How to Integrate Elements from Different Roleplaying Systems

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Sometimes a single roleplaying game system doesn’t seem like enough. You’re playing Werewolf: the Apocalypse, and one player wants to play something out of Wraith: the Oblivion. You’re playing Dungeons and Dragons Third Edition, and someone wants their character to have a skill from HackMaster. You’re playing HackMaster, and one of your players wants to take a disadvantage from GURPS. Or maybe a player wants to play something completely different. What do you do?

You can certainly say “no,” and you do have that right as game master (GM). You could talk to the player, however, and find out why they want that unusual thing. They might have come up with a really interesting idea. They might have a certain character concept in mind that they just can’t quite encapsulate with your game’s rules. In that case, depending on the circumstances, you might want to accommodate them. But how do you go about doing that in a way that won’t screw up or unbalance your game?

General Considerations

There are a few things to take into account when trying any sort of “crossover” game, whether you’re integrating whole characters and groups or single skills.

Mood and Theme Dilution

The attraction of some games is their strong mood, atmosphere, and/or theme(s). If you introduce elements from other systems you’re likely to alter that mood. You could solve this by carefully introducing only elements that fit with that mood, or maybe you’ve been playing the game for a while and you’re ready for something new. Just be aware of the consequences of what you add. Carefully consider how the themes will interact and decide whether that’s what you want.

Loss of Awe and Specialness

Some games derive an atmosphere of awe and mystery from the slow unveiling of the weird things in the universe to the player characters (PCs). If the party of PCs starts out with a bunch of “weird things” in it (for example, you’re playing Mage: the Ascension; one player wants to play a werewolf and another wants to play a wraith), then you lose that slow unveiling. Suddenly everything is right there out in the open.

That might well be okay with you. Perhaps the game has been going for quite a while and the PCs are already familiar with the supernatural; a couple of PCs died and the players now want to play some of those other critters. Or maybe your last four games centered around that slow revelation and you’re quite ready for something new. Or perhaps you want to center your game around a very different revelation about something else entirely this time. Once again, just be aware of the changes you’re making and be sure that you’re okay with them.

Familiarity

If you want to integrate elements of different games, then be familiar with the games involved. Try to get a sense of why different design choices were made so you can make informed decisions. First and foremost, consider the mood and atmosphere that the game designers were aiming for. For example, Exalted has a much more cinematic and grand scope than, say, Vampire: the Masquerade. Mixing these two games could cause a real clash of scope, scale, epic level and power level.

Also be familiar with your players and their gaming styles. Make sure you’ve gamed with a player for at least a few games before allowing them to make-over a character. You can let some players try almost anything and know that if things go wrong, all it takes is a word from you to fix things. Other players will try anything to get an advantage over the rest of the gaming group. Most players are somewhere between these two extremes, and knowing whether or not to say yes is much simpler when you know your players’ styles. If you’ve never roleplayed with your players before and one of them wants to play something strange, tell them to hold onto the idea until you’ve got a better handle on the game and group.

Be sure that you trust your players to care about making the game fun for each other. If necessary, have a brief talk with them about this. One option is to specify that you’ll give extra experience points to players who actively help to make the game fun for the rest of the group.

This brings us to…

Ease of Gaming the System

In theory, a game system is internally balanced. (Ideally, anyway.) It’s designed such that different PCs start out at roughly the same power level and hopefully stay that way. Introducing whole new elements from other game systems can very quickly unbalance a system in unexpected ways. Because of this, gaming the system can be a problem in the hands of some players.

“Gaming the system” occurs when a player mucks with elements of a system in order to find loopholes that will allow him to have the most powerful character possible – usually much more powerful than those of the other players. Because it can be difficult for the GM to predict the ways in which elements of different games will interact, a player skilled in gaming the system can use these elements to very quickly unbalance a game. If you know you have a player who likes to game the system, then try not to allow him to pull weird things unless you’re absolutely sure you understand the ramifications of them – and even then, think twice. (Also keep in mind that you can tweak the game after it starts to minimize damage from unexpectedly unbalancing problems.)

It isn’t so much the idea that a player will have a powerful character that can be a problem. It’s the idea that a player will have a character that’s much more powerful than the rest of the PCs in the party. You can adapt a game to handle powerful characters in general, but if one character out-shines the others, then the other players are likely to feel left out and over-shadowed. That doesn’t tend to be much fun for them.

Character Types

Let’s face it – tossing in a new skill or flaw isn’t nearly as headache-inducing as trying to fit a whole new type of character into your game. So we’ll start out with a few tips and hints on characters.

Adaptation

First and foremost – can you easily adapt the character type to the system you already have? You don’t want to have different characters using different systems of play, or that headache you already have will seem like nothing next to the migraine you’ll get later on!

Adapting a different sort of character to the system you already have helps in other ways, too. It helps to ensure that the new character type is balanced with the other PCs. It also helps to ensure that there won’t be too many surprises later on. This is particularly easy when you have a point-based character creation system; the only potential snag is in deciding what point costs to assign to things that aren’t already represented by your system. If you’re familiar enough with your system, however, it shouldn’t be too difficult to look at other items in your game and decide which ones would be roughly equivalent to the new powers, thus assigning the same point cost to the new elements. For a system that uses some sort of starting package, character class, or archetype system, use one of the pre-existing archetypes (closest match) as a template, and change things as necessary. Just make sure that you aren’t wildly changing the effectiveness or power level of the archetype.

Example: Take the character type that we recently created and posted on the website: the Barakah, or human/djinn cross-breeds. If you were playing a game of Werewolf: the Apocalypse, you would use the same starting point pools to create your Barakah that you use to create a werewolf, and you’d use most of the same basic character sheet. You would convert the Barakah’s strengths, resources, and weaknesses to Merits, Backgrounds and Flaws and come up with appropriate point costs where necessary. You could then convert the Barakah’s powers to the same system as a werewolf’s Gifts. Since Gifts have levels 1 through 5 that correspond to the rank of the werewolf, base the level on the Barakah’s power instead. The Barakah’s “Spirit” ranges from 1 to 100. So from 1 to 20, the Barakah could learn “Gifts” of level 1. From 21 to 40, she could learn Gifts of level 2. And soon. Have the Barakah start with a Spirit score of 20 or lower in order to keep her power on a par with that of the werewolves in the party.

Differences in Power Level

If the character that the player wants to bring in has a radically different level of power than the other characters in your game, you’ll have problems. Once again, you don’t want one character to outshine all the others, or some of your characters are likely to feel bored. There are several ways to handle this.

  • Put together the basics of the “intruding” character using the character creation rules from the game you’re playing. Then look at the powers the character would have in its home game. Make particularly powerful abilities more expensive or difficult to learn, or tone them down until they fit better into the game you’re playing. Try to create minor abilities that will give the flavor of the unusual character type without all of the power.
  • If you want to infuse your base game with some of the flavor of that other game, then give the other PCs extra freebie points to make them more powerful, or make their abilities more effective somehow. I don’t particularly recommend this route – the more changes you make to your game, the less foreseeable the consequences become.
  • Sit down with the player and have a chat with him. Ask him what about his unusual character appeals to him so much. Work out exactly what it is he wants, and then work with him to design a character that will work well with the rest of the party, but will still give him some or all of what he wants. You might be able to give the character abilities that provide some of the mood and atmosphere the player was looking for, but which aren’t as unbalancing with respect to power.

Note that all of the above suggestions assume that the incoming character is more powerful than the characters in your game. If the character is less powerful, all you have to do is pump him up a little. Make his powers a little more powerful, or give him extra skill, advantage, or resource points to offset a lack of powers.

Toning things down: Sometimes a player finds it tough to tone down his character concept – those cool powers, after all, were an integral part of how he saw his character. You can try one of several methods to get the player to envision a less powerful character.

  • Ask him what his character would be like if that character had to go “undercover” among the PCs and pretend to fit in – then have him write that up as his character. (Don’t accidentally make him think his character is really undercover. Just use it as a thought-trick to help him envision a lower-powered character.)
  • Tell the player to imagine that his character is at an earlier point in his life. Ask him to write up what that character would have been like when he was younger, less experienced, and less well-trained. Have him play this younger version of the character.
  • If the character concept involves some sort of weird insertion of the character into your game world (time travel, waking up after a 2,000-year sleep, whatever), then use a kludge. Explain that something about the game world will suppress some of the character’s powers. The character remembers being more powerful, and expects to be more powerful – but he isn’t. That even gives the player a mystery for his character to explore.
  • If certain key events in the character’s background depend on his having had those spiffy powers, then help him to come up with alternate causes for those events (or alternate plot points that will do the same dramatic job).

Combat Problems: Sometimes the problem isn’t overall power level – it’s squishiness. What do I mean by squishiness? Well, let’s take Werewolf and Mage for a moment. A werewolf is going to be tough to kill in combat (he can turn big and scary, and he regenerates damage), whereas, physically speaking, a mage is human. Anything that can challenge a werewolf would squish your average mage. Anything that’s an appropriate combat level for your mage would be shredded by your average werewolf. This means that you need to plan combats much more carefully. Try some of the following fixes:

  • Occasionally characters might become separated, and that’s when combat happens, allowing you to give each character an appropriate opponent. This one is a pretty obvious kludge, though, so use it sparingly! (Besides, it can get boring for players to sit back and wait while other characters duke it out without them. If you can have the combats happen in parallel, however, you can cut back and forth between them.)
  • Make sure squishier characters have other advantages that will help to keep them alive in dangerous circumstances. (Those merits and advantages come in handy here.) Anything that makes them harder to damage or kill would be a good idea. So would extra weapons, armor, or even some kind of bodyguard. In other words, perhaps that mage isn’t an “average” mage. If those advantages would be too expensive, then consider discounting them.
  • Make sure the more combat-ready characters care about keeping their less sturdy comrades alive, so they don’t rush into dangerous situations too quickly.
  • Balance the plots a bit so that the tougher character isn’t always the one who can save the party. Make sure that the other characters’ skills and abilities get showcased as well.
  • Try to create combat situations that provide weaker opponents for weaker characters, or which allow weaker characters to take advantage of their other skills, or which allow weaker characters to stay out of the immediate line of deadly fire (your stereotypical wizard lobbing spells from behind the fighter fits here).
  • Convince the player of the tougher creature not to pump him up too much during character creation, thus minimizing the gap between the characters. He could take some sort of flaw or disadvantage that makes him easier to kill than usual for his character type. You don’t have to take this to an extreme – it’s normal to have one or more characters that are tougher than others. You just don’t want to take that to an extreme, either.

Justification

Make sure there’s a decent justification or back-story for why and how this weird and unusual character is in game. Heck, turn it into a plot that you can play with at some point. If the player doesn’t have a decent idea for how this character can be fit into your game world, then sit down with the player and come up with something you both feel comfortable with. Or, if you think you have a cool mystery you can build around it, then tell the player something along the lines of, “all you know is that you went to sleep one night and then woke up in this warehouse…” and build your mystery from there.

If at all possible, find a way to relate the character to parts of the game world that already exist. For example, take the Barakah, mentioned in an example earlier. We talked about working them into a game of Werewolf. The Barakah are half-human, half-djinn, where one interpretation of the djinn is that they are spirits. Werewolf as a game involves the spirit world and spirits quite heavily. So a character that is half-human and half-spirit would be easy to involve with the werewolves the game revolves around.

By relating a character into the pre-existing game world you solve so many potential problems! Not only will the character fit into the game and world much better, but you also make it much easier to solve the next problem we address…

Plot and Party Compatibility

One of the biggest problems with characters that don’t fit in is the difficulty in involving them in the game world’s plots (and the plots of the rest of the party). Pre-existing groups and character types have plenty of reason, generally, to get involved in the things going on around them. An outsider might be tempted to run off and do his own thing, and different sorts of characters won’t always care about the same issues (i.e., plot types).

Thus, pay special attention to how the character will get involved in the game. If at all possible, give him pre-game reasons why he cares about other PCs or their goals. Make sure he isn’t a loner. Make sure he has reasons why he needs the other PCs, if necessary, and why he’ll want to help them with their plots. In particular, his major goal probably shouldn’t be “find my way home and away from the game world” unless he’s meant to be a short-term character. If you have a party comprised of several different not-very-compatible types of PCs, then work with the players to try to give the party members some sort of overarching goal or ideal in common. For more hints, see our article on Coherent Party Creation.

Carefully consider whether any of the PCs’ abilities will tend to draw them away from the rest of the party. For example, in Werewolf: the Apocalypse, werewolves often spend a fair amount of time in the “Umbra,” or spiritual realm. If you think that’s likely to split them away from the non-werewolves in the party too much, then consider allowing other PCs to purchase some means of entering the Umbra as well. It doesn’t have to be as easy or safe; you don’t have to give them a total freebie. And if you aren’t sure it’ll be a problem then wait until the game has started – you can always have someone give them an item or teach them an ability later, if you find that the party is getting split apart too much.

Skills, Advantages, Merits, Flaws, Quirks, Etc.

Since every game that I can think of involves some sort of skill or ability system, working an extra or different ability into game probably won’t be that difficult. Just convert it to your current system of play.

In a game that already involves some form of merits, flaws, quirks, resources, backgrounds, advantages, or disadvantages, it should be fairly easy to create new
ones on demand. Simply use the pre-existing ones as a guide for costs and effects. If the game doesn’t have such a system, you have three options:

  • Allow the player to write such items into his background without worrying about point costs. Just make sure that anything that will affect game-play is something you feel comfortable working into the game, and something that won’t unbalance things too much. (You probably don’t want someone writing “And Joe’s uncle Bob is a billionaire who dotes on Joe…” into their character’s background unless you don’t mind the party having unlimited funds.)
  • If enough of your players enjoy such systems, then lift one of these systems wholesale from another game and put it into your game. If your game uses a point-buy character creation system, then adapt the costs to reflect your game’s point costs. Or, simply require that the points put into strengths and weaknesses must balance each other out to no more than a certain total, and specify that they won’t affect the rest of character creation.
  • Create your own quick system of strengths and weaknesses with simple point costs to help you balance them.

For the GM

In many cases, it’s the players who want to work new and interesting things into games. I think this is because their characters are usually the only in-game outlet they have for their creativity, while the GM gets to muck with lots of non-player characters (NPCs) and plots. However, sometimes the GM wants to toss new things into the game world as well.

You need to consider all of the general issues that we talked about above when you do this, but you also have one extra issue to consider: don’t put things into game that will nullify or out-shine the players’ character concepts. If someone is playing a member of a cool secret society, for instance, then you probably don’t want to put another secret society into game that does the exact same thing, only better. (The PCs should be the stars of the show, after all — not the NPCs.) Or, if someone is playing a character whose personal history is intertwined with specific bits of world background, you don’t want to change that world background without discussing it with the player – otherwise you’ve just un-done all that player’s work and left him with very little of his character.

In addition, think about what would happen if one of your players got inspired by your home-made material and wanted to play with it when it next came time for him to design a new PC. What if one of your players wants to play a member of that secret society? What if one of them wants to have an ability that they saw an NPC use? Try not to put things into game unless they’re balanced for PC as well as NPC use.

In other words, don’t use your home-made or imported material in a vacuum. Always look at the PCs and see how it would affect them. Talk with any players who will be affected by your choices before you make them.

Things to Consider

Many people dislike the idea of “crossover” games entirely, and there’s a good reason for that. Such games introduce many potential problems for what might seem like a small benefit, and some players abuse them. There are quite a few issues that you need to take into account when you try to integrate material from one game into another and it’s easy to lose track of them. If you aren’t very familiar with the games involved, it’s particularly difficult to foresee all of the potential problems and imbalances you might be creating.

However, many people enjoy integrating material from one game into another, or creating their own material to add on to a game they love. It allows them to customize a game to their desires and make use of their creativity. It can also allow them to play a character that truly captures their imagination, which can lead to a lot of fun. With a little work, a crossover game can involve your players personally in ways that a normal game might not. It can be used as a fix when not all of your players are thrilled with the game the group ended up compromising on. It can also allow you as GM to work new and surprising material into the game when it seems like your players have read all the books already.

I believe there’s nothing wrong with playing such games, as long as you take the issues and potential problems into account and deal with them. Some of the best and most enjoyable games I’ve played in have been crossovergames of one type or another, or have involved unusual player characters. But it does take some forethought to pull it off well. Make sure you’ll still be playing the game you love. Be careful that the PCs are balanced with each other and that you aren’t enabling one player to take over the game. Make absolutely certain that there are enough reasons for the PCs to stick together and stay involved with each other, and try to mesh the new character or ability with the game you already have, rather than gluing it on haphazardly. Then sit back and enjoy the new game that you’ve created!

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