Cooking the Cosmos – Part 3: Choosing a System

Welcome back to Cooking the Cosmos. My apologies for the extended delay on getting this posted, over the last few days my internet access has been incredibly unreliable, and I ended up frustrated to the point of giving up until it decided to start playing nice again. Now that the worst of it appears to be over, I figure it’s time to get back in business.

As I said last time, this update will focus on choosing a system for your campaign setting. I find that it’s best to choose a system as early as you possible, as it gives you a framework of game mechanics to build within. There are three major questions to consider when making this decision, so I’ll be using both the Project Helleborus and Urban Magic campaign settings to help demonstrate the process.

Fair Warning: Due to the fact that the Pathfinder and World of Darkness systems are what I mainly play these days, I do have more to say on them than I have for other systems I look at. It’s not so much a case of showing them favouritism as it is is just that I have more I can draw on as talking points for them.

What genre does my world fit into?

One of the most important factors when deciding on a system is what genre your world fits into. Certain systems are built for certain types of settings and games, and often they don’t work very well with games outside of their target genre. For example, the Cortex system (used for the Serenity and Battlestar Galactica RPGs) does gritty sci-fi really well and would work for modern-day action games just as easily, but there’s no way it could handle traditional fantasy without some pretty hefty modifications. I know this may seem obvious, but I’ve always been amazed at how many people ignore this and just try to shoehorn their world into a completely unworkable system rather than using one of the many available that are more suited to it.

So, let’s take a look at Project Helleborus first. Although the setting has a more structured society than is common, and a higher level of technology (albeit technology based on magic), at its core it is still a traditional fantasy world. This means there’s all of the traditional fantasy archetypes hanging around, including thieves, fighters and spell casters (both arcane and divine). There are also plenty of the traditional fantasy races and monsters. This means my obvious choices are systems like Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder. GURPS would also work, though I prefer to avoid using it unless I need to merge several different genres of game at once or I need something unbelievably flexible. If I wanted to go really old school, I could use Swords & Wizardry, an Open Gaming License clone of the first edition of D&D.

Urban Magic on the other hand is a very different world. All characters are likely to be spell casters of some description, its set in modern times, and it features a hidden world of supernatural creatures and magic users living side by side the rest of humanity. The magic is also incredibly versatile, so I don’t want to be limited to the very rigidly defined sort of magic you get in games like D&D. On top of this, there’s a definite element of disturbing themes/horror to the setting.  Ideally I’d also like for players to be able to choose different sorts of casters and creatures without having to worry about a massive problem with balancing characters against each other. The systems that spring to mind for this sort of game are Palladium Game’s Megaversal system, since it can generally be rigged to work with any style you’d like; GURPS, because once again you can run pretty much anything with it; CJ Carella’s WitchCraft, which uses the Unisystem; and World of Darkness, which is essentially a core system with a number of sub-games that are all compatible built around it.

So, to recap the current options for systems based on genre for each setting –

  • Project Helleborus: Pathfinder, Dungeons & Dragons, GURPS, Swords and Wizardry
  • Urban Magic: Megaversal System, WitchCraft (Unisystem), GURPS, World of Darkness (Storytelling System)

Now that we’ve got some options, it’s time to take a look at the second major question.

What style of game do I want to run?

When I say style here, I’m not talking about genre again. What I’m actually referring to is the gameplay style. This is a nice easy way to further narrow down the choices for your system. The main point here is to figure out how much crunch you want in your game – for those of you unfamiliar with the term, crunch is a term referring to the actual rules of a given system. Fluff is everything else, in terms of setting, themes and back story, but doesn’t really come into this question since I’m assuming that you’re choosing a system for your custom-built setting, and are going to be providing your own fluff for it. All games are going to have some level of crunch, it’s the framework that allows for resolution of situations in the game and progression of the story. So the question here is less “do you want crunch in your game” and more “just how crunchy do you want this thing to be?”

So, for Project Helleborus, we’re looking at a number of different systems. As I’ve said before, the setting is traditional fantasy with a strong military theme to it. Magic is also heavily featured, and follows some very strict rules, as it is essentially this worlds equivalent of technology. Although story is important, the game has a very strong focus on action and excitement. So I straight away know that I need a system that has a very robust combat and magic system, with well-defined options and variables so that I can determine what is possible quickly and keep the story moving. This means I want a crunchier system, but not something that’s going to get the players bogged down in the rules too much. I also want players to get some pretty noticeable boosts in power as they progress through the story. So let’s have a look at each system individually –

  • GURPS –  I’m going to rule GURPS out straight off the bat, while it has a decent combat system, I find it a little too simple for what I want. Essentially you spend experience points to build up a number of attacks and just choose which option you want to use each round. The magic system works on a similar basis, you can build almost any effect as long as you have the points to spend. Unfortunately that doesn’t work well for me, as I’ve said that I want magic to follow some well-defined rules. GURPS is also pretty ordinary when it comes to creating magic items, which is a major part of my setting.
  • Swords & Wizardry – S&W is a clone of first edition D&D. There’s a number of restrictions in place on races and classes, and options for customisation are generally pretty limited. In general it’s a nice easy system to learn, but I’m looking for something with more variety to allow players to really build some badass special forces characters.
  • Dungeons & Dragons – The original, and to many people, still the best. I grew up playing D&D, starting with 3rd edition when I was 12, and I still currently play in a game that uses a bastardised version of the 2nd edition rule set, so I’ve still got a bit of nostalgia for D&D, but have mostly moved on from it. Currently D&D is in 4th edition, and sadly I really dislike it on a personal level. The system as it currently stands in 4th Ed feels like playing a pen and paper version of World of Warcraft to me, with a very strictly defined series of archetypes that each character class can choose to follow.  There is of course nothing to say that I couldn’t just run the game using the 3rd edition rules, but I figure why do that when I have access to something I consider better. Which brings me to…
  • Pathfinder – Pathfinder is a game that was born from the end of the D&D 3.5 era. When Wizards of the Coast moved over to 4th Edition, Paizo, former publishers of Dragon and Dungeon magazines, weren’t a fan of the system, and decided to make their own game using the Open Gaming License. Pathfinder is sometimes described (unofficially of course) as D&D 3.75, and is essentially just that. Paizo have taken the rules to 3.5, fixed up some flaws, and balanced the player classes against each other. Over all I find it a far smoother system to run than D&D was, and it has some more interesting base character class options without having the issue of rules bloat that 3rd edition D&D suffered from. Although there are a great many source books available for Pathfinder, the options available in the Core Rule Book and Advanced Players Guide are more than sufficient to give you a good start if you want to avoid overwhelming your group with options. It handles combat really well, along with magic, and provides a good mix of characters that run the gauntlet from non-magical combat fiends and support through to full support and offensive spell casters, along with a few combat/caster combos in between. It also has a pretty well explained system for creating magic items, which is a bonus for me since it’s going to be such a large part of my setting. This is essentially the system for me.

So, out of those four systems, I’ve managed to choose Pathfinder as the system for Project Helleborus just using the first two of my three questions. I’ll still use it as an example in the next section, but sometimes you can just choose something nice and quickly like this.

Urban Magic is a different idea entirely. This setting is very much about the atmosphere and story, with a focus on building up personal storylines for the players, so while I need a competent system, I don’t want something that is going to get the players bogged down in the rules. There will still be some combat and action, but it’s not going to be the primary part of the game. I want a fairly freeform magic system for this, to reflect the idea that magic shifts and evolves based on society at the time and how it is understood by the users. Most importantly, I need to allow all players to be magic users or supernatural creatures, while still keeping the rules for each character fairly similar for ease of gameplay. So, let’s take a look at the options –

  • GURPS – Despite having a free form magic system, GURPS is out straight away based on just how crunchy it is. One of the more common issues I’ve seen with GURPS is players just getting lost in the rules, because every single source book is compatible. So you end up with players taking more time digging through books looking for cool abilities and so on to build into their characters instead of actually playing.
  • The Megaversal System  Has the same problem that GURPS has to a lesser extent, just too many different rule sets to combine together. While I think it would be more suitable than GURPS (it has a few really good horror settings that could work with a little modification, like Beyond the Supernatural and Nightbane), it doesn’t have quite as much freedom with the magic system. So I think this one is a pass as well.
  • WitchCraft – WitchCraft was the game that introduced the Unisystem. It’s a nice simple system that comes in two variants, Classic and Cinematic. Both versions use a single d10 roll to resolve player actions, and use a number of different attributes and abilities to modify these rolls. The main difference is that the Cinematic version is heavily simplified and focuses on creating an action series style game, hence why it is used for games like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The Classic version has a grittier feel that works better for a more serious game, and has an excellent character customisation system allowing for various types of magic and creatures to be utilised. So Classic Unisystem is definitely a suitable option this setting.
  • World of Darkness – World of Darkness is actually a core setting with a number of games built around it that use the same basic rule set. Characters are built by creating a mortal character, then applying a template to the character which turns it into one of the varied supernatural inhabitants of the world. The game could start with you playing as a templated character, or it could involve your character’s final days as a mortal and their change into a non-human. The current games within the setting are Vampire: The Requiem, Werewolf: The Forsaken, Promethean: The Created, Mage: The Awakening, Hunter: The Vigil, Geist: The Sin-Eaters and Changeling: The Lost. Mummy: The Curse is due for release soon, and another game, Demon (yet to be subtitled) has been announced. Each of these games contains rules for a specific type of character, and due to the fact that each is given their own set of rule books, there are a huge number of options for customisation. The use of the same core rules for each template means that running a group composed of wildly different characters together is simple. The system itself is relatively simple, using d10s to resolve actions. Each point your character has in a relevant attribute or skill will add a d10 to the pool of dice you roll for a given task, and if enough successes (results of 8 or higher on a die) are achieved, the task is successful. I’d consider this system to also be suitable for the Urban Magic setting.

Now that I’ve determined what settings a suitable based on my needs for crunch versus style, it’s time to look at the last question. This one might seem a little silly to some people, but I find it’s often the real deciding factor in my choices. So, here we go…

What is going to be easiest for me to run?

This one is actually a pretty easy one to answer. It’s generally determined by a mix of several factors –

  • How much work is required to fit a setting into the system?
  • How familiar are you and your players with the rules for the system?
  • Do you have easy access to the rules for the system you want to use?
  • Are you or your players particularly fond of a particular system?
  • Are there any systems you or your players refuse to play?

I’ll keep this one brief, because there’s not really that much to it. The first point refers to the amount of modifications you’re going to have to make to a system so that it works with your setting. Ideally you want this to be as minimal as possible. For example, Project Helleborus already works pretty much perfectly with Pathfinder since it’s a very traditional fantasy system, all I really need to do is build my custom magic items and maybe tweak the levels that items are available at. On the other hand, Urban Magic  is going to take some work no matter if I use World of Darkness or WitchCraft. Since I’m changing the nature of magic to give it a more urban setting, I need to re-skin the characters and abilities so that they fit into this world. However these changes are mostly cosmetic, since the effects are much the same whether a player is summoning a fog or a cloud of exhaust fumes to obscure their opponents vision. So it’s much of a muchness there.

Point two, familiarity. This is a big one. While it’s possible to run a game without being too familiar with the system, it certainly helps things run smoothly if you have a good working knowledge of it. This makes Pathfinder and World of Darkness perfect choices for me, since I’ve played both of them pretty extensively, even if a large part of that experience is due to playing earlier versions. While the Unisystem is simple enough, it’s not something I’ve played with very much, so I’d really like to get to know it a bit more before using it for a long-term game.

Easy access to the system. Another big one. No one wants to go out and spend large amounts of money buying all the necessary books for a system when they’ve got access to another one. Sure you can get PDFs for a lot of systems cheap from sites like DriveThruRPG now, but it’s nice to have physical copies as well if possible. In my case, I’ve got physical copies of every Pathfinder core rulebook, as well as a lot of the supplemental books, in addition to the PDF copies I get given as part of my subscriptions. When it comes to World of Darkness, I don’t own any of the books myself, but my housemate and friends between them have at least one copy of most of the vital books, that I can easily borrow. Conversely, I don’t own any of the WitchCraft books.

I’ll combine the last two points together here. Personal preference plays a huge part in role-playing games, and you’ll often find that some people have at least one game they either really dislike or outright hate. For me, the hated game is D&D 4th Edition. My housemate really dislikes pretty much any d20 based system. Likewise, everyone is going to have their preference for certain types of systems. I’m happy to play quite a few different games, but I was introduced to role-playing with d20 based games, so Pathfinder and old school D&D will always be my favourites. My friends prefer World of Darkness, as that’s what they’ve been playing together for years. So try to pick something that your group is going to enjoy, and that you’ll have fun running. Your game will go much smoother for it.

This will be the last article in the Cooking the Cosmos series for a while. I’m going to take a break so that I have a chance to actually work on the two campaign settings a bit, and plot out some future updates. So at least the next few posts will be on other topics. I’m considering doing some features on character building, actually running a game, and maybe a few reviews of recent Pathfinder source books. I may even try my hand at some short fiction, though it’s been a long time since I’ve done that.

Until next time, take it easy, and keep those dice rolling. While I think of it though…

One last piece of advice…

It’s not really my place to tell you what systems to play or not play. However in this case, I think it’s justified. Whatever you do, never, under any circumstances, play a game called FATAL. I won’t go into the myriad of ways that it’s completely awful, but if you ever feel like torturing yourself by reading a ridiculously long, though somewhat hilarious review of a game that encourages rape, murder and generally being a psychopath, then please check out the following link:

A rebuttal by the creator of the game, who appears to be one of the few people willing to defend it, can be found here:


Due to the prolonged writing time on this update, I was listening to a number of different albums while working on it. The ones that got major play were:

  • Absolution by Muse
  • Back Through Time by Alestorm
  • Graveyard of Empires by Evans Blue

There were others, but I highly recommend checking out these albums, along with any others by these artists.

2 thoughts on “Cooking the Cosmos – Part 3: Choosing a System

    • I assume you mean in regards to the Urban Magic setting. Shadowrun is a great system, but doesn’t really suit the setting. I’m talking about a present day setting, so the tech level is the same as ours is currently, so cyberpunk fantasy doesn’t really work.

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