Systems, settings, and campaigns
You might have heard of Dungeons & Dragons before, but that’s just one game system. D&D is to role-playing what Monopoly is to board games: just one of many.
There are hundreds of role-playing games out there, in different genres and with different styles. To group them in some way, you have to look at the different elements of role-playing games. Those elements are the system (or rules), the setting (the world the story takes place in), and the campaign (the story players play).
Rules form the basis of any role-playing game. These rules describe how to create a character, what that character can do, and how the character can interact with the world. Role-playing games allow players a lot of freedom, but there needs to be some framework of guidance in the form of rules.
This is what we call a system. The rules and setting are often intertwined, if only because the setting heavily affects what rules you need. In a medieval setting, a character cannot have a ‘firearms’ skill, while in a western, characters can hardly do without. Still, the basic way that the rules work can be separated from the setting.
If you look at Dungeons & Dragons, for example, then the base books mostly hold the rules for a medieval fantasy setting, while leaving the actual setting out. It uses the 20-sided dice as the basis for a lot of rules. When in doubt, roll a d20 and see if the score is higher or lower than some calculated value.
Dungeons & Dragons is actually a bad example, because it’s not just one system, but a family of related rule systems: the D20 systems, named for that 20-sided dice at its core. Although all Dungeons & Dragons versions are based on that 20-sided dice, edition 1,2, 3, 3.5, 4, and 5 are all quite different. To make it more confusing, there is a separate rule system called Pathfinder, which is a spin-off of the Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 rule set.
Other big names in the field are: the World of Darkness system, Shadowrun, Gurps, and the Basic Role-Playing system, or the more recent Savage Worlds. Then there are systems that lean more toward board games such as the recent Faith system. And that’s only scratching the surface.
Drilling down, we find that the various game systems each have one or more settings. In the case of a game like Shadowrun, the setting is intertwined with the rules. In Dungeons & Dragons you buy a separate book with a setting and it has a lot of those, as does the World of Darkness.
A setting is the world in which stories takes place. If the campaign setting is separate from the ruleset, it will usually be a book containing the maps, history, and detailed descriptions of the world. Much like the world of the Lord of the Rings, each place on the map has a detailed history, a culture, and important political factions. Since a role-playing campaign can often take a group of characters to all kinds of locations, it is important that the setting is as detailed as possible. This can mean one book is just not enough. Take a look at the list of books for the Eberron setting.
Note that certain settings exist for more multiple rule sets. The Legend of the Five Rings world, for example, exists with it’s own ‘roll-and-keep’ system, but also for the D20 Dungeons & Dragons system.
The bottom line, there are even more settings than that there are rule systems out there. Everything exists, from current day settings, to historical, to fantasy and science fiction, and more.
Once you have a rule system and setting, you still need an actual adventure for players to play; the so-called campaign. A campaign consists of a story that spans multiple role-playing sessions. With weekly sessions, some campaigns can still run for years on end.
Campaigns are to settings what plot is to world-building in writing. The world is just a place the characters can exist in, and the campaign provides structure.
Some game masters are not very good at creating an overarching story that is still exciting each individual session. Some are. For those who need help, there are a lot of pre-made adventures out there. Books with all the information needed to set up a campaign for players.
I like to think up a campaign myself, ensuring I can intertwine the background of each player’s character into it. This ensures each player can have a growth arc for their character. Of course, I like story-telling a lot. If you don’t feel up to that: use a pre-built adventure.
A non-existent or bad campaign is a lot worse than one that doesn’t take character backgrounds into account.
How to choose, then?
There is so much to choose from, it can be a bit overwhelming.
Luckily, it turns out that neither rule system nor setting are that important. What is important is a good game master. I’ve found that the most crucial part of a good game experience is a game master who has his shit together. A good game master needs to know the rules very well, and needs to be able to apply those rules in a way that makes it fun for the players.
This means, that the game master should feel comfortable with the rules and the setting, although players should always have something to say about it. In my group, when somebody wants to be game master, they will suggest a setting and ruleset they would like to run a campaign in. That works pretty well.
Of course, we have the luxury of years of role-playing experience. As an alternative, I can recommend finding experienced people (at your local game store), and have them show you the ropes or advise you. If you want to start simple with an inexperienced group, then don’t try to run an Eberron campaign with the Pathfinder rules.
In the end, be sure you have fun. If not, kill the campaign and start over.