Picking a System to Evoke the Setting’s Feel
I’m a fan of different role-playing game systems. Each one offers a unique way of playing your game and each focuses on different aspects. One thing I’ve noticed is that some systems do a better job at evoking the “feel” of the setting as others. By evoking the feel I mean setting the general tone, encouraging the characters to do the things that are important, and allowing sessions to focus on the important themes of the setting. That’s not to say that a system that evokes a certain feel forbids characters from acting contrary to it, but it makes it easier to do the things that the setting are all about.
Consider Doctor Who, the popular British sci-fi show about a time traveller and his companions who, unbeknownst to the world, saves Earth time and again from alien creatures. A big aspect of this setting’s feel is that it’s generally upbeat. Although there are certainly times when things get serious or when things turn out irrevocably for the worse, generally the Doctor saves the day and the wrongs are righted. This is almost always accomplished through ingenuity (and often a deus ex machina). And combat is virtually non-existent, you either run or use your ingenuity to defeat the bad guys, rather than resorting to violence.
So a system for Doctor Who would need to emphasize all that. My go-to system, Savage Worlds, would be a terrible choice for it. Most of the rules in Savage Worlds are for combat. Consequently, characters that are created are generally going to be good at combat. The problem is that they’ll probably use that first. After all, why run when you can pull your sidearm out and shoot at the creature chasing you?
It could work with a skilled GM, but I think it would be more trouble than its worth to make a Savage Doctor Who feel like the TV show. Fortunately, there’s Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space, which I’ve talked about several times on this blog (I’ll write a formal review some day). A lot of that comes from rules that are specifically designed to capture the feel of the TV show. For instance, there are lots of rules for solving problems (especially through talking, moving, and doing), but characters lose all their story points when they engage in an act of unprovoked violence.
Lately I’ve been catching up on Burn Notice, a TV show about a former CIA spy who has been blacklisted. Along with a few of his companions, he uses his training to do jobs of questionable legality, but he has a strong code of conduct; he will do all he can to right the greater wrongs in the world. For instance, he’ll sneak into a corporate facility and steal classified data if it will help root out a corrupt businessman who is harming someone who has come to him for help. Combat is not out of the realm of possibility, but it is usually a last resort.
One of the things that makes the show fun to watch is seeing some of the creative solutions that the characters have for their problems. For instance, one episode had them temporarily hiding a tracking bug by putting it under the hood of a car next to some metal, then grounding it to the car’s sound system in order to create an EM field strong enough to disrupt the transmission (unfortunately frying the sound system in the process). So to capture the feel of the show, you’d probably need a system that allows for that kind of granularity. Savage Worlds might be a poor fit because a single Repair roll to pull off the aforementioned trick just isn’t quite as satisfying as actually creating the plan and making it happen.
I don’t know of any systems that are a perfect match for this kind of behavior, but I think that Cortex by Margaret Weis Productions would be a closer fit. One of the things I like about it is that to do a task, you pair up an attribute and a skill. So to fast talk a guard into letting you inside, you would use Intelligence and Persuasion. But trying to lower the price of a car by giving the salesman a Bernie Mac handshake would be a roll of Strength and Persuasion. The combinations of the attributes and skills provide more varied actions and would encourage the more creative solutions seen in Burn Notice.
At the end of day, I think that a skilled GM and a willing group of players can make any system work with a particular setting. It may not be an optimal fit, but I think they could make it work if they put the effort into it. But it’s still worth trying to find a system that supports the overall feel of the setting.