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That’s How We Role(play), Part III

In the first segment of the That’s How We Role(play) series, we discussed some of the misconceptions that make role playing games mysterious and even a bit intimidating to the general public. In the second segment we delved into the basics of what exactly a role playing game is, and how one plays. In the final segment of this series, we will take a look at some of the more popular role playing systems and settings.

Once familiar with the basic definitions and concepts of role playing games in general, the next challenge faced by someone looking to enter the hobby is to find a specific game. This is where the concepts of system and setting quickly become important. The right combination of system and setting for a particular player makes the game a memorable and enjoyable experience. The wrong combination can make that same player doubt their decision to try role playing games at all!

So, just what is a system, and how is that different from a setting?

Role playing systems are the set of rules which the players and game master use to spin their story. Some systems are extremely detailed, providing specific rules to resolve nearly any action a character might take. Other systems strive for realistic action, making use of miniatures, maps and rulers to display and control the characters’ interactions with the world. Still other systems are highly flexible and fluid, with only a few core rules aimed at keeping the focus on the narrative.

What nearly all systems share is a methodology that the players and game master follow whenever the question arises: “Can my character do that?” Some systems call for the player to roll one or more polyhedral dice – typically with 4, 6, 8, 10, 12 or 20 sides –  to answer this question. Other systems use the more familiar six sided dice, or a whole lot of six sided dice, to resolve actions. Still other systems provide custom dice with various symbols that having specific meaning for that system. Finally, some systems don’t use dice at all, preferring cards or other methods of determining whether or not a character’s action is successful.

While the system determines how a game is played, it has little impact on what the story itself is about. That doesn’t mean the choice of system is unimportant – far from it! A player who prefers structure and certainty is likely to be uncomfortable with a narrative heavy system that leaves the resolution of critical actions to the whim of the Game Master. Conversely a player who is in it for the story may chafe under a system which requires a complicated set of rules to resolve any minor action. Both styles of play are perfectly acceptable of course, but to get the most out of any role playing game it’s best to find a rule system that suits your personal play style.

There are a variety of all-purpose role playing systems, including Fate and Fate Accelerated, the d20 system, Savage Worlds, and GURPS (Generic Universal RolePlaying System). Any of these systems can be used to run a story in just about any setting.

So what is a setting? A role playing setting is the fictional universe or environment in which the player characters live and where their story unfolds. In some ways the setting can be thought of as the genre for the story. Nearly any genre that can be found on the Fiction shelf of your local library can also be found in role playing games.

A setting doesn’t necessarily inform how the game is played, but has great impact on the story itself. As such, the setting can be extremely important in determining whether the player enjoys the game. Luckily, there are countless settings available for use, ensuring that nearly anybody can find a setting that they will enjoy. Several popular settings include the sword and sorcery drenched Forgotten Realms; the mind numbing horror of the Cthulhu mythos; a post-apocalyptic version of modern day; or an otherwise modern world in which magic or super powers exist. It is no accident that these are also the settings explored by countless novels published each year.

Some role playing games combine both the system and the setting in one package. Games such as Shadowrun, The One Ring, Paranoia and Star Wars Edge of the Empire all exist within their own fictional setting, and use their own customized set of rules and mechanics. The various Star Wars role playing games, for instance, take place in the popular Star Wars universe, and use a variety of custom dice to determine the results of characters’ actions.

Of course no discussion of role playing systems and settings would be complete without mentioning Dungeons & Dragons. Throughout its five editions, D&D has progressed through a variety of systems, and is in fact the genesis of the popular d20 system. While D&D games tend to be set in the fantasy genre, they can exist in a variety of settings, from highly recognized published worlds such as The Forgotten Realms to custom written worlds which exist only at one gaming group’s table.

The variety of available systems, settings, and play styles makes the role playing hobby extremely diverse, and offers infinite replayability for role playing enthusiasts. Unfortunately, that very same variety can be the final stumbling block for someone looking to try role playing for the first time. Where exactly does one start?

The final piece of advice I have for anyone looking to get into role playing is this: There’s no need to be intimidated, or to try to find your way into the hobby on your own. Ask for help! Role players in general are a welcoming group, and we here at The Malted Meeple make it our mission to help new people get started.

So stop in and check out one of our regularly scheduled sessions. We offer games in a variety of settings and making use of all types of rule systems. From highly structured games in published settings to highly narrative games in settings you won’t find anywhere but here, we’re sure to have something you will enjoy!

Check out the calendar of events on our website, or stop in and speak with any of our Game Masters. All of our scheduled role-playing events are open to beginners, and we’d be thrilled to find you a system and setting that will get you started in a wonderfully entertaining hobby!

Profile - Jim Reed

Jim Reed is a lifelong gamer who started with the original red box Dungeons & Dragons. After spending 20 years in the corporate world, he decided it was high time that work be fun and struck out on his own. Jim now owns and operates Ravenwood Castle and The Malted Meeple, and spends his days ensuring his guests have as much fun as he does.