Pitchforks at Ready
So today I had a weird conjunction of rpg topics. First, it turns out Hero Games decided to cut down to a one man operation, letting go a couple of the remaining people, including Steve “My Name's On the Cover of Every Hero System Book” Long. That apparently came out of the blue for most people- a company with a wide range of material, affiliation with an on-going MMORPG, and a storied history. They might try to Kickstarter the last planned book the line. I know they've gone through some rough patches, but didn't expect a pre-Christmas bloodletting. That I expect from WotC. But the decline of one of the more interesting systems in gaming connects to some discussions I've seen on RPG Geek. In particular, some attitudes about generic systems- with GURPS in particular coming in for some real venom.
There was a recent thread considering the voting for the RPG lifetime achievement award on the Geek; a nice idea to get a core list of systems and games people see as important or influential to the hobby. Last year was the first year, and obviously D&D won. But this year was a tighter race. GURPS, among others, had done particularly well- early on in a tight race with Traveller, though the latter won strongly in the end. But, as the thread showcased, some people really don't like GURPS. Some of the criticism was aimed at SJ Games, some at players of the system, and others at the generic approach as a whole. I saw similar comments pop up in a "Question of the Day" thread, asking what things in an rpg book were a “red flag” which would keep you from buying it. Again, that the game was generic or universal was cited as a reason not-to-buy by several people- and fairly adamantly.
And my initial reaction was to be a little put off, but then I stopped to think about it. Honestly, if I saw a generic or universal system on the shelf, I'd probably skip it. I've bought and played enough games in my life that more mechanics without substance- in terms of setting, story and drama- probably isn't for me. I say that, but I also picked up the Strands of FATE rulebook- a generic implementation of that system. And while I didn't love the game, it did finally give me insight into how the FATE Engine works. So that wasn't a lost purchase. But I haven't bought many other core books for generic systems - and those I have of late have eventually let me down. However, I'm an old gamer- and I still remember how cool I thought GURPS was when it came out. We'd seen some implementations of systems used across games before- bringing us back to Hero Games. Before they actually put out the generic Hero System rulebook, alongside Champions 4e, they'd already done several different variant games using the same basic mechanics (Espionage! and Justice, Inc for example). And, of course, Basic Role-Playing had already started to chart a course towards that- linking together the various Chaosium products and giving us Worlds of Wonder.
But GURPS put that universality to the forefront- and gave players a fairly easy toolkit for building characters. Buy stats, buy skills, buy some advantages. But I think we recognized pretty quickly that GURPS really wasn't usefully a 'universal' system, though we tried to use it that way. Our first games were a former gladiators-turned huntsmen survival campaign and a dimension hopping Amber-homage campaign. The cracks showed in some places, but it offered the best toolkit for doing cross-genre stuff and the best toolkit at the time to have some of the interesting details of Hero System, without the heavy crunch and complications. But it would always be a game about relatively normal heroes, those skilled and talented, but not superhuman. The baseline in an effective GURPS campaign was well below that of a Champions or Rolemaster game- those dealt well with different power levels. So we ran horror, espionage, space, and classic fantasy in that system. But high fantasy, superheroes, wushu, and all of that we left for other systems. Going past 200 points in GURPS got into silly territory. And out of that toolkit came many really interesting campaigns. Fantasy games where fighting an actual monster, something like a beholder, was a terrible prospect, resulted in fear checks and cost PCs their lives.
Engine vs. Toolbox
The distinction, for us, between Hero System and GURPS had another dimension beyond power level. Early on, before they came out with sourcebooks for them, we tried to work out approaches to fantasy and wushu in Hero System. But that was really about figuring out how to tune the powers and details rather than making any changes to the system. Hero, for all of its flaws, is an incredible engine, one with little room to make changes to the actual mechanics. On the other hand, we never ran GURPs straight. We dropped lots of the overcomplicated rules, stripped away elements that got in the way of fun, and used the most basic details to run our games. So fatigue, experience limits and training, second by second tracking, and much else got discarded in favor of a GURPS Local Flavor 454. It meant some serious rethinking when I played GURPS games at cons and the like. But the system had enough room to do that. And you had to in some cases- GURPS has a terrible magic system. We ended up having to change a lot to make them interesting to play, and as fun in combat as other roles.
But in some ways that's the great downfall of generic or universal systems- the need to be balanced and beholden to internal consistency. GURPS Magic IMHO (and that of others in our group) works to highly limit the power of mages in combat with energy costs, extra rolls, prep time, and other significant limits. There's the sense, in some ways, that the game must keep a tactical balance and a balance with “realism.” But that means that other modules and systems which get strapped on- alternate and interesting forms of sorcery and the like also have to be hamstrung. Everything has to balance together and be consistent across the books. Some elements might get classed as more super-hero-y, fantastic, or restricted, but they have rules limits and costs which allow them to work within the same universe- for better or worse.
On the other hand, game engines don't have to worry about that so much. We have many different flavors of FATE out there, and no one cares about the balance or interchangeability or elements across those systems and settings. The same thing applies to GUMSHOE and One Roll Engine. Even d20- as an engine- didn't really have a core balance to worry about and compare to. I think the original intent of the generic system was to allow players access to a set of rules everyone could learn and use for many different games. It would also allow a GM to bring diverse elements and genre ideas together. But it also required a measuring stick, a universal center. I think that's one of the problems with the World of Darkness rules- lashing themselves to a core rules and then trying to keep some balance and interoperability between the sub-rpgs. That results in games which ought to be narrative driven, but in fact have massive amounts of rules, often asymetrical and complicated across different abilities.
But I like the idea that we don't have to reinvent the wheel, that some workable core mechanics can be taken and reused- without regret. And we can make changes freely and play with those ideas. So we perhaps lose the ability to have a universal gaming language or the power to take characters and drop them into any campaign. But out of the great generic old-school systems, like GURPS, BRP and HERO, and even Masterbook, we got interesting lighter generic systems like Savage Worlds and Risus, and game engines which can be toolkitted elsewhere like Fudge and Burning Wheel. And we can accept that certain systems and engines work better for some things than for others.
So a couple of last thoughts: first, what universal systems still have some vitality now that Hero seems to be dropping off the map? Savage Worlds is still out there. Basic Role-Playing maintains itself, though there's all the Mongoose weirdness for the different flavors of that. GURPS presses on, though it seems to have less and less relevancy. On the other hand, True20 seems to be falling to the wayside and I'm unsure about the state of the d6 System brand. Second, consider the tangible benefits that generic systems have brought in terms of sourcebooks. We've gotten excellent historical, regional, thematic and genre books out of them- tools which can be used for many different games. If they'd had to be tied to a specific setting or narrow game, I wonder if we would have gotten as many. From GURPS came the really interesting books GURPS Russia, GURPS Celtic Myth, GURPS Mysteries, GURPS Horror, and GURPS Voodoo, just as a few examples. Take a lot at the library of new BRP ideas and or even the wackiness that is Lucha Libre HERO. I think those of us who hack, dismantle, adapt and stitch together gaming materials have a lot to thank generic systems for.