It seems my last post on this subject caught more attention than usual! I got a significant number of comments on Google Plus and Facebook. I honestly wouldn’t have thought people would be this interested in my opinions. So let’s elaborate on this a bit more, shall we?
In that post I mentioned that the first system I tend to think of when I visualize a game in my head is GURPS about 90% of the time. In the other 10%, something else comes to mind. And in some part of the first 90%, there may come a time where I decide GURPS is not the best fit either. Why do I end up thinking that, and what systems I prefer at these times?
Much of my reasoning has been explained in the previous post on this subject: sometimes the setting assumptions just don’t mesh well with GURPS in terms of their preferred level of exactness, internal consistency, or sheer scale. The rest of the time I come to this conclusion is because I know of a system that can handle what I see as that particular setting’s “essence” better than GURPS. Usually it’s a mix of the two.
With enough work I could probably modify GURPS into something that can handle these cases. However, I feel that there’s a point where it’s simpler and easier to use another system whose design and default assumptions already match what I’m going for.
Note that this doesn’t have anything to do with the level of “crunch” in a system! It’s more about the specific feelings I want to evoke in actual play than about the complexity of the rules.
Here’s some examples from fiction and other media that I feel fit the criteria above:
By the end of Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, you have the protagonists piloting a universe-sized robot who uses galaxies as throwing weapons. How to even begin modeling that?
The joke at the core of Andrew Hussie’s Problem Sleuth is that the exact game mechanics of the stuff you do don’t matter one bit and trying to properly understand them leads only to madness. This remains an ever-present theme in his subsequent story, Homestuck, as well. Despite the jokes some people like to make, GURPS works in precisely the opposite way.
An Overwatch campaign that sought to capture the feel of the original’s gameplay would need a fight between a non-superhuman shirtless dude with an improvised shotgun and someone wearing the best powered armor German engineering can build to be an even match. GURPS can’t easily handle that level of gameplay and setting segregation.
Everything in the entirely non-violent and pastoral Flying Witch happens at a scale where you could sit down and figure everyone’s DX scores and encumbrance levels, but that would feel like it’s missing the point of what the show is really about.
So what do I usually go for, when I decide GURPS wouldn’t be a good fit? Let’s look at my usual alternatives in rough alphabetical order:
Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition
This is my favorite edition of Dungeons & Dragons; Quite possibly the only edition I actually like. People like to denigrate it as being too “video-gamey”, but I find its combat system and the power system that supports it to be immensely fun in a very specific way.
You see, D&D 4 combat does feel like a video-game to me, but not like the MMOs its detractors usually compare it to. No, to me it feels like a grid- and turn- based tactical RPG in the vein of Final Fantasy Tactics, Fire Emblem or Disgaea. I love that sort of game to bits, and my fond memories of playing them stretch back into my pre-teen years. Having an ruleset that allows me to run something like that on the tabletop is basically a dream come true.
Its encounter and monster design system is easy to use and produces remarkably consistent results. Monster stats in D&D 4 are mostly independent from the in-setting description for those monsters. Everything is based on level - the equipment a monster of a certain level wears and even its basic attributes are mostly there for color, and can even be safely omitted from the stat block itself. This makes reskinning monsters to fit your specific scenario a simple matter of changing your description and maybe switching out a minor power in the stat block.
I use D&D 4th Edition when I want to experience the feel of its grid-based combat, and when I want a high level of separation between a character’s game stats and their in-setting description. That last reason is why I would use this system for a “gameplay first” adaptation of Overwatch. In a “setting first” adaptation I would still go with GURPS (and Roadhog vs. Reinhardt wouldn’t be an even match).
Exalted 3rd Edition
I love Exalted’s setting! I didn’t love the second edition all that much, but the third won me back.
While I could take this game’s excellent setting and run it as a high-powered “fantasy supers” GURPS game, I find the original rules have a certain, well, charm to them. So unless I have a very strong reason not to, when I run Exalted I use the Exalted 3rd edition rules. I would probably go for a system conversion before I used the second edition, though.
Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish Granting Engine
Chuubo’s is a system as rigorously designed as GURPS, but with a diametrically opposite focus. While GURPS is all about the mechanical actions and physical results of character actions, Chuubo’s is all about the intention and the emotions behind these actions.
This makes it well-suited for pastoral, non-violent games inspired by material such as Flying Witch. Games where how an action makes you feel is more important than whether it is successful, and where the climax of the story consists of witnessing something wonderful rather than overcoming a conflict.
The system also has support for other genres as well, and a large selection of miraculous powers that truly feel miraculous. It generally excels at running games where the metaphysics of the setting matter far more than its physics (such as one based on Homestuck). Its narrative-based XP mechanics are also quite interesting!
Another system that has very good support for non-violent pastoral games is Golden Sky Stories. Unlike Chuubo’s, it works at a more prosaic level and doesn’t try to support other genres, but it’s pretty good at what it does.
FATE seems to be all the rage these days when it comes to relatively-rules-light, narrative-driven games, but Wushu is the game that captured my heart in that area. Its first iterations were dedicated to emulating kung-fu movies, but it eventually became a generic, action-oriented system that reaches that status by not caring about the physical details of character actions. Its very light rules mostly concern themselves with ensuring the group maintains a coherent narrative, and use that narrative as a means to gather the dice players roll for actual tests.
This makes it perfect for games where the exact “physics” of the world take a backseat to the spectacle of the story. Gurren Lagann is the perfect example of such a setting, and it would also work wonderfully for Problem Sleuth’s “nonsensical adventure game” paradigm since players would be able to make up stupid mechanics on the spot as part of their narration.
What About You?
This is pretty much the list of all of my go-to systems. What are yours? What specific things draw you to these games?