I recently did a review of Open Design’s Courts Of The Shadow Fey 4e adventure,  an excellent little romp through the interaction between the fey courts and the mortal world. I was incredibly impressed by the adventure, and it reinvigorated an old similar campaign idea that I had been kicking around for a while. The game I’m playing in is trailing off and it will be my turn in the hot seat next, so I’m going to be running a version of the Courts adventure. There are a few roadblocks in my way.
First, my group doesn’t really want to play a 4e game. Second, I’m growing a little tired of sword and sorcery fantasy right settings right now. I like them, but I want a definite change. I’ve solved the second problem by integrating the Courts Of The Shadow Fey adventure with a modern era urban fantasy campaign idea I’ve been kicking around. The module has proven flexible enough in story and concept that I’m not having a lot of trouble converting things I need to a modern era, but I’m still stuck with the problem of converting from 4e D&D to …. well I don’t know what yet. There are a lot of great systems out there that could handle the hodge podge idea I’ve got, but I’m not sure which one to use. I think I’ve narrowed it down to a few frontrunners, mainly Savage Worlds  and Fudge , but I don’t have extensive experience with these systems. I’ve run one-shots in Savage Worlds and I’m fairly familiar with the concepts. I’ve played in a few fudge games and I’ve liked the flexibility, but I Just don’t know which one would work best. They both have many supplements and derivatives that will be great to mine for data and inspiration. In Savage Worlds I can easily see stealing from Solomon Kane, Realms of Cthulu, and even the Superpowers supplement. In Fudge, and it’s derivative Fate, I can see snagging stuff from the Dresden Files RPG and being able to easily tweak the systems out to fit my needs. Both systems are great and could work beautifully, so how do I choose?
Luckily, I’ve got access to some friends who can give me some in-depth help evaluating the systems. Gnome Kurt “Telas” Schneider  is incredibly familiar with the Savage Worlds system. Gnome Patrick Benson  is an avid devotee of the Fudge system with incredible insight into the system. I decided to put some of my ideas and desires for the game up to these two to get their insight. So let the RPG faceoff begin!
In my modified Courts Of The Shadow Fey game, a Faery court returns to a small city in America that was founded primarily by Irish, Welsh, English and Scottish immigrants. The Duke who funded the expedition treated with a faery court for favor and good fortune in the new land. They helped the city get established and then promptly forgot about it for a few hundred years. When they came back in the present day, they found the city completely different and without the Duke’s family in charge. Seeing this as a violation of the treaty, they have taken over the city and clouded the minds of most of the people to their ownership. They are slowly changing things, things which the PCs notice and don’t forget. They are definitely not your Disneyfied faeries either. The PCs become embroiled in the oddities occurring and are made ambassadors to the faery court, where they must gain enough status and power to try to find some way of ending the occupation or right out destruction of the mortal city. The player characters will be normal humans with some minor fey blood or magical aptitude that makes them worthy of being ambassadors. The feel is definitely one of being a stranger in a strange land, learning to cope with the oddity and hopefully resolve the issues. I want a system that is open enough to allow me to emphasize the weird and untamed nature of the fey, but mechanical enough that it can handle the 4e conversion and provide nifty combat options while still emphasizing roleplaying choices over sheer chance.
Ok, with that out of the way, here are some of my questions/ideas.
The conversion from 4th Edition D&D to another system will be interesting, and I know both of these systems are light enough to handle it. 4E enemies have a lot of interesting powers though and the game requires an element of interesting combat, so how will each system handle keeping enemies and combats unique and with interesting options?
How to keep enemies and combats unique? To be honest, neither system does that. You as the GM are responsible for that part. So first you have to come up with the unique and interesting parts which is all above the system. Once you have those unique elements established, then you can focus on how the system would handle those elements.
For example, you might think that a dragon’s breath weapon is a unique element when used in D&D 4e combats. How do you apply that to Fudge? Break it down into its basic parts. It has a range, an area of effect, it does a certain amount and type of damage, and it must recharge before it can be used again. Using Fudge take the numbers from D&D and try to describe those qualities using the Ranks Ladder in Fudge.
So a fire breathing dragon has a breath weapon with a Good range that can hit all of the targets in a Fair sized section on the map. It causes Superb damage, and recharges on a roll of Good of better at the beginning of the dragon’s turn. Things vulnerable to damage by fire are easier to harm so they have a defense of Poor against the dragon’s attack, while fire-resistant type materials or creatures have a defense of Great against the same attack. If in either case the target has a defense that is more applicable to situation use that instead (it may be better or worse).
Need numbers? Take the Ranks Ladder and starting at the bottom count up. Good is five levels up so your range is five units on the map, and Fair is four levels up so it hits anything within four units of the center of the attack. Do you feel that range is too short? I do, and that is why I usually apply a multiplier based on the creature’s scale. If your dragon is a scale four creature that range is now 20.
Savage Worlds (Kurt):
One of the differences between Savage Worlds and modern versions of D&D is that critters in Savage Worlds often have abilities unique to that critter. In D&D, a critter’s ability was usually described as having a certain effect (blinded, stunned, etc) or being identical to another effect (as in D&D 3.x). In Savage Worlds, a creature’s abilities are not so cut and dried. An ancient vampire, for instance, have the power to summon and control wolves or rats with a simple Smarts roll at -2. This ability is not found anywhere else in the system, and the words “summon” and “control” don’t have system-specific definitions, but the ability is entirely appropriate to the traditional vampire.
In other words, if you want a critter to have a certain ability, give it to them. Don’t worry about ‘building’ or ‘converting’ critters, just assign abilities as needed. One of the common bits of advice given on Savage Worlds forums is to convert the concept of the creature, and not its statistics. This does take a bit of experience to keep from over/under-powering the critters, but there are plenty of examples to guide you.
This also applies to skills and abilities. Most Savage Worlds player characters won’t have a skill (such as Fighting or Shooting) above the Attribute it is dependent on (Agility in this instance). Simply put, it’s too expensive. But critters are not subject to this restriction, so the Ogre generally has a d6 Agility but a d8 Fighting.
An aside for the Savage Worlds “Bennie Economy”: Unlike most systems, an unbalanced encounter will generally not end up TPKing a party in the first couple of rounds. Unless the party has no means of escape, or no desire to escape (a party member is captured, etc), they can usually get away. So don’t worry too much about the actual power levels.
While I’m going to be working on a lot of prep for this game beforehand, I know I’ll be coming up with NPCs on the fly, both combat and social, so how quick is it to make an NPC in each system? What sorts of elements can I make up on the fly and what sort of prep should I do for NPCs beforehand?
Write a couple of sentences or a paragraph about the NPC using the adjectives from the Ranks Ladder for Fudge. Get all of the details that you think are relevant to the NPC described using those adjectives. Need to add a detail later when the unexpected happens in game? Just add to that description as needed using the same process.
Savage Worlds (Kurt):
Basic NPC creation in Savage Worlds is quick, once you get the hang of it. There are five Attributes, three derived Attributes, and however many skills you want.
I’m running a modern action-horror game as well, and I’ve come up with lists of possible abilities and such for various types of critters. For instance, vampires have lists of abilities, weaknesses, and quirks. Vampires of a bloodline are similar, but they are not necessarily identical, and I can pick from the above lists to make each one unique.
I want to keep the feeling of the PCs dealing with things beyond their ken, and a lot of that is going to be in the roleplaying and story, but what options are there for including odd or weird magic systems or powers that might not easily fit mechanical definition?
Use Aspects and Tags which have been made very popular by the Fudge derivative FATE. They are both a nice way to deal with those non-linear matters colored with shades of gray that pop up in every RPG.
Savage Worlds (Kurt):
Savage Worlds has the concept of the Trapping, which may be what you’re looking for. A Trapping is the in-world effect of the power (spell, etc). For instance, the Bolt power does 2-3d6 damage, regardless of the Trapping. But a flaming Bolt of sticky napalm is not identical to a psychic Bolt of pure chaos. The former may be somewhat negated by a wet target, while the latter may be completely blocked by an enclosed steel helmet. To many GMs, raised on the concept of “if it’s not in the book, it’s not in the game”, this can be a difficult concept. But to GMs familiar and comfortable with adjudicating in-game effects, Trappings are a godsend.
Courts has a status system that I intend to port over almost verbatim, but diplomacy is going to be key in some aspects. How do the systems handle diplomatic and speaky situations mechanically?
Again, break down the system from the original mechanics into its basic elements and then rebuild it using the other system’s mechanics. Here is another example where you can use some of the rules that FATE has introduced for Fudge but having multiple stress tracks – one for measuring physical states, and the other for measuring social states. NPC challenges a PC’s authority? Have them roll the appropriate skills or compel the appropriate Aspect. Depending on how the challenge plays out one or both characters might take damage to their social stress track.
Savage Worlds (Kurt):
Most of the Savage Worlds diplomatic mechanics are built on three skills: Diplomacy (based on Spirit), Intimidation (based on Spirit), and Taunt (based on Smarts). Diplomacy is the primary skill here, but I the other two can be used in combat, and will certainly come in handy among the courtly intrigues of the Shadow Fey. In addition, a number of Edges (similar to Feats) will affect the final outcome. As with nearly everything else in Savage Worlds, the GM is strongly encouraged to apply situational modifiers wherever appropriate.
What are your closing thoughts on the best way to use these systems for my concept?
Focus on the story elements of the setting, and the narrative elements of the game in general if you decide to use the Fudge system. Think of the Fudge system as a set of guidelines that you use to direct a plot with while the players use that same system to throw in plot twists or to focus the narrative on certain elements of the plot. Treat the session as an act of collaborative storytelling with the mechanics being used to heighten a dramatic element of the game. Once you get the ball rolling with Fudge it all seems to come together on its own if you just keep an open mind.
Savage Worlds (Kurt):
One of my favorite aspects of Savage Worlds is the combination of exploding dice and Bennies. Separately, they add to the fun in their own way. Exploding dice mean that anything is possible, if highly improbable. Bennies mean that the players get to choose what is important to them, whether it’s Soaking damage or succeeding on a very important die roll. Together, the combination adds both chaos and player (and GM) directed order to a game. In a world where everything is topsy-turvy, exploding dice make perfect sense, and the Bennie can be used to send signals to the players of what the various NPCs consider important (saving face, scoring social points, etc).
Evaluating Will Always Make A Game Better
 These answers have given me a lot to digest and a lot of insight into how to utilize these systems. Doing evaluation like this can really bring out the strong and weak points of a system and concept. I’d suggest doing a deep evaluation of any game you are intending to run to help you get a grip out of what you really want. You can start by asking yourself some questions about your concept, determining what it is you like and figuring out the particular elements you’ll have to take into account when you run it.
- What specific elements will the game concept focus on? Time period, setting, character interaction, combat, unique twists, comedy, etc?
- Will I need to do a lot of prep in figuring out NPC motivations and plots?
- Are there specific players in my group who will enjoy this concept? Are there specific players in my group who won’t enjoy it?
- How many players do I want?
- How long am I planning for the game to go?
- How much backstory will be required from players?
- Will I need to make information available in some format like a wiki or online shared site? Will that help my game?
- What movies and books fit the theme and inspiration for this game? Will they be helpful to get my players into the feel?
- Can I or should I make props, a soundtrack, or specific maps, etc? Will elements like this enhance the game or being unnecessary?
- How much time would each session take? Would taking breaks for dinner break the mood?
- Should I make or find a list of NPC names to use beforehand?
- Will my players find this type of game fun?
- Will I enjoy running this concept?
You can also ask yourself questions about the systems you are looking at running. They can help you evaluate if the system fits what you want
- Will the system fit my concept or will it need modified?
- How quickly can I create NPCs on the fly?
- How fast/slow/detailed/fluffy are combats and actions scenes?
- Does this system have sourcebooks that I can mine for inspiration/information?
- If this is a new system to my players, how quickly can they pick it up?
- Does the game require minis or a particular playing space (table, etc.)? Do I have minis or other accessories appropriate to the game?
- Is there anything innovative about this system that I particularly like? If I choose another system, can I port those elements over to it?
- Will my players find this type of system fun?
- Will I enjoy running this game?
You can also make a scale of game needs and compare how various systems meet up to them. Figure out two opposing elements of a system and assign it a score. Determine if it leans more in favor of your concept or not.
- Roleplaying or Rollplaying
-5 -4 -3 -2 -1 0 +1 +2 +3 +4 +5
- Fluffy or Crunchy
-5 -4 -3 -2 -1 0 +1 +2 +3 +4 +5
- Rules Light or Rules Heavy
-5 -4 -3 -2 -1 0 +1 +2 +3 +4 +5
No matter how you do it, devoting some dedicated time to evaluating your game, concept, system, or setting can help you get more confident about running the game. It can help you determine areas that need work or help you modify your concept to fit a particular niche. Asking yourself questions AND asking others questions helps you get new insights, even if those questions seem obvious. Going to people who have more knowledge than you do about a particular subject can help you discover new areas of a system or setting that you never would have known about beforehand.
And now we throw it back to you. Have you got any insights into these systems that might help me decide? What about an outside contender that I don’t know about yet? Are there any conundrums like this that you need a little help figuring out? We gnomes would be happy to help, just throw it out in our suggestion pot  with some elements of a concept you want evaluated or systems you are trying to decide between. Give us some specific questions or wants and we’ll see if we’ve got the right stuff to answer them. We might even do another RPG faceoff with your concept.
Unexpectedly enough, this article comes right on the heels of Martin’s excellent Eating an Apple with Your Nose: Aligning Out-of-Game Expectations with In-Game Reality  article. I’d definitely go read that, as the conundrum I present here is definitely one of how the mechanics will affect the in-game reality of things.