This is a followup to this article about using RPG character sheets in place of the usual ones found in writing books.
Beyond is a breakdown of several RPG systems and my views on their use as writing aides. If that doesn’t sound like fun, turn back now.
These reviews are not necessarily graded or even the least bit objective. If one of these systems meshes with your writing style then by all means use it with my blessing. However I will try and give you some pro/cons to help guide you toward systems I think help more.
My main criteria for a good system is 1. how difficult is it to make a character? and 2. how much more work do I have to do afterward to get something I can use as a writing aide? These are both fairly nebulous, and can vary from person to person, but I will try and be articulate in explaining my views, which should help you make your own decisions.
So, let’s get started.
Overview: I know I should start with Dungeons and Dragons (the one everyone thinks of) but truth be told, I am only abstractly familiar with DnD and Pathfinder does everything DnD 3.5 (game editions are a long story better covered by other people) does but under an open gaming license that allows the material to be available online for free…so it wins the plug.
- It’s FREE (just go to the second link up top and brace for information overload).
- The system is huge, with classes and races and customization and weapons and armor and magic doodads and any number of minute details that will give you EXACTLY the character you imagine in your head.
- Despite an obvious focus on medieval fantasy, there are tools here for a variety of cultures, time periods, and genres to be conceived.
- The system is also reasonably familiar–if you’ve played only one RPG, it was probably Dungeons and Dragons. Pathfinder runs on a variation of its most popular (or possibly most geeky) iteration and so there may be less of a front end for you to make your first character.
- Umm…did I mention it was free?
- The characters for Pathfinder are very mechanical, with a lot of little numbers and derived variables…none of which affect anything other than how well your character kills monsters. This makes for a difficult character sheet to construct without much to show for it.
- The sprawling system makes it very difficult to take in, I’ve taken hours just staring at all the options and wondering which ones were actually smart to take.
- Following off the above, with so much variety the temptation to pick options solely because they are “the best” is very strong.
- The elements of life beyond monster slaying are fairly marginalized–you get a list of skills that cover everything from diplomacy, to flight. This is used only to create a number for a pass/fail check, hardly helpful for creating a nonviolent character.
Overall I am not a fan, but if DnD is your system, or you are hesitant to spend money on this, Pathfinder is your game.
13th Age is my favorite iteration of the Dungeons and Dragons “formula.” The system was built with a focus on storytelling over hard crunchy numbers, and trying to ensure everyone had fun things to do even when they weren’t playing the most mechanically viable character.
- Close enough to Dungeons and Dragons for veterans to “get it”, streamlined and easy enough for newcomers to get it quickly.
- Hard skills are done away with, replaced with “backgrounds” that serve the same purpose while being more flavorful.
- Focus on storytelling means you as a writer have less work to do once the character is built.
- Choices are made to maximize “fun” over hard line “reality” which definitely improves the versatility of the system.
- The “Icons” system is a brilliant world building tool that will be discussed at length in another article.
- Yet another medieval European fantasy generator. If you want to do any other genre, you’ll have to make some major modifications.
- Even less of an idea where the common man stands in relation to you than normal DnD…that can make a difference.
- No mechanics for purely social situations–those are relegated to simple pass/fail rolls.
- The rules for magic items don’t quite work. They’re trying to make them alive and wondrous like the One Ring or Elric’s Stormbringer, but those effects don’t really scale down well to the various gewgaws that litter a DnD world and so they end up feeling more stupid than awe-inspiring.
Overall definitely worth checking out if you have the time.
World of Darkness
The “other” stereotype of role-playing gamers comes from this game…the guy in the trenchcoat with a katana pretending to be a vampire. The usefulness of LARP-ing aside, the system is wonderful at portraying an “urban fantasy” world, where monsters and faeries lurk just around the corners of any modern city you could name.
- Urban fantasy means the “average” person can be created in the system, which opens up several genres that the DnD clones couldn’t quite handle.
- And yet the monsters are available. The systems’ multiple “splats” handle everything from vampires to faeries to wizards.
- Point-buy system is fairly intuitive. Take the things you want, leave the stuff you don’t.
- More robust social system means you can build “talky” characters in addition to just “fighty” ones.
- The game’s inherent darkness colors the game a little bleak…it’s hard to feel the hero when you know you’re screwed from the onset. It may not bother you, or that may be the atmosphere you’re looking for, just be aware that it’s there.
- Social system doesn’t quite cut the mustard (since it may involve infringing on player choice, and no one wants that)–this may not be true across the board for all the splats, but then, this isn’t a system I am terribly familiar with.
Overall this one is useful for those of us wanting urban fantasy, mystery, or just a good old fashioned romance novel. But if you prefer your heroes to smile every once in a while, this may not be the one for you (although…the sister system Exalted might be up your alley)
Legend of the Five Rings
L5R is the system that introduced me to the “John Wick social meat-grinder.” (No, not the Keanu Reeves character). The game is quite possibly MORE deadly in social situations than it is during combat–a sword might only wound, the right word in the right ear and you WILL die…most likely by your own hand. It’s a deadly vicious trial by fire and I love it to bits.
- The world of Rokugan is unique in that it’s very obviously based on ancient Japan. There’s a lot of China and Mongolia thrown in there as well but you’re playing a samurai (or Buddhist/Shinto monk, or ninja), interacting with kami and oni, and are ever concerned over your Honor and Glory. Obviously you can adjust for your world and needs, but everything is pretty ingrained in eastern influences. Great for when you want to write something that isn’t knights and dragons.
- Social combat is vicious. You will be POLITE, or you will be dead. Simple as that.
- NORMAL combat is vicious. Wounds hurt and an ill-made character can die in two attacks. Usually it’s better to try talking first.
- Excellent point-buy system gets you just enough stuff to realize how long you’ve got to go. Disadvantages are particularly nice for character understanding.
- This is my jam! This is the system I cut my teeth on as a role-player, this is the one I’ve made the most characters for, this is the one I’ve tried a little of everything and had the most character successes with. This is the one I play-by-post with people and together we write grand epics involving innumerable characters telling a story one character interaction at a time (when I have time that is). This is the game that taught me how much I enjoyed writing…so you bet it’s on this list.
- The system’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. The setting of Rokugan influences the mechanics so heavily, it’s hard to divorce them from the setting. It can be done, but you’ll see the influences leak through.
- The combat is so deadly it’s very easy to be killed by things that, on a good day, you would go through like a scythe through wheat (I call it the “peasants with sticks problem” for a reason)
- And yet somehow it’s still hard to tell what the “baseline” is. A freshly made character has just graduated “samurai school” (at the ripe old age of sixteen-ish) making him leagues above the average peasant, but the levels of power beyond that are nebulous and ill defined. (a man ten years your senior may still only be rank 1 just like you) The only constant is “authority equals ass-kicking,” so pretty much everyone you run into will be either woefully outclass you, or woefully be outclassed by you.
- A lot of the social stuff is fluff based. So there is a lot of reading to do before you can walk into court and hold yourself like a gentleman of rokugan. The mechanical system is also a little front-end heavy.
- The company that used to make the system recently sold it to another company entirely. Been waiting almost two years for what the new stuff will look like…might end up waiting more for new RPG material.
Personal biases aside, L5R is a great system that does magical samurai better than anyone. Outside of that niche you might be a little hard-pressed to make it work, but it can be done.
Another game by John Wick, the first edition of this game had a lot of fans, but I was introduced on the second edition and it rapidly became one of my favorites. The focus of this game is cinematic swashbuckling. So it’s all about swinging from the chandeliers and fighting pirates, and/or being pirates, and rescuing damsels and getting out-fenced by those same damsels and any number of gloriously cliched shenanigans around and about the golden age of piracy.
- This is the only game I have ever played that made me feel like a movie star right off the bat. Not a hero, not a samurai, not even a pirate–a movie star. If you like your protagonists so awesome it hurts, this is your game.
- Character creation is easy and fairly intuitive. Put your points where you’d expect your swashbuckler to excel and don’t worry about those messy details of inadequacy…you can probably fudge your way past your weaknesses.
- Conflict system works just as well for social combat as it does for combat-combat. In many ways the two blend together…yes, that means you can say all those clever quips while swordfighting and probably get bonuses for it.
- This game does one thing very well. Swashbuckling stories. It can probably be adapted for other genres…but this isn’t a good one for horror or moody mystery.
- Yet another Euro-centric game. Of course, this time that’s in the forefront with “not France” picking fights with “not Spain” and so forth. They’ve promised more material for “not Africa” “not the Ottoman Empire” and “not the American Colonies” but those are still a ways away. At least it’s renaissance Europe this time.
- Again, baseline human is hard to determine. People you fight are either “brute squads” (made up of a number of brutes with 1 hit point each) or villains (who roll an arbitrary number of dice for almost everything). Still it doesn’t bother me as much here since your character is supposed to thrash roomfuls of guys without breaking too much of a sweat.
A great system for playing, and useful for churning out interesting characters quickly. Give it a go.
The Dresden Files RPG
My favorite book series in the world has an rpg based on it. And ironically, it’s better used for writing books than actually playing. Lots of wonderful tools that can be easily transferred to writing.
- Wonderful system for character creation…the traits creation bit is especially useful.
- There is a CITY creation system. Do you have any idea how unique that is? I had no idea I even needed this until I saw it in this system.
- Urban fantasy focus allows for plain vanilla mortals to share the spotlight with wizards and vampires, opening up its use for multiple genres
- This may be personal bias, but I don’t like the FATE system (a set of rules that can be transferred and adapted to different specific games). It’s actually too numbers light if you can believe that, making it hard to determine what a “competent” character looks like.
- The magic system is worse. Basically every spell you cast needs to be built from the ground up. But without any sort of hard numbers, you can’t always tell if you’ve made the right call in the original building.
- Boo to using special dice…boo. Yes, I realize normal d6s work and if you’re not a gamer the dice don’t matter that much, but boo all the same.
In short, gut it for parts. Give playing it a try if someone offers to run it, but don’t actively pursue it.
Now for a bit of practice.
- Think of the protagonist in your favorite book series (Harry Potter will do in a pinch). Build him in one of these systems…just using the character creation schema in your RPG of choice–no extra points. How difficult was it?
- Now build your own protagonist at least twice. Once using basic character rules, and a second at a power level you think he ought to be by your book’s end (you may want to throw in a third iteration for where your protagonist starts the book, if not at lvl 1) think about all the stuff that has to happen between those snapshots of your character’s progression. Write down anything you note because of it.
- Also, write down any ways actually building your character out like this surprised you–any quirks in the build that weren’t there when you started, sacrifices you had to make because you didn’t have enough points
That’s it for now. Until next time, keep writing.