How to Choose a Game

I’m about to start running a new RPG campaign with some friends, and I’ve been thinking about what game I want to run. I admit I’m a bit of a collector, and so have ended up with more games in my collection than I’ll ever have time to play. But I also prefer to do campaigns rather than dozens of one-shots, and of course many games work much better in campaign play as the players get to explore the setting and their characters.

Because I want this game to be a success, it’s important I take into consideration all the factors that may influence the course of the campaign. So I’m going to outline my thought process here in the hope that it may be of some use to others in determining the best game to play with their own groups.

Over the 35 years that I’ve been playing games, I’ve run a huge number of fantasy games. Dungeons & Dragons was the first, but I’ve bought and run every edition since then except the current one (I don’t feel it does anything special that a previous edition didn’t already do as well or better). But I’ve also run RuneQuest, HeroQuest, Ars Magica, Pendragon, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Legends of Anglerre, Atlantis: The Second Age, and others.

This time, however, some of the players are already in a Pathfinder game (playing through Rise of the Runelords), and I really feel like doing something different. There are some limitations, though, that I have to keep in mind. We’re only going to be playing once a month, and some of the players are fairly inexperienced. Plus, a couple of them are only 13 years old.

Due to the time limitations, I’ve decided a game heavy with recurring NPCs and deep relationship maps is probably not the best fit. Playing once a month means that a conversation you had yesterday in-game is at least three weeks old by the next session and you’re trying to remember what was said. It means that everyone has to take copious notes about who is who, what the NPCs want, believe, and dislike, and who belongs with which faction. Since I’m looking to run a lighter, more action-oriented game, I don’t want this to feel like work with all that note-taking.

I’ve already mentioned how I’ve run many fantasy games in the past and feel like taking a break from that genre. One of the most important elements of a successful campaign is that the GM is enthusiastic about running it. When I’m running a game and my heart isn’t in it, then it starts to feel like work. And since my leisure time is important to me, the last thing I want to do is spend it on something that brings me no joy.

The age of some of my players is a factor to consider as well. With two 13-year-olds joining the adults in this game, I’m going to avoid certain types of games. Body Horror is inappropriate, as are other settings built around more mature themes. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stick to running something like Toon or Cartoon Action Hour. But it does mean that some games, like Vampire, are going to be much tougher to run without extreme care.

The rules I choose to use are a big factor, of course. If I’m looking for a light game with lots of action including cool stunts, I’m not going to use something like Pathfinder or the Hero System. The rules both encourage and discourage certain types of actions. If you use a system that heavily penalizes the taking of risks, then the players are going to approach situations slowly and with great care. If you want a fast-paced game, a system that takes 45 minutes to play out a single round of combat is not going to give you the experience you want.

And, finally, the setting is the last element. To me, this is the “meat” of the game. A cool, evocative setting can inspire the players and bring everyone’s imagination to life. It’s what drives the adventures and provides those opportunities for memorable moments within the game. One of my considerations is that the adults are all professionals with busy lives. They don’t have time to read the rulebook or memorize a ton of information about the setting. I need something that can be described in broad strokes and that isn’t so alien that it makes it difficult for the players to imagine what it’s actually like to be there.

My Options

My two major options that I’m leaning towards are a) some kind of modern high-action espionage game (e.g. the Mission Impossible movies, James Bond, John Wick, etc.) and b) some kind of game in space (e.g. the Firefly television show, Star Wars, etc.).

For the first, I’ve recently done some posts on using Fate Core to play espionage games. This is very attractive to me—I’ve loved the Shadowforce Archer setting since it was first published and I still have all the books. Fate is a great system for high action and it’s super-easy to learn.

For the second, I’ve got a couple of options. First is Classic Traveller, specifically the 1977 version before the Third Imperium became the default setting for the game. In fact, I even put together my own sector of space a couple of months ago and I’ve gotten some great feedback on it. This setting interests me because it’s one I created myself and I understand it better than any setting I might buy and read by someone else. I figure this game would be more in the vein of the Firefly television show—a small crew trying to make ends meet while getting involved with criminal elements, government factions, and other strangeness.

My other sci-fi option is Mindjammer, a setting originally written for Starblazer Adventures (using an earlier iteration of Fate), but also updated to Fate Core. I’ve got both the original and the newer version. This is space opera at its finest. It’s got various elements that I can choose to focus on or completely ignore (like transhumanism), and the setting is great. The other nice thing about Mindjammer is that all the work is done for me.

I will be happy to run any of these three games. So now I’m going to do something very important, which is present these options to my players and see what grabs them. Because, while it is very important for the GM to be enthusiastic about the game, it’s also vital for the players to be enthusiastic as well. I could simply declare “I’m running Mindjammer” but if my players don’t find that idea interesting then the game is not going to be successful.

Rejected Ideas

There were other games that I strongly considered but ultimately discarded in bringing it down to these three options.

Shadowrun: I love the setting, but the rules have always made the game actively not-fun for me, regardless of edition. I think of what the game could be if it had decent rules that didn’t work directly against the players, and it’s a shame that it is what it is. But even though I could convert it over to a better system, the setting is not one that is easy for a brand new player to grok without reading a bunch of material about it.

Star Wars: On the one hand, the Star Wars setting is super-easy for gaming. Adventures pretty much write themselves, and everyone knows the setting well enough that all you have to say is “we’re playing Star Wars during the original films” and you know all the players instantly get it. On the other hand, I know my players all prefer different eras, so that’s a point of contention. Further, I’m just not that excited about Star Wars anymore, and that’s a deal-breaker for me.

Post-Apocalyptic: There are a few different games that all work under this basic setting conceit. But I was extremely disappointed in Numenera (the only thing really creative about that game is the very successful marketing of it). Each of the editions of Gamma World had a few good points and many issues. The best option was Masters of Umdaar, a World of Adventure for Fate Core, and while I thought it was a good read, I was looking for something with more depth to it.

Conclusion

I’ll be presenting the options to my players this week, and we’ll see which of those games generates the most interest. I’m looking forward to getting another game up and running—my D&D game for the kids fell by the wayside during the summer, as these things tend to do. I will definitely write more about whatever game we decide to play.

How do you go about choosing a game with your own group? Is it a group decision or does the GM pick one game and say “this is what I’m going to run?” Tell us about it in the comments.

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