves with a cult of believers who create their own pocket of reality where the laws of Paradox are different, even though that’s how the setting claims to work. This would be fine if Mage was only a game about pretending to be a wizard, but the setting opens up tantalizing glimpses of so much more.
That’s the core problem of all these systems: they are paired with a setting that has more potential than they can deliver. That doesn’t mean the setting is flawed, or even that it’s bad for roleplaying. I would absolutely love to play a game of Mage that fully realizes the craziness of conflicting reality states, or a Discworld game with mechanical bonuses for deviating from the expected genre tropes. Until those come on the market, however, we should look to games that do work well with their settings, like Mouse Guard or Legend of the Five Rings. There are plenty of them out there.