Robin’s Laws Revisited: Part 3, Picking up your set of rules

rpg_books2.pngThis post is part of a series that explores Robin Laws’ seminal work on GMing, Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering and adds my thoughts on the same subject. This time, we tackle choosing a Rule set which is very actual since we’re at the butt end of D&D’s current edition.

Part 1 can be found here and part 2 here.

I stole the image from Shamus Young, sorry mate it’s too good not to use!

Most of those reading here are currently playing a campaign so the choice of rule set is not usually a problem.

But campaigns do come to an end. Players get bored of rules (I know I’m growing tired of 3,5). Editions come and go, leaving behind part of it’s fan base looking for different stuff.

I also know that some readers here are between games or are thinking of starting again at some point on the future.

For all of these reasons, a GM/DM may start to look for a new game system for his next campaign.

Robin Laws starts this chapter with a very relevant discussion on the fact that there is no true best game out there. That you, as a GM, need to look for, and find, a game that best fits your tastes. After that, hopefully you’ll get players to join you.

If you are lucky enough, you’ll get to play your 1st choice of game. However, often enough, you’ll need to compromise. I know that many DM’s like Shamus, were actually ‘stuck’ playing D&D because it’s the default around which a varied gaming group will agree to play.

Therefore, converting players to your pet system is not just an exercise in GM enthusiasm or (heaven forbid) a lecture on “just how Awesome this game is” it needs more than that. In order to sell your game, be it World of Darkness, D&D, Blue Rose or Spirit of the Century, you need to objectively compare the games’ focus and mechanics to the tastes of your potential players.

For example, if your game is about collaborative Storytelling and intense GM narration… don’t get a group of Butt kicker or Brilliant Planners. Go for Psychodramatists and Storytellers. Furthermore, if you want to play D&D because you want to play thematically-linked tactical battle scenarios, make sure that your group wants this.

If your game blurs crunch and fluff (a bit like Burning Wheel seems to be), check that the players understand the key difference from the classic RPG paradigms and are conformable with that.

After that point in the book, Robin Laws does a rather simplistic analysis of “Storytellers=Vampire, Power Gamers = D&D and Casual = whatever the hell you want to play”.

I think it’s far more complex than that but I’d summarize it as”If you want to have a game where the players will have fun (and so will you) you need to make the effort to recognize if your game will meet the needs of your players”.

This in includes but his not limited to the game’s

  • tone(Heroic, gritty, over the top…)
  • theme (Fantasy, Horror, Supers, Pulp…)
  • learning curve (from Risus to Pendragon)

Also, while I don’t suggest to actually use his proposed system of scoring your player’s types to achieve a ‘Fluff vs Crunch’ score, it’s worth having a look at his Game system continuum. There he compares rulesets that favor GM fiat (weak, vague or abstract crunch) vs rules that favor player (Defined, powerful, clear cut crunch).

In that mind, games like John Arcadian’s Silvervine seem to be a modern representative of the 1st category (as well as games I’ve seen labeled as ‘Forge designs‘) whereas D&D, perhaps more than any others, firmly sits in the second category.

You should explore these 4 issues (Tone, Theme, Learning Curve and Crunch) vs your tastes and those of your players in order to choose the best game (or at least get to an acceptable compromise).

Finally, Laws tackles the possibility of choosing a (partial or complete) Homebrewed RPG by asking a brutally honest question: Does your rules make the game better or does your game exist to make your rules better?

Getting a group to play your homebrewed ruleset requires a lot of effort for players. As a both a GM and creator, it might be hard to make an objective analysis of your game system vs your player’s tastes. I’ve been around the Internet and RPGs long enough to have heard the line: “(insert indie/homebrewed game) is better than (insert famous RPG)’ only to realize that the game is an unplayable mess with a few rabid fans clustered around its creator.

Regardless of what Robin Laws or I have to say about it, chances are you that when next you decide to start a game, you’ll tell yourself : “I’m the damn GM, I might has well start a game using rules I like” and I’d say your at least 60% right. A successful campaign needs the GM’s buy-in first and foremost.

However, for the campaign to become a good, even a great one, you need to address that other 40% and make sure your players will likethe game’s theme, style and philosophy.

That’s why I’m sticking with D&D for now, it still meets most of my player’s needs, although some of the crunch and fluff of that game are getting a bit stale for all of us. (And it’s the main reason why we’re turning up the Storytelling part a few notches past our usual level).

Now, how about you tell me how you made the choice for your game system (not campaign, that’s the next chapter) and you explain what you had to contend with to achieve that decision.

Damn, I need to fill in an extra paragraph to fit in with the rest of that awesome image… so while we’re at it, why not sell me on the merits of your favorite non-D&D game? Out of all those shown in the image, I only played D&D, Gurps and read Shadowrun and Rifts.


  1. No Comments on this? Well I’ll Bite.

    Love the post. I really need to pick up a copy of Robin’s Laws. However for now I have the stuff from DMG2 and it’s awesome.

    My gaming group consists of busy players who want a minimum learning curve. So when we choose a system, it has to be something they can pick up quickly. That means either a simple system, a variation on something they know, or something they already know.

    Here’s an example. At one point I proposed I was going to run a mini-campaign. Eventually after talking with the players the idea of a Firefly campaign came up. I wasn’t about to buy a new system that I heard mixed reviews on, so I decided to take the Star Wars SAGA rules that I was familiar with and already owned and adapt it. I pulled some ideas from online, added my own adjustments, and with a minimal amount of work I had a playable system. It’s D20, so the D&D players are mostly familiar with the mechanics. So now it was just a matter of sitting down and making characters.

    Well, that never happened, we jumped back to the main campaign before the mini-campaign could get going for various other reasons. But they were all for it, dag-nabit.

    So ultimately for my “casual group”, it’s not that any system will work, it’s that it has to be a system that they can jump into quickly.

    It will be interesting to see if my group ends up going 4E. It will be a battle between the enthusiasm of a new system driven by the WOTC promotion vs the desire to resist change, the time constraints, and financial restraints. In addition, I’ll be moving away shortly after the release, so I will not be a driving force influencing any decisions.

    I suspect what will probably happen is that the one DM who runs the occasional game will stick to 3.5 (specifically Iron Kingdoms). He only runs once every other month or so, so that isn’t a huge deal. The one DM who has a group of younger players will switch, but he won’t want to. He’ll be bullied into it because his younger players will be really into it, ask him to run, and he can’t say no. He’ll resent it at first, and then like it. He may even bring some of the older players into it.

    As for me, I have no idea, I’ll be moving to Philly and will need to figure out what I’m going to do. I don’t have a clue if I’m going to end up doing more RPGA, finding my own group to play with, or finding my own group to run.

  2. Hey shadow145, thanks for tackling this.

    Do you think that you’d have gotten your Firefly game up if you had made the characters?

    I remember Yan selling us on a promising Gurps Steampunk Horror game by actually creating full character templates we could customize in less than an hour. That increased our buy-in into that game.

    As for your move to Philly… starting with the RPGA might be a good way to scout for potential player and sift the jerks away.

    My 2 cents.

  3. Yeah, well I should have known better then to bring a new system, setup, epoc and DM on the group… To many change led to an astronomical learning curve even with the template.

    Had I tought of it, I should of used d20 modern as the base system thus reducing one of the variant or introduce the others to gurps in a fantasy setting before moving to the more extravagant setting and epoc.

    What shadow says his true even in our group. I think that with the extra responsibility of work/family that we have, it means that we no longer can invest the time needed to adapt to so many changes.

  4. Yeah well hindsight is always 20/20… 🙂

  5. i think we would have played the Firefly game. I have a couple of fanboys who were really into it. I won’t conjecture if it would have gone well, but it would have happened. It was definitely more likely to happen if I made the characters, or at least a couple for people who didn’t want to make their own.

    But the real reason we didn’t end up doing it was christmas season hit, no one could make it, and once christmas season finished the move to Phlly was confirmed, so I dumped the idea to focus on finishing my 1-20 level 5+ year Incursion campaign. We are really close to finishing (two adventures left). If I can’t finish that bad boy off before the move I think the players are going to lock me in a real dungeon until I finish it. I am looking forward to the personal sense of satisfaction in completing it though.

  6. This is my first post here, I must say that I love the site, I’ve been lurking for about a month or two now.

    Anyway, I started playing back in the early 90’s with a group that played and played for days on end. We used AD&D 2nd Edition, and bought tons of books. When d20 came out, we didn’t care, nor did we buy into any system since. Some of my current players played 3.5, but they all agree that Second Edition is and always has been the best.

    Currently I’m running Ravenloft: Masque of the Red Death campaign for the first time, and I must say that it is mind bending how cool that that system is. They really pushed the limits of 2nd Edition and showed that you can literally do anything with it.

    I quit playing for a long time, I just recently felt some nostalgia about my gaming days and dug out the old box of books. I got together a couple of my old players, and found a new one and we play once a month.

    The Internet really helps with Role Playing Games. Back in the day you had a bunch games out there, but it was spooky to just fork over the cash for a game that you didn’t have any other books for. That and my friends and I were only interested in playing sword and sorcery games.

    From just stumbling around, Paranoia looks like it could be a lot of fun, and I wouldn’t mine picking up the Pirates game on your list . . . but I wonder if it’s really needed at all? I mean, why not just use 2nd edition rules and have a pirate adventure? I’ve got no problems with writing, in fact, as a DM that’s were I get my pleasure . . . it also helps to have an entire month to prep 😉

    Thanks for all of the good articles ChattyDM! I especially love this series on Robin’s Rules.

  7. Hey Ripper, Thanks for dropping by and thanks for the nice words.

    If a given game like AD&D 2e still rocks your boat your players’, there’s really no reason to change. It’s really cool that the Interweb allows to find support for discontinued games.

    Yup, if you want pirates, I’d suggest you stick to your game and add them (the same goes for Ninjas… just not at the same time… he he he).

    You can bet I’ll see this series through unless Steve Jackson or Robin Laws send me a cease and desist…. Although I don’t rip off that book all that much…. let’s call it an annotated retelling 🙂

  8. Sandrinnad says:

    how you made the choice for your game system and explain what you had to contend with to achieve that decision

    Mostly someone would fall in love with a system or have a great idea for a game and would say ‘I want to run X next’ and it would just sort of happen. Mostly we were running fairly short campaigns at the time so it would either be wrapping up soon or go on hiatus if we were tired of it and the next game would start. Systems and games that really caught would keep coming up, but it was fun to change things around sometimes. Five of the six people DM’d at one point or another so we got a good cross-section of DM styles, experience levels, and systems.

    Yes, we were in our 20s at the time….how did you guess? 🙂

    why not sell me on the merits of your favorite non-D&D game?

    This is assuming non-D&D includes all variations of D&D.

    well….for pick-up games it’s GURPS – full-stop, no question. That could be from having a GM who was downright phenomenal at creating a workable game in 10 minutes from random player suggestions, but I can’t think of any other game that I know that works quite so well – because there’s no required setting or ‘feeling’ to the game and character creation can be fairly simple (GURPS Lite anyone?) it allows a lot of flexibility.

    anything with a fun character creation system gets my vote, even if it’s not actually so much fun to play 🙂
    – My absolute favourite ultra-Fluffy character creation is fom the game Everway. I’m sure there’s more to it, but the part I remember is the cards with images on the front and questions on the back – you pick some and create your backstory around them. I’ve never actually played the game though 😀
    – For slightly more crunchy goodness there’s Deadlands….how can you go wrong with drawing cards to determine stats? (plain, old, everyday playing cards this time)

    still thinking….hmmmmm….Ars Magica – love playing a high-powered mage in a system with no pretensions to balancing character classes….Legend of the 5 Rings – samurai!….
    Honestly, I think I’d have to go for a tossup between Vampire Dark Ages and Deadlands (Weird West). Not the d20 versions. Both have historical settings, which seems to allow some extra freedom and removes immediate ‘the world is ending’ pressure, and both have systems that are different from D&D, which is a nice change. Vampire lets you explore different personalities of some of the old familiar clans, before some of the major shaping things happened. Deadlands has a huge range of character options – pretty much anything you can think of that you can stuff into an Old West that has magic, mad machinery, and the walking dead…. 😀

  9. Phil,

    Nice article, but I really think that you need to stop trying to categorize “Forge” games until you know a bit more about them. At the very least, I would recommend you read the rulebooks of some of them.

    First, making sweeping statements about them will run into counterexamples because they are more diverse than you seem to think they are. As for your characterization that they tend toward “GM fiat” play, that is just plain wrong in the majority of cases. In fact, most of them are designed to minimize the need for or importance of GM fiat. In fact, many anti-Forge commentators tend to describe them as “anti-GM,” although I would dispute that description as well.

    I like your blog, but you need to lay off these comments until you have more firsthand knowledge of this category of games.

  10. Gerald,

    Thanks for the frank feedback and I must confess that you are right in the sense that my knowledge of the works over at the Forge is limited.

    I have since then dwelt a bit more on the subject and have started reading more about this and you may have noticed that I stopped referring to Forge game as category for some time.

    The same goes for story-driven games. One of my goals at Gen Con this year is to try a few so I can form a first hand opinion on them.

    However it remains a fact that story-driven games are common in current indie designs. I shall use more precise terms henceforth.

    Oh and welcome on the blog! 🙂

  11. Ars Magica.

    Why? Stories can take a short period of time– over the course of a few hours or days, — or they can take years, and the standard passage of the seasons is easily handled.

    Magic is completely flexible. With the system of 5 verbs and 10 subjects, called the Techniques and Forms, you have many ways to do the same spell, and you can create spells *on the fly* as well as standard “memorized” sorts.

    Troupe storytelling means if someone wants to try his hand at GMing for a story arc, this isn’t a big thing.

    Grogs provide a way to keep the fatality in the game without losing primary characters. Magi and Companion characters for every player mean it’s easy to explore many character types.

    Virtue/Flaw system combined with point buy stats mean that you have complete control over how you design the character and what drawbacks and advantages you have to play with at the table.

    You’re playing on Mythic Earth, which means there are *hundreds* of source books published for you and more every day– they’re all in the History section of your bookstore. The publisher has a series of supplementary books, but they aren’t necessary for play. You can certainly add depth to your game with them, but the *whole game* comes complete in the main book. There’s a fan driven quarterly magazine: Sub Rosa. (

    Combat is abstract in this version, but it’s got a round system, and extrapolating out things like movement rates isn’t tough. To ease transition, there is a d20/Ars Magica supplement: _The Black Monks of Glastonbury._

    Overall? Ars magica is a fantastic system and setting, allowing for good roleplaying that can appeal to all sorts.


  12. Ars Magica is one of those games I’ve known about for a long time but have never actually seen or read… a bit like Call of Chthulu.