Everyone knows about Dungeons and Dragons. Chances are that if you started playing TTRPGs in the last seven years that D&D’s 5th Edition was the first, and probably only, system you’ve played. However, TTRPGs have been around since 1971, and over the decades many different systems have emerged to varying levels of complexity and quality.
The thing with most systems, D&D included, is that they serve a very specific style of story, and are usually designed for one specific genre. Which means if you want to mix up your TTRPG game nights and play some Sci-Fi, or Cyberpunk, or Post-Apocalyptic stories you have to learn a dozen different systems right?... Wrong!
Whilst many systems are built to be played in a specific genre, there are some game developers out there who created systems that can be used to play games in every genre you could possibly think of, and most of these systems are incredibly simple and easy to pick up. In this post I’m going to give a brief breakdown of my 4 favourite genre flexible systems and urge anyone reading this to check them out.
PbtA is a wonderfully simple system that you can easily pick up and run when you are short on time. The system holds dozens of settings from which to choose, from the classic fantasy of “Dungeon World”, to the life of prohibition era gangsters in “Bootleggers”, to the sexy, angsty lives of teenage monsters in “Monsterhearts”, to the single greatest TTRPG title in history of the industry “Thirsty Sword Lesbians”. Practically any setting you could imagine has been converted into PbtA, so all you ever need to do is download the setting you want, read through the playbooks, and you’re pretty much ready to go.
This system is, what you may have heard people refer to as, a “Playbook” system. Instead of a character sheet you have a character playbook for each of the individual classes or character archetypes for the setting that contain all of the abilities for that character. Each player picks their playbook, fills in a few simple details, and they’re ready to start roleplaying.
Whilst there are some mechanics that are specific to certain settings, such as the strings mechanics for “Monsterhearts”, or the bonds in “Dungeon World”, they are never overwhelming.
Along with the playbooks, each setting also gives you a player’s reference sheet, and a GM’s reference sheet. The player’s reference sheet lists all the different actions that a player can take in that system. It then tells you what happens on a successful roll, a partially successful roll, and a failure. It’s kept vague enough that the GM can still flavour things to suit the situation at hand, but gives a nice level of guidance to ease some of the pressure from the GM during play. The GM’s reference sheet also helps by providing suggestions for locations, settings, plot hooks, plot twists, and even guides to creating NPCs for the setting.
PbtA is a lot of fun to play, however its one drawback for me is the very limited character advancement system. This is not a system where your characters get increasingly more powerful as the story progresses. Instead, you get a few extra abilities which can help serve the narrative. This is not a major issue, as this game is highly focused on narrative over game mechanics and does that very well. Generally, I would say that this system works really well for one-shots and short campaigns, but you might find the system begins to run stale over long term campaigns.
I recommend PbtA to anyone who is new to GMing and wants to dip their toe into a new system but are worried about learning a whole new set of mechanics. This system makes everything very easy and allows the GM to sit back and enjoy telling the story without having to worry too much about how things work.
Okay so this is a bit of a strange one to include as technically Blades in the Dark is a genre specific system. However there have been multiple versions of the game that have been released, both officially and by fans, that have converted the system across into different genres; from the sci-fi setting of “Scum and Villainy” to the western setting of “A Fistful of Darkness”. All in all, Blades in the Dark is a very simple system to play with some really cool elements.
Much like PbtA, Blades in the Dark is a playbook system where each character class/archetype gets their own playbook that lists their abilities. Unlike PbtA however it has a very cool character advancement system that allows players to improve their skills, and add new abilities over long term games.
This game includes some really cool mechanics, including the use of progress clocks. These are used to track events, projects, healing, and to add a sense of urgency during missions. Clocks are represented by a circle with a number of segments (like pie!). Gradually each segment is filled in based on either time passing, or progress being made. Once every segment has been filled, whatever the clock was counting down to comes to pass, which will either be good or bad for the crew.
Another great mechanic this system uses is the use of factions. Gangs and organizations which the crew must interact with in game. As the game progresses, the crew’s standing with the different factions will either increase or decrease depending on how they have interacted with them. The higher your standing with the factions the more amiable that faction will be towards you.
I recommend Blades in the Dark to any GM who is really into world building and having the player’s actions have a real effect on the world around them. The system was created specifically with heists and investigations in mind, though certain settings do lend themselves to epic adventures as well. The game gives the GM some great tools to create a sense of urgency and keep the action moving during play, so it’s definitely one worth checking out.
Now we get into a truly flexible system. Unlike PbtA and Blades in the Dark, FATE core doesn’t require you to download premade settings to be able to run different genres. FATE Core was built to be a completely genre neutral system that can be used in absolutely any setting you could possibly want to play in, and boy does it deliver on that promise. A simple character sheet, a list of open-ended skills, and some cool original mechanics make this system really effective no matter what the situation.
FATE Core is such a unique system in the way it handles mechanics. Essentially the game encourages the GM and players to make use of flavour text and descriptors by giving everyone the option to use the flavour text to bump up their stats. If that sounds confusing let me reassure you that it’s not. Basically, like any TTRPG, your character will have a list of skills. When performing any action, the player rolls a skill check using the special FATE Core dice and adding their skill modifier. After totalling up the roll, the player can then spend a number of “FATE points” to make use of any aspects listed about their character, or the environment/situation they are in. For every use of a “FATE point” the character adds a +2 to their roll. The possible total from any roll can range from a -2 to a +8, so as you can imagine, being able to add a couple of +2’s to your rolls makes a huge difference.
Creating a character in FATE Core is pretty straight forward. Your character concept is really the most important part. You’ll need to come up with some “aspects” about your character, and a “flaw”, which are all just one sentence descriptors that can be used with “FATE points” as explained above. You then pick out what skills you want to have at what level. The character sheet makes it very easy to do, and you don’t even need to set your skills in stone during character creation. FATE Core encourages players to leave some blank space on their skills tree so that if a situation comes up where a skill in needed, and no one has it, you can decide to give your character that skill in the moment and add it to your character sheet, so long as you justify it withing the narrative of your character.
FATE Core is the definition of a flexible system. It really encourages the GM and players to get creative with their choices and actions in game. Using the environment, and your character’s personality in play is rewarded, even if it has a negative effect on your character.
Really the only negative thing about this system is that it requires its own special dice, though they are easy to find online, and if you really don’t want to invest in the dice you can use a standard set of 4d6s if you absolutely have to.
If you want a system that really makes use of, and encourages creative and descriptive gameplay and roleplay, then I highly recommend checking out FATE Core.
Anyone who knows me knows that I love a good and meaty system that allows you to really customize your character’s gear and abilities. The problem is that most of these kinds of systems are very complex and tend to put off new players, so it can be hard to get a group of players willing to try them out. Recently however I have picked up the rulebook for the Savage Worlds system, and this game seems to tick a lot of boxes for me. It is a truly flexible system, much like FATE Core, and can be used in any genre. Whilst there are officially published settings, from the weird west setting of “Deadlands” to the Victorian horror of “Rippers”, the Savage Worlds rule book gives you everything you need to create your own custom setting within the system, including the ability to create custom races for the characters.
Whilst the mechanics of the game are quite simple, even when compared to D&D 5th Edition, the level of character customization is truly fantastic. Everything is designed in a way that allows you to build your character to be exactly how you want but without having endless mechanics for every little thing. There are 3 aspects of character creation in this system. The first are your ability scores and skills, which are similar to what you would expect to find in D&D, only instead of having modifiers for these stats, every stat has a different dice assigned to it from a d4 up to a d12. The second aspect of character creation are hinderances. Taking a hinderance or flaw for your character gives you more points to spend on boosting your character’s stats at character creation. Then finally you have character edges. These are the true meat of this system. Edges give your characters cool new abilities and bonus, and are the things that will make every character built in the system unique.
The combat system might take a little getting used to for GMs new to the system, but not because it’s complicated. Combat in this system works a little bit differently to most other TTRPG systems, but it’s mostly quite straight forward with a bunch of optional rules that you can add in if you so choose. Instead of a hit point system or a harm system, this game has its own way of tracking damage. Much like D&D, in combat each person takes their turn in the initiative order. A roll is made to attack, and another roll is made to deal damage. The damage is then compared to the target’s “toughness” stat, and if the damage roll is high enough then the target takes a wound. Most goons (known as “extras”) will go down if they take a single wound. Important NPCs and the PCs (known as “wild cards”) can take 3 wounds before going down. Checks can be made at the top of each character’s turn to try and recover from their injuries. Combat in this system moves very quickly and works fairly simply, and the optional rules can be used to add additional layers to the combat if that’s your style.
Of all the systems that I have mentioned in this blog, this one, for me at least, feel the most enticing. Its mechanics are simple enough for the players who don’t want to get bogged down with the technical aspect of game play, but substantial enough to give the level of customizability and the range of options for those who like a more complex system. As far as the level of complexity goes for Savage Worlds, I would put it at around the same level as D&D 5th Edition, maybe even a little simpler in places. With the number of optional
mechanics, including companions, military combat, and mounted combat, this system can provide a really rich gaming experience in any setting or genre.
If you'd like to give any of these a try, but are having a hard time finding a table to experience them, come join our discord server and say "hi." A few of these are either running or will be soon, and we'd love to see more of it (and you at the table too!). A link for our discord server can be found on our home page or the events page (and while you're there, have a look at what's currently on the calendar!).
What are some of your favourite open-genre systems and why? Tell us in the comments!