How to choose a TTRPG system (Part 1)

I’m going to let you into a secret. You only need three things to run a TTRPG: a set of rules, a group of players, and a story. That’s it.

TL;DR Choosing a game system is hard, but don’t rush this decision

And before you ask: no, you don’t even need dice. There are plenty of digital dice apps, which are easier to use if you have a visual disability. You could also channel some of the ingenuity that people in American prisons need in order to play TTRPGs, since they are not allowed to have dice. (You can read more about that in this Vice article.) Either way, even if you do want to roll a physical set of dice, you usually only need one. (Don’t tell Laura Bailey.)

A quick note: This question turned out to be a lot more complex than a single post could handle, so I’ve split into additional posts. Also, the rest of the post will refer to DMs, Keepers, Storytellers, GMs, etc. as “GMs” generically.

What’s so important about the system anyway?

Choosing a rule system is an essential step in starting a group, which can have a massive impact on your success. It defines a lot of what you and the players will be doing every week. Even between games, you will find yourself spending your time very differently depending on what system you choose. That’s one reason I decided to cover rule systems at the start of this series.

Generally, the game or rule system determines how you create a character, how characters interact with the world, how the world behaves, how people at the table interact with one another, and who makes the decisions about what happens. The system also determines the range of skills that characters in the world have, and whether player characters are the same as other people in the world or whether they are somehow unique. It determines whether characters can use magic, or engage in combat, or have other ways to resolve obstacles or problems.

The system also affects the kinds of stories you can tell. Many game books include guidelines about how to create a story for your game. Do the players have a goal that they need to achieve, either separately or together? Do they need to overcome a Big Bad, solve puzzles, explore an imaginary world, create a community, or achieve something else entirely?

You can find a game system for almost anything that you can imagine. But unless everyone at the table has access to the same rules, it’s difficult to get anywhere.

“So help me pick one, already!”

I was wondering about the next part of this article, so I ran a very small, very unscientific Twitter survey. Specifically, I asked current TTRPG players how they decide which systems to run.

The final sample size is tiny, but I wanted to have some basis for what follows. So, to summarise:

  • Out of about 60 people, 38 said they choose the system based on a specific genre they liked or the mood they want to create around the table
  • 11 said they usually choose one system
  • 5 people said they choose a system everyone knows
  • Only 3 said that they buy a system before they try to get a group together

This suggests that most people choose a system before they buy one, and that the most important consideration is the kind of experience they want. That sounds about right – it’s certainly the method I would recommend.

It helps if all the people in your group are familiar with the game you want to run. That might make it easier and faster to start – but it doesn’t necessarily make it better. Usually, it also means that you are playing with people who have some experience already. But that doesn’t help you to put together a group from people who have never played before.

Instead, let’s assume that you are trying to play a TTRPG for the first time, and that you want to include a couple of friends who have never played either.

Who chooses the system?

When we talk about choosing a game system, we actually mean “choosing a rulebook (or set of rulebooks)”. Some systems require a whole bunch of books, others can be as short as a few pages. Micro-games take up as little as a page.

Whether you are getting these books in hard copy or as a download, from either a brick-and-mortar or an online shop, you generally have to spend at least some money for the game you want. The next question that arises is, who buys those books?

After thinking about it for a few moments, I posted a second survey:

To summarise those results, six people said that the GM chooses the system and the other four said it was everyone as a group. No one said that the players decide.

Now, there are practical reasons why it’s often easier for the GM to choose the game system. For one reason, they often have access to more system information than players do. In D&D, for example, the GM needs to have access to two books that the players are not supposed to read. In Call of Cthulhu, all of the magic spells and monsters are in the Keeper’s guide. Even for systems where players and GMs use the same book, there will be chapters that are intended only for the GM.

One of the responses said,

“In all the groups I’ve been in, everyone pitches in with what sort of story they want and what systems they think fit the story. But the GM always gets the final say as they’re the one who has to deal with it the most and GMing a game you don’t like is just horrid.”

@starshinescrib

That’s a pretty good explanation for why it’s often the GMs who pick the system. It can take a GM a long time to prepare and plan a game, particularly with some of the more complex systems. As the GM, you are at least partially responsible for teaching someone the game and helping them to understand complicated rules. So you should expect to spend a lot of time reading the books and making sure you understand them.

Another member of the San Jenaro Co-Op, @propergoffic, weighed in on the thread, saying that in his experience, it’s generally “Whoever had the idea to run it or whoever could afford the rulebook.” He followed this up by making a great point:

I really loved that response, because he managed to express something that has been bugging me for a while. In most of the games I’ve played or run, the choice of system has been kind of a done deal. It’s only recently, while experimenting with different rule systems, that it occurred to me that this might not be the best way to do this.

Sure, the easiest way to start is often to pick the rule system and then get your players involved. To be honest, all the groups I’ve played in used the system as the starting point. It’s usually a case of, “Here’s this new book I got!” or “This is the kind of story I want to tell” or “I’ve always wanted to try this!” And sure, you get to try out a whole bunch of cool new games – but that doesn’t always translate into a successful group.

Instead, I want to look at ways you can try out different systems, and ways you can do that with other people. Unfortunately, this post is already much too long, so it will have to wait for another week or two.

“Homework?!?!!”

(Yes, homework. GMs have to do a LOT of homework.)

In the meantime, why not explore the wide variety of systems that are available? I can guarantee you that, regardless of what genre or setting you like, you will be able to find a relevant Twitch stream or podcast. It’s a great way to find people who are playing those kinds of games, and to get a sense of a system even if you don’t know much about it.

One final point: remember that you don’t have to finish a podcast or a stream just because you started it. If you try it and don’t enjoy it, skip ahead or find another. You may find more than one group playing the same system in drastically different ways. Either way, you are bound to find something to enjoy or inspire you.