Thursday, July 28, 2016

History of Universal RPGs (Part Three: 1998-2004)

I started gaming in early 1976, when my sister finally digested the D&D box set and taught me. In those days we had unlicensed, knock-off Lord of the Rings miniatures. I still remember what they look like, even the weird set of hobbits nearly indistinguishable from one another. They look like vaguely-shaped lumps of metal to the modern eye. I was young enough that LotR and The Hobbit were my only real fantasy references outside of mythology books. But I knew D&D wasn’t Tolkien exactly. Surely they’d release a version of D&D that was.

Cut to 2016, forty years later. Cubicle 7 has announced a fourth Middle Earth RPG, the first one to actually use D&D.

I don’t know what to think. They’ve done an interesting job with The One Ring, the rpg about walking and meeting people. What will this new one look like? Will it fit? There’s not the best track record on this. I mean I love ICE’s Middle Earth Role-Playing but the actual game really doesn’t scream Tolkien. The sourcebooks, yes. The system no.

It comes back to the big question: can a generic engine be tuned to do a good job with a distinct genre? I’m not sure about the answer, and I’m a goofball who keeps trying to shoehorn and rework engines into other settings. My latest attempt, to create a generic/pick up version of PbtA had mixed success. I’m not saying it couldn’t work, but I don’t think I hit the mark this time.

As you’ll see from this list, many designers remain optimistic about the possibility of universal adaptability. Some here surprised me, some made me nod off, some made me cringe. Enjoy.

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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. 3D&T (1998)
A Brazilian "anime universal" rpg like MAGIUS or BESM. It appeared first in a slightly different form as "Tokyo Defenders," a game poking fun at Japanese Sentai stories. That received enough attention to warrant a new edition and then a retooling which broadened the premise. Marcelo Cassaro's revised edition arrived as an insert in the Brazilian edition of Dragon Magazine. Another full version appeared Issue 60 of the magazine as a special bonus. After that came numerous new editions and splits in development. The most recent version appeared in 2015.

3D&T itself is a simple, point-buy game. The designer originally intended it as a Toon add-on, but then decided to use his own system. He wanted a game accessible to new players. It uses d6s with a margin of success to determine results. You can see more aboutit at Wikipedia.

2. Story Engine (1999)
Story Engine's one of the earliest game I identified as "Indie." At the store we used to get small press rpgs with a particular feel: clearly short run, often with off-color paper, and ready to sit on the shelves for a long time. Eventually you’d only find them in discount bins or bundled with other non-sellers for a distributor's "store starter" set. I'm listing this as 1999 based on the RPGGeek listing, but I suspect it's a couple years earlier. The indicia has a 1996, but the intro says '99, so I'm not sure.

Story Engine came out of Maelstrom Storytelling, a game of a "a science-fantasy world of supernatural powers and ancient civilizations." Christopher Helton has a nice overview of that at Dorkland. Story Engine focuses on narrative elements and descriptors as major mechanics, so it has a little PDQ and OTE feel. Play is collaborative with a GM. Players call scenes and pass control within them. Characters have adjectives and phrases to define them. For contested actions, players add up their number of appropriate descriptors to create a dice pool. They roll that pool with each odd number being a success and total successes compared against a target number. It reminds me of Lady Blackbird, which also uses trait choice to generate dice with a 50/50 success chance (4+ on a d6).

PIG revised the rules in 2006, expanding them by about 50%. The game got a “Most Innovative Game” nomination for the 2011 Indie RPG Award. I'm not certain if they released another edition that year or if the award back dates.

Another manga-generic rpg also known as GRUM. This one comes from Italy. Artist Shinichi Hiromoto (Star Wars manga, Manga of the Dead, Fortified School) provided original illustrations. I've had a hard time finding out more about this one. One Italian gamer's recollection mentions "twists" or weird events which interrupt play and change the situation. I'm unsure if these intrusions come from the GM or player's side. Apparently more was planned for the line, including official 3x3 Eyes, Saint Seiya and One Piece sourcebooks, but those don't seem to have happened.

4. Action! System (2001)
Gold Rush Games worked with Fuzion for a time, but in 2001 shifted attention over to another in-house system: Action! System. Co-designer Mark Arsenault had worked on their earlier Fuzion games, Sengoku and The Legacy of Zorro. You can see that DNA here, notably in the emphasis on figured characteristics. Action! takes the approach to attributes of WoD and DC Heroes, with two groups (Body & Mind) each of which have a Power, Aptitude, and Resistance stat. Resolution is generally stat+skill+3d6 versus a target number. It's classic and if you've played something like Unisystem or Savage Worlds you'll pick it up.

Action! presents a default level, with some discussion of options and dials. Both bolt-on modules and tone shape the offered campaign levels (Realistic, Cinematic, and Extreme) rather than significant mechanical changes. It’s a clean system with large skill and trait (aka advantage) lists. It has a decent "hero point" system called Action Points. These can be used for strictly mechanical effects but come from role-play. Overall there’s decent game skeleton if you want something easy to grok, but with granularity. If you want lots and lots of skills, tons of combat modifiers, multiple maneuver actions, and several damage types, it may be for you. It isn't ambitious, but Action! finishes the job it sets out to do. GRG supported the system with several supplements, including a The War of the Worlds setting book.

5. Pocket Universe (2001)
Another tiny little universal system from the designer of TWERPS, Jeff Dee. This one packs quite a bit into 30 pages. Characters have four stats: Physique, Deftness, Intellect, and Willpower. These begin at 8 and players then divide 10 points among them. They can then pick from a list of 15 disadvantages and 15 advantages, provided they balance costs between the two. There's some figured stats (HP, Unarmed Damage) and a list of 32 skills. Pocket Universe has that weird mechanic of skill points being based on the Intellect you bought. So Int pays off double. Resolution is based on 2d10 versus stat plus skill, trying to roll below. There's some surprising crunch in here like critical hit and miss tables. Overall it’s basic but playable. One of the few novel mechanics offered is the way it handles damage. Attacks have a three number damage rating, like 2/3/4. You roll a d10 when you hit. On a 1-2 you use the first number, 3-8 the second, and 9-10 the third. Armor is compared against that roll, with it stopping the damage completely if the armor value is double the roll, subtracting from the final damage if less than half of the roll, and halving the damage otherwise. It’s a little wonky. Pocket Universe is pretty standard, but has enough rules you'll have to go back to the book in play.

QAGS first appeared in physical form in '01, with a second edition two years later in '03. The latter edition adds material and makes small revisions, rather than offering a complete overhaul. QAGS, frankly, looks goofy. I never looked at it seriously because of that, despite some flavors of it popping up on my other lists. I'd assumed- based on name and cover design- it would be a less clever version of the TWERPS joke: poking fun at systems and offering the most elemental approach. It's not that, but it is still goofy, just not in the way I thought.

Some of that comes from the overall art, a mix of cartoony, manga-esque, and deliberately amateurish. Some of it from the comic asides and pokes at gaming self-importance (i.e. the "What is a Sidebar?" sidebar). Then there's the term for game points, "Yum Yums." QAGS doubles down on that, admitting players have found the term silly, but they're sticking with it. Players build characters with a trinity of stats: Body, Brain, and Nerve. They then come up with a Job, a nebulous container for all the skills and trappings of a particular background. That's given a value at a cost of twice that in Yum Yums. Players can then take Gimmicks (advantages), Weaknesses (disads), and Skills. Any Yum Yums a player has left they can use during play like Fate Points. The difference is that candy should be used for Yum Yums at the table.

QAGS uses a simple "roll under" mechanic with a d20. It has some interesting add ons and details for resolution and combat, but it’s pretty simple. The Yum Yum economy helps support player competency. That's about it. Character creation, combat, and resolution take up less than half the book and even those sections have large swathes given over to art and extensive examples of play. These examples are solid and consistent throughout.

QAGS reads well, and I didn't think it would. Once I got past the initial goofy tone, I began to enjoy the game. It’s very much a basic engine intended to sketchily model your worlds. The core books offers no skill, gimmick, job, or other lists. The closest you get is a brief equipment section for benchmarks. There's a solid GM section, discussing the challenges of running such a loose game, convention scenario design, genre outlines, and much more.

Hex Games has used QAGS as the basis for several setting books: Aces & Apes (WW1 Anthropomorphic), All-Stars (low budget superheroes), Edison Force, Dynateens, Fratboys VS., the amazingly titled Funkadelic Frankenstein on the Mean Streets of Monstertown, and many more. They have rich library of ideas worth exploring. I appreciate QAGS because it seems to share my desires. I want to be able to adapt cool campaigns and worlds. Generic rpgs and easy base systems make that possible. QAGS lets you do that and do it quickly. I went in ready to dismiss QAGS, but it’s a strong and often overlooked rpg.

BRP inaugurated these lists and 2002 finally saw a more polished and independent release of the system. In the intervening years the BRP booklet had appeared in numerous Chaosium sets and served as the basis for many games, especially in Europe. However this release isn't a great shift forward. Saddle-stapled, it clocked in at a brief sixteen pages. This edition has some of the art and elements from the earlier versions, but lacks some of the charm. lt’s a weird product. Why finally release an independent version after so many years without actually developing and deepening it? We wouldn't see a real "new" BRP until 2008. In that sense this version of BRP probably belongs with the "revision" entry below. But Basic Role-Playing's such a cornerstone I wanted to highlight its stuttered development.

8. EABA (2002)
Another case where a company produced one generic rpg and then shifted focus to a different one. EABA is BTRC's successor to CORPS. EABA takes a slightly different approach to resolution. CORPS has a "roll under" Task Difficulty/ Stat combination mechanic. In EABA attributes generate a die value (so Strength of 7 gives you 2d6+1). Die values shift at +3, so the steps are xd6+0, xd6+1, xd6+2. Skills give additional dice. PCs roll that pool and take the best three die results, plus any modifiers. That's compared to a difficulty. While EABA steps back in granularity and difficulty from CORPS, it still has a simulationist approach to things like combat. The game has a lot of numbers. As a result the hex-based character sheet looks intimidating.

EABA stands for "End All Be All" rpg. BTRC has supported the game with many settings including Age of Ruin, Code: Black, Dark Millennium, EABA Warp World & Timelords, Fires of Heaven, Verne and more. In 2013 they released EABA 2.0, as a tablet-friendly rpg. That includes semi-automated character sheets, a die roller, full hyperlinking, and more. BTRC may be the first rpg company to present an rpg as a modern app.

9. Universalis (2002)
I'm not well versed in the history of The Forge. I know it had a game design community generating striking and new rpgs, many of them story games. I also know it’s been a lightning rod in game design discussions. That controversy's made me wary of digging in too much further. But over the course of these lists I've seen a few games citing the Forge as their test bed. Universalis is one of those and I'd guess among the earliest published ones.

Universalis is a collaborative, GM-less, universal rpg. It isn't like Microscope in that still has a conventional play frame. You tell a story in a way familiar to narrative games. It's a universal game that doesn't require new mechanics, modules, or bolt-ons for different genres. Since everything's defined by the shared fiction you don't need that. The mechanics of control offer the difference.  Despite that apparent looseness, Universalis has a strong central mechanic: an economy of story control and power represented by coins.

Everything is purchased via those coins: theme and genre, the social contract, on-the-fly rules, scene-framing, players actions, control of story components, and so on. There's a fairly deep set of rules covering this and its bidding mechanism. This isn't a loosey-goosey game. Instead the players have to constantly engage with a ton of mechanics. It almost feels like the story elements break the flow of the bidding game. I admire the ideas here and the desire to create fairness and power balance, but it seems overelaborate. Universalis is Interesting from a design perspective, but it feels like modern games have found ways to smooth out these edges without resorting to complex economic systema.

10. Savage Worlds (2003)
I suspect you’ve heard of Savage Worlds. SW grew out of Deadlands, with a rethinking and refining of that system. It came to the table with several strong and smart design goals. First it positioned itself as a system for both miniatures and rpgs. While you could use HERO System for open combats or GURPS to run things like samurai skirmishes (as I did back at 20th Century Gen Con), they didn't really position themselves for that market. Great White* had dipped their toes in those waters with Deadlands:The Great Rail Wars. The company wouldn't make that a major focus, but serving that side of the hobby would remain strong part of the line. That signaled to gamers who liked simulationist play that SW could work for them.

But that didn't come at the expense of Savage Worlds’ second design goal and tagline: fast, furious fun. It focused on a relatively simple mechanic: skill + stat against a task number. But it used a die-type continuum, making it easy to grok and letting everyone use all their dice. You could easily resolve a combat, which could be pretty lethal depending on the scale. Players had access to a decent set of cool stuff in the form of Edges and Hindrances. Like Unisystem or GURPS those had relatively arbitrary costs (which would get tweaked over editions) that didn't require too much calculation. A card mechanic also brought another layer of tactile fun.

Finally Great White also came out of the gate with a number of striking setting books. Unlike the settings presented by Amazing Engine or Masterbook, these offered full "plot point campaigns." They had some options and revelations, but with a tight structure and through-line for the set story. That meant GMs could pick them up and get running a full campaign with relative ease. Evernight, 50 Fathoms, Tour of Darkness, and Necessary Evil showed how diverse SW could be. They backed that up by offering Player's Guides for each of these: essentially the book with all of the GM material cut.

Savage Worlds won the Origins Award in 2003. But they didn't leave the system alone after that. Pinnacle revised the game several times, faster than many other publishers. A revised second edition landed in 2004, then a repackaged Explorer's Edition in 2007, then a Deluxe Edition in 2011 with an accompanying Explorer's Edition of that in 2012. They've also supported it with many other products, notably genres books such as Supers Powers Companion, Fantasy Companion and Horror Companion.

*Of course they were called Pinnacle Entertainment then. But Great White published this edition of SW. Then shifted back to Pinnacle in '05.

The Silhouette engine in one form or another powers most of Dream Pod 9's games (Gear Krieg, Jovian Chronicles, Tribe 8). It had many versions and adaptations, developing out of DP9's original rpg/miniatures hybrid 1995’s Heavy Gear. This book saw them finally draw out the core elements to create a stand-alone set of universal rules. It's a weird beast, on the one hand simple seeming, on the other weirdly crunchy.

Let me give an example. Skills only have six ranks, 0-5. You could go above five but that's already legendary. So that's an easy to track range. Except skill ranks also have skill complexity. "While the Skill level shows how good the character is, the Cpx rating represents how much general knowledge the character has in that particular field." So it’s like tech level built into each skill.

At the same time it has an easy actual resolution mechanic. Roll a pool of d6s and take the highest, adding plus one for each additional "6" rolled after the first. After adding modifiers, compare that to a difficulty. But that assumes you've figured out which of the ten stats and 44 skills apply. It isn't bad, just detailed. Of course given the source that detail extends to the system's treatment of equipment and technology. You get 60+ pages discussing mechanicals and how characters interact with those. That's before you get to the Advanced Rules.

It's smartly laid out and presented, but you have to know going in what you're getting. If you want a universal rpg where you spend a significant amount of time building weapons, battle suits, and vehicles, Silhouette has you covered. It seems to do that job well. And though I'm not a person who digs this kind of tech construction, it has one appeal to me: it looks easier than GURPS.

A German RPG, as you might guess from the title. It aims at detail and simulation, with mechanics drawn from Basic Roleplaying's percentile approach. TRAUMA uses fifteen attributes with associated skills on top of those. There's a complex damage and injury system. One detail I'm curious about is the social interaction system. One blogger wrote (translated via Google): "...relationships between characters (have) an objective measure, in contrast, for example, to offer "A Song of Ice and Fire" role-playing game, the "socially tactical maneuvers". When trauma can be "charged" with specific actions the relationship to another character with points and the one who has more points on the "Bank Account", the opposite may thus even force them to favor." The quoted article has a full overview of the revised edition from 2012.

13. Tri-Stat dX (2003)
Tri-Stat dX builds on Guardians of Order’s Big Eyes, Small Mouth-originated mechanics. It came out the same year they made a big push with Silver Age Sentinels, stingy gamer editions, and d20 versions of their most popular stuff. They would use Tri-Stat dX to back their setting books (Ex Machina, Dreaming Cities) and adaptations (The Authority, Tekumel, A Game of Thrones). Over-extension and problematic management would kill the company within a couple of years.

There’s an interesting idea at the core of dX: you select one die type for a particular campaign or setting. BESM used d6 and SAS d10, so this split the different. The intent is to have the dice demonstrate the power of the characters. So you’d have smaller dice for games with a lower benchmark. Tri Stat dX follows the standard model: point-buy and base stats, in this case Body, Mind, and Soul. Players can then buy skills, attributes (aka advantages, feats), and defects (flaws, disads). For a small book there’s a ton of stuff (80+ advantages with many sub-powers for example). The large skill list has several pages with cost listings for each one depending on the game genre (Modern Day Animal Adventures, Historical Ancient Egypt, Futuristic Soft Scifi, and so on).

That’s probably the biggest takeaway from the book: a ton of detail and a wealth of options. The resolution system isn’t that difficult, but character creation is a bear. It reminds me of high-point level GURPS or Mutants & Masterminds 3e. The game has granularity, so if you’re looking for something quick and abstract, this isn’t it. TriStat dX has multiple small-print pages of weapons, equipment, and vehicles, often a good benchmark for mechanics. There’s little in the way of campaign type discussion beyond the cost variations. The core book’s interspersed with GOO adverts (including weird stock art-looking photos). It also mentions an optimistic “Magnum Opus” creator-owned publishing imprint to release your own d20 and Tri-Stat games. Given how the company ended up, I wonder if anyone got burned by that?

14. Fastlane (2004)
At first I planned to tuck this in with "Universal Adjacent" rpgs: games which can be used across genres but have a framework for setting or story type. For example, I love Microscope and Aria but they have a lens to their universality. Fastlane's a game about characters living fast, risking everything, and indulging for all they're worth. The game positions itself as universal, and I don't necessary want to use tone as a test to exclude games. Look at the number of anime/manga colored universal games on the list. Fastlane broke the tie by allowing me to add a new entry to my big list of names for GM's "Croupier."

They're called that because the game uses a roulette wheel for resolution, though it includes mechanics for using dice instead. It also uses poker chips as a narrative currency. Fastlane's squarely in the story game camp. Characters have five facets: People, Assets, Nerve, Guile, and Sobriety (PANGS). These have a value along with player- assigned descriptors. After setting and character determination, play moves through several stages: Life, Appraisal, Favors & Factions. With those decided, the GM sets up scenes and plays out conflicts. All parties in a conflict commit chips, limited by their relevant facet. Everyone places their chips on various roulette bets to show their risk (Straights, Splits, Columns, etc.). Their winnings determines success. Fastlane's an interesting universal rpg, tuned to one-shot play. It has a surprising depth and offers an interesting option for adding stakes and tension to stories.

15. OPERA RPG (2004)
A Brazilian RPG, OPERA stands for Observadores Perdidos Em Realidades Alternativa. Google translates that to "Lost Observers in Alternate Realities." The designer previously worked on a FUDGE adaptation, which influenced OPERA. It uses a point-buy system with 2d6 for resolution. The base rules included options for magic and psionics, and super-powers, with the usual shopping list for each. OPREA did well for a time. The designer supported it with several settings: Conspiracy Dawn, 1887 - Under the Sun of New Mexico, The Longest Day and Elemental Ring: The New Age.

16. RandomAnime (2004)
Another anime-universal rpg, but one I hadn't heard of. In hunting around I saw that reaction on various rpg forums: gamers know BESM and OAV, but not this. The character sheet looks fairly simple: eight stats, a skill list, and space for "gimmicks" (aka powers and feats). It uses d6s for resolution along with point-buy character builds. Players select from templates to help with those builds (Idol, Princess, Scoundrel). It doesn't have example settings beyond some discussion of mecha. RandomAnime got generally decent reviews, but doesn't seem to have gained a large audience.

The publisher, Infernal Funhouse has a website and storefront, but dated to 2012. I'm not sure if it’s actually functional: there's a vague goodbye note on the landing page. I'm a little surprised they didn't add it to DriveThru, just to get some revenue stream. They did release a GM screen as well as Minionomicon and Collectemon in '05. There's a vehicle and mecha sourcebook promised but not published.

17. On Electronic Releases
Focusing on printed/published games meant skipping a metric shit ton of electronic-only generic games in this period. These range from online compilations to heartbreaker pdfs to more substantial releases. Microtactix “The original downloadable adventure game company” published the sharp looking Simply Roleplaying. JAGS-2, “Just Another Game System,” took a Runner Up in the 2004 Indie RPG Awards. FATE and PDQ Core first appeared as pdfs in these years. There are many more: Impresa Modular Roleplaying System and genreDiversion from Precis Intermedia, POW! Core from aethereal FORGE, Action Spectra from Arrogant Game Design, and beyond.

18. New Editions
I mentioned Savage Worlds’ multiple editions in this period. HERO Games also revised HERO System with 5th Edition in 2002, the “Black Book” edition. But two years later they revised it as HERO System Revised Fifth Edition. That added over 200 pages to the book. HERO Games staffers legendarily tested and confirmed that the book could stop a bullet. Steve Jackson also retooled GURPS, a game which had developed in piecemeal. That had necessitated the release of two Companions to keep track of new options and mechanics. GURPS Fourth Edition kept most of the structure, tweaking a few key elements like character creation cost formulas and the handling of defenses.

19. Universal Adjacent
  • Multiverser: Players play dead versions of themselves. The GM kills them at the start of the game and they gain the ability to take on new lives in other realms. You get to go to a new world every time your character dies.
  • Power Kill: An rpg meta-game bolt on. Intended to be a lens to look at the actions of your in-game characters in any genre.
  • Primetime Adventures: Play out any genre as a TV series. You play actresses & actors within your show. It has rules for commercial breaks, fan mail, and season arcs.
  • Władcy losu: A Polish hybrid rpg-strategy game for any genre. You play Weavers of destiny with powerful psychic powers and using those to manipulate society.
History of Universal RPGs (Part One: 1978-1993)