Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Jack of All Trades

I just picked up a copy of Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying, which is the encapsulation of their classic d100 system from over a couple of decades. Yes, I'm writing a review of that, but first: Is a generic system right for you in the first place?

Name-Brand Generics

Jack spadesWhen I talk about a "generic" system, I refer to a system which can be adapted with minimal effort to multiple genres and playstyles. Consider these two disparate cases: a grim fantasy world, and a light-hearted space operatic romp through the galaxy. A generic system, by my definition, could serve both of those easily.

There aren't that many out there. Some systems adapt well to one genre and many subgenres (e.g. multiple types of either fantasy or science-fiction but not both). This means the generic system has to have resources to deal with low-tech weapons, high-tech weapons, magic, and other special abilities (*cough*superpowers*cough*), and not necessarily have one system completely stomp on the others, just in case you were thinking of a far-future magical campaign.

The Benchmarks

I have gone on—at excruciating length, it seems—about two of my go-to generic systems, GURPS and HERO. They are primarily what I think of as "generic" systems even though they're some of the biggest names in the category.

GURPS set out to be a generic system from the beginning. In fact, it sought to be a generic modular system, born of The Fantasy Trip. The idea was that you would buy only those modules that you'd need to play the game you wanted to. The very first book was the combat system, but that didn't gel quite right. It was from that combat system, and a few more conventional roleplaying elements, that the original GURPS was born, and it did include all the basic rules they had at the time.

On the other hand, HERO System began as one specific genre: Champions. It was not a full generic system; it was designed to manage one specific kind of action and do that as well as it could. Very shortly after that, they introduced a variant, which used more or less the same system, but shoehorned it roughly into another genre. This went on for 20+ years until its fifth edition, when they finally took all those other rules for different campaigns and settings, balled them all up, and created a generic system out of them. This tradition has been confirmed into its sixth edition.

Other Genericker Generics

Basic Roleplaying is very much a generic. I'll cover it in greater length in that review, but suffice it to say Chaosium took the HERO route. They had a basic system which they reinforced to stand up to different genres—horror (Call of Cthulhu), fantasy (Runequest, Elric/Stormbringer, Magic World), science-fiction (Ringworld, Future World), superhero (Superworld)... so the task was going over all of those books and create the union of all rules. Really, looking at their catalog of games you kind of have to wonder what took them this long.

But it doesn't stop there. There are other games, albeit not as well known, which fit the generic mold. (Although that's probably an oxymoron.)

West End Games had Masterbook, a multi-genre adaptation of the house system used in TORG and Shatterzone. West End Games may be a waft of digestive gas on the landscape, but it's not the end of the road; Masterbook is being republished by Precis Intermedia. So far it's just reprints of the original, but technically it's still available and they promise they'll do a new version eventually. They even brought the old drama deck back.

Pinnacle Entertainment Group made a fantastic initial splash with Deadlands, then moved it into the future, then moved it into the very far future. Very shortly after doing those, they simplified their house system and released it as a multigenre version called Savage Worlds. It's a thin book, but it contains the basic elements needed to pull off gaming in theoretically any time period.

Close, But No Generics

There are a lot of systems which tout greater flexibility, but which for one reason or another ultimately fall short of that holy grail of genericosity. [?] And note that some of the reasons they fall short seem kind of petty.

For instance, TORG (West End Games; see above) had to have all those elements to handle multiple genres and playstyles, but it was designed to play The Possibility Wars. The reality conflict system is baked in a little too well. (Oh, and good luck to the German company Ulysses-Spiele on this new acquisition. The English edition can't come soon enough!)

Cartoon Action Hour has to adapt to all genres, but it's laser-focused on one and only one tone: that of the 1980s cartoon-slash-toy-advertisement, to the point that it can't handle other decades quite as well. (See the review here, but that one reads kind of funny.)

Burning Wheel, another one I like to talk about, is geared in its core system to handle just fantasy. And though there are world books showing adaptations of the system to other genres, including Burning Empires which is a space-operatic setting, it's not all together in a single package yet. (Luke, I hear you're busy with Jared on other projects. No hurry on this one.)

Post-reboot World of Darkness has a core book which distills its library down to one system... which is set just in the contemporary and not well adapted to science-fiction or medieval fantasy.

Big Eyes, Small Mouth, otherwise known as the Tri-Stat System, can kind of handle everything, but it does so with an anime vibe that some playstyles might find off-putting. The same problem exists with the much lesser known but still multitalented Random Anime by Infernal Funhouse: it works with everything, but everything takes on its flavor, kind of like the anti-tofu.

And this one might surprise you: R. Talsorian Games' Dream Park pretty much required mechanisms for all manner of special abilities. If you strip out the "backstage" mechanisms and don't worry about pulling people out of the game, it could work as a generic system. The only real drawback is that the fight scenes would run more like a board game than what you'd think of as RPG combat. Also, the powers list might be a little sparse for "truly generic" play.

Most "story games" are way too sparse to be considered

See what I mean? There are a lot of systems that aspire to be a lot of things to a lot of people, but fall a little short of the ideal, whether because of gaps in workable genre, acceptable playstyle, the system itself isn't all there, or maybe the assembled pieces just color everything they touch.

Of course, this is all arguable, especially that bit about "color." So, argue. Comments are live on this thing; it'd be a shame to let them go to waste.

And Master of None? Maybe, but not without a price.

With all that under our belts, we come back to the single most important question: You've got this whiz-bang idea for a campaign. You've got the important beats planned out, you have ideas for interesting NPCs, she's really stacked, she's had a few, and you've got her legs up on the mantlepiece you know what you need your game to do. Is a generic system right for you?

With great power comes great... holy hannah that's a thick book!

Any roleplaying system has to be geared to do what it's supposed to, which means mechanics for whatever it is that you'd reasonably be expected to attempt. And no, the "reasonably" here is relative; levitation, energy beams, and turning other people into toads are legitimate actions in certain settings.

A generic system, therefore, doesn't have the luxury of focusing on one or two settings and covering them in depth. The generic needs to cover everything that it possibly can. And while the generics I named can do that, they tend to gain complexity in the process. This often means lots and lots of rules to know, or to thumb through your first few play-throughs.

If you want to stick with a simpler, smaller rulebook, then you'll need either to find a non-generic system that fits what you're trying to do and pare down your concept to fit. Shop around, though, and you'll probably find a system that at least meets you more than halfway.

Cosmic Slop

Here's another disadvantage to a system that can do anything: it'll let you do anything if you let it. While this is one of the selling points of a full generic system, it can also be the game's downfall.

After you as GM decide what you're going to do with the system, you need to keep the players focused on the same target. A focused, non-generic system would do that for you, simply by not allowing anything too out-of-gamut. An unfocused generic system will let your players wander wherever the hell they want, and this could be disruptive to your plans.

One Size Fits All (You'll Find It Rides Up With Wear)

And while the generic system aspires to be as many things as possible to as many different campaigns and people as possible, there is no perfect generic system. There are very good generic systems which will adapt to your wishes with a minimum of effort, but even the best won't work with no effort.

This isn't much of a complaint, given that no system will fit your wishes perfectly anyway and will require some trimming and tightening to cling snugly and suggestively to the shape which you're trying to construct. But that'll happen with generics too, so advantage neither side.

Okay, that's my wisdom. Now share.

You're at the bottom. Congratulations for surviving yet another of my bouts of verbal effluence.

This time is different, though. If you've read this far, I want you to tell me of a game you've either run or played in that used one of those generic systems. Or if I've missed a generic system, tell me about that too. I can name at least one other...


  1. One Roll Engine?
    Started off superheros, works quite well with any setting.

  2. Not one I'm familiar with yet, spidercat. Consider my curiosity piqued. The announcement of A Dirty World on Greg Stolze's site especially has my attention.