One Game to Rule Them All

Posted: September 12, 2015 in DM Tips, RPGs
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There’s these people, I think, that believe that there is a platonic ideal game system, that is universal in nature, that can be applied to any type of story, in any setting, and excel. Let’s talk about that for a bit, shall we?

RPGs are mostly about fantasy.  My experience leads me to assume that at least half of RPG activity is in the fantasy milieu. Other genres, such as Sci-Fi, Modern Horror, anime, superheroes, spy/technothrillers, drama, historical realism, etc. are well represented. There are further subsets to these genres, but to keep it simple, let’s just list designed settings (where much of the world-building grunt work has been done by the writers of the RPG) and open settings (where very little world-building is included).

A system is the ruleset, that is mostly there to resolve conflict. Does your arrow hit the orc baby? Roll a d20, and if you roll a 4 or higher, you hit. Does the Psi Cop convince you to let him leave Babylon 5 without further incident? Roll a dice and add your resistance bonus, the Psi Cop will roll a dice and add his skill bonus, and if you roll higher than the Psi Cop, then you overcome his telepathic manipulation. The system tells you how to make characters, how to use skills, how to achieve effects and what effects are possible.

Most RPGs marry a setting to some sort of unique system. Traveller is both a system and a setting. Vampire: The Masquerade was originally both a system and a setting. Now, with V:TM, the system used in the game was separated out and is called the Storyteller system, and has been reused in various other games that either share the same setting (the World of Darkness modern horror setting) as V:TMas (such as Mage: The Ascension, Werewolf: The Apocalypse, Changeling: The Dreaming, Wraith: The Oblivion) or an entirely new setting, such as Exalted which is more like a fantasy anime. Here we see the versatility of a system originally designed for a single setting to be applied successfully to different settings.

Other RPGs took a different approach, and set out to design a Universal system. GURPS, which stands for Generic Universal Role-Playing System, was designed in 1986 and has certainly had success in being Universal. Here is a list of GURPS books, and you can see from the diversity that many many types of games can be easily played using the GURPS setting.

A more modern game, Savage Worlds (2003), attempted to do the same thing as GURPS, but with a more rules light approach. Again, a list of Savage Worlds books shows the breadth of gameplay that has been published with the single, core system.

Finally, FATE Core and FATE Accelerated should be mentioned side by side with Savage Worlds, but with an entirely different approach to system design. Your character is defined by aspects (free form descriptors) and approaches (one of 6 ways problems can be approached – forceful, brash, clever, etc.). If you attempt something, you really just need to sell to the troupe whether an aspect applies, choose an approach to the situation and then roll. A Star Wars character might have the aspect of “rogue Jedi Knight”, a James Bond game PC might have “double 0 rated British spy”, and a medieval knight might have “mounted knight in the service of King Hegabold”. The simplicity and utter genericism of such an approach is truly universal.

A universal system has a huge advantage over other games. You can play entirely different games without the need to spend any time learning a new system. Maybe for a year, your gaming troupe explores wild west horror, but then you collectively decide that you want to explore play in the Star Wars universe. Later, you all get excited about the Avengers movie and want to roleplay superheroes. Next, you get the idea that you should explore deep characterization in a setting very like Gone With the Wind. Without a universal system, that’s four games that you would have to learn, each with their own intricacies and flaws. House-rules might have to be applied, sometimes retroactively, to match the game systems to the needs of your troupe.

With each game, there are idiosyncrasies that sometimes don’t match your game style. For instance, maybe healing is too slow or too rare in the RAW (rules as written) for your high adventure, high pace game. With a universal system, once you’re familiar with the system, you can apply it to another game setting, and you will probably know enough about the system to apply a skin or set of customizations to the system to match your goals and theme of your new setting.

To be fair, there are gaming groups that do this, and only play one game system. Like, ever. I know, right?

All roleplaying game systems can be applied to any other unintended setting. If you have a copy of Dungeons & Dragons 2nd edition, but you want to play Star Trek: The Next Generation, then all you need to do is reskin everything. The Fighter class becomes the Security Tech class, elves become vulcans, a crossbow becomes a phaser, spells are discarded or repurposed as tech -> Teleport becomes the transporter. That’s a lot of work, but the harder part, which is designing a system where you understand how to balance obstacles and conflicts for the characters, has been done and you know how it works.

Some people love to repurpose games. D&D 5e, a recent darling of the RPG community, has been converted to countless systems as people take what they love about the 5e, and attempt to reproduce it in another setting to tell different stories without having to buy a new game system that they may not love as much. That’s awesome, and that DIY attitude is fundamental to all geekdom. You see it in cosplay, in home decorations, in historical reenactments, and in medieval faires.

The core argument that I will make, however, is that there isn’t One Game System to Rule Them All. The ‘media is the message’ rings true here for me, so let me attempt to explain my thoughts.

A superhero game is action heavy, and the game system needs to encourage the characters to attempt outrageously heroic endeavours with an appropriate change of success. A modern day horror game, however, needs the characters to be vulnerable. You could use the same system to roleplay both stories, but if the system is action heavy, the players are going to feel the urge to use some of those action possibilities in the game. It may be limited to the narrative, it may expand to character choices during character creation. If they’re sufficiently afraid of failure, they may attempt to steer their character design to maximize survivability. Similarly, if the setting is action forward but the game system is action unfriendly, say where a sense of realism is layered on the game, then the narrative and character choices are going to be mired down by action economies not intended for the high-flying caricatures of a superhero story.

The theme and mood of a story are exemplified in the system. The system informs the expectations for the characters, the realm of possible actions that can be achieved, and the relative chances of success. While experience with a system allows a player to better design the character they want to play, it doesn’t necessarily engender the mood of gameplay desired. Let’s be clear… good roleplayers can make Hamlet given greed eggs and ham, but it takes a viking child to raze a village. I get that, and even acknowledge that. But if you give those same good roleplayers a better set of tools, wouldn’t their game experience be even more on point?

On point… I think that is a ballet reference. You know, where the cyborgs are genetically engineered for perfect thigh gap and can stand on one toe? But the ballet is a good analogy. Consider Swan Lake but with Britney Spears music. Could be good, there are some decent Hollywood musicators out there that would make it work, but probably harder to mimic the intended mood of the without the original orchestral score.

As we have reached the point of the posting where my analogies are spinning out of control, lets change the channel to a new day and see you on the flip side. Variety is the spice of Arakis.

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