a Christian podcast about tabletop RPGs and collaborative storytelling

When the System Doesn’t Fit

I’m on vacation this week, and as such, my routine is a little off. I forgot I had a post to write until Grant jogged my memory, so I apologize that this post is coming a little later than they typically do. -Peter

Recording Episode 64: Matching System and Story got me thinking about the topic referenced in the episode title, but I kept mulling it over for a long time after we finished recording the audio for the episode. As I’ve referenced on the podcast, I’ve been GMing a GURPS game for the gaming group that Grant and I are in. There’s been some good player buy-in and our gaming group’s inter-player dynamics are good enough to make many groups green with envy, but despite all of that, I put the game on what’s hopefully a short hiatus last week.

The reason was, of all things, prep time. GURPS is a really neat, really useful system, and it’s capable of having an AI that operates remotely in the same party as a ninja, a wrecking machine with a combat exoskeleton and a heavy assault rifle, and a wizard/field scientist. However, at the power levels my PC group is operating at (800 points), all of that awesome requires awesome challenges, and often awesome foes, and when a goon takes you 45 minutes to an hour to stat up properly with the aid of character generation software, something has to give. GURPS’s simulationist mechanics also tend to move slowly in combat, and it’s really, really easy for someone to take a rifle round and die. None of this is to say GURPS is a bad system – I’ve used it before and enjoyed it, but it wasn’t fitting quite right with the feel I wanted – my intention was something closer to an action movie – and even if that was going perfectly, the prep time was more than I could handle.

I entertained a number of different system ideas – I have a fairly substantial library of generic and semi-generic systems, but as it turns out, this was a thorny one.

  • Feng Shui 2 just came out, and as a Kickstarter backer, I have a copy. It is specifically geared for action movie style roleplaying to boot. But there’s no way to model Grant’s really interesting artificial intelligence PC. Egeria (the PC) is a massive supercomputer/data center in the bowels of the Intrigue, the warship the PC group is based out of. None of her abilities are physical in any way – she operates by accessing things remotely, hacking, piloting small drones (or larger ones), and receiving A/V feeds from the other PCs. There’s nothing at all like that in there. Dang it. Scratch that one.
  • GUMSHOE is a system I’ve really been wanting to try running for a while, and I have a good selection of different products that could be hacked together in different ways. However, none of them really cover the AI or the science-y wizard. No dice on that one, either.
  • Mutants & Masterminds would probably allow a pretty clean PC translation, but the four-color nature of the artwork and writing was causing me cognitive dissonance as I read it, and the prep time would likely be only slightly less intensive than GURPS, though it would probably work in a pinch.
  • D20 Modern has the same prep time issues as Mutants & Masterminds, and also couldn’t handle Egeria.
  • Savage Worlds is a fantastic system, but we just used it for our last campaign, and it too would have some trouble with the AI and the wizard.

Finally, in frustration, I did what I should have done first: asked my gaming group for suggestions. Grant suggested the FATE system, which is ultimately going to be what I’m going to try converting to. It’s both generic enough and narrative enough that it can handle the PCs and an interesting assortment of bad guys, the rules are available free online, which is useful to both me and my players, and it’s flexible enough to handle the specific tone I’m trying to set. I’ve got some time off this week, so I’m going to start the conversion process.

The take-away from my whole ordeal is this: If you find yourself in a situation like this and get stuck, make sure you ask for ideas from other folks as as soon as possible. If you’re stuck, there’s nothing like another person’s brain to get you UN-stuck. Other roleplayers, particularly ones that have played and/or read a lot of different systems, are your best resource for clearing the mental logjam. It’s also not a bad idea to diversify yourself a bit. One of those systems sitting on your bookshelf might be just what you need some day.


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