Getting Started, Part 2

So now that you’ve decided to play, and figured out approximately how (no need to commit yet, though, since these things are all intermingled), the next choice is what you’re going to play. Now, this part gets a bit more difficult.

First, there’s the simple question of whether you’d prefer a freeform or an established system. The advantages to freeform are quite simple: there’s no cost to it, since you don’t need dice, rulebooks or much of anything else; it can handle any genre you’re willing to throw at it; and you don’t have to worry about game balance in the traditional sense. There are catches, though. The lack of formalized mechanics leads to possible confusion in the players (or a strong possibility of one of the players finding one tactic that looked reasonable at the time and applying it to everything in potentially plot-breaking ways). Similarly, it’s hard to resist the urge to re-power things on the fly, which can backfire a great deal. Moreover, there’s not much of a jumping-off point, making it a bit harder to just throw together a game for a quick test of how this stuff works. It should be universal in format, but most of the freeform I’ve played has been by chat, so I tend to associate it with that medium.

Then you get to established systems—and let me tell you, the list even of relatively well-known ones is rather daunting. There are a lot of factors to take into account there, including the genre you want, how interested you are in dealing with game mechanics, and even what format you would prefer to play in. And some systems have edition difference issues, which makes life even more difficult. Note: Many systems’ purposes can be subverted; the below explanations focus more on what the system best lends itself to—and my knowledge is admittedly rather limited. (Comments are welcome!)

Genre is the easiest thing to sort games by—well, aside from GURPS, but that’s mainly because GURPS can do any genre to some degree with the right sourcebooks. For high-powered high fantasy, Dungeons and Dragons is one of the prime contenders, with the more wuxia-oriented Exalted coming in at a close second. People working with Earth as a setting tend to favor d20 Modern (for Earth in general), Shadowrun (for cyberpunk), Call of Cthulhu (horror—comes in its own version or in d20), the World of Darkness (various dark supernatural), Scion (demigods in the real world), or Spirit of the Century (pulp fiction-based, though highly adaptable). The superhero genre has several contenders, including the HERO system, d20’s Mutants and Masterminds imprint, and White-Wolf’s now-defunct Aberrant (good luck finding it). For those who prefer a dystopia-flavor and lots of intraparty suspicion and conflict, Paranoia is a popular choice. Science-fiction has several possibilities, including at least one d20 variant and the rather pretty Alternity. There are also a host of more niche-oriented games, from the Amber Diceless RPG (based on the series by Roger Zelazny) and Dogs in the Vineyard (Mormon enforcers in an alternate Utah) to the very over the top wuxia-based system Weapons of the Gods and the rather quirky variants of PDQ.

One thing to take into account is the basic mechanic of the game. Some games, like D&D and its d20 analogues, are class-based; abilities are determined by classes, or overall templates. Others, like GURPS, are point-buys: improvement comes bit by bit rather than in batches, and any stat has a value and can be improved. Even point buys have a certain amount of variation; some, most notably the White-Wolf titles (Exalted, World of Darkness, and Scion) are somewhere between the two, with templates that provide a few unique powers and can serve as guidelines, and separation between categories of stats during character generation, but an overall point-buy experience mechanic. While point-buys are more open to customization, they’re also easier to make either massively overpowered by specialization, absurd by taking advantage of “Flaw” rules, or just plain ineffective; class bases allow for somewhat less customization, but are more straightforward to build and require a different sort of knowledge to break.

Another is medium compatibility. Most games can be played in almost any format, though some are particularly suited to one or particularly irritating in another. For instance, D&D, particularly 4th edition, is a highly visuals-dependent system, and as a result is less compatible with chat-based gaming than it is with face to face (where you can use maps and models easily) or play by post (where a map can be posted by the GM between turns without slowing the game much more). Similarly, systems which focus as much on non-combat mechanics and don’t have particularly position-dependent combat systems (most White-wolf games, for instance) are well-suited to the written formats like chat or play by post. Again, these issues can be bypassed with sufficient effort and skill.

Another note: Pay very close attention to edition number. D&D is up to four, and none with non-matching first digits are particularly compatible with each other (for the storytelling game-master, I recommend 3.5; 4 is considerably more suited to a combat-intensive, tactical style). Exalted has two, which are semi-compatible but still sufficiently different that a build made for one usually won’t translate to the other (I personally recommend First, as the power creep from Second is getting absurd and I have a rather low opinion of dice-based social interactions, but the combat system has a bit more of a safety net for new players in Second, and the material is overall more organized). Shadowrun has at least four, the World of Darkness has its own rewrite (whether you want the new one or the old one I can’t say, but making sure you don’t have a mix of the above is recommended), and… well, the short version is, make sure your editions match. In general, newer systems will be easier to find than older ones.

Tomorrow: Bringing in the players!

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