Empty Sandbox

When I was a kid, my favorite toys were the simplest. You could have handed mini-Joe an action figure and a toy gun and he would have spent hours, if not days, coming up with elaborate and increasingly violent hallucinatory adventures. So I suppose it's little surprise that I have grown to love generic gaming systems now that I'm older (we won't delve into the ludicrous possibility of being wiser).

By generic system, I am referring to a system largely devoid of setting or fluff material. A system I could use to play in any number of fictional universes that fit in the mold of the genre; from Tolkeinesque fantasy, to Star Trek style sci-fi.

The system and the setting are separate things in my mind. I compartmentalize to the point where playing a Forgotton Realms game using Hackmaster or even D6 Fantasy sounds interesting. But there are games where the line between setting and system are hopelessly blurred, to the point of being inseparable. 4th Edition D&D is a good example of this. System-wise, it's not obviously tied into Eberron or any other setting, and yet its mechanics are singularly designed so that they are required to work within a certain framework. You can change the Powers, or even try to do away with them altogether, but then you lose the vital skeleton of the system.

Mind you, I've heard good things about the new Gamma World, which uses 4E rules, but I haven't yet played it.

For me, the joy in a system is that it be moddable to my whims. In fact, I would declare Dungeons & Dragons, up to 4E, to be the single most moddable fantasy system. The basics behind the d20 system have been used to power an unbelievable number of games, from Mutants and Masterminds, to Conan, to Stars Without Number, to a massive number of Retroclones, to the not-quite-so-retro-clone Pathfinder, and even the older Mongoose Lone Wolf game. What's the common denominator between all of these games? If you've ever played any version of D&D, especially 3.5, you will feel an eerie familiarity with each ruleset. Things were changed, especially that blasted Vancian magic, but the bones are the same.

For my needs, these games are perfect. I could play a Marvel-styled comic adventure with Mutants & Masterminds, or a game in Lankhmar with Mongoose's Conan rules. Some alteration might be required, but it would be short work, and the results would--and have--been quite good.

I suppose that's because I'm a tinkerer. I like to tweak this, adjust that, and see what happens to the end result. It's rarely balanced, but I find balance to be overrated anyway.

Call him a Munchkin, I dare you.

Now, I should note, I'm not trying to knock published settings. There is something vital in having high-quality, published settings. It saves time on the part of the GM and it can provide less imaginative GMs with great ideas and tools to use. But when the system is so firmly integrated into the setting it can be a mixed bag. I would rather pay a little extra to buy a setting book than have my ruleset designed around a very specific setting.

I guess that means I would rather have an empty sandbox with a shovel and bucket than an entire jungle gym.

Of course, maybe I'm in the minority. What about you? Would you prefer the setting to be integrated into the rules or a separate entity? Is it more value to have both together?


  1. Tequila SunriseApril 14, 2011

    I'm in the same boat. Or rather, the same flotilla. I'm an incorrigible tinkerer, and I like flexible rule sets. But balance is high on my priority list too.

  2. JsalvatoriApril 14, 2011

    I have to generally agree as well. 4e is an abomination of a video game disguised as an RPG. As great as our GM is, our current 4e game feels like a scripted adventure of encounter after encounter. Even the elements of story the PC's have added feel flat, simply because there are no skills related to them. It is difficult to develop your character when almost all skills and feats are combat related.
    In our 2e and 3.5 games, we played loose and fast with the rules, and it all worked. This just can't happen with 4e.
    Where I have to disagree though' is I'd still want the jungle-gym. Even better would be a jungle-gym IN a sandbox...

  3. CDGallant_KingApril 14, 2011

    I could go to either extreme. On one hand, I love a generic system to tinker with, where I can create my own background and history, but I also like well established settings as long as it's based on some premise that I otherwise enjoy. For instance, I've never been fussy for Forgotten Realms or Rifts, but I love the RPGs based on Star Wars, ROBOTECH, Battlestar Galactica and A Game of Thrones (even if I haven't really played the last two). Because I've grown to love the setting from movies and books, the chance to live and explore those worlds from the inside sets my little geek heart all aflutter. It lets you be a part of all those great stories that are burned into your subconscious.

    That being said, I tend to take even those well-established settings and make them my own (I'll never forgot the ROBOTECH campaign where we started a rock band in the aftermath of the apocalyspe), so there's still something to be said for the freedom of creativity.

  4. CDGallant_KingApril 14, 2011

    I love how you're sucking up to me by blaming everything on the rules. Like I've never run a bad adventure. ;-)

  5. I am a firm believer in keeping things rules lite and adaptable. I don't think RPG's need to be perfectly balanced and have comprehensive rules, they just need competent GM's, who can adapt them and improvise. My experience has always been more rules = less immersion (and play) + more math = less fun.

  6. steelcaressApril 15, 2011

    Depends on my mood. I love RISUS and PDQ because those systems are remarkably easy and incredibly adaptable (and I've written scads of settings for them), on the other hand I've divorced systems from their settings and used them in a new way -- Earthdawn became StarDawn in a blades & blasters setting, and I yanked Storyteller out of the World of Dorkness, added in real advantages, disadvantages, and Vampire-scaled superpowers and ran a 1930's Doc Savage/Shadow/etc pulp campaign. I also love the settings of Talislanta and (old-school) Tekumel, and their mechanics are pretty well integral.


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