Last week, I wrote about why it’s important to choose wisely when you pick a TTRPG system. To summarise the main points: the system determines a lot of what you do before, during and after games. I did include suggestions for how to choose a system if you don’t know who your players are yet. But the best way to pick the right system for your group is to talk to the people you want to play with.
That doesn’t mean you can’t do some research beforehand. In fact it will be much easier to help choose a system (with your group) if you have an idea of what your options are. Fortunately, there are a plenty of ways to get a sense of what is available.
But before we get into that, let’s consider three elements you should think about when you decide whether a system is right for your group: genre, complexity, and creativity.
First, it helps to answer a few basic questions about what you enjoy. For example, which genres do you like? This includes films, television shows, books, video games, boardgames, podcasts, whatever. Which of them get you excited about the idea of telling stories? Which of them make you wish you lived in that world, or lived those kinds of lives?
Alternatively, do you prefer non-fiction? Is there a particular era, subject, or kind of person that interests you? What about it sets your imagination going?
If you are going to be a GM, you need to come up with the idea of a world or place figure out the kind of thing that makes you think, “I want to help people explore what it would be like to live in this place, or this time, or under these circumstances.” Remember that you want a range of options, so you should try to come up with at least two or three for your group to choose from.
You also need to consider how complicated you want the game to be. In the twitter poll I ran for last week’s article, I got a pretty spot-on explanation for why that matters. Responding to the question of how they pick a system, they said:
“Usually it’s the genre, but the other leading factor is how complex the system is. On the weekend my group has 5 hours every 2 weeks, so we run a pretty intense game. But we also try to squeeze in sessions 2 hours after work 1 day a week, and for that we use very light systems.”@DelvesDaily
Game systems can be very simple, or very, very complicated. For example, Dungeons and Dragons is surprisingly popular, considering how complex it is. Watching an experienced DM like Matt Mercer run a D&D game, you might think it’s a lot easier or simpler than it actually is. One of the reasons I love watching Critical Role is that Matt makes it look easy. Believe me, it’s not.
For complex systems, the GM often needs to do a lot more work before, during, and after the game. A lot of this involves reading, planning, and doing maths. There are definitely ways of making complex systems easier to run, although that will have to wait for another article. But it generally means that you need to do more work, not less.
I have many thoughts about what makes a good game system. In my experience, overly complicated rules often get in the GM and the players’ way. Unless you really love maths, or want a strategic/tactical game, I suggest finding a relatively simple system – especially if this is your first time running a game. But your mileage may vary, so you and your group will need to figure this out for yourselves.
As a GM, you will need to be creative. You may need to create the world that people interact with, other people for the players to interact with, situations, complications, problems, and other parts of the story. Players will also have a range of options, which may give them a lot of leeway in how they approach the game.
This is part of what is great about being a GM. It can also get a bit tiring after a while. You may need to think about the extent to which the system itself helps you to stay creative, or allows the players to be co-creators with you.
A lot of game systems make additional content available to help you tell a story. They may have modules (short storylines) that you can run, or pregenerated characters that players can use or that you can use. They may have setting books that give you a list of places, names, villains, and potential allies, as well as a storyline of some kind.
Other systems focus on making it easy for you to build your own world, or make it part of the gaming experience at the table.
You may find that having access to existing sources helps to generate ideas for your own stories. A word of warning, though: lore is not (always) your friend. Often, it can get in the way of your own creativity, or create disagreements around the table.
For example, take a game system based on an existing franchise, like Lord of the Rings, Witcher, or Star Trek. If people feel strongly about parts of the lore, and you need to change it for any reason, you can easily spend hours arguing with players about the changes you’ve made.
If you’re going to use a system that has a lot of lore, make sure that your players are happy for you to bend it a bit, or get things wrong occasionally, or otherwise present familiar content in your own unique way. Either way, try not to let existing sources stifle your own creativity.
Whether you’re buying rulebooks as a GM, or as a group, you generally want to have an idea about whether you like the system before you pay money for it. Fortunately, many TTRPG companies release free or preview versions of their popular systems.
Usually, free or preview versions of a rule system includes only a very small amount of the information you need to run a fully realised campaign. But that also means that you can focus on the most fundamental rules – the ones that are easiest to learn or that make the game unique. Any well-crafted preview version aims to give you a good idea of what playing in that system will be like.
There are many reasons to try simplified versions of various game systems before you commit you or your players commit any serious amount of time or money to it. Even if a game system is popular, or seems to be the perfect thing for what you want, it’s no guarantee that it will suit you or your players.
Also keep in mind that you may not end up playing using the system you started with. Often the reality of a game system is very different from how it’s marketed.
Even if you’ve seen someone playing a game on a stream, there may be a lot of the rules that you don’t see. Most streams are smart enough to keep the boring stuff off-screen – for example, by creating characters, levelling up, and performing other upkeep between games. Many groups who publish videos or podcasts of their games online edit sessions before uploading them.
Most streams are smart enough to keep the boring stuff off-screen – for example, by creating characters, levelling up, and performing other upkeep between games. Many groups who publish videos or podcasts of their games online edit sessions before uploading them.
So how do you pick which system to run?
My advice is: Don’t settle on any game system too quickly. Take your time, try out a few different systems – preferably with your prospective group, or even just a group of friends if you can rally them around.
Talk to your players if you have a group in mind. Or if you want to test a specific system, ask some friends to oblige you by being your test subjects. Your friends might be more willing to join you for a few sessions of 2-3 hours, even if they don’t want to commit to playing in any game long term.
If you can’t get enough friends together, you could offer to run a practice game or two at a local game shop.
You could also simply – read through the preview rules. Do the rules make sense to you after reading the simplified version? Try to imagine what an actual scene or interaction would look like. What would you as the GM do, and what would you expect players to do? How close is that to what you think a game should be? Most importantly, does that sound like fun? If not, you may need to consider a second, or a third, or even a fourth option.
What, more homework!?!!
You can check out a list of free or preview versions of various rule systems online at DriveThruRPG. The search terms will show you a list of all the Quickstart rules that are available for free on the site. But you can also limit the results by adding additional factors that are important to you, like genre or publisher. Just click the link and go wild.