Thursday, April 21, 2016

History of Universal RPGs (Part One: 1978-1993)

You’d think I’d learn by now. Each time I start one of these histories, I say “How many of these games can there be?” (Spoiler: a metric ton). Every time I thought I had it all set, I found something new. Despite that I tried to keep things tight, but it got away from me. For this list I focused on games calling themselves Universal. They explicitly support play across styles & tropes. That means I left out games that cover many genres but have a specific background, setting, or theme like TORG, Fiasco, or All Flesh Must Be Eaten. I also avoided games for a particular genre that had genre-adapting supplements (Warriors & Warlocks for example). Finally, there had to be a core book for the system. So Fate works, but Powered by the Apocalypse and Unisystem don’t, despite their adaptability.

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I only include core books here. I’m also only listing books with a physical edition. I might include an electronic release if they’re notable and of significant size. At the end you’ll see some miscellaneous entries, covering borderline or similar cases. Some selections came down to a judgement call, like Crunchy Frog’s maybe mythical parody universal rpg, Zen. That game’s completely blank with only one rule on the last page: “Play.” I’m sure I missed some releases. If you spot something Universal which came out from 1978 to 1993, leave a note in the comments.

I open with a two small press games I never, ever heard of. I've had to piece together these first entries from scattered sources. Ultimately one has pride of place as the first universal rpg, but I'll let them duke it out. The Infinity System seems to have had a limited print run. We know some games only got regional distribution in this period period and Infinity may be one of those. It combines random attribute generation with point-purchased skills. We'll see point-buy as a key element for Universal systems on this list and beyond. The mechanics feels convoluted, but the general ideas is to allow play from Stone-Age to Far Future. It includes some minor material on magic, but promises more genre details in future, never-published sourcebooks. It's a small, photocopied booklet and an errata page all tucked into a zip-lock bag.

2. Legacy (1978)
Like, Infinity, Legacy is another self-published universal game but much more ambitious. RetroRoleplaying describes the actual product as, "...a collection of loose leaf pages, looks like it was typeset with a high quality typewriter and is full of half-tone-like illos (including one of the designer on vacation). The writing style is pretentious, perhaps the most pretentious style I've ever seen in an RPG." You really have to check out the blog post on it. Legacy clocks in a 160 pages and looks like a brain-burning slog. It has some novel concepts, like civilization statistics, but ultimately it feels like a product of its time.

To illustrate this, I offer a quote from the rules, drawn from the '07 RPGNet thread examining Legacy (all sic):
One of the most innovative and least understandable aspects of the LEGACY game system is INTENTIONALITY. Roughly defined INTENTIONALITY is a motivational force which tends to influence the likelyhood of things happening. When associated with an individual INTENTIONALITY signifies that the likelyhood of that individual initiating an action or activity is increased, and that the likelyhood of that action or activity having a certain outcome is also increased. When associated with an object or artifact INTENTIONALITY signifies the importance of that object as a nexus or focal point of some impending action or activity. Essentially it indicated the wampeter without giving away the identity of the karass. 
Many of the implications of INTENTIONALITY are not discussed or included in these rules, but sufficient information is present to simulate the motivational behavior of large groups of non-player characters and explain the large number of self initiated actions associated with player characters. These rules should be considered optional, and though I feel that they add significantly to the interest and value of a role assumption game other game operators may not agree with me.  
3.41.1 THE INTENTIONALITY VALUEINTENTIONALITY is measured and discussed in discrete factors which indicate a degree or amount of INTENTIONALITY present in an object or individual. The table below indicates the relative significance of varying levels of INTENTIONALITY  
0 An individual that possess a basic 1 in 1000 chance of initiating an action significant to the course of play. An object which is not a nexus at all. None  
1 An individual that possess a basic 1 in 100 chance of initiating an action significant to the course of play. An object which is a potential nexus. +2 
2 An individual that possess a basic 1 in 90 chance of initiating an action significant to the course of play. An object which is becoming a nexus. +5 
3 An individual that possess a basic 1 in 75 chance of initiating an action significant to the course of play. An object which is a secondary nexus. +10 
4 An individual that possess a basic 1 in 50 chance of initiating an action significant to the course of play. An object which is a +1 secondary nexus. +20 
5 An individual that possess a basic 1 in 10 chance of initiating an action significant to the course of play. An object which is a +2 secondary nexus. Player character. +30 
6-9 An individual with a constant chance of initiating an action significant to the course of play. An object which is a +3, +4, +5, or +6 nexus. +50 
10+ An individual or an object which is a primary nexus +100  
The chance of initiating a significant action can be determined by the role of percentile dice, or it may be reflected in a direct and and automatic assumption of action initiation as in the case of 1000 sentients with an INTENTIONALITY of 0. During each unit of time one of the 1000 sentients would initiate an action significant to the course of play. Of course significant to the course of play only means noticeable within the game. The exact action of the individual must be determined by the game operator. 
A secondary or primary nexus indicates an object or individual which may add to a specific type of die roll or to die rolls which tend to increase the likelyhood of a specific event occurring. 
The other die roll effects not related to a nexus are overall die roll modifiers and effect every die roll which that character must make for the duration of the effects of the INTENTIONALITY.
So there's that.

BRP was the first universal/generic rpg I encountered. I’m still not sure which box set it fell out of. My sister followed Chaosium avidly and I read her stuff or bought the few rpgs she hadn't. It's easy to forget how many games they released in those early days (Runequest, Stormbringer, Call of Cthulhu, Elfquest, Ringworld) plus supplements, board games, and Different Worlds magazine. Basic Role Playing first appeared as a 16-page booklet in those boxed sets. It presented the backbone of the BRP system: attributes, percentage-based skills, hit points, combat, and a couple of other details. The booklet used a generic medieval example, but implied the concepts could be used in many ways. It didn't replace the rules presented in the core books, but rather drew out and clarified them.

In doing so, it fulfilled a promise TSR had ignored. I still recall the strangeness of reading Gamma World, Boot Hill, and Top Secret and realizing they weren't out-of-the-box compatible with D&D or each other. Top Secret especially offered divergent mechanics. Conversion rules popped up in magazines (and the DMG), but otherwise it fell to house-rules and hacks.

Basic Role-Playing suggested there could be a portable set of mechanics, elaborated on in many different games. It still wasn't universal- just a skeleton. Worlds of Wonder (1982) attempted to provide a richer implementation. It contained the BRP booklet plus three distinct versions: Future World, Magic World, and Super World. Despite its ambition WoW never really took hold. Super World would be yanked out and expanded to stand on its own the following year. Magic World's concepts would be reused and diluted across other games. BRP’s approach stood on the cusp of offering a truly universal role-playing game. Instead offered a foundational system with several genre implementations. We wouldn't see a fully-fleshed BRP book until 2004.

This is another one that flew under the radar for me. The original '83 edition looks like '70s sci-fi, but the cover claims the game presents "Role Playing Past, Present, and Future, Science-Fiction and Historical Rules." All that’s done in 32 pages. To Challenge Tomorrow follows the BRP model of eliminating classes in favor of skill-based definitions. It also apparently builds on the earlier Ysgarth Fantasy rpg from the same publishers. To Challenge Tomorrow received a several setting sourcebooks including Dark Continents, EsperAgents, By the Gods, Triad, and Worlds of Adventure. The weird thing is that the 1st edition appeared in '83 and a revised 4th edition in '92. They have the same length. But I couldn't find any mentions of the 2nd or 3rd editions of TCT. I'm wondering if those were more new printings rather than new editions.

This rpg may be borderline, but there's a clear intent to offer a "universal" system. But that universality means the real world in World Action & Adventure. "Experience real excitement, fun and daring as you live any kind of character from ancient to modern times." It reminds me of Yaquinto's Man, Myth & Magic from 1982. You could argue it also should appear as a marginal case. Like MM&M, World Action and Adventure prides itself on realism and "factual data." It includes an insane number of reference tables and charts, so you know it's from the 1980's. WA&A came in a single volume hardcover, and had two supplements released the same year: WAA: Book of Animals & Geography & WAA: Actor's Book of Characters.

How does it play? "…a game leader (Action Guide)…thinks of an adventurous situation, mission, or dream. Then, the Action Guide and actors work out the solution, goal, or attainment creating dialogue and action that makes the game enjoyable. The excitement starts when the numbers on the dice are matched to the tables to determine the outcome of the actors' actions, encounters, descriptions, etc. In fact, there are over 500 tables, lists and charts to enjoy as you advance." Of course, it uses all the polyhedrals. I think my favorite part of the whole thing is the author’s picture on the back cover. It looks like a prep school snapshot complete with tie and matching pocket-kerchief. Alternately, the Animals & Geography book has a sultry pic of the designer in an Indiana Jones-esque outfit with popped collar. The blurb on the core book cover completes the awesome, "For the accomplishment of writing the World Action and Adventure series, five departments at San Diego State University awarded Gregory L. Kinney fifteen units of credit in five departments: English, Sociology, Zoology, Psychology, and Multi-cultural Education." Way to work the system!

6. GURPS (1986)
I played a lot of Melee and Wizard in grade school, buying most of the solo modules. But these games, perhaps more than any others, taught me just how bad I was at strategic play. Despite crushing losses I came away with an appreciation for point-buy fantasy systems. I even tried to grok the complexities of Advanced Melee & Wizard, as well as In The Labyrinth. I failed. Several years later, Steve Jackson hinted at a forthcoming generic system. They released Man to Man as a teaser for it. We picked it up and started playing immediately, creating a short arena-fighting/wilderness survival campaign set in Harn.

When the first GURPS box set came out, we jumped on. It spawned many campaigns, beginning with a pseudo-Amber cross-dimensional mess that illustrated the limits of this approach. Despite that GURPS became our go-to system for the next 18 years. Champions still handled supers and if you wanted gonzo fantasy, you went with Rolemaster. Otherwise most of our pick-up games used GURPS. We stuck with it through multiple campaigns and many iterations. We bought sourcebooks and then rebought their revised versions. We used and discarded crunchy gun combat, we tried complex build mechanics (like supers and vehicles) before dropping them, and we wrestled with the limitations of the magic system. In 2004 we wrapped up a multi-year steampunk fantasy GURPS campaign just as SJG announced a 4th edition. No one from our group besides me bothered to pick it up. Everyone else skipped it and put GURPS away. I did too after looking through.

Clearly GURPS (Generic Universal Role Playing System) set the standard for Universal games. It had ambition and a determination to remain grounded in reality. GURPS abstracted that reality, but tried to remain consistent and balanced, even for the craziest of material. At base it had a 3d6 simple system you could run on the fly without the book, provided you dispensed with about 90% of the rules. I loved that, creating characters without the book was a challenge. I dug the system, but I loved the GURPS sourcebooks even more. I was addicted, buying books for genres I had no interest in and no plans on playing. I loved it when we saw cross-over volumes like GURPS Mage the Ascension, though the complexity and point inflation turned me off.

GURPS was also the first time I heard push-back against universal systems. They said it did nothing well, just everything OK. I never felt that way when I played, though some genres we wouldn't even attempt with it (Cyberpunk, Supers). My dropping GURPS wasn't about it not evoking some genres, it was about the rules density I wanted from my games and my greater desire for abstraction.

7. TWERPS (1987)
After GURPS gained traction, Jeff and Amanda Dee responded with their own take on generic gaming. TWERPS "The World's Easiest Role Playing System" used one stat and a profession to define characters. The zip-lock rules bag came with the tiniest d6 d10 I’d seen. TWERPS seemed like a joke, but actually sold well around here. Some bought it as a novelty and others as a way around the rules intensity of that era’s games. TWERPS wasn't a flash in the pan. The company followed it up with multiple small setting products: Kung Fu Dragons!, Space Cadets, Super Dudes, and more. A revised edition arrived in '95, done by different authors and more joke-sy while trying to offer richer genre resources.

8. Simulacres (1988)
A French rpg from Casus Belli. The main volume, Simulacres, came out as a 96-page special release. It offered a tight set of mechanics, about ten pages worth, accompanied by seven different settings. Each genre section had different authors and ranged from medieval fantasy to pulp adventure to horror to spy stories to TV dramas. Each section had two pages of rules for handling distinct elements, followed by a 5-6 page scenario. Simulacres seems to be a touchstone for French rpg gamers, judging by the comments and arguments over it on Le Grog. The roots of Simulara seem to be a release from the comic publisher Humanoids. Called La Fleur de L'Asiamar, it had a BRP-style booklet and a scenario co-written by Alejandro Jodorowsky. Simulacres received several supplements: Aventures Extraordinaires & Machinations Infernales (a Vernian setting my Steampunk lists missed); Capitaine Vaudou (piracy); Cyber Age (cyberpunk); and SangDragon (fantasy). In '94 the publisher released a revised version which focused more on general role-play issues.

9. Binary (1990)
Another French game, apparently one page long. The minimalist Binary came in a plastic bag with those rules and an advertisement twice as long for other games. Players resolve actions by tossing a coin in Binary. Normally I'd leave something like this off, but it seems to have been actually distributed and sold in stores.

10. HERO System (1990)
We played a lot of supers in the 1980's. Champions stood on the top of the heap for local group. Sure everyone made occasional detours into V&V and DC Heroes, but GMs eventually returned to 12 phase rounds, calculated characteristics, and killing attacks. Hero Games recognized early on they could use Champions’ base system for multiple genres. They tried a few variations, like Espionage! The Secret Agent RPG, its better sequel Danger International, and Fantasy Hero. Some didn't go over well, like Justice, Inc., Robot Warriors, and Star Hero. My group stood ready for a universal edition of the system, having already adapted it to G.I. Joe, super-wuxia, and Middle Earth.

Hero delivered big with two versions: one bundled together with Champions (the big blue book) and the other a supers-free standalone. With George Perez covers and smart design, players immediately switched over. I don't think I've ever seen a smoother edition shift. Hero supported the line with theme tracks: Champions, Dark Champions, and Fantasy Hero as well as smaller genre lines like Western Hero and Cyber Hero. They'd carry that format through to 5th edition.

Hero System offered a point-based, complete construction, math-driven system. Rival GURPS collapsed and abstracted elements: you don't pay points for everything like weapons & equipment. But Hero made that an important part of play. GURPS performed well at the low end of the scale, making it ideal for "normals" games. We ran for horror, gangsters, and the like with it. But GURPS broke down at higher levels; stronger powers meant more points and more tracking. Balance went out the window. Hero had the opposite problem. It worked fantastic at higher levels, which made sense since it came out of supers. But characters felt same-y at lower levels. Options didn't feel as distinct as those offered by GURPS. In the end while we admired Hero System’s symmetry, balance, and mechanics, we went with GURPS when we weren't playing supers.

11. Saga System (1991)
This German RPG seems to be the culmination of a long-running series of generic products. The company had previously released trap books, riddle collections, fantasy settings, and a generic magic system. Saga offered a simple but complete set of rules which could be used with any of those or applied to other genres. From what I can tell it used a d20 for resolution combined with an action result table. Saga System seems to have lasted, and I believe there's still an edition of it in print today.

12. Adventure Maximum (1992)
An all-in-one system you may not have heard of that has a new edition in the works. The 160 page Adventure Maximum core book looks efficient. The back cover smartly goes through its selling points: quick character creation, comprehensive skills, simple mechanics, visual combat, and coverage for equipment & magic. The game itself feels a lot like GURPS for character creation, with advantages, disadvantages, and a stat/skill combo. But it shifts away from there to more complex terms and numbers. 

Characters choose a Creed (Saintly, Villainous, Diabolical, etc) and assign values to a Personality Profile. The PP rates your feelings about different concepts in five degrees from Love to Hate. The 15 areas include Authority, Children, Foreigners, and Torture. Then it assesses your personality traits in five degrees from Very Weak to Extreme. Attitudes include Confident, Pious, Suspicious, Vengeful. The game's character sheets take up three pages with the first for stats, that personality profile, and skills. The second tracks armor, equipment, abilities, and disads. The third covers all of the combat details. That’s important because the system rates attacks across different attack profiles (Jab, Slash, Impale, etc) and armor/damage across sixteen hit locations. Note that my assessment comes from a reading of the 2008 playtest document for a revised edition of Adventure Maximum, so the original may be different. The designer has continued to work on the system and you can check out his blog here.

13. Amazing Engine (1993)
Prolific designer David "Zeb" Cook took the lead in this, TSR's first attempt at a universal system. The Amazing Engine base rules came as a 32-page booklet. This covered the basics of character creation, action resolution, and combat. Amazing Engine took the standard path of stats and skills combined with a point-buy approach. It also went with with percentiles for tests. The whole idea wasn't bad. GURPS had cut a path for them and seemed to be doing well. However the Amazing Engine line lacked focus and support. As well the settings on offer weren't that exciting or spectacular. Non-TSR gamers thought they looked weak and TSR gamers stuck with tried & true AD&D products. The company released nine setting supplements: For Faerie, Queen and Country, Bughunters, Magitech, The Galactos Barrier, Once and Future King, Metamorphosis Alpha to Omega, Kromosome, and Tabloid!. They all felt middle of the road, with perhaps the exception of Metamorphosis Alpha to Omega which tried to reignite that franchise. One year later TSR, still flailing for direction, shut down the line.

14. Theatrix (1993)
Theatrix is a strange beast. I remember flipping through it and being turned off by the references to dramatics, directing, and staging. I read that as pretentious rather than innovative. I was firmly embedded in the classic gaming culture of the time. Both the local game store and gaming community had begun to pull in several directions: Old Grognards, Standard Trad Gamers, Storygame LARPers, and an incoming generation just picking shiny things off the shelf. In particular LARP and anything that smacked of LARPing got a bad rep from the older gamers. I assumed Theatrix was just another Mind's Eye Theatre thing, which it wasn't. The company didn't do itself any favors with its first setting supplement: Ironwood, Bill Willingham's soft-core fantasy sex comic. We had to pull that off the shelf.

But there's a lot of amazing stuff in Theatrix I missed. It offered a diceless system (with optional diced mechanics), collaborative creation, aspect-like approaches, a focus on improvisation, and highly scalable mechanics. However for all it wants to be simple and easy to play, Theatrix obscures the rules. Some of that comes from overwriting and over explanation. The game has minimal Basic Rules, but then straps a ton of other stuff to that. But more opacity comes from the desire to use dramatic, theatrical, and cinematic terms and ideas for everything. The whole thing feels like it could be cut down by at least two-thirds. Still it's daring for the time and a strong precursor for games like Primetime Adventures.

This game has quite the cover. It’s like a Geocities page. WEBS is a self-published, universal system that seems to rework of D&D. It uses stats, skills, and point-buy. The points seem ridiculously high, with a human starting out at 2000BP. The system has skills and sketchy versions of magic and psionics. While the core book's only 86 pages, 24 of that's given over to equipment. WEBS seems like a heartbreaker hodge-podge. Yet they released a second edition two years later, managed to get tepidly positive cover blurbs from Shadis & Starlog, and even released a sci-fi supplement twice as long as the core book. I don't know what to make of that. For a detailed review, check out this one on RPGNet.

16. Universal Adjacent
Several games in this period took a generic, settingless, or multidimensional approach:
  • Dream Park: You play as character playing in a park as characters. A short and solid game that had pregens for quick play and light, adaptable rules.
  • In The Labyrinth: As I mentioned above, ITL aimed for a flexible fantasy system which many people adapted to other genres.
  • Lords of Creation: A game taking place across all times, dimensions, and myths. While it has a universal approach, there's a strongly sketched frame. Players are the Lords of the title, gaining power to shape reality.
  • Morpheus: The Roleplaying System of the Mind's Eye!: Playing in a future VR reality. The back cover states that it has been "(h)eralded as the best roleplaying system ever developed." Wow!
  • Phoenix Command: A multi-volume, suuuuper crunchy system, which tries to just model combat. And guns. Lots and lots of guns.
  • Risus: The Anything RPG: This only gets left off the list because it’s an electronic release. A great and simple system. It arguably influenced later designs.
17. Universal Aspiring
Several of the game systems of the era had portability, but never went full universal. TSR chose not to carry the same mechanics across their different rpgs. Others embraced that, whether for convenience or the desire to keep refining their work. Palladium Megaversal's probably the most important of these. A similar basic system powered Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Rifts, Palladium Fantasy, Beyond the Supernatural, and many more. They weren't exactly compatible, but you could make the transition. In ’91 they released the Palladium Conversion Guide. Tri-Tac likewise used the same clunky system across all of their titles: Stalking the Night Fantastic, Fringeworthy, FTL: 2448, and beyond. They had differences in stats and skills, but each shared core systems like insanely detailed hit locations. You could also see parallel mechanics in several FGU titles (Bushido, Daredevils), but they had even more titles which spiraled off in other directions.

In another approach, Iron Crown Enterprises tried to establish compatible systems for the big two genres: fantasy (Rolemaster) and sci-fi (Spacemaster). Likewise the French system Mega went through several iterations with different genres. But ICE also dabbled in strange genre books (Oriental Companion, Robin Hood, Cyberspace, Outlaw). They wanted RM to be universal without a stand-alone universal system book. White Wolf also built a cross-platform engine with Storyteller. They bolted a ton of disparate games to it. Eventually that lead to an 'almost' universal system with World of Darkness.

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