System vs. Setting. What it means.

Tabletop role-playing games (RPGs) are an excellent way to exercise your creativity and imagination while enjoying a game with friends. However, newcomers to the genre may find themselves confused by the terminology used in the RPG community, especially when it comes to differentiating between a game’s “system” and “setting.” In this blog, we’ll explore the difference between these two concepts and provide some examples of universal and specific settings.

Two gods battle in the clouds above, one is system, one is setting
Is system and setting a battle of the Gods?

Let us define the terms

First, let’s define the terms. The system refers to the rules and mechanics that govern how the game is played. This includes things like character creation, combat, and skill checks. On the other hand, the setting refers to the fictional world in which the game takes place. This includes things like the geography, history, culture, and characters of the world.


A game’s system is usually what sets it apart from other RPGs. For example, Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) uses a d20 system, where players roll a 20-sided die to determine success or failure. In contrast, the World of Darkness series uses a dice pool system, where players roll a number of ten-sided dice based on their character’s skill level. Each system has its own unique mechanics and strengths, and players often have a preference for one system over another.


While the system is the backbone of an RPG, the setting is what brings the game world to life. A setting can be either specific or universal. A specific setting is one that has been created by the game’s designers and is unique to that game. For example, Shadowrun is a specific setting that combines cyberpunk and fantasy elements to create a world where magic and technology coexist. The Star Wars RPG is another specific setting that allows players to explore the galaxy far, far away and interact with iconic characters like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.

Universally speaking

The setting is usually a universal context.  That means that in many cases you can take the setting of the game and use it with any game system. These settings provide a rich world for players to explore without being tied to a specific game’s mechanics. For example, the Forgotten Realms is a setting that has been used with most D&D systems. However, there is nothing stopping a Games Master from using it with the RuneQuest system for example. The world is home to many iconic locations, such as the city of Waterdeep and the Underdark, and has a rich history and mythology.  The Game Master may love the story and setting but not the system so mixes it up.

The system can be Universally focused

Some systems are designed to be Universal, such as the Savage Worlds system, which can be used with any setting. Savage Worlds is a fast-paced system that emphasizes cinematic action and character customization. It has been used in a wide range of settings, from the Wild West to horror to science fiction.  There are a number of systems that have been designed specifically for this purpose.  GURPS (Generic Universal Role Play System), Cypher System, FATE and numerous others are options you could look into if you are looking to experiment with the idea.


Understanding the difference between a game’s system and setting is essential to enjoying tabletop RPGs. The system provides the rules and mechanics that govern gameplay, while the setting provides the world where the game takes place. Specific settings, such as Shadowrun and Star Wars, provide a unique world for players to explore, while universal systems like Savage Worlds offer a system that you can tailor to the setting you want. Whether you prefer a specific or universal system, there’s an RPG out there that’s perfect for you.

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