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GM As Sommelier: Pairing Settings and Systems

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.

One Size Does Not Fit All

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.

The World Of Elhal

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.

Four Interesting Periods

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:

The Fall Of The Empire

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.

The Fall Of The Demon King

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.

The Demonfall War

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.

The New Empire

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.

Four Game Systems

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:

The Pairings

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.

Fall Of The Empire (Burning Wheel)

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.

Fall Of The Demon King (Iron Heroes)

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 [5], 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.

The Demonfall War (Savage Worlds)

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.

The New Empire (Shadow, Sword, and Spell)

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.

What Goes With Your Setting?

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?

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "GM As Sommelier: Pairing Settings and Systems"

#1 Comment By lyle.spade On December 16, 2011 @ 7:12 am

Fascinating idea, and one I’ve never considered. The story, then, would be the unifying aspect of the campaign, rather than the system. You’d be playing “World of Elhal” instead of DnD or WOD or whatever.

Since some of these time periods overlap, would you anticipate using some of the same characters in two or more of those systems? If so, how would you go about translating them from one to another? Would you seek to translate the spirit of each character, or the stats and abilities? That’s an interesting proposition, and a lot like the one Bible translators have to deal with – do you translate the meaning, or the words? Sentences or whole paragraphs? Do you find a direct representation of ‘strength’ of the physical sort in all systems and then try to create a ratio, or do you find, in Savage Worlds, for example, an edge that makes a character tougher in physical combat, rather than just increasing the strength die?

This sounds like the grist for a long, game-stalling discussion…and a great one.

Regardless, well done.

#2 Comment By DNAphil On December 16, 2011 @ 10:58 am

[6] – In terms of the overlapping time periods and characters, I would really work hard to keep them separate. I would rather not have to translate an NPC or worst a character from one system to another. In the case of the Fall of the Demon King and the Demonfall War, I would have my characters in the Demonfall war, know of the epic heroes, but not be friends with them or be sharing drinks with them.

If I could not avoid it, then I would translate them in the spirit of the character as best reflected by the mechanics of the new game. For some of the conversions it would be nearly impossible. To make an epic warrior from Iron Heroes in Savage Worlds, could be done reasonably well. Take that same Iron Heroes character, and there would be no way to represent them correctly in Burning Wheel.

Keep ’em separated is what I say (and sing).

#3 Comment By The_Gun_Nut On December 16, 2011 @ 11:29 am

The “World of Elhal” sounds like it was a blast to play. It would be interesting to play it in any of the time periods you mentioned, as well as trying out the various game systems.

I have held the idea, for almost as long as I have been gaming, that each system influences not only how the players interact with the world, but how they act within the world. Each one produces a different “feel” when everyone sits around the table and creates the narrative.

For example, while Dungeons & Dragons is a fairly iconic fantasy game system, with numerous settings to play in, each edition “feels” different. (I’m going to make the assumption that everyone reading has at least passing familiarity with each edition.)

The first one is that “old school” style where the players only get as much information or action out of the game as they put in. This emphasized the interaction of the players with the world and the DM. This meant that exploration and discovery were often just as easy (or hard), and as fun, as combat or political intrigue. The downfall here was that the DM could easily get a bit full of her/himself, and drag down a game.

The second edition formalized a lot of the house rules that people had been using, and giving more structure to how the players interact with the world. Player/DM/world interaction was still paramount, but there was the beginnings of a framework built in to resolve typical actions without heavy DM work. This meant that the DM could focus on other areas, and the players had a sort of small safety net to prevent the bad end of DM fiat.

The third edition was the first radical change for D&D. It created a lot of rules for interacting with the world, making it somewhate easier to adjucate (from a DM standpoint) while preventing some of the problems of bad DM rulings due to concrete, structured ways for player interaction. The 3.5 edition merely corrected and codified more of what the third edition was already about. Namely providing the framework from which the players and DM could use to interact with the world. This prevented some of the worst of bad DM fiat, since players had a rule they could point to in order to neutralize an out of touch DM.

The fourth edition represents a shift in game style. While structure is still highly important, the focus of the mechanics have shifted from interaction with the world (with every skill and ability present), to a more combat-centric style of gameplay. While player/DM/world interaction is still there, and can become remenicient of the 1st or 2nd edition, with the very robust combat structure of the system, combat is easier to plan for and play than any other aspect of the game. As very little adjucation is needed by the DM to run combat scenarios, it is therefore easier to run a combat heavy game than, say, one involving politics. With such a strong structure, players can be reasonably assured that what they see is what they get.

It is worth mentioning that the Pathfinder RPG, which builds upon the 3.X edition, is structurally similar to that edition but puts more options for players to explore with their characters. This part is IMO, but it seems to have more energy than the 3.X edition it is based upon. Lastly, honesty dictates that I must include that I do prefer Pathfinder to the D&D fourth edition.

Each one of these systems is “D&D,” however each one feels slightly different to me at the table. In both running or playing each edition, each one seems to have a different focus. I would not use the 4th edition, for example, for a heavy political game full of strong DM/player interaction, but I would use it for an action oriented one. My 1st edition game wouldn’t have to be politcs focused, or combat focused, or anything focused, as the intent here would be to interact with everyone at the table and build a story or even a world (world building being a heavy focus for the 1st edition).

In short, each one brings something different to the table, so I would choose the edition that most emphasized what I wanted my players to get out of the experience.

#4 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On December 16, 2011 @ 11:52 am

In the Greyhawk community, there is great love for GMs who keep the setting alive — regardless of what setting they’re playing.

But this takes that step to the next level. A very intriguing idea. Your whole-scale system swap is much more daring.

The only thing vaguely similar is David Noonan and James Wyatt’s concept for “When Worlds Collide” in Unearthed Arcana. A time-spanning way to play different eras in the same campaign with d20 variants.

Some have speculated that Malhavoc’s Arcana Evolved/Ptolus are, in fact, the same setting using rules variants for different eras, too.

But really, this is so novel, I’m going to read your article again and see what else I can glean from it.

#5 Comment By DNAphil On December 16, 2011 @ 1:29 pm

[7] – I am glad you like the idea. Your comment convinces me that I am going to have to invest some more time into this idea and make something happen from it.

#6 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On December 16, 2011 @ 1:30 pm

Taking the ‘system affects gameplay’ to the next logical step. Nice.

A cool aspect of this is that you can use a consistent game world (and all that prep) for very different games, and never really run out of room.

#7 Comment By Razjah On December 16, 2011 @ 9:35 pm

I really like this article. I have had similar thoughts, but I really liked the examples. I’m going to need to bookmark this so that I can bring it up next semester with my role playing games club.

#8 Comment By black campbell On December 17, 2011 @ 5:57 pm

Agreed — system mechanics can enhance or hinder a certain flavor for a game campaign. Good post.

#9 Comment By ThoughtCheck On December 18, 2011 @ 8:11 pm

Most interesting thing I’ve read today… I’m particularly fond of the GM-as-sommelier metaphor, which is such an apt way to describe the relationships between story and mechanics. Of course, they pair off! They have flavors that complement one another! “Game Sommelier” has earned a place in my vocabulary.

Incidentally, while I can see the great difficulties in translating a character from one setting to the next, and I can see why you’d want to avoid it, it might be compelling in a different sort of campaign altogether; specifically, imagine a sci-fi setting where the players might leap between two parallel universes. Sort of a ‘Fringe’ scenerio… they worlds might look the same but, by virtue of the mechanics, feel very different. Could be neat.

#10 Comment By spikexan On December 18, 2011 @ 10:05 pm

The closest thing I tried to this approach was with John Wick’s Flux meta-setting. I found it an absolute blast getting some use out of old gaming books that just didn’t have enough umph to hold a game all their own (my group loves the campaign over the one-shot). I must say I will be using this idea. It is just too great. My only question now is whether to let them be the same character in all the stages or different adventurers in each. Great stuff!

#11 Comment By Apocryphim On December 22, 2011 @ 6:54 am

“Iron Heroes – A d20 variant based on D&D 3.5, this game was the ultimate in high-octane marital action.”

Oh, it’s THAT kind of role-playing system! I was confused there for a moment – your group must be much more open-minded than mine. Yes, under such circumstances, I can understand the desire to pair different mechanics with certain moods. 😉

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#13 Comment By wallywampa On December 24, 2011 @ 1:25 pm

My favorite setting is the 7th Sea game and the rules that went with it. I use the rules as frequently as possible, unless high fantasy magic is involved, the fall over to the OWoD Mage setting.

#14 Pingback By Happy New Year! « Thought Check Games On January 3, 2012 @ 1:47 am

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[…] can typically find ways to pair different settings with other systems with a little jury rigging. DNAPhil at Gnome Stew suggests that one of a GM’s roles is much like a Sommelier pairing the right meal with the right wine – but pairing the right setting with the right […]