Thursday, October 18, 2018

Game Systems: It's all about the toys they offer

I have thought a bit recently about how I might reconcile my general love of Cypher System, which rests firmly in a more streamlined, narrative-friendly camp of the rules spectrum, and my ongoing fascination for Starfinder (and by proxy Pathfinder 1E) with their elaborate systems and deep-diving level of detail and minutiae. How could I enjoy one so much (Cypher) for its ease with which all actions and conflicts are resolved while encouraging a deep layer of narrative fun and yet also enjoy Starfinder and Pathfinder for their rigor and minutiae, with mechanical depth of design that sometimes allows for emergent storytelling, but in a much more structured fashion....?

Then I realized what it is about these (and other) games that I like so much: the toys. The pieces and parts that they both provide to let you construct your game and make it run with minimal effort. Here's what I mean:

With Cypher you get a minimalist, narrative-driven system, sure. But you also get thousands of building blocks, including a robust bestiary, cyphers, artifacts, and plenty of character choices. It's a cornucopia of goodness, and it's cross-compatible with all the other Cypher System books (The Strange and Numenera) so when you combine it with those resources you have a metric ton of read-to-use tools which require little to no effort to deploy in the game session. In other words: it makes actually constructing the game (and running it) easy.

With Starfinder and Pathfinder, you essentially have the same scenario. You have massive bestiaries, magic items, tech items, gear and equipment, spells, all the stuff you need to seed scenarios. Yes, I have griped (and will continue to do so) about the time consumption in designing custom content such as new monsters and NPCs, but Starfinder fixed a lot of that, and Pathfinder technically "fixes" it by simply offering you so many books full of ready-to-use content (e.g. Monster Codex, Villain Codex, NPC Codex etc.) that you really don't need to do that sort of work at all if your game isn't demanding it. And these days, when I do run Pathfinder, my games are definitely not demanding that I keep up with a mess of hyper-focused min max players at my table, thankfully.

This also explains why Savage Worlds is so nice as a system, and Call of Cthulhu too. And it explains why some other games, despite liking them so much, remain second fiddle to these more robust "toybox" offering type game systems....GURPS for example being better described as a set of tools you make your own toys with, for example, or Genesys Core wanting to be a toybox but not offering enough toys for each genre (yet). We all probably can think of game systems that show up with a rule system and a smattering of content attached, with cool concepts in principle but a dearth of actual content to work with. Hero System is my personal favorite example of a system with a metric ton of rules and design features but no core box of toys to play with.*

Moreover, Cypher System is particularly cool because it gives you enough in one book to work with. Starfinder does require purchasing a couple books to get there, but once you have the core, Alien Archive and Armory you've essentially got years' worth of content with minimal effort at your fingertips.

Not everyone needs (or wants) a game with a toybox approach. I use "toybox" here because I feel "sandbox" if a different kind of's the kind of game where you get lots of content, but you still need to build it all up (make the sand castle, if you will); GURPS is better described as a sandbox game, for example. Some people prefer that.....they don't want these toys, they want their own. But for me? toybox is definitely what I need these days to get that gaming in.

*With the caveat that by Hero 6th there are some very thick resource books you can expand the game with for certain genres if you want, so even Hero can provide a robust toybox if you're willing to pay for it.


  1. This reminds me of the B.E.S.M. 3rd edition fantasy campaign I started. I love the rules but I had to build every spell, magic item, and monster from scratch as I went along. It just got to be too much work.

    1. BESM is a great example, I had the same issue....loved the system, but it was too lean on ready to use content.