Tuesday, February 21, 2017

History of Universal RPGs (Part Six: 2010-2011)

It’s clear going through these lists designers have varied approaches to the idea of an rpg that can do everything. We’ve seen 89 rpgs, not counting pdf-only mentions. Today’s list, in particular, showcases a spectrum of “conceptions.” I have an analogy for this, a way of thinking about what’s happening in these different systems. And it comes from watching The Lego Batman Movie.

On one end of the Universal RPG spectrum we have games with a high density of rules, some dare call it crunch. These game intend to model every element and make those elements feel correct within the mechanics. That means a large number of rules which aren’t necessarily symmetrical, but do fit together. I’ll peg GURPS as the current end point of this approach, with HERO close by. We’ll call these games “Lego Games.” They have lots of building blocks. Most of the pieces share a common logic: four stud brick, flat pieces, headlight brick. But we also have some weird pieces- windows, plates, minifigs. They’re clearly part of the mechanics; they socket up with the rest of the geometry. But they also introduce new elements and require new ways to arrange them. We can make anything with Legos- though to make them look good we may need a custom set released by the company.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have “Play-Doh Games.” You can make anything with Play-Doh. It’s soft and malleable. It has no inherent shape, leaving everything open. More Play-Doh, less Play-Doh, it’s all the same. You know exactly how it all works right away. It doesn’t matter what color of clay it is, it smushes the same. These are usually story game rpgs. There’s a simple set of rules, but everything’s relative. All conflicts are equal; all elements work the same way, characters and objects use the same descriptors, equipment’s just part of the fiction, etc. It may even be diceless. Towards this end we’ll put Fate, Wordplay, Story Engine, and the like.

It isn’t a great analogy, but it helps me think about what’s happening differently in these systems. Savage Worlds, True20, and many others fall somewhere in the middle. I don’t know if I have a toy to describe those. I do think there’s a way to describe PBtA within this schema. PbtA’s the collection of all of the various Lego successors and emulators all thrown together (Mega Blocks, Playmobil, Kre-O, Cobi, etc). Right?

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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 I missed which came out from 2010-2011, leave a note in the comments. 

A self-published Norwegian universal rpg. Appears to be a storyteller game where the role of the "scene owner" passes between players. For the less literate (namely me) I looked up the title’s translation "L'esprit de l'escalier or l'esprit d'escalier ("staircase wit") is a French term used in English for the predicament of thinking of the perfect reply too late."

Chronology poses a challenge when I assemble these lists. Some designers have a habit of calling something "X edition" based on several self-published or in-house iterations. That’s probably great for version control, but less useful for me when I hit a published third edition of something and can't find info on any earlier ones. But I digress, I was talking about Gaia Saga Universal Roleplaying 2nd Edition.

When I have trouble finding samples or reviews, I turn to blurbs, forum posts, and publisher statements. It looks like Gaia Saga came out of an earlier fantasy rpg developed by the author. A lot of that DNA may have carried over. I'm always wary when I see a universal rpg talk about "thirteen playable races to choose from." That suggests a more specific game world or setting, rather than a toolbox. The blurbs mention spells and magic as well, so I suspect this may actually be a universal fantasy game, with bits left open. In other words, universal but the GM has to build anything non-fantasy.

I found the mention of a "personality and emotions engine" intriguing. In a forum post, the designer describes is this way, "Personality Engine: Keeps track of your characters moods, how they act generally, and helps decide your alignment by how you act. Gives players a focus so they can roleplay their characters in the best way possible. Emotions Chart: Shows a list of friends and enemies, their feelings towards your character, and gives a reference point on how to increase game play and realism." I wonder how mechanical that actually is.

3. Mini Six (2010)
A streamlined game built on the Open d6 engine. This is WEG’s d6 System stripped down to basics. Character creation's covered in two pages and that includes a perk list. While that leaves a lot of heavy lifting to the GM, it’s less than you might suppose. You could run a pick-up session with what's on offer. Resolution's covered in just two pages and that includes two different approaches to combat: Fast Static Combat and Traditional Open d6 Combat. A sample magic system and sample characters get the longest page counts, each clocking in at four pages. The book includes several simple settings, each presented in two pages: Firefly-esque, trad fantasy, Victorian horror, '70's Beat Cop, and an homage to Traveller's Imperium. This is a solid, solid package and one worth looking at if you're hunting for a robust but light system.

A game from John Arcadian, a contributor and co-author of many contributions to Gnome Stew releases. Silvervine's a point-buy system, dense with info and options. Players roll a pool of d10's with 8's as the default success number. Relevant skills reduce that target number. You compare total successes the task difficulty. It's clean and the rules read well. I particularly like the idea that your roll is based on a primary attribute plus another supporting attribute. The former shows the most important element needed, while the latter demonstrates nuance. Focuses- the special powers of the system- can modify the success, results, and fiction of these actions.

While Silvervine has clear mechanics, it also spends a chunk of time talking about collaborative, thematic, and narrative elements of play. There's interesting discussion of where to hand off narration to the players. Despite that storygame talk, is has some crunch. Character creation’s fairly involved. It reminds me a little of Big Eyes, Small Mouth. Players have broad details which they can modify to create their unique abilities. To illustrate character creation, Silvervine uses its example Anime/ Steampunk/ Fantasy “Cyrus World: setting. That's good in that it offers concrete examples. However muddies the division between the generic cc rules and those for this world. That's a problem. Either this needed to be the rules just for that setting or needed to take a much more generic presentation approach.

While it might not to be to my taste as generic ruleset, Silvervine provides and interesting and flexible approach to this hybrid world. Silvervine released under the CC 4.0 license and currently available as a PWYW pdf on Drivethru.

5. Strands of Fate (2010)
I picked up Strands of Fate on a friend's recommendation. Prior to that I'd only encountered Fate via Diaspora and Spirit of the Century. However made the base mechanics clear. I couldn't put together how the system actually played. Surprisingly it finally came together when I read Strands. Suprising because SoF takes such a different approach to Fate. It feels a lot like Fate 3.0 crossed with Champions or GURPS. There’s a focus on point buy and construction. It clearly wants granularity- the ability to assemble all kinds of powers, devices, and magic. It also has a different approach to skills and aspects.

Strands of Fate didn't click for me, but it did give me a sense of how aspects worked in Fate. By going back to other Fate games and comparing them to Strands of Fate, I started to have a decent sense of Fate's base mechanics. That leaner approach appealed to me more than the engineered systems described in SoF. Despite that, Strands of Fate works. It offers a point-based structure, with lots of statting up and building. If that's what you like, but you still want relatively light resolution mechanics, you could do worse. Void Star released a large supplement the following year, Strands of Power. That offers many new advantages, powers, and mechanics for different genres. Picking that up if you dig the core book.

6. World vs. Hero (2010)
A two-players rpg with random event generation. World vs. Hero echoes the Mythic GM Emulator from the same designer. It leans into an open approach, making it high up on the “relativism” scale and useful for any genre. WvH bills itself as a "strategic" storytelling game. The two players- Hero and GM- compete during play. The player can define The Hero broadly; it might be a single person, an adventuring company, or something in between. They build that character from narrative phrases as well as some numerical stats, called Suit Abilities. The game resolves using playing cards, so each abilities ties into a suit. Those in turn affect different kinds of conflicts.

While the World player seems like the GM, they have limits on what they can throw at the Hero. The intent is mechanical balance. Cards are drawn, the Hero sets the location, the World puts a card forward for the conflict, the Hero uses another to activate appropriate abilities. Play continues this way. It’s an interesting idea and offers a cool option for freeform two-player story games. The game includes a optional rules for adapting this to existing settings, doing play by post, or using it more closely with the Mythic GME.

Marcelo Paschoalin offers an important correction on this: "World vs. Hero was designed by John Fiore, while Mythic (and Mythic: GME) was designed by Tana Pigeon. You probably made the mistake due to the two games work really well together if one wants to play WvsH solo." Good catch-- people referencing the two together and the shared publisher made it easier for my mistake, but it's my fault.  

Not the same as BareBones Fantasy. But I could be forgiven for thinking that, given that the publisher, Scaldcrow Games, has erased Bare Bones Multiverse in favor of other products. You can find archived review pages, but the main product's gone from DTRPG. Those reviewers have wildly mixed reactions; some like the 2d6 system, some loathe the presentation. Others find it middle of the road. The system itself takes up only the first twenty pages of the rulebook, with the rest given over to nine sample settings. Scaldcrow has reworked this into other, primarily pulp rpgs: Rotwang City, Davey Beauchamp's Amazing Pulp Adventures-Role Playing Game, and Bare Bones Beyond: Worlds of Pulp. This last one feels universal adjacent, intended to cover any genre with a pulp filter.

8. BEAN! The D2 RPG (2011)
You make checks in BEAN! by throwing a handful of beans. Maybe…if you want to go all in on the theme. You don’t have to. BEAN! uses a d2 randomizer, so you could use coins or even/odds on dice. Ubiquity functions much the same way, counting up successes for evens on d6’s. Of course using beans has a tactile benefit. More importantly it gives the BEAN! designers a hook for all their artwork- a showcase of anthropomorphic legumes.

That simplicity and humor make it a good choice as a game for kids. BEAN! has default fantasy frame, but is written to be adapted broadly. It falls into what you might call tissue paper or, less judgmentally, streamlined universal rpgs. Simple standard resolution, a few choices for character creation, and just enough mechanics to feel like you have a safety net. Unlike many of these slight rpgs, BEAN! has been supported with several releases: a second edition, solo adventures, modules, and world sourcebooks.

When I first came across this I wasn’t sure if it was a stand-alone game or a bolt on to something else. “obSESSION is more than just a Role Playing Game, it is a set of core mechanics designed for use with any setting, genre or game style…Additional optional rules from Obsessive Compulsive Design are fully compatible with the rules found within, expanding upon rather than contradicting the core rules and ensuring that any optional expansion is usable with any obSESSION game, not just one or two.” Not the deliberate choice to abbreviate the game to OCD. 

obSESSION might be crunchy. “Derived Attributes” is a key warning for me. We have ten-second rounds, a “Soaking” score that you compare damage to in order to determine actual wounds, saving throws with levels of effect, 26 hit locations, encumbrance, character levels, builds & templates, sixteen primary attributes and eight derived. 

To get a sense of the mechanics, I offer this from the one- page rules: “Most of the time in obY the success of an action will be determined by a Skill Roll, an Attribute Roll or a Combined Roll. These differ only in the way in which their Dice Pool is determined. For a Skill Roll the Dice Pool is equal to the appropriate Skill’s Rank; for an Attribute Roll the Dice Pool is equal to the appropriate Attributes Skill Value (full value divided by 20); For a Combined Roll the Dice pool is determined by adding a Skill’s Rank to an Attribute’s Skill Value.” 

10. Other Worlds (2011)
Other Worlds came as a nice surprise. It looked very trad at first glance. Instead you get a system built on player-defined abilities and flexible narratives. It opens with discussions of story and "shared creativity." Other Worlds signals its intent to share power and "give everyone the power to drive events forward and introduce new elements to the plot."

Characters consist of Abilities with associated ratings. Players define these, breaking them into General Abilities, Personality Traits, and Relationships. Those slot into one of several templates: cultural archetypes, professional archetypes, individuality, and trademarks. Example abilities include, "Speak Japanese, Curious, Loves Roberto, Chase Suspect, and I Ain’t Getting in No Plane." To build your character you choose four templates, each with a set of abilities. Then you create your “individuality” by choosing up to 24 additional abilities. These all have a default ratings which you can modify.

The resulting character record looks dense. I'm used to lighter systems having easy-to-grok sheets. That's what we get from games like PDQ and Fate. Here you have lots and lots of things to sort through once your character's put together. It looks like a GUMSHOE sheet. This may work for some gamers. I'm less a fan of having to hunt through my many, many lists to figure out what I need to roll.

And you'll likely be doing that hunting quite a bit. When a conflict occurs you figure out your rating by assembling a total based on a primary ability's rating, modified by bonuses from any supporting abilities. That means scanning through to get the maximum effect from the ability sets you've crafted. Some players will get fast at this, others will suffer from analysis paralysis. The opposition also creates a total, meaning the GM’s doing a parallel hunt. Both roll a d100 and it to their final rating. Higher roll wins and chooses the outcome.

The base system is simplicity itself, but the steps require some crunching. I'd have to see it in play. I do like the way Other Worlds frames conflicts as universal and then slots that into a larger structure of "set pieces." There's some neat tech here. It's well written and has echoes of HeroQuest, Fate, and PDQ. But it feels more elaborate than any of those.

Wow. Before I start be aware you can get a free copy of the Paraspace Basic Rules from DTRPG. Looking at that may help disentangle what I'm about to say. Because this game...this game...

The cover has a photo of a d10 with added flame effects burning a streak through a side-of-a-van-worthy fantasy collage painting. Every page uses a variant of that image as a one-inch, full-color page frame. The pages alternate space-ships & moons at the top, dungeon doors & tunnels at the bottom. Throughout it all the still-burning d10 appears as the page number the backdrop. The actual tight, double-column text sits on a greyed-out frame, a palimpsest below. You can just make out the image lying beneath the text. Occasional odd stock-art choices break this up, but you're more likely to be interrupted by a table or chart.

OK. I have to take a break.

I'm back. ParaSpace uses d10's, for single rolls, percentiles, d1000's, d10/4 etc. Characters have eight stats plus Skills, Abilities, Techniques & Manoeuvres. Note: The stat Physique is abbreviated PH, that appears before they define it, so I initially assumed they tracked the PCs’ acidity. Also, pro-tip: be consistent in your abbreviations. If you use three letter codes for six the eight stats, don't then have Quickness shortened to "Q". Also, the stats aren't called stats, characteristics or attributes. They're "manipulations." Also…*takes a breath*…

Skill checks take stat+skill+1d10 vs. a target number. Unskilled use can divide that die result by 2 or 3. Look, I'm not going to drag this out: there's a lot crunch and granularity here. Characters have a figured stat called KDV to determine if they're knocked down by an attack. Different skills and abilities have different experience costs. Axe is divided into four skills: Axe, Axe (Thrown), Axe (Two-Handed), Axe (Two- Handed Thrown). ParaSpace has 132 skills. Some seem more like talents, but they're lumped in. Skills include Odour Scenting, Held Respiration, Car Mechanic, and Supplementary Defensive Manoeuvre. There's an appropriately over-detailed equipment and magic section. There’s…*takes a breath*…

It feels like a strange mix of 1980's design combined with first-gen indie 1990's DTP efforts. The character sheet...sorry, I'm not even going to try to describe it. Here's the thing-- I'm sure the designer got a lot of great gaming out of this system. He lists 34 guys (and one woman) as playtesters. This probably clicked for the level of crunch they wanted. But wow: this is hard to read and parse. It's so far outside my comfort zone-- and I was still playing Rolemaster up to the beginning of the year.

This offers another one of those moment when I must simply turn to the author's blurb: "Everyone has, in one point of time or another, played a Role-Playing Game. This is Story Teller's Version 1.5 of The Story, a 3D6 gaming system, closely related to D&D and GURPS." So that’s helpful.

13. Miscellaneous: Revisions
These two years saw major revisions to existing universal rpgs. Savage Worlds Deluxe is another tinkering with this venerable system. According to the publisher it, "includes rules updates, new rules material, new art, more examples, an expanded Setting Rules section, Designer Notes to give you an insight into the development, and much more. It does not, however, invalidate prior printings of the rules, which you can continue enjoy." This appears to be the most current edition as of this writing.

After a decade Story Engine Plus revises and cleans up the original Story Engine. This edition received two Indie Game Design "Runner Up" awards. The main stated difference seems to be a refinement of the adjective-based character creation. MADS Role Playing Game (Revised) expands this system with a 40% larger page count. Finally Paragon HDL is the new name of the Paragon Tactical RPG. This updated version also now powers their Demongate High, Perfect Horizon 216X, and LUCID: Dreamscape Reality games.

14. Miscellaneous: Universal Adjacent
Several games come close to being "Universal" but have a more subtle thematic approach. Skullduggery takes the oppositional mechanics from The Dying Earth rpg for a game of negotiated backstabbling. It can cover many genres and the book includes several different set ups, including the selection of a Pope (timely now given HBO's The Young Pope series). It’s like a complicated Fiasco. Microscope's a game I’ve talked about and played extensively. It offers an rpg about any history, though some debate the rpg nature of it. Microscope can cover any genres, but players move from character to character in scenes across times. Finally Idee! Das Universalrollenspiel: Edition Ad Astra is a German card-based systems for telling rpg-like stories.

15. Miscellaneous: Significant PDF only
This period saw some striking and larger pdf-only releases. d6 Intégral is a French take on the d6 Open system. They supported it with several Lulu-only supplements. Pangenre RPG Core offers an adapted d20 system for universal gaming. It has several different “final” and “beta” versions, plus some topic-specific supplements. Sundered Epoch is another game with many different versions and "editions" out there. It seems to be a d6 stat plus skill system. RPGGeek lists a couple dozen supplements of various lengths for this. Finally Polyverse appears to a more detail heavy universal system. It has a supers supplement available.