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GM As Sommelier: Pairing Settings and Systems
Posted By Phil Vecchione On December 16, 2011 @ 4:00 am In GMing Advice | 14 Comments
A few years ago, I ran a home-brewed fantasy campaign using the Iron Heroes system. I fell in love with the setting that my players and I created, and for the past few months have been toying with the idea of bringing it back, but not with the same mechanics. The more I looked at the setting, I started to realize that different game systems could be used to express different periods within it. This got me thinking about the paring of game mechanics with settings to create a specific mood, and to emphasize a specific type of play.
I am a big believer that rules beget play, that is that the rules of a game should match the setting of the game and how it should be played. Because of that, I am not a big fan of generic rules systems which try to fit, in my opinion, too many different settings and types of play. I am a much bigger fan of systems that are tightly coupled to a specific type of play (gritty, high fantasy, fast and furious, etc), or tightly coupled to a specific setting.
Forgive me for the next few hundred words, and let me tell you about my home brewed campaign setting, Elhal. The world of Elhal centered around a single Empire made up of five joined kingdoms. For 1000 years the Empire provided for its human citizens, educated them, and promoted worship of the All Father. Then the Demon King was discovered in a hidden tomb in the mountains. The Demon King befriended the Emperor, and in 10 years the Empire was toppled and taken over by the Demon King. Under the rule of the Demon King the citizens of the Empire were conscripted to be transformed into Demons, and religion and education were forbidden. For thirty years the rule of the Demon King was absolute. Then a group of heroes banded together, grew in power, and eventually lead an army against the Demon King. In the end, these epic warriors defeated the Demon King and imprisoned him in the mountains once again. With the Demon King defeated the Empire was reassembled and the work to bring the Empire back to its former glory began.
When I look upon Elhal, there are four periods that are of interest to me where I think that some great stories can be told. I avoided the ancient history and the far future and focused on the time periods around the narrative above. The four areas I focused upon are:
In this time period the Demon King has begun his work to topple the Empire. People are going missing, and the rulers of the five Kingdoms scramble to survive the new army of Demons. This is a dark time for the Empire and humanity, as things become very desperate. In this period, there cannot be a major win against the Demons, as they will come to power. The only victories will be small and personal.
This time period was where my initial campaign was set. This time focuses on a span of five years where the descendants of some of the major figures during the Fall of the Empire band together and fulfill a plan and a prophecy to defeat the Demon King. These heroes must stop the Demon King before he can enact his terrible plan to release the imprisoned Titans from their underworld prison, which would usher Elhal into a dark age that had not been seen in several thousand years. The heroes of this time period are epic; incredible warriors and mages. They fight off small armies alone, and lead attacks on cities with only a few troops. These heroes will become iconic when their stories are told.
This time period overlaps with the last two years of the time period above, and extends for another five years afterwards. The focus of this time period is on the war that the humans waged upon the Demons. This war was organized and lead by the iconic heroes from the previous period, but the war was fought by thousand of smaller heroes, and the tales of their deeds are equally worthy. The stories of this period would focus on the smaller battles and skirmishes throughout all of Elhal that eventually lead to the defeat the of the Demons.
This is the time period after the Demonfall War and the Fall of the Demon King, where the new Empire will form. This is a more positive time, but not all wounds from the time of the Demons and the war have been healed. In this time, there are still pockets of Demons to be eradicated, there are Orc Slavers, Human Warlords, and the dreaded Demon Lands which still need to be cleared. This is a time that is heroic, but dangerous. The iconic heroes who defeated the Demon King are retired and it’s time for new heroes to rise.
Over the past few years I have found a few different fantasy games that have caught my eye, and made me think about how I would play an Elhal game based on them. These are the four that I have really come to enjoy:
When I look at the different time periods within Elhal and the types of games that I selected, I found some pairings that were natural. Note that the Fall of the Demon King was the original campaign and so it was the most natural of pairings since that is how the world was created, but it is included here for completeness.
The Fall of the Empire is a dark time for humanity. The Demon King will change everything about the way humans lived, and how they will survive. In these days the Demon King’s army was small, so deception and subterfuge were heavily used. In this setting I think that Burning Wheel is a natural fit. The characters beliefs will revolve around their feelings about the Empire and the Demon King and they will be pushed into defending those beliefs as the world they knew crumbles around them.
This was how Elhal started. Iron Heroes was a great system for creating Epic Heroes and the their journey leading to the climatic battle, where the Demon King was defeated. What was missing in Iron Heroes was an epic magic system. We grafted onto this game the Green Ronin True Sorcery system, to get the mix of sword and sorcery we needed at the upper levels of the game. With some house rules for mooks, these heroes faced armies of Demons and were whirlwinds of destruction. The characters from this system were focused on the heroes journey and the eventual confrontation with the Demon King.
In the time of the Demonfall war, there are a lot of heroic battles and a lot of minor heroes who arise, in the shadow of the great heroes from the previous time period. Savage Worlds is a nice fit for this period, as it will allow for some pretty heroic action, and heroic abilities of the characters, but at a power level that will not eclipse the high end of Iron Heroes. Also this system allows for skirmish combat, so play can occur at the individual level as well as at the skirmish level, for playing out the more military style engagements.
In this time, the world is dangerous and the great war heroes and the epic heroes are moving on. In this time there is a new spirit of adventure as the remaining pockets of resistance are crushed and the work begins to bring the five kingdoms back under one empire. In this setting Shadow, Sword,and Spell will be a great fit, giving that feel of danger to the world again through its combat system, and the social combat will be great for helping to simulate winning people over, and some of the early political machinations that will occur as the Empire reforms.
Like a sommelier pairs a wine to a meal, a GM can pair a game system to a specific setting or time period within a setting. Taking the tone of the setting and finding a complementary set of mechanics which support it can create a powerful campaign.
Have you ever taken this approach, using different game mechanics for representing different periods within one setting? Have you ever used different mechanics on the same setting? What have been your experiences when different mechanics are applied to a single setting?
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