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Adaptation Confrontation: What RPG System Works Best for my Setting?

angel_a_15Where genres are concerned, my first love is and will always be Fantasy.  Swords and sorcery, elves and dwarves, lost ruins and evil gods – I’ve loved it all since my youth.  Heck, it probably stems from the first stories my parents read me as a tyke; after all, aren’t fairy tales, myths, and their ilk just one of the roots of modern fantasy?

But lately, I’ve been feeling a bit “fantasy’d” out, and need to run a different sort of genre.  I idly tossed around the idea of horror, maybe a Call of Cthulhu campaign or something like that, but it didn’t quite seem what I was looking for.  In some respects, CoC is a horror-fantasy, and it just didn’t feel like it was far enough away from High Fantasy to fit the bill.

So I started looking at Science Fiction instead last summer, specifically Space Opera, and started writing down elements and cross-genre bits I’d like to include.  Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long for a campaign setting to start to emerge, and I’ve been poking and prodding it into shape for months now.

But before I can take it out and give this strange alternate universe of mine a try, I need to anchor it to some kind of RPG System, and that’s been somewhat of a conundrum.  And not only does it have to be one that will work with “feel” of the setting itself, but it also has to be something that my local gaming group likes to play.

So what system is the best to adapt to my campaign setting?

Over-choice always makes it hard to choose

With so many interesting and varied RPG Systems out there being used by the gaming community, it’s really quite daunting to try and contemplate them all.  And I’ve become familiar with quite a few in the past few years as “that Reviewer guy” over at EN World News.  And that doesn’t necessarily make my choices much simpler – quite the contrary, it makes it even more difficult to pick one.

Do I go to an OSR style system, or one that is more modern in its mechanics?  Do I choose something from the Indie game systems, or choose something more mainstream like a d20/OGL style?  Frankly, it’s frustrating enough to set one’s teeth on edge.

Of course, there are a number of more proprietorial game systems I could dismiss out of hand – one’s that are less universal in nature, and more closely tied to their campaign settings.  Not that there is anything wrong with this system-fits-setting mechanic philosophy, and I certain think it works quite well for quite a few RPGs out there.  But it does make it less flexible when you try to apply the mechanics to a setting, almost feeling as though the setting must make certain allowances for the game system, and I definitely want to avoid that.

And certainly, there are a few systems out there that are designed quite well for a Space Opera setting – logically, any one of the iterations of Traveller leaps to mind – from the original rules or 2300AD, or maybe the more recent d20 version.  It would certainly be a good fit for most of my own setting material, although there are a few bits the older versions of Traveller wouldn’t handle that well.  D20/OGL being a truly universal system does make the d20/Traveller pretty easy to manipulate, so that definitely goes on the list.  But there are other reasonable candidates to consider that might have a faster combat system or a more streamlined character generation system, and those are important factors to include in a decision as well.

I could use something closer to Pathfinder than d20, and just house rule d20/Traveller until it’s a bit more streamlined.  There are some mechanical advantages to using a Pathfinder-d20/Traveller hybrid system, including creating archetype options for characters, and the fact that many of my gaming buddies know d20 and Pathfinder rules fairly well.

For OSR style rules, Machinations of the Space Princess isn’t a bad choice, although the system does seem to operate best with an “implied” game setting.  As it happens I’ve gone rather beyond implicit for my campaign setting, but it could still work out for a system.

Recently, I reviewed Mutants & Masterminds, and while intended for superhero-comic style settings, could readily work.  It is a bit soft on the characters, with a fairly low level of lethality from most combats – a mechanic which fits comic role-playing quite well.  But outer space should be a scary and dangerous place, whether filled with horrific aliens or not, and a system should reflect that mortality.

I’ve recently had the chance to take a look at the Savage Worlds Deluxe RPG system, and although I haven’t done a review on it, it’s certainly a candidate high on the list of systems to use.  (I intend to rectify the absence of a review of the Savage Worlds Deluxe this coming Wednesday!)  As a universal system, it offers quite a few cool mechanic options that might make combats much quicker and more streamlined.

Overall, I have quite a few options to consider for an RPG system that matches my setting, but I’m certainly open to suggestions.  If any of my Fellow Gamers have suggestions for a system I had not considered as yet, please feel free to comment on the blog – I enjoy hearing back from my Readers and would love to get some feedback on my options.

So until the next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!

Image from ConceptShip by Angel Alonso

About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.


6 Responses to “Adaptation Confrontation: What RPG System Works Best for my Setting?”

  1. Ian says:

    Have you seen Corporation by Brutal Games, available through DriveThruRPG. It’s a cyberpunk, sci-fi that may well fit what you want.

  2. I’d probably use Traveler or Savage Worlds. But for an OSR feel there’s also Stars Without Number and Hulks & Horrors. H&H does have a fairly strong implied setting but has a good space opera vibe as well.

  3. Mike B. says:

    You should check out Diaspora ( It’s Fate based (though old Fate) and it does ‘hardcore’ Space Opera pretty well I think. There’s also always Fate Core, though it doesn’t have anything in particular related to the setting you’re trying to get going. Good luck!

  4. @Ian – No I haven’t taken a look at Corporation, but it sounds pretty good as a fit for the setting.
    @Mike B. – I’ve not played FATE myself, but the system seems a bit implicit in its character design. Still worth looking at though… thanks!

  5. Svafa says:

    I’m starting a space opera game in two weeks and we’ll be using a slightly customized Fate Core. I looked at some of those you listed (Traveller, Savage Worlds) and a few others like Diaspora and Rogue Trader, but I found I really didn’t want a complicated skill system, nor did I want any sort of “magic” (psionics or whatever). So, I modified the Fate Core skill list, swapping things like Crafts for Engineering and Lore for Academics, added in armour and weapon ratings (biased toward weapons), and changed the list of character aspects to include an aspect for species/culture specifically. I’ve got the vehicles/ships portion down for the most part, and the only thing I’m still struggling to figure out is how to handle resources (I removed it as a skill), as I want it to put an emphasis on the crew’s struggle to stay afloat, rather than on individual wealth.

  6. @EdwardWilson – Ha. I think I reviewed a Stars without Number product a bit ago. I should probably go back through the rules and see if it’s a fit

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