Thursday, May 26, 2016

History of Universal RPGs (Part Two: 1994-1997)


Do I believe that’s true? Will a generic system always be weaker than a dedicated one? I hesitate because that slides into the battleground of “Does System Matter?”. That’s a conflict I’ve been in before. I think different games make it easier or harder to get what you want out of them. That can come from the system, writing, or even presentation. I think what you want at the table shapes this even more. 

For example, I have a couple of JRPGs I love despite how terrible they are: Cross Edge and Chaos Wars. They’re crossover videogames, blending characters from various publishers in one place. The more recent Project X Zone does the same thing, but combines characters across games and genres (Phoenix Wright, MegaMan, Tekken, and Sakura Wars). I’m a sucker for that kind of thing. I remember my excitement when DC & Marvel released X-Men vs. Teen Titans in the ‘80s and the Amalgam line in the ‘90’s. I bought these for nostalgia and What If-tude. I love mash ups and multi-dimensional hodge-podges. 

Or rather I love them in theory. In practice they’re not that good. They’re working for too many bosses and lack focus. They offer a weird compromise. But I think that’s not the point. There’s another goal here beyond excellence. I like just like the concept those characters together. Just like I approve of the idea that we could port rpg characters from one game to another. Or more importantly that we could seamlessly port rpg players from one game to another. We have other goals beyond excellence with Universal RPGs. I’ll come back to that next time

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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. I’m sure I missed some releases. This is a fertile time for Universal rpgs; the rate of publication drops off after this. If you spot something Universal which came out from 1994 to 1997, leave a note in the comments. 

1. Fudge (1994)
I am not a clever man. I only realized today that "Fudge" can mean to obscure or devise a substitute. That’s more likely the reference the title's going for than a confectionery-based one. Which is what I thought. For years.

Fudge first appeared in 1992, but didn't see a physical edition until '94 so I placed it here. That's a rule I'll break later in this list. Fudge offered a unique and light but robust system GMs could adapt to settings. It is the ancestor of Fate and the originator of the Fudge dice (with +, -, and blank sides). You can find much of Fate's DNA here: the trait levels, skill stacks, margins of success, and an overall simple approach. Some things differ, like Fate's use of aspects, elemental stunt system, handling of damage, and lack of attributes. Fudge originally stood for Freeform Universal Do-It-Yourself Gaming Experience. Like Fate's acronym that dropped away in time.

Fudge offers a toolkit, a simple resolution system GMs can adapt in many different ways. Rather than a core engine with small notes for options, Fudge embraces variant rules throughout. The first edition provided the basics necessary to play and create new modules. That was followed by short printed and electronic supplements adding new options. Probably the most notable use of Fudge has been as the basis for the The Deryni Adventure Game. The Fudge 10th Anniversary Edition offers the most definitive take on the system, including a simple out-of-the-box version ("Five Point Fudge"), Fantasy Fudge, magic mechanics, superhero rules, equipment systems, and martial arts options. It’s a solid book and worth picking up. Homebrew designers and Fate gamers might find useful material there as well.

2. Masterbook (1994)
West End Games always had a strange stable of games. Star Wars gave them mainstream access and cred, but they paired that with strange and wonderful games like TORG, Paranoia, and Shatterzone. Masterbook followed Alternity's path, a smallish core book followed by larger setting books. Rather than use the d6 mechanics from Star Wars (which they'd turn to eventually), Masterbook followed TORG’s mechanics: d10 resolution but with card-based modifications (called the MasterDeck here). The game seems caught between aiming for a lighter, more accessible approach and the desire for complete mechanics. That's a struggle we'll see throughout these generic systems. Masterbook tried to split the difference but didn't succeed.

I skipped Masterbook when arrived amidst a glut of sourcebooks. I'd looked at TORG, but its gonzo craziness felt like a weird stepchild of Rifts. As a result, I didn't even realize the game used cards until much later. Ironic given that we gravitated to a card-based system for our own homebrew. But it would be the licenses West End Games selected that really kept me from trying Masterbook.

It isn't that they didn't have some good ones. Or a good one: The World of Indiana Jones. The rest left me cold: The World of Necroscope (1995), The World of Aden (1996), The World of Species (1995), The World of Tales from the Crypt (1996), and The World of Tank Girl (1995). I'd heard of all of them save Aden. As for the rest, I can safely say they weren't things that made me say: “Wow, I need to play a game in this setting.” Not at all. Precis Intermedia currently has the rights to Masterbook and they've re-released that as well as Shatterzone.

3. Via Prudensiae (1994)
A Danish rpg. According to RPG Geek the designers aimed it for use with convention scenarios. The 126-page core book includes setting material for a fantasy and cyberpunk world as well as scenarios. It uses multiple dice combined with a point-buy system. Via Prudensiae also used a tick-based initiative system (like Exalted 2e or Feng Shui). The combat system takes up about a third of the book, suggesting serious crunch. If youread Danish you can check out the back cover which likely has more  info. On the other hand, if you know rpgs and Danish you probably know this game.

4. CORPS (1995)
BTRC has been one of the overlooked workhorse rpg publishers. It gets only passing mention in Designers & Dragons despite three decades+ of publications. Beginning with 1983's Timelords, the company has built a catalog of lines and developed several core systems. Greg Porter continually releases the games he wants to have out there. They usually haven't been on my wavelength or taken the world by storm, but they've included interesting products like Macho Women with Guns, WarpWorld, and Guns! Guns! Guns!. The latter's how I first found their products. In high school any weapon & equipment book seemed awesome with a capital AWE (The Palladium Book of Contemporary Weapons, The Armory Volume One, Q Manual). I came from a liberal, gunless family, but I thought all of that stuff was sweeeeet. That's not my headspace now. Anyway…

CORPS is actually the second edition of the game. Originally it had a world action and espionage setting. This volume took the core system and made it universal. The name stands for Complete Omniversal Role-Playing System. CORPS uses a point buy system, with separate points given for buying the six attributes and buying the many skills (and sub-skills). There's an interesting mechanic which translates attributes into a lower aptitude rating. You buy associated skills starting from the aptitude level as a base, effectively offering a discount. Tasks have a difficulty. You only roll if the difficulty is higher than your skill. In that case you roll a d10, trying roll below (11-(2*the difficulty difference).

Overall, CORPS feels mechanical and crunchy to me, even more than GURPS. I'm not sure why that is. More than anything else it reminds me of Aftermath. CORPS has a host of numbers and modifiers, appealing to those who want simulationist play. The core book has a ton of options in it, but it isn’t that long or dense. Yet a GM picking this up would need some heavy reference charts to keep things straight. In 2002, BTRC introduced another universal system EABA. At that point CORPS dropped out as the company shifted everything over to that.

5. Goblin World (1995)
It seems to me that maybe, just maybe if you create a universal rpg, you don’t give it a name (and a cover) that makes me assume it’s a weird fantasy indie game of goblinoid life. Because that’s not what this is. Instead Goblin World’s a set of universal LARP rules, which “spans across cultures and technology from Aztec to high-tech.” The book offers basic rules and information for handling different genres. Goblin World also has costuming and prop ideas and guidance. Beyond that, I have no clue. I know that it was spiral bound, always a mark of quality in rpgs.

6. MAGIUS (1995)
aka Multiple Assignable Game Interface for Universal System. MAGIUS is Japanese rpg, which I've seen described both as universal and aimed at fantasy. The system was used as the basis for various manga and anime adaptations (not unlike BESM). These include The Slayers, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Saber Marionette J, and Tenchi Miyo. On RPGGeek a user mentions that while MAGIUS looked like a lighter version of GURPS, "the different modules of MAGIUS weren't inter-compatible. What you used was just the MAGIUS start book and one module of your selection. So it wasn't a system that you could gradually expand with each module. In fact, it was the supplements that were the main book, the start book was just an extra. Once you knew the basic rules of the start book, you could actually do well with just a supplement." Here's the Japanese wikipedia page for more information.

7. Storyboard (1995)
I'm not sure which game first used descriptive phrases in place of stats and numbers. Some, like Fudge, hybridized that. Others like Storyboard shifted to diceless resolution and negotiation. It’s the only game from Magus Creative and a slim 32-page universal system. At first I assumed Storyboard had flared briefly and burned out, like other heartbreaker efforts. But Magus Creative still has a web presence. At their page you can order copies. They also offers services for role-play gamers: character consultation, world development, game systems/instructions, custom game accessories, and game running. I'm unsure if that's still operation; the last date on the site's 2007.

8. The D6 System (1996)
Here's West End Games yanking the steering wheel in the other direction. As Masterbook started landing in discount bins, WEG shifted back to the popular d6 system- still the basis of their most successful line, Star Wars. In fact the materials for Indiana Jones had stats for both systems. Newer licenses moved exclusively to d6: Men in Black, Hercules & Xena, the Metabarons, and DC Universe. Weirdly it would be several years before WEG truly embraced this as a generic system. In 2004 they finally produced genre books including d6 Space, d6 Fantasy, and d6 Adventure.

d6 is one of my gaming blindspots. I understood the basics, and appreciated how well it sold in the store. But I can definitively establish what kept me away from it: the fans. I still remember the screaming match in the back game room between two enormous Star Wars d6 enthusiasts. The topic?

Who would win in a fight: Boba Fett or Darth Vader.

Red-faced, yelling, close to tears.

In any case, d6 has stood the test of time. It has a dedicated fanbase, especially those players who came into gaming via Star Wars or one of its other iterations. It has an approachable simplicity. Assign 18 dice to attributes and seven dice to skills. Dice have a series of steps so you can have 1D, 1D+1, 1D+2, and then 2D. On paper it seems a little wonky to calculate on the fly, but I bet it becomes second nature. Players resolve tests by rolling those dice against a target number, with one of the dice potentially exploding (on a 6) or causing a fumble (on a 1). The d6 system presented in this corebook tacks on a few other universal elements: history, quirks, fate points, and advantages & disadvantages. Other systems like magic and psionics are lumped together as supernatural powers here and expanded in sourcebooks. The corebook's decent and complete, but held back by weird page frames and uneven art.

9. Fantasy Workshop (1996)
Another Danish rpg, though the RPG Geek entry suggests it came out in both Danish and English. It's an odd presentation, only 40 pages and square. It appears to be a freeform, diceless game and the only product from these designers. The generic name for this generic game works against me. I wasn't able to track down more info, but I'll keep hunting.

10. Infinite Domains (1996)
I'm sometimes struck  by the ambition of these early universal systems. Infinite Domains, a single corebook with vaporware expansions, clocks in at only 110 pages. It jumped into a crowded marketplace, with a generic cover reflecting the generic system. It went for random stat generation, as opposed to the general point-buy trend. Players chose careers which affected their skills which they then purchased with points. It used an action resolution chart and contained a decent magic system. Beyond that I've found little about this game. A positive review on the Noble Knight site shows that at least a few gamers dug it.

aka "The Rule of the Game." An Italian system for covering any setting, but through the lens of movies. Players define their characters via adjectives. Players and the GM define the limits of abilities at the start. That then becomes the framework everyone has to play within. The diceless resolution comes through conversation. A small game, 32-pages saddle-stapled. Here's an Italian review of the game

MAGIUS looks like the first universal "anime" rpg, but Big Eyes, Small Mouth's the first I encountered. I debated including these games. I've excluded a few rpgs offering universal mechanics combined with a setting or narrowed space for play. I don't think that's true for Big Eyes, Small Mouth. It has an anime & manga feel, and definitely tilts that direction. Instead of locking down the story, it simply expresses a style (unlike Everway or Lords of Creation).

BESM uses point-buy and three base stats, hence the name Tri-Stat system. Body, Mind, and Soul are rated from 1 to 12, everything else is covered by attributes which can be normal or special. Players buy levels in those. A skill system compliments this- with variable rank costs depending on the genre. Like Hero System BESM includes the ability to modify powers, shifting their costs or gaining back build points. By the time it reached a third edition this had become pretty elaborate. In the second edition, character creation and abilities take up almost the first two hundred pages of a 289 page book. The actual resolution mechanics are simple: 2d6 plus relevant values against a target number.

BESM did well, spawning supplements, many covering anime mainstays (like Big Robots, Cool Starships and Cold Hands, Dark Hearts). Guardians of Order also used BESM as the basis for several licensed games and sourcebooks. These first arrived as full games (The Sailor Moon Roleplaying Game and Dominion Tank Police). Later they shifted to "Ultimate Fan Guides" for things like Hellsing and The Slayers. GOO also bit hard at the d20 apple, producing d20 versions of BESM in several forms. The Third Edition of BESM arrived just before the company started heading down a sketchy road (problems with payment, potentially ripping off George R.R. Martin). That's too bad since it’s a solid game especially in that edition.

13. Fuzion (1997)
Fuzion began its life as a purely electronic product. When this came out I hadn’t heard of games being created and developed on the internet. We'd had fan material come out of forums and alt.rec groups, but it wasn’t a publisher tool. Fudge began online, but Fuzion embraced that approach. Of our group, Barry, who had run Interlock and Hero System, avidly followed the development. Fuzion supported an active webring, using that for design and playtesting. Eventually Barry convinced the group to try it out, since they’d played the two “parent” games. They hated it. While Fuzion might have been solid, it didn't satisfy players who’d enjoyed Cyberpunk and Champions.

I wasn't in that play group. When I tried to read the rules, the dense and weird layout put me off. Fuzion split strangely between player build and random generation. You worked through an elaborate die-roll generated lifepath for character creation. Then you had to buy characteristics. Ten of them, unless the referee tweaked the game and removed some. But some of those stats generated the five fixed and six optional derived characteristics. So if you made changes you had to consider the downstream effect.

The rules suggest GM’s will adjust and modify those tables. So the they're caught between an unsatisfying default and spending time reworking the mechanics. That's unsatisfying for a game that pushes fast turnaround and ease of getting to the table. Fuzion, like Fudge, is more toolkit than out of the box rpg. Fudge works because of its inherent simplicity. Fuzion isn't simple; it has a ton of working parts. Plus it doesn't have the transitive game logic of Fate Core or even Hero System.

But people dug Fuzion and it had legs. On the back of the 2002 softcover, R Talsorian cited Cyberpunk, Dragon Ball Z, Sengoku, Shards of the Storm, Lightspeed, and Heresy as games built on Fuzion. Plus there was the weird and poorly received Champions: New Millennium. Beyond that you could find a host of fan-made settings and genre sourcebooks online. Fuzion boomed in the late 90's but died down as R Talsorian went into stand by mode and Hero Games shifted back to Hero-only projects. Gold Rush Games and a few others would keep the system alive for a little while with Victoriana, Artesia, Guardian Universe, Cybergeneration, and a few other games.

14. Sherpa (1997)
Another universal game from the designer of Fudge, Steffan O'Sullivan. It's a slim volume with a diceless resolution system: a stopwatch. Sherpa’s designed to be played by groups on the go: hiking, riding on a plane, by the vacation pool. Character sheets fit on a business card. The back cover notes that "Sherpa is a freeform game for experienced RPG gamemasters only. (Novice players are fine.) The GM will need to make many judgement calls while playing- if you're not used to that, you may wish to read FUDGE...for hints on running such a game." Sherpa is universal by virtue of being so loose and has an interesting hook. I've seen situational and environment-based games in the Game Chef contests. I’m also reminded of Moe Tousignant’s fun 24-Hour RPG A Fantasy Trip, which uses a trip-based "I Spy" mechanic.

15. Soothsayer (1997)
Coming from Australia, Soothsayer only released a Player's Guide, one adventure, and a character sheet/reference pack. It has a striking cover featuring a dragon chasing a car with an urban cityscape behind it. Soothsayer uses multiple d10s, but sometimes d12s and d20s to mix things up. It calls itself a Narrative Adventure Gaming System, but I'm unsure if that's just a fancy way of saying rpg. You get options across the board, from fantasy to sci-fi gaming. The publisher blurb excitedly proclaims the game’s large numbers of skills (140) and psionic disciplines (120). Claims to awesome by volume always amuse me. The few forum comment reviews I've seen indicate Soothsayer has a decent general idea and excellent art, but the poor execution, bad writing, and general incompleteness killed it.

The back cover does have one of my favorite blurbs: "Soothsayer's explicit, fast paced combat system makes for plenty of danger and excitement. Whether it's unarmed, melee or ballistic combat, Soothsayer ensures you will get sweaty."


16. Tinker's Damn (1997)
Another anime-skinned universal rpg, complete with sexy cat-girl rules-clarifying mascots. What does the title, Tinker's Damn, have to do with the game? I have no clue. Perhaps it’s meant to reflect the oddness of manga titling? In any case it uses a stat plus skill approach, with points divided among those. Tinker’s skill list 32 options is odd, moving from highly general (Style and Knowledge) to weirdly specific (Cooking and Guerrilla Warfare). It offers many options, calling itself a "flexible" gaming system. Yet the mechanics seem to only support weirdly hodge-podge paratech settings. It covers Magic, Computer Hacking, and Cyborgs. But it doesn’t talk about how to adapt the game to various genres. Tinker’s Damn comes with three super-sketchy settings "Hod Rod Apocalypse," "Allied Patrol," and "Warbird Unlimited." These consist of a few pages of background followed by a larger number of highly detailed NPC sheets. The whole thing comes off as uneven and underdeveloped. The character sheet's done as a hand-written page torn from a three-ring binder, complete with coffee stain. Why? Once again, I have no clue. For an uncomplimentary video review, check out this.

17. Miscellaneous: Universal Adjacent RPGs
Aria: Canticle of the Monomyth (1994): Maybe not a universal rpg, so much as an rpg about building a universe. Players take the role of multiple characters tracing stories of a setting over generations and centuries. It’s an interesting concept which could make a fun indie game today; Microscope Explorer feels like the closest modern parallel. But Aria presents a dense, terminology-filled, slog. I had high hopes when I bought it years ago but it defeated me every time I read it. I don’t use the term pretentious for games often, but Aria borders on that.

Everway Visionary Roleplaying (1995): A diceless game with card-based resolution and artwork-inspired character creation. Everway feels like a labor of love, but didn’t get much traction. It came out from WotC at the height of collectible card game madness. Disappointed card-players thought they might be getting the Magic: the Gathering rpg. CCG-hating roleplayers steered clear. Everyway’s system is open enough to handle many settings and realities. But it isn’t universal- instead there a core conceit that the players running Spherewalkers travelling from world to world and a central “city” location (ala Planescape, Sig, or Cynosure).

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