Which Comes First? The Campaign or the System


First Post
If I have a good group, it is setting first, system after.

If I have a group that is terrified of learning a new system, I stick with the one they know and cobble a setting that is appropriate to that, but it is not my favourite way to go.

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Not so much campaign first as narrative first. It depends on what kind of gaming experience I want to have. Setting and system are not so much about the world itself as it is about the gaming experience they try to create.

Call of Cthulhu, World of Darkness, and Unknown Armies are all horror games, but they all create a different kind of horror gaming experience. It's not about the rules per se (although that's a part of it), but what the rules say is important about the game you play.

This is probably why I hate GURPS.


System and campaign are intimately related. In fact, many early books and essays, such as Gygax's books, refer to the GM as a designer. As soon as you start conceptualizing the world and the events within the world, you are creating the framework for a game, and hence a system. So I would rephrase the OP as, "Game engine first or campaign assumptions?" Whenever I acquire a new game, I tend to first run it how it was intended to be run, to get the most benefit from the designer's perspective. If I am simply thinking, "Hm, how about a campaign?" I tend to pick an idea first and then shop around for a core game engine.

El Mahdi

Muad'Dib of the Anauroch
I choose system and campaign independent of eachother.

For system I stick with what I and my players know, so it's basically the same system every time.

For campaign, I pick whatever I and my players are interested in at the time.

Then, I'll tweak the system to support the flavor of the campaign. It's still mostly the system we know, but with minor changes to fit the campaign. I find this much easier than learning a whole new system.

My system of choice is houseruled 3E. I've found I can tweak the system to do anything I want with the inclusion of some easily crafted houserules. I've played around with and tweaked the rules so often that I've got a really good grasp of the concepts behind the rules, making it easy to modify them as needed. Also, I've found a houserule for just about everything here on ENWorld. That community supporter account really helps by making it able to search ENWorld for whatever I want.


I have never found "rules" to be fun. All I need is a method to get things done in a campaign. Learning 3.5 rules has been the most boring part of trying to become a good DM. I've become good with the rules, but I hated learning them every step of the way. I'd rather be spending that time creating fantastic fluff for the campaign.

So I'll decide on the campaign I want to run and then use whatever rules that will be easiest for me to use. Honestly, I'd never join a game just to get to use new rules...I'll play it so I can play in a fun campaign. Free beer and pretzels never hurts either. Actually, I'd probably put free beer before the campaign or the system. :lol:


Mod Squad
Staff member
Typically, it's campaign/setting/themes first, system afterward.

Of course, sometimes the system follows so closely behind that it is hard to tell that it is secondary, but generally it is.


I consider the system to be as integral to the campaign world as the flavour text of the campaign world itself.

Like it or not, it is always going to be a compromise between the RPG and the campaign, because no RPG can simulate any campaign setting perfectly. The experience of the play is always going to be "campaign x through the lens of system x".

I'm one of those perverse people that likes to see what happens when settings are re-imagined. I often wonder if Dragonlance campaign wouldn't be better with the BESM system. I liked the Greyhawk 2000 d20 modern mini-campaign setting that was in Polyhedron magazine. I like everything I'm hearing about Dark Sun 4e. I never mind a reinterpretation according to system, though I dislike badly handled setting storylines (such as the FR Spellplague or Dragonlance's 5th Age).

So I generally like to choose the system first, and then see what would be fun to play with that system. If you are going to view the campaign setting through the lens of the RPG system you are playing no matter what you do, you might as well get creative with reimagining that setting. The campaign setting is therefore mallable, and what is most important is having a play experience which is fun for you and your group.


It's funny that some people see some systems (or game engines if you like, thanks for that Pawsplay) as specific. Savage Worlds, for example, is billed as a pretty generic system. About the only specific thing about it is it is meant for high action. I wouldn't want to use SW for a deeply cerebral game, that's for sure. :)

But, considering that SW is not tied to any genre (other than perhaps action - which can be applied to pretty much any genre), it's funny that some would see it as genre specific.

Gaming story ahead. When I tried to run a naval adventure campaign using the 3e D&D system, I had all sorts of problems. It just doesn't work for me. Mostly for two reasons. First, D&D combat is centered around the idividual and ship combat contains fairly large groups. But not large enough for large scale army combat rules. We're talking platoon sized conflicts where the crews of each ship is around 30-50. d20 mechanics suck for this because it's very difficult to extrapolate from the strongly tied individual combat rules to a group combat.

The second issue I had was the magic system. It was just so incredibly overpowering that it wasn't fun. A lyre of building makes your ship invulnerable to damage for an hour (longer with chances of mishap). An extended wand of fireballs has a range of almost half a mile. Gack. It became a game of dueling ship mages while everyone else sat around and watched.

Definitely not the system for what I wanted. And I tried. Two years of tinkering and house rules, six or seven naval combat 3rd party books - I gave it my best but it didn't work for me.

So, if I try to do this same campaign again, I'll definitely be moving over to Savage Worlds. It fits much better with what I want.


We choose a system since i won't write concepts for an adventure if we aren't going to play. If we are going to play, we had to choose something..once weknow what game we will play and who will DM, then the adventures/concepts get written.

The difference is, to get the adventures/gameplay in the style we want, we then take the systemand house rule it as needed.

I'm starting to regret our move to 4E. The amount of house rules players want to get the game to fit our style (heavy simulationist/hardcore RP/heavy magic/low combat), 3.XE was alot better for us....i will see how the current Planescape campaign goes...and then the dark sun setting..if i don'tlike what I see, will admit i was wrong (players all voted for 3.XE, except for 1 but i convinced them to try 4E), and we'll go back BUT the concepts for our adventures etc, will remain as they are pretty much edition independent...


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