Somewhere I read that an old-school Dungeon Master – Arneson maybe? – carried only Allston’s D&D Rules Cyclopedia. (Presumably he also had dice and notes on whatever he was running. But maybe not.) He said it was the only book he ever needed.
Maybe some people have found their One True RPG. Most likely it’s some edition of D&D. Not me, though. I’ve found some that have come close: The Fantasy Trip, Traveller, RuneQuest and its descendants, GURPS, Fate, PDQ, Open D6, Gumshoe, Cypher System. Each fell short in some respect. TFT characters were too simple, Traveller characters were too random, and GURPS characters were too complex. The D100 lineage – RuneQuest, Call of Cthulhu, and so on – looked “just right”: only slightly complex character generation, easy to run at the table, easily customized for genre … but seemingly simple percentile skill values needed on-the-fly math adjustments when making adjustments for task difficulty. (Other people can do arithmetic flawlessly in their heads; I can’t.) Systems without fixed attributes like Fate, HeroQuest (the Moon Design one), and some versions of D6 look simpler, but everyone has to agree on what all the terms mean, which leads to building a common vocabulary of “freeform” abilities. Gumshoe works for investigative scenarios, and that’s about it. Cypher System looked most promising, but it assumes heroic if not street-level superheroic characters. Plus all the player-facing class-and-level trappings are kind of off-putting.
Really, unless a GM runs only one kind of game there isn’t really One Holy Apostolic Game Book. For DMs and GMs who do, that’s fine. But every set of rules has hidden assumptions:
- How deadly is combat for a novice? For a veteran? For a “hero”?
- How does magic and/or psionics work? Spell/psi point? “Vancian”? Is casting automatic or do spellcasters need to make a skill roll?
- How powerful is magic / psionics, if it exists? How reliable is it? If it’s reliable, how is it “magic”?1
- If the game has powerful magic and/or psionics, why don’t the wizards / psychics take over? Why are they wandering around dank caves and dusty tombs?
- What else can a character do besides magic and spell-casting? Are their mechanics for it? Guidelines? Or is it “just role-playing”?
- What do characters strive for? A pile of gold? A stronghold in the wilderness? Political power? Military power? Magical power? Self-improvement? Improving their world?
- What kind of world do the characters come from and live in, anyway? Do they ever experience anything other than caves and tombs?
- Emulating pulp fantasy is OK, but what about a world of pulp science fiction? Pulp horror? Pulp heroes? Non-pulpy fiction? History or something like it? The Rules Cyclopedia doesn’t allow for that, does it?
The rules of an RPG provide options, incentives, and disincentives for what player characters do (or think they’re allowed to do). Provide detailed rules for combat and magic, and more often than not sessions will revolve around combat and magic; provide rules for other things, or mechanics that can apply to other things, and adventurous souls will try them.2 Give experience or other benefits for killing things and taking their stuff, and that’s what players will do. Give rewards for discovering things, choosing not to triumph, over-acting, or whatever else the GM likes to see, and players will do them.
So yeah, I’m firmly in the System Sometimes Matters camp.
Which is why I’ve searched in vain for “the perfect system”, and finally realized it doesn’t exist. A lot depends on what genre you want to play, what asssumptions you want to make, what the players are comfortable with, and what the GM is familiar with. With all the RPGs out there, it seems ridiculous to write one from scratch … or to stick with one that really doesn’t accommodate what you want to do.
Magic is my personal sticking-point, BTW. When a wizard can wipe out an army with a single spell, skill with bows or swords seems somewhat pointless. Ars Magica embraced that idea, RuneQuest made their magics smaller, and Iron Heroes and DCC made their magic dangerous. ↩︎
The “Old School Renaissance”, or as some call it now, Oh S#!* Run, argued in part that RPGs had gotten too rules-heavy, and on-the-spot “rulings” for specific circumstances were far simpler than rule-books trying to cover every contingency. To a certain extent, I agree. But it’s not either-or; Chaosium’s d100 products have a tradition of “spot rules” that apply their basic tools to complex situations like drowning, falling, burning, and other inconveniences. GMs can customize or ignore them – as with any other rules – but it’s better to have something on hand than try to whip up something from scratch on the table. (As an aside, I prefer this approach to the common d20 approach of “simple rules, many exceptions” because tracking all the exceptions can be a headache. One of my “favorite” examples in 3.x was “attacks of opportunity”, a rule to simulate a parting shot at a fleeing foe … and several feats and creature powers that invalidated said rule.) ↩︎