Friday, September 30, 2016

History of Universal RPGs (Part Four: 2005-2007)

In some ways the universality of these rpgs makes it tough to think of a hook for these headers. That, in itself, may say something about open-approach TTRPGs. But this morning I began to wonder about generic games in other media. A few occurred to me, but there must be others.
  • Tabletop Simulator: A video game for building computer tabletop games. Essentially it’s a physics sandbox you can use to create and manipulate cards, pieces, a board, etc. I know that some have experimented with it for rpgs, in particular for handling games with lots of cards or strange dice.
  • RPG Maker: This is pretty much a generic system, right? You can use it for any genre. You plug your story, characters, images, etc to get a game. Some designers have even done strikingly challenging work with it. If you build a world, you’re essentially the GM.
  • 1000 Blank White Cards: A universal and emergent game which has the players drawing and writing rules and effects onto their cards.
  • Storium: A online rpg system for any kind of campaign. Players plug in their stories and genre. The game offers some toolkits or you can build your own.
  • 504: OK, maybe this is stretching things a little, but 504 could be considered universal. In Friedemann Friese’s experimental board game, you randomly determine the rules. Mix mixing three modular choices you get one of the 504 possible games. Each has distinct mechanics and a stated theme, but you’re free to put any interpretive spin on it you want.

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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. If you spot something Universal which came out from 2005 to 2007, leave a note in the comments.

1. EW-System (2005)
A French rpg, originally offered as a free download. Later the publisher released the same product in a physical form. The EW System adapts the fantasy rpg Arkeos rules into a genericsystem. Characters combine four characteristics and four fields with specialties to define their abilities. Players pick archetypes, setting the costs for different add-ons. EW uses a resolution table similar to the Basic Role-Play Resistance Table for most actions. The game received many small supplements, but seems to have ended only a couple of years later.

2. The Omni System (2005)
One of the trends on these lists has been re-purposing existing dedicated system engines to universal ones. The grandparent of generic systems, Basic Role-Playing, followed this path. It's not a bad approach: using known mechanics with a proven track record. But it may say something about the engine that it can be stripped out. On the reverse I can only think of a few products shifting the other way. Steve Jackson has done some "Powered by GURPS" versions (Hellboy, Discworld, and the currently KS'ing Dungeon Fantasy) but at least the first two don't make significant changes and could simply be sourcebooks.

The Omni System builds on the base mechanics of the classic also-ran frpg, Talislanta. It advertises itself as rule-lite and focused on social aspects of gaming. Omni uses a single d20 for resolution. Attributes and abilities combine with that roll. Talent trees allow for some class-like focus. It has a point-buy mechanic described by several as "simpler than GURPS" which may not tell us much.

Omni received a few setting sourcebooks from Morrigan: eco, Atlantis: The Second Age, High Medieval. The company itself seems to have shut down shortly after this, though DriveThru still has their products. Khepera Publishing publishes Atlantis now, and several of their games seem to use the mechanics of the Omni System (though not requiring this book).

3. Open Core (2005)
As you might imagine from the name, Open Core offers an open content universal system. At heart it has a simple mechanic: stat + skill + 3d6 versus a target number. That's elaborated by six stats, derived attributes, skills groups, and sub-skills. It has a massive list of these skills, though you could instead just use the groups. Given the length of that list, there’s a surprising scarcity of guidance about shaping different lists for different genres. Open Core leans heavily on the skills with some descriptions simple and others sub-systems filled. That flashes me back to some versions of d20. On the other hand the Character Ability section reminds me of Big Eyes, Small Mouth or Mutants & Masterminds. There's an extensive list of effects, many with numerous options you can rank up. This takes up about a quarter of the book. Combat continues this granularity, with different maneuvers and tables of modifiers for ranges, hit location, etc.

Open Core offers what I'd call a medium-weight universal system. It wavers between simple mechanics and heavy elaboration. A quick resolution mechanic combines with weapon tables detailing damage types and RoF. It doesn't go for a full point universal build like GURPS, but wants to be a little crunchier than BESM. The core book includes rules for magic and other optional sub-systems. The publisher also released an anime version, Open Anime as well as a quick play edition.

I don’t think it’s doing a disservice to OVA to call it the spiritual heir to Big Eyes, Small Mouth. It offers, as you'd imagine, an anime-flavored universal system. Like BESM, it’s a good looking game. After an outline of the character creation process, the rules offer sample characters to use as benchmarks. These use one of OVA’s most interesting rules, “Ground Zero.” Essentially you build characters on Attributes (powers, abilities, qualities, stats) chosen from a list and given a bonus from +1 to +5. You then offset those bonuses with negative attributes (weaknesses, vulnerabilities, disadvantages) given negative values. The total of your positive and negative attributes should be close to zero. The GM has some options to tune this, but it’s a good default.

Play feels simple, though some abilities have sub-systems and some can have perks & flaws. Resolution is an easy 2d6 roll. You add or subtract dice based on modifiers, taking the highest with doubles exploding. Overall it’s a solid, clear, system with fast play. It has an anime/manga feel without getting too loopy or distracting. In 2014 Wise Turtle Publishing released a Kickstarter-backed new edition. This looks equally awesome and right now is probably the best high-anime universal rpg on the market. They have several sample character books you can check out to see if the system’s for you. They’ve also released a cross-over book for combining OVA and Golden Sky Stories.

A couple of people pointed out the absence of Risus from my earlier lists, since it dates from 1993. In my defense I held off until I could add this, the Excessively Deluxe hardcopy edition. Risus is S. John Ross' "Anything RPG." It offers a super-light, tongue-in-cheek system. Wikipedia has extensivetheories about its genealogy. Risus stands as sovereign over universal micro-rpgs. I've always been surprised at the popularity of these (for example I don't get TWERPS' appeal at all). But Risus feels solid and overcomes my usual sour-face reaction to jokey games. Good writing will do that.

The freely available version is only four pages. You build characters with clichés, aspects with values. To set those you divide ten dice among them. "Tools of the Trade" represent working parts of those clichés and can suffer damage. Risus has you rolled against a difficulty number for tasks and uses contests to resolve combats. It's simple, and even the slimmest version has room for advanced rules. Risus works without feeling entirely freeform.

So what's in the Excessively Deluxe Edition's 200 pages? The amazing “Big List of RPG Plots,” the Risus companion, adventures, hooks, and more. While this version itself may be hard to track down, you can easily find most of the component parts online.

6. DK system (2006)
The success of d20 meant that we'd see multiple designers attempt to simplify and/or make it more universal. WotC itself worked towards that, though they took a more tuned approach. Rather than a big d20 system we got d20 Modern, d20 Past, d20 Future, etc. The DK system is a French attempt to refine the OGL basics and create a useful, universal d20 game. There's some debate about whether they succeed at this. Some reviewers dig the simplifications while others lament the complexity.

The core book is described as generic, but it does lean toward fantasy. The few supplements reinforce this impression. To make it universal genre tweaks appear as add-ons in the book. DK ditches d20’s classes but keeps levels. One striking innovation is the eponymous die mechanic of the title, the “dés de Krâsses.” These are dice marked 0, 3, and 6 and players can use them increase die rolls at critical times.

7. ghost (2006)
A self-published universal rpg released as a hardcover. Why is it called ghost? I have no idea. The publisher blurb pitches it as completely generic, but other elements (like an included adventure) make me unsure. As well the designer says, "The game includes a novella that describes the setting and interaction between the key figures." Which again suggests there's some kind of backstory and specific world. Designer Eric Petracca has supplemented this with smaller pdf releases like Ghost: Races & Legends and Timeslipper. He also has a Lulu release considering the question of power ala Michel Foucault.

Sometimes character sheets make me flinch. Twelve stats, blood type, health broken down into areas with damage forms, backgrounds, weaknesses, a separate page for skills, eleven distinct details for weapons, and more. I've played those games (Aftermath, Living Steel, Space Law). I'm not keen on going back there. When I look at the HDL Quickstart and hit a table of figured characteristics on page one, I tense up.

So beyond being a crunchy, high-detail universal system, what is HDL? It’s a point-based game. The HDL of the title refers to the Half-Die Level system. To explain clearly, "Any HDL is a die roll whose maximum is twice the HDL number, using the lowest number of dice with the most similar number of sides. Any roll or check is made using an HDL equal to the applicable stat for the task, plus the character’s skill rating, adjusted by any conditional modifiers." So an HDL of 3 is 1d6, 5 is 1d10, 7 is 1d6 + 1d8. The game has a number of other detailed mechanisms including the "Active Delay Combat System"; unique game cards used for effects, and a spendable energy resource to boost rolls. For two interesting reviews of the original HDL see RPGNet and Flames Rising.

Tremorworks has a new name for the HDL system. They've created an updated version that the engine called Paragon. That powers their Demongate High, Perfect Horizon 216X, and LUCID: Dreamscape Reality games. There's a quick start and I recommend checking that out to get the full effect. If you like crunchy universal games in the mode of GURPS or HERO, this might be your bag.

Meanwhile I'll be over here flinching.

9. Mythic (2006)
Mythic offers your choice of a GM'ed or GM-less universal system with a twist. At heart, it feels like Universalis or Story Engine, with a focus on narrative elements. There's a lot of interpretation, improvisation, and using story logic to determine play. Everything in Mythic is described with a "detail," something close to aspects from Fate and other games. You assign ranks to details, but these aren't absolute, but comparative. In the default form, each character has the same set of starting details: the classic attributes. You can modify these to set the framework of the game you want to play. Mythic offers several options for creating characters, including a point-buy approach.

So far, so good. Now Mythic introduces its killer app the Fate Chart and GM Emulator. Every yes/no question ("does X win over Y") is checked on this comparative chart, offering a % chance of success. There's some additional mechanics to the system, but that's the heart of it. Being able to answer a yes/no question becomes important when you come to the GM Emulator. Essentially players randomly determine scene framing. You roll Event Foci including things like “Remote Event,” “NPC action,” “Introduce a New NPC,” “Move toward a Thread,” “Ambiguous Event,” etc. To that you add randomly determined event meanings to color the scene.

I'm not doing a great job explaining this- there's a ton of high-level ideas here. Mythic remains one of the most interesting universal rpg toolkits out there. I've seen many posts about using it to help manage campaigns. Some use it for PbP games or solo play. You can buy the whole system in a core book or just the Mythic GM Emulator as a separate product (if you buy the former, you don't need the latter). The company has also released a sourcebook, Mythic Variations, with ideas on how to handle different genres. Mythic is still available online, though the company seems to have stopped releasing new products.

10. Parallel Worlds (2006)
A Swedish d6 rpg originally appearing in Fenix, a gaming magazine. "Parallel Worlds is a role playing game designed to be used in various gaming environments, ranging from classical fantasy, historical adventure to modern campaigns. You can play such diverse things as a Roman centurion, crusaders, English fighter pilot during World War I, samurai, MI6 agent, Aztech, hard-boiled detective or a thief in the old Baghdad." Currently you can download it and several different supplements from the Saga Gameswebsite. Google Translate eventually collapses under the weight if you check out the plain-text version online. Designer Tomas Arfert has made the rules open, allowing anyone to create new material based on it.

11. TBRS (2006)
According to the publisher: "The Talent Based Roleplaying System is a generic roleplyaing rulebook describing the TBRS mechanics that can be applied to any setting. Come with chachters sheets, and goes over charachters creation, dice rolling, and how to tackle different setting with the TBRS." (sic) It’s only twelve pages long, but has a soft-cover edition. The only concrete info I can find is that it uses d10s. The publisher has released a single setting book for it. (This brings up a side question. By default I’ve stuck with games that have a printed form. But Lulu Publishing? Does that count as a print publication? Should I leave those items on the list? Not sure yet, but the glut of those on this list means I might have to rethink that approach).

True20 comes out of Mutant & Masterminds, Green Ronin's superhero rpg built on the d20 OGL. We'd played it and enjoyed M&M, giving us hope when they announced they'd a fantasy game with those mechanics, Blue Rose. However, while BR kept some M&M elements (simplicity, damage), it swung back to a conventional level/class/feats approach. When they later announced True20 we hoped for a simple GURPS-like point-buy system useful for any genre. Again we didn't get that. Point-buy went away in favor of the same level/class approach, though with broad and sweeping class picks. It also adapted the magic system of the excellent The Black Company sourcebook.

So I'm of two minds about True20. On the one hand I didn't get the game I'd imagined. On the other, I'm not sure I could have. I don't think I would have enjoyed doing M&M-like builds for everything. I had enough of that with Fantasy HERO. Despite my reservations, I bought into True20- the original slim volume, the later larger one, and all the class supplements. I played in a steampunk-fantasy campaign using it. And my reaction was meh.

Yet I kept thinking about how I might use and apply True20. I worked on several frames, but never finished anything. It appeals because does a beautiful job of distilling the essence of d20. True20 offers flexible and quick mechanics. It gives enough signposts that anyone with a d20 background will instinctively know how to work with it. But since I never seriously played d20 some of that draw ended up lost on me. Still I can admire what Green Ronin has done with this, another professional and well-written rpg.

Dice & Glory reminds me of Palladium RPGs. There’s a shared aesthetic to the art and a level of detail to the mechanics. There’s also some odd presentation choices. Why are the rules on Insanity & Addiction the second chapter? But D&G isn’t as messy or over-the-top as many of those games. Instead it’s a universal rpg for those who want some crunch and granularity. It has all the classic hits: regular & figured stats, saving throws, alignments, character classes, feats, lots of weapon details, a thick section on armor.

Dice & Glory aims to be multiversal action and adventure. It includes distinct rules for magic, psionics, uncanny powers, etc. It even has a take on “The Universe” detailing the planes of existence, different dimensional realms, and wilds of cyberspace. It feels like a love letter to Rifts, and I mean that in a good way (not a Mega-Damage way). All the high-wild elements appear, but without the source’s background and setting. Dice & Glory offers a cleaned up approach, as if someone sat down with the original and tried to create something much more coherent. I think it succeeds in that. The revised second edition core book’s pretty cheap if this at all sounds interesting to you. Ranger Games has also released several supplements, most leaning towards the fantasy side.

14. GORE (2007)
aka "Generic Old-school Role-Playing Engine." The hyphens save it from being GOSRPE. The system uses OGL material and "...newly presents algorithms from 80s role-playing games." It feels classic- with Basic Role-Play-like stats and the ability to improve those with points during play. As well it borrows BRP's Resistance Roll table as the basis for all opposed tests. Skills use a percentage system. The list on offer leans to the modern and a GM will have to tweak it to a particular setting. Overall it feels like someone took BRP, filed the numbers off, and laid down a bare bones system, albeit with a familiar approach to magic. What the system lacks in flavor it makes up for in odd rules choices, like a section on the effects of air pressure.

15. Levity (2007)
“Sistema per la narrazione interattiva ed il gioco di ruolo.” A short (32 page) Italian universal rpg. It seems to be aimed at beginning players, with the publisher blurb specially mentioning its use in classrooms. Skill-based, it uses d6s for resolution. Apparently the first editions can also be downloaded for free. Everything else I've seen for this generic game describe it...well...generically.

(I get to do that joke only once on these lists.)

16. Qi (2007)
Hey! You can buy this as a Nook book! Qi offers another rpg with a Lulu-based printed form. Regardless the designer has set an ambitious mission statement for themselves which you can read here. It showcases some unique ideas, "I set out to write a system of my own that would unify all of the good things about role playing games. It would be truly universal, able to crossover the boundary from traditional tabletop gaming to LARP with a single set of rules. Experience would not be lost when a new character is built but be assigned to the one who earned it, the Player themselves. This pool of experience would be used to balance the group of players while still providing an advantage to those who have been playing longer." I confess that's an approach which never occurred to me.

That player-facing emphasis extends to the resolution mechanics, "The need for random resolution would be replaced with a system that let you attempt to outwit your opponent, where the character’s destiny was not only in the hands of the static numbers on a page and a roll of the dice but also the skill of the player." That seems to be built on a system of comparative maneuvers. You can see examples at their site.

The concept's ambitious and the company offers a subscription deal for those interested in playing Qi. For $65 you can get one "Operator" (i.e. GM) and 3 Actors (i.e. players) slots. That allows access to a number of supplemental "Realmbooks." I'm unsure if how active Qi is. While it still has the weirdly old-style layout website, you can also jump to a newer front page here. There you can see notes about the development of their new universal game, "Meta" or buy a lovely mug with a stained glass print.

17. Miscellaneous: Revisions
A few universal systems received new or updated system releases during this period: Primetime Adventures 2e, Universalis, Active Exploits Diceless Roleplaying Take2, and the Savage Worlds Explorer’s Edition.

18. Miscellaneous: Universe Adjacent
Several games appear in this period which come close to being universal.
  • Baba Yaga: The Secret War : OK, this looks kind of awesome. Ancient magics used to fight WW2. The publisher calls it “A complete universal RPG, Skill, and Magic system.” But it’s framed as a specific setting, with notes on adaptation.
  • Gnosis: i signori del mondo: Italian rpg. “When playing Gnosis characters travel through space and time using the real world and history as a background for their adventures.” Reminds me a little of Man, Myth, and Magic.
  • Moebius Adventures: Positions itself as a universal system, but is really a generic medieval fantasy rpg.
  • Mortal Coil: A system for doing all kinds of “supernatural” games. Not necessarily horror, but worlds infused with a degree of weird, magic, or oddness.
  • MOTARUS Master Rulebook: Anthropomorphic Universal rpg.
  • Nine Worlds: Players become “archons,” figures from Greek Myth moving between multiple worlds each with a different tone and genre focus.
  • Story Cards: A card-based universal tool for generating stories in any rpg.
  • World of Darkness: The core book for White Wolf Onyx Path’s generic system of urban horror. Framed to be useful over many genres and approaches, though with a modern bent.
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