Getting to the Nuts and Bolts

June 24, 2016 at 11:08 pm

“The medium is the message”

— Marshal MacLuhan

28528-nav_backstaffOur polling samples show that most of us like to build from scratch, so lets do that. There is a world of inspirations, so why be limited to a specific backdrop borrowed from somewhere else.

One other major determination that needs to be made before you sit down to create an RPG world is the system you will be using.  Some systems nearly require a set world, while others claim to be universal — allowing you to play in an any and all environments with the same rules.


But beyond mechanical structures like spaceship construction or necromantic rituals, different rules systems offer a different game feel as well as highlighting different aspects of a world. No other choice has more bearing on how an RPG game world ‘works’ in practice.


The most obvious decision is probably genre. You probably wouldn’t choose Shadowrun for a gritty modern game or D&D for a WWI setting. Not that its impossible, and there might be something truly memorable by playing rules widely disconnected from genre, but tights’ a topic for another time. Let’s assume you will choose a rule-set that is compatible with the overall genre of the world you want to create.


There are a number of popular systems (FATE, GURPS, Savage Worlds, etc.) that offer a single set of mechanics for a wide variety of settings. This can be helpful for people (like me) who aren’t very good at memorizing rules, but can come off feeling generic. They lack the detail and color of more specific systems and leave a lot more responsibility in the hands of a world builder. This can be offset by world-books or setting guides for different game worlds, but this leads back to wealth of detail in more specific rules system (like Pathfinder or World of Darkness).

These systems offer so many setting-specific options and rules that some world-building decisions are difficult to enforce. You may want to have all divine magic bound to the elemental princes, but your player has  $50 rule book that says they can worship shadow. The complexity and density of the mechanics may also be an issue, depending on your gaming group.


Every set of rules, beyond its die-rolls and other mechanics, has its own flavor. While both might be strafarers, a Traveller character is very different form an Eclipse Phase character. And just as different from a Star Wars character. Each reflects its world in a different way, and encourages players to resolve conflicts in different  methods.

Do you want your players to travel an epic arc from stable-boy to earth-shattering archmage? Or come out of the gate like a young Conan, swinging axes and stealing treasures like an expert? Different systems have their own power curve and levels of realism. And different games offer very different methods of advancement, from occupational ’silos’ to wide-open skill systems, to loosely defined aspects. These decisions all have ramifications to how players will interact with the world you create.

In the end its a balancing act, and a matter of taste. Finding a ruleset that give you the structure to play the game you want, without hampering your creativity, can be difficult. But the right fit can empower your ideas and fuel role-playing in ways you may never have imagined.

And this is just a brief discussion of rules as written. The internet is filled with variations, mash-up, home-rules, and options to tweak any game to your taste. If mechanics is your things, give it a go. But not all optional rules well-balanced, or even tested by those who’ve written them.

Spoiler alert

As stated in the first post in this series, this is not merely a theoretical exercise. We plan (with your input) to build a world and put it to the test in play. To that end, we have decided to use Metagaming’s The Fantasy Trip as our ruleset. TFT is a very rules-light game written by Steve Jackson in 1980. Born out of the pocket games Melee and Wizard, it is basically a combat and magic system with a simple skill and advantage mechanic bolted on.

Steve Jackson would lose the rights of the game when Metagaming went under, and he would go on to write GURPS. You can definitely see the legacy of TFT in GURPS. But we like the simplicity of the game, and it has enough old school idiosyncrasies to be interesting.

There are OSR clones called “Heroes & Other Worlds” and “Legends of the Ancient World”, and more can be learned about the original in a tribute site here:

[su_box title=”Rules Toolbox” radius=”0″ width=”300px” align=”right”]Here are some online resources for this out-of-print ruleset. The Fantasy Trip was born from the these three books:
Advanced Melee
Advanced Wizard
In the Labyrinth

Here are two modern rewrites:
Heroes & Other Worlds
Legends of the Ancient World

This tribute site offers organized lists and tools that are much better organized than the originals: