Many folks have a favorite game and often if you ask them what their favorite system is, they’ll default to the game. Shadowrun! Warhammer! D&D!! That’s all well and good but none of those are examples of a system. They definitely have rules and mechanics and crunch (sometimes too much crunch) but I don’t think you can really call something a system unless it’s working under the hood of several different games. Not different editions of the same game but entirely different games. Things like Cortex Plus, Cypher, Genesys, GURPS, Hero etc. I’ve played and run multiple games using these systems and I’ve got two clear standouts – 2d20 from Modiphius and the Year Zero Engine from Free League Publishing.
There are some free quickstarts for versions of both systems so I’m not going to go into the details of how the system work more than is necessary.
Conan, Mutant Chronicles, Fallout, Dune, Star Trek Adventures, John Carter
Not related to the system but the licensed games from Modiphius are exceptionally well researched and true to the license(s). Little tweaks to the system here and there to make it feel “right” and that’s a big deal in a license game.
The Momentum mechanic is undeniably the biggest selling point of the 2d20 system. In a nutshell success at a roll beyond what is necessary generates a meta-currency that can be spent immediately on that action or saved for use later into a community pool (or in the case of John Carter a smaller, personal pool).
Using some sort of points to be more awesome when it matters is a favorite mechanic of mine but often those points are subject to player decision paralysis. Do I use it now or save it for later when I might really need it? Tying in to successes and a group pool means it flows freely and is pretty much always there to be spent. It’s very, very rare for a character to be unable to spend points when needed.
2. Non-Combat Tasks
I don’t mean simple skill checks which are part and parcel of any game but things that are more involved. Diagnosing an alien disease, negotiating with a powerful Jed, hacking open a vault door. 2d20 approaches all of these in the same way they do combat (or to parse it differently they treat all significant obstacles in the same manner). There’s a “damage” track and things can have “armor” and special gear or abilities can be “weapons” and that’s it. It’s easy to model pretty much any obstacle this way and it just works. Imagine that if a wizard wanted to research a spell in D&D it was approached like combat. There’s a DC (AC) based on the spell’s rarity. It has “hit points” based on level (when the hit points are reduced to 0 the spell is learned). The “attack” could be a die type based on the Arcana skill. “Rounds” could represent hours of study. It’s super flexible and gives a structure to the narrative. Just like combat rules do.
3. Zone Based Combat
I’ve played tactical maps, I’ve played theater of the mind and I’ve played zone maps. Zone maps win, hands down. If you’re used to 5′ square grids then it can take some getting used to. A zone isn’t something like 10×10 or 20×20 or something. It’s “an area” of varied size to denote things like obstacles, terrain, environmental conditions etc. It does take an adjustment to realize that your bow doesn’t have a range of 60 feet. It has an optimal range of medium (the next zone). You can certainly fire at a closer target or a further one but that optimal range is the best place for it in terms of accuracy and speed of target acquisition. Once you uncouple the idea of range in feet from zones it’s so amazingly freeing for encounters.
Also I’ve never once had a player say I run and stab him with my sword! What? Shit he’s 5′ away still. I guess I use my entire action to move that extra step.
4. Weapon Qualities and Effects
Quick. What’s the difference between a long sword in D&D and a battle axe? Cost? Weight? It’s certainly not damage or even damage type. They are, for all practical purposes the same weapon. In Conan though, the sword has “Parrying” making it easier to block a foes attacks. The battle axe is “Intense” and “Vicious” It inflicts grievous wounds and can kill a foe more easily. There’s a reason for your warrior to carry both, have a preference or even specialize in just one. Effects and Qualities are a way in which the different gear matters and it’s simple and it provides players with choices. Is something that does less damage but penetrates armor better to take on the adventure? What about something that can hit many people at the cost of significant ammo/power. What’s more, by adding a new Effect or Quality to a weapon you can easily make it magical or high tech because it is simply better.
Mutant Year Zero, Forbidden Lands, Tales from the Loop, Alien, Twilight 2000
The old school gamer in me loves that Free League releases boxed sets of some of their Year Zero Engine games and have official soundtracks as well. The production value is solid and I appreciate that.
1. Simple Lethality
It’s not everyone’s cup of tea but games using the YZ Engine can be quite deadly for characters. There are a few monsters in Forbidden Lands and several Xenomorph attacks in Alien that simply result in character death. It’s harsh but it also makes characters try to engage in combat on their terms. Even an experienced character can face death when things go poorly. Forbidden Lands and Mutant Year Zero do have a death spiral because you take damage to attributes but Alien and Twilight 2000 have a separate Health track which works much better. Generally games that have a high lethality aren’t really fun but these games really do reward planning, knowing what you can do, knowing when to push your luck, using cover and armor etc. They also can turn on a simple stroke of bad luck and that’s okay. For the style of games they emulate (many of which are grittier genres) that’s fine.
2. Rules Light
The rules for the YZ system and super, super easy. Roll a pool of d6s based on your character. Any 6s are a success and you generally only need one to succeed at a task. Modifiers add or take away dice from the pool. That’s it. There are some permutations but really you can learn to play a YZ engine game in about 10 minutes.
I really like games that have Talents as a way of character advancement. There’s a big difference between someone who can reliably find food and water vs. someone who can reliably navigate even if they both have the same skill level. I really like it when the majority of the Talents are open. So yes, you can have a dual axe wielding spell casting character or a character who is both very studious but also at home in the outdoors. Talent based systems really add a level of customization to characters. D&D kind of does this with Feats but because they are an optional rule to replaced the ASI they just aren’t as impactful as getting a new Talent in a YZ engine game is.
Yes, you’re right. The 2d20 system also use Talents/Perks and I love it there as well. YZ Engine games tend to use zones, but I listed in 2d20. The fact is that I love both of these systems for many of the same reasons.
4. Fast and Slow Actions
It takes getting used to, but I do like the idea behind Fast and Slow Actions in YZ Engine games. In a nutshell, on a character’s turn they can do both a Fast Action and a Slow Action (or two Fast Actions). There is a chart in each game that indicates what type of action something is. What I really like is that there are injuries and talents and gear etc. that can modify what sort of Action a given action is. A critical Injury may turn Run into a Slow Action, which dramatically impacts your melee fighter’s ability to close with the enemy (since making an attack is also a Slow Action). A talent may allow your character to issue battle commands as a Fast Action, rather than a Slow one meaning you can buff the team more effectively. How things build onto the basic action system is what really makes it work well.
I have played and run a lot of games over the decades. Like all gamers I have both favorite games and comfort food games (likely an article there) but when it comes to systems that support multiple games both the 2d20 system and the Year Zero Engine have my vote for favorites.
There is a Year Zero Engine OGL available, and while 2d20 doesn’t have one yet they do have free Quickstarts that show off the system in different iterations including Conan, Star Trek Adventures and Dune.