One Campaign, Many Systems: An Experiment (Part I)

 Posted by on January 15, 2014  Filed as: Editorial  Add comments  Topic(s):
Jan 152014

RPG-books2It’s summer, so the group I DM for has reunited. They’re all college guys attending school in different places, so playing D&D during the school year is impractical. Instead, they use their huge swaths of free time over the summer to engage in all manner of gaming hedonism. Last year, we used our weekly gaming sessions to create a world and tight story arc that would begin and end in ten week’s time. We also experimented with co-DMing. Each player took a turn in the DM chair, adding their own unique bit to the larger story. It worked out wonderfully.

Since I had performed those experiments with the group last year, I knew they were open to trying new things. So in March I began a dialogue with them on our Facebook group to find out what they wanted out of our summer campaign. At first, my suggestion was to eschew a campaign structure, and just try out a bunch of different RPG systems with one-shots. Then, the discussion took this turn:


Well, now there’s an idea.

Could it be done? Could we maintain a single party and a single story thread through a campaign that dabbled in many different RPG systems? I wanted to find out.

We live in a golden age of RPGs. It seems like every week Kickstarter adds another book and another system to the world’s growing library of Role Playing Games. If you want to play it, chances are, there’s an RPG for that. So why would we sit down and play the same system every single week? Sure, there’s an argument to be made for system familiarity, and also one for nostalgia, but I can think of no good excuses to completely ignore all the other systems out there. We must at least dabble! Most systems have quickstart rules and level 1 one-shots to use. Most of them are free. In fact, we’ll be using the Shadowrun Quickstart Rules and encounter that I picked up at Free RPG Day this year. Yes. Yes, we will try this. So here’s the plan:

The Story

In my mind, I do have a very loose story planned out. I want to leave enough open for the players to change direction, but failing that, I need a cohesive and believable way to get from one RPG system to the next. I need a story reason that the characters would be engaging in the same themes that an RPG exhibits. For example, when we try out the Leverage system, we need to be at a place in the story where a heist is necessary. That’s what the Leverage RPG does. Complicating all this, of course, is the time constraint (deadline: end of August), so I may need to tighten up my sessions to hit all the games we want to play. As this series goes on, I will be slowly revealing the story as it unfolds.

The Systems

As of right now, the systems I have planned (and the order in which we will play them) are:

  • D&D 4e
  • Microscope
  • Gamma World
  • Shadowrun
  • Leverage
  • Call of Cthulhu
  • Dread

Can We Do It?

I’m not sure. I would feel more confident if we were playing RPG systems that at least one person in the group was familiar with. As it stands right now, I need to have at least a tentative grasp on the rules of every RPG we play. I’m hoping that, much like learning a language, the more systems I learn, the more easily I can pick up a new one. Also, since we only get one session with each game, we will need to use pregenerated characters. The players may find it difficult to shoehorn an established PC personality and story into a pregenerated character. But there’s no way around it. Character creation would simply take too long to incorporate with a story into a single session of an RPG.

In the end, I have to be honest and express a bit of doubt as to whether or not we can pull it off. Lucky for you, you get to read about the fantastic success or failure of our little laboratory, right here, as the summer rolls on. Of course, in success or failure, we’ll be sure to have lots of fun, and there’s no doubt that we’ll be exposed to new systems. So in that regard, it’s a guaranteed success. Yeah, that’s what I’ll keep telling myself. Next time, we’ll explore the group’s transition from D&D 4e to Microscope, what we thought of the game, and how that will lead into our Gamma World session. Stay tuned!

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Benoit is the editor in chief of Roving Band of Misfits. He also does most of the writing. When he's not writing for the game, he's usually building something with his Hirst Arts molds or painting minis. He's been playing and running D&D for, oh, about 10 years now. But who's counting?

  10 Responses to “One Campaign, Many Systems: An Experiment (Part I)”

  1. I like that Dread is the last game on the list. It says to me that you know how you’re going to end the game 😉

  2. I’ve never played Dread, but I guess that means a violent and possibly gruesome end?

  3. Very much. At the very least, the primary mechanic is one of elimination. You could make a Dread game where each character gets transformed into a fluffy harmless animal but one by one the characters will get taken out until there is only one standing.

  4. Yes, Dread’s game mechanics pretty much guarantee that at least *someone* will die. Which is fine, because every summer we start with new characters. This year, we started in the same world as last year, but 30 years in the future with new characters.

  5. I considered running a campaign where the PCs progressed across the D&D editions. I’m still sad I didn’t do it. In the past I transitioned the same PCs from D&D to Shadowrun and back. I think it can work, so long as the players understand the challenges and are up to working through/past them!

  6. When we went through the first year of our Gaming Experiment we thought we would try something similar. The original premise was that we would take our current 4e characters and campaign and then run through about 12 different systems across a year, converting them as best we could.

    It lasted one system… We found it almost impossible to make any kind of meaningful transition character wise. Story wise, that might be completely different.

    If it were me running it, I would treat each system as a different part of a longer epic story – something where maybe the characters are re-encarnated (and can take 1 characteristic for free). I would tie in key concepts and arch villain across the settings and make it multi-planar. That way, you are all participating in one saga with themes tying everything together, but you won’t be hindered by systems holding you back when it comes to character design, etc.

    But that’s just my thoughts 😀

  7. I think you are right. Without spoiling future articles too much, we’ve found it difficult to retain character concepts, and we’re about to start our third system (Shadowrun). You’ll have to stay tuned to see our workaround, though I will say it’s a bit different than yours. I will also say that doing this has proved more work than I originally anticipated, and for anyone else wanting to try this, there should be LOTS of planning up front. No “lazy DMing” or flying by the seat of your pants.

  8. Clearly one can do whatever they want with RPGs … that is the easy and quick answer.

    I think this is an interesting question and honestly it is one I’ve heard come up in late night gaming BS sessions more than once. A former gaming group of mine has actually done something like this and it worked out … ok … for them. Apparently not great, not terrible. I think basically they felt that if they’d just stuck with a single system and game they’d have had just as much if not more fun.

    I think one could as mentioned above, throw out dread for a session … in the middle of a Dungeon World campaign or something … might be interesting to try.

    Beyond that I think the question is asking the question why you wanted to do such a thing? That answer would guide one towards given systems. The list in the post was really diverse, and on the face of it I don’t see how without some re-skinning things and hacking things a little that those could work for a single storyline. Unless of course the storyline is some sort of time travel, dimensional travel .. thingy .. then I guess one could make it work.

    I think that rather than run different systems for the same game, maybe hacking in elements from different systems for the same game would be more to my own personal taste.

    Just my two cents …

    • Yeah, if you read the last article in this series, you’ll see that my conclusion is, it’s best to have a good reason to switch systems. For example, Leverage does heists well, and if your group wants to do a heist, you might want to try switching systems for a session. Forcing the group to switch systems arbitrarily, however, didn’t work out as I hoped.

  9. the first idea that came to my mind when reading this was he’s trying to do what Reki Kawahara did Porting his SAO PCs to ALO and then trying to port them to GGO… it sounds like an Amazing Idea! I’ll try to do that someday hahaha

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