What lessons did you learn from other systems?


Game Designer
I was thinking about the other thread about our buying habits for RPG products; and tonight I just finished my second session ever of Forbidden Lands and I was reflecting on what I found difficult, easy, good, bad and what I learned from my experience. I'm sure we all pulled some lessons or learned things from forays into other RPGs and systems.

For example, my exploration of Forbidden Lands, which is a game that leans hard into proceduralism and random tables is that I might still be preparing too much stuff when I run D&D. Forbidden Lands leans a little too hard into that territory for me, but these two GMing sessions with this system showed me that with the right table, the right players a little creativity you can have a great evening. I hardly ever use random tables when I run D&D and I tend to worldbuild, and thus prepare a ton. It's been very refreshing to just arrive with a few notes jotted down, a few index cards with reminders for the relevant rules and just go for it.

For a more concrete example. The party stopped at a ruined watch tower to send the night. The sorcerer made a survival roll to Make Camp. He failed to get a success and thus I had to roll on for mishaps. The result was that "one of the adventurers lost a piece of gear. The GM decides what it is". I rolled to select a random player and asked him to describe his inventory. He's a Dwarf Rider with a donkey called Nana. He described five objects in his inventory. I told him to roll a D6, and that each value would correspond to the respective item in his inventory, and a 6 would be his donkey. Obviously, he rolled a 6 and hilarity ensued. We all described the scene where the Dwarf came back and said to the sorcerer "Hey, where's Nana?" for the Sorcerer to answer "Oh, I untied her for a moment, she's... she's... wait." Unfortunatly we had to end the session, but next session they'll spend the evening looking for the donkey, which sounds like a ton of fun. I don't think the mishaps really expected for mounts to be included, but it turned out great.

What about you? What are the lessons you learned? What systems taught you the most?

log in or register to remove this ad

Jacob Lewis

Ye Olde GM
The Star Wars RPG (i.e. the Genesys/narrative dice system) from Fantasy Flight Games taught me a number of lessons.
  • A system can be both easy and complex. In game design, the saying is "a foot deep and a mile wide". The core mechanic is so simple and easy to understand, and yet it takes real time and practice to fully master. It is so versatile, with so much depth, but can be learned in 5 minutes.
  • Storytelling is a collaboration. With the whole galaxy at your disposal, it doesn't need to be entirely written by the GM. Give the players opportunity to add to the settings and build off each other. It is as much their story to tell as anyone else.
  • The best moments aren't scripted, they're improvised.
  • Dice don't dictate the outcomes. People interpret the results and decide how it affects the narrative.
  • Also, taking a few moments to discuss the possible results of a dice pool, or even how the dice pool was built is not taking away from the game. It is communication, which is at heart of any good roleplaying game.
  • An RPG doesn't need to give you loot, or expect you to kill everything in order to advance or have fun. Motives, story, action, drama, humor, fun; these are the elements of a good Star Wars adventure.
  • Succeeding at everything is less interesting than when you fall short. Its also more interesting to have something more than a binary pass-fail check for everything.
  • A system that provides combat powers and abilities for all characters is a game designed around combat. You may think all RPGs are like that until you discover one that doesn't, or is not entirely combat focused.
  • You don't always have to follow canon. Make your own.
  • A game that is built around an actual play session is much easier to manage than one that tries to maintain a continuous virtual calendar, like the so-called adventuring day.


I'll list a few lessons I've learned from systems I don't regularly play. Just because some of these seem like criticisms, I hope no one takes them as my bashing these systems. Even if something didn't appeal to me, I value having learned that preference in my hobby.

4e: I like when games aren't simulationist. I don't need measurement to be accurate if it doesn't serve the game. I like having all the information handy to run an encounter. I also enjoy breaking from the "zero to hero" mode of traditional D&D play - starting as capable heroes means the fun and story can start sooner.

Numenera: There aren't enough options for what your character can do. Having basically two abilities makes every encounter feel very samey. Enemies with high DR ensured my characters were worthless in combats. The "death spiral" of ability damage compounded the "weaker characters get weaker and more worthless" problem. Having the discoveries would've made it more interesting, but as a core mechanic to keep the game interesting and functional, to have the metacurrency completely in the hands of a GM isn't a design element I like.

OSE (and really the OSR in general): I didn't grow up with the nostalgia of B/X. As a result, the game felt flat. I appreciated the simplicity to an extent. However, the slow advancement, lack of options, and fragility of the characters would discourage me from wanting to invest in a long campaign.

GURPS: A lot is made of the complexity of the system, but what really did me in was the Hindrance system in character creation, fine-tuning a character with positive and negative characteristics.

The Fantasy Trip: After playing through several mock combats, it became clear that there is really only one good build of character. Other characters were going to die almost instantly. And if you can "beat" the game that easily, it's not for me.

Warhammer 3e: Touching on one of the themes in this list, it was easy to make a great character (or just as easily, a lousy one). In a party you could have a dwarf slayer that could kill a dragon solo, or a ratcatcher that would die to a goblin. I prefer balance in play, and I can't imagine a group of players being okay with this.

Warhammer 4e: I don't like comparing/contrasting degrees of success. I don't like weak characters that can die in a 10-foot fall. I don't like lingering injuries that last for weeks/months of game time. Lots of metacurrency is also required, which I don't like.

FATE: Reading the core book about the DM needing to earn points to make story things happen (that's as good as I can understand it), I don't like that. It's one of those systems (like City of Mist) wherein the player who can come up with the most narratively powerful moves has the best character. The DM really doesn't have the tools to know what power level is appropriate and fun for the group.

Shadowrun: Too many pools of dice. I prefer a die with bonuses or penalties for resolution.

Savage Worlds: I don't like comparing/contrasting degrees of success. I'm not a fan of metacurrency (especially when it's in the hands of the GM to make the system playable.) I think it's much more complex than it needs to be, and some of the subsystems seem tacked on.

Call of Cthulhu: Can be a great system if everyone is on board, but it's pretty much a railroad regardless of the adventure you're playing. Your characters are too weak to really interact with the world very much. Due to the tropes of the theme, there is a sameness to most of the adventures.

Forbidden Lands: You can mitigate the lingering injuries. The death spiral of ability damage can be healed. The dice pools are limited. I like the random charts and behavior of the monsters. There are some "trap" builds, however, that can allow you to make completely worthless characters.

Star Wars RPG (Fantasy Flight): I had to have another player handle the rules for me when I GMed this. I don't like spontaneous improv narrative dice systems.

Dungeon Crawl Classics: I don't like character funnels. Too many characters bog down gameplay and the random nature means that your best characters may die, and you're stuck with a garbage character you don't want to play. Also, the dice all look too similar and are unnecessary to achieve the style of play. I also don't like chart-dependent games in which every player has to have access to charts, stop play and look up results.


Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
There are a few things I picked up from Mutants and Masterminds:
1) Complications that generate benefits when they actually come up in play are more interesting than balancing points with disadvantages (as in Champions or GURPS).
2) Give out benefits for genre-appropriate failures such as giving out hero points when the villain escapes or heroes get KOed early in the caper so they have those points to spend as the narrative reaches a climactic showdown
3) Extra effort used for power stunts is a must-have for any superhero game

From Champions:
If a drawback isn't really a drawback, then it's not worth anything. This was derived from limitations on powers or cheesed up disadvantages that are so rare that they shouldn't really be worth points. And I used it with magic item creation in 3e D&D - if someone applied class or alignment limitations to magic items they were making and they matched their own characteristics, then the limitations weren't really worth a discount.

From The Alexandrian:
Let it roll. If you're going to roll for some uncertain task, roll once and let it ride until something significantly changes. Otherwise, you bog down in die rolls.

From Call of Cthulhu, Ravenloft:
Horror lives in the uncertain. Don't identify, describe and use emotion-laden terms.

From D&D:
Give the monsters an even break, even if you are fans of the players.


Guide of Modos
What about you? What are the lessons you learned? What systems taught you the most?
I learned a ton watching AD&D 2nd become 3rd edition:
  • A little uniformity goes a long way
  • Sometimes a diamond just needs some (a lot of) polish
  • Bards are hopeless
  • Even sacred cows die
  • Rules bloat can creep in anywhere - even the first rule set
  • Not all ideas translate well (see polymorph)
  • Class balance just isn't going to happen. (Unless you make all classes the same...say in a later edition...)


  • You don't need levels.
  • Random character gen can work.
  • Skills are more interesting than class abilities and feats
  • 2D6 > 1D20
Powered by the Apocalypse:
  • You don't need levels.
  • Playbook "moves" are a good guide for role play
  • 2D6 > 1D20
Free League Stuff:
  • You don't need levels
  • Bespoke systems work best as specific experiences, not generic sims
  • Thematic play isnt difficult to achieve


A suffusion of yellow
I’ve taken to using Fronts from Dungeon World

And using Scene Aspects from Fate and allowing players to invoke aspects to creatw dynamic environments (and give the DM inspiration)

Also for Fate give your characters interesting troubles that generate in game inspiration


GUMSHOE taught me to always make sure the players receive the core clue necessary to progress to the next scene in any mystery scenario. It doesn't matter how poorly they roll, they have got to have the clue allowing them to move the plot along.


Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd edition taught me about the three-act system of adventure design and the rule of three. It keeps me from overdesigning adventures and from under-doing enough plots and NPCs to keep the players vested in a bigger picture.
[EDIT: ADD: I think I also learned that component heavy systems are just as easy to play online now as they are in face to face with all the innovations.]
Last edited:


GUMSHOE taught me to always make sure the players receive the core clue necessary to progress to the next scene in any mystery scenario. It doesn't matter how poorly they roll, they have got to have the clue allowing them to move the plot along.

GUMSHOE was a game-changer for the rpg industry!

aramis erak

That's just a solid GM tool in any game.
Few call it out, however. BW, BE, Mouseguard, and Torchbearer all call it out explicitly. And running BE is where it really turned the light on in my brain. A few others also do... but I'd not seen them until later.


Staff member
The Fantasy Trip/In the Labyrinth showed me a system’s complexity is not intrinsically linked tho the enjoyability of the game.

From RIFTS, I learned not to be too worried about “balance” as long as everyone is having fun. Never was in a game with Vagabonds & Glitterboys in the same party, but people never griped about power disparities beca they were enjoying playing their characters their way.

From Traveller and Central Casting, I discovered character history can be impactful for a character’s present and future.

Champions/HERO showed me the joys of a flexible, point-based system. In particular, there’s usually more than one way to model a given character concept. While that’s particularly true of supers/toolbox systems, it’s applicable to most (not all) systems, and I’ve used it a lot in 3.5Ed D&D.

From MechWarrior, BESM, Prime Directive, Stormbringer/Hawkmoon/Corum and many others, I figured out that sometimes, a system designed from the ground up to support a certain playstyle will do a better job of delivering on that playstyle than simply running it in a syste that wasn’t.

Mutants & Masterminds illustrated that system CAN matter, and quite profoundly. I wanted to run an old campaign I had run in HERO with a new group, but nobody else wanted to play in HERO. So I figured M&M was the next best thing, and on many levels, it was. However, certain dissimilarities to HERO manifested in D20 mechanics…that also differed from 3.5Ed mechanics the players vastly preferred. Those mechanical quirks were a substantial factor in the campaign’s failure.

Playrests showed me no game is flawless; they’re all breakable. And THAT fact gave me a litmus test for my fellow players. I figured out I could game with casual gamers, veterans, and “optimizers”, but the players who routinely seek to exploit the fault lines in systems are no fun to game with beyond a one-shot. They’re not pleasant for me to game with long-term.

Level Up!

An Advertisement