Friday, March 30, 2018

History of Universal RPGs (Part Eight: 2014-2015)

Board gamers make a big deal about theme. Those who care judge games by much the game’s mechanics reflect and deepen the theme. If there’s a disconnect then the theme’s “pasted on.” It’s one of the foundations of the Eurogame/Ameritrash divide. Board games of the former thinly apply theme. If you scrubbed it off, you’d have essentially the same game experience. The latter sacrifices playability in order to have shiny chrome that replicates the subject matter.

So on the one hand we have the excellent Azul, a game about tile-laying artists in classical Portugal. It’s a beautiful game with amazing components that reflect the source material. The theme’s easily forgotten, especially in the amazing play. On the other hand you have the Fallout Board Game. It’s a big, messy release from Fantasy Flight with tiles, figures, and artwork taken straight from the video game. It simulates Fallout—many of the most important systems carry through (gangs, missions, the SPECIAL perks). But that comes at the expense of play. It’s super random. At the beginning you suck and will get killed. Repeatedly. You could spend hours trying to build up your character and end up with 1 VP. Fun’s sacrificed at the altar of verisimilitude.

I’m wondering if the same structures apply to rpgs. Games like Dungeon World have a deep theme: it wants to simulate the classic D&D experience. It does that well, but when gamers hack it more broadly they have to work past baked-in default assumptions. On the other hand, you have thin reskins, like Rolemaster’s series of genre books which tried to overlay Modern, Samurai, Wild West, and more atop the most kludge fantasy game out there.

I mention this because today’s list has worn me out. Sometimes I’ll play a board game and I can tell the designer started with a mechanic. They love that mechanic; they built everything around that. The game’s architecture’s rests on that foundation. If it’s a simple thing, like Red7, then it’s awesome and stable. But if it’s a more convoluted teetering edifice (Euphoria) then my eye glaze over at the inevitable collapse. In reading through and translating many of the core mechanics from these games my eyes glazed over. Repeatedly.

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 from 2012-2013, leave a note in the comments.

History of Universal RPGs (Part Eight: 2014-2015)

1. 6d6 Core (2014)
One of several games on this list released in a Creative Commons format. 6d6’s characters have a mix of "advantages". Each covers an area and has both a die value (1d6+X) and a character point rating. When players attempt an action they assemble dice from applicable advantages. Static and dynamic potentials (represented by markers) limit how many advantages they can apply. Finally the player compares the die roll plus mod total to a difficulty number. It reminds me of Lady Blackbird's compiling of traits, but with a lot of extra crunch.

6d6 has added complexity in combat and other situations where players may not have all their potential ready. It offers interesting tricks about shifting tokens between states to allow actions. I’m struck by the cascade of terminology for different advantages. They don't seem to impact play heavily, but instead categorize concepts. I understand the impulse to have a cool, encyclopedic approach, but it clutters the field.

You can see the online version of 6d6 here. There's a pdf and PoD version. The layout's clean, but the three column design makes it harder to follow, especially given the white space. The art's cc-sourced and doesn't add much to the book.

A note to publishers using DTRPG: you get to choose what pages of your game appear in the preview pdf. Make that choice carefully. Show us what the game does, give us a sense of the contents, and put your killer tech forward. Game fiction, dedications, explanation of how the game came to be-- they're less useful to someone considering the game. It's a small thing, but I'm constantly surprised by how many games have previews without real info.

Lester Smith, an industry veteran of GDW and TSR fame, created D6xD6. The titular dice refer to the basic roll of the game, generating results from 1-36. Character have a focus number for their abilities. If they have experience with the task, they have to roll higher than that number. If they're inexperienced or rusty with it, they have to roll below. Better rolls generate additional success levels. More difficult tasks subtract from the higher of the two dice rolled.

Characters themselves have four attributes (Brawn, Grace, Will, and Wits) and focus number. Players choose one attribute to be focused in, one to be weak, and the other two are neither good nor bad. They select a setting-appropriate occupation and up to nine skills based on that. Their focus number equals the number of skills chosen; broader experience makes you less good in any single one. That's complemented by three skills you're rusty in.

Overall it's a good, intuitive, and easy to get rolling universal system. You can see an online version at the d6xd6 site. The basic book includes seven settings, while the expanded version includes 26. Most of those individual settings plus others can be bought seperately as well. They're each 6 pages, so if you like reading quick new campaign premises, they're worth checking out.

Entropic seems straight-forward with the usual system suspects appearing. Attributes and skills have a die type (ala Savage Worlds). Higher rolls are better, with a default difficulty of 7. Entropic has a couple of interesting mechanical bits. For example doubles on successes are criticals, attacks do fixed damage, and players get three actions in combat. The Stat-Skill-Talents design triangle appears with qualities covering good and bad stuff (i.e. edges, hindrances, advantages, disads, etc). Overall Entropic feels very close to Savage Worlds. That's not entirely surprising given the publisher's history of SW supplements. They've supported the Entropic line with a couple of setting books and some more general sourcebooks.

Insight leans towards a trad approach universal gaming. The crunch spills forth: hit locations, split damage tracks for physical and mental damage, weapon tables with nine dimensions, multiple damage types (pierce, slash, bludgeon), values for senses, advanced skill combinations, cross-reference tables to success vs. difficulty. Insight has an base mechanic interesting: each of your six main stats offers a number of dice. Skills connect to those, so when you make a check you roll that many d10's. Those skills are rated as Unknown, Basic, Known, Trained or Specialized. That determines the number you need to roll on your each stat die for a success. Difficulty modifiers can increase or decrease that range.

It's definitely a game with detail in mind. It feels like fusion of GURPS, Storyteller, and d20 aesthetics. The base book includes a sample setting and rules for magic. The company's Norwegian, but the rules offer clear English. It's cleanly presented, but aims for a depth that I'm less into now. If you dig things like d20 Modern or CORPS it might be worth checking out. The designer has a fantasy adaptation available for free on DTRPG with the encouragement to purchase if you like it. They've also released a Age of Sail and Wild West supplements.

We can spot some patterns with generic systems. One the one hand publishers first release a genre game with a new system (Champions, Numenera, M&M). The system does well and players start hacking it and sharing fan supplements. So they develop a generic version (HERO System, Cypher, True20). On the other hand we have “from-the-ground up” universals (Forthright, Forge Engine). Cakebread & Walton’s OneDice takes another path; while the company released a series of complete genre-specific rpgs, they've also released this one usable for all settings. And they've continued to do that up to the present.

OneDice describes characters simply: three or four stats with six points distributed among them. Figured stats derive from those. Skills and other packages round that out. As you might guess, the system uses a single dice for resolution. Roll and add the appropriate attribute + skill against a difficulty set by the GM. OneDice is the epitome of pick up & play rpgs. Cakebread & Walton have supported the line generously. I sometimes complain about repeated rules across games, but given the simplicity of the mechanics that’s less of an issue.

6. P.E.R.K. (2014)
aka The Pretty Easy Roleplaying Kit. PERK uses a d6 dice pool system: roll those against a difficulty (4 is default) and count those that match or beat the TN. You need one success, but the difficulty of the action determines how many positive dice results you need to get a success. Extras successes can raise the action’s final effect. PERK makes their explanation of this more complicated than it has to be- with "success" on individual dice confused with overall "successes" needed.

A word on d6 dice pool systems: I've been running Mutant: Year Zero (and its offspring) for a long time now. It uses a d6 pool system. In those you only need a single “6” for success. You'd be amazed at how many times people fail, even with a metric shit-tonne of dice. PERK’s target number of 4 seems like a merciful approach.

PERK characters have basic dice pools (Action, Defense, Strength, Stamina, Focus) with others possible. That's supplemented by PERKs-- race, role, classes, as well as talent, gear, and skills. The company only released a single supplement: P.E.R.K. Urban Horror, though Dire Ninja Media also promised a dark urban fantasy game called Underlife. That game (and the novel based on it) doesn't seem to have materialized. The system's still available, but their webpage hasn't updated since late 2016.

7. Storium (2014)
I’ve written this whole list and put off this entry until the very end. That’s because I have a confession. See I backed Storium during its Kickstarter. It had a great pitch: online, collaborative, text-based roleplaying with content developed by an amazing array of authors. It would provide evolving tools to support that play. A central hub, clever organization of material, notifications. It would be awesome and it would truly be universal.

But I’ve never actually played it. I don’t know why I feel ashamed about that. I have plenty of rpg projects I’ve backed that I haven’t got to the table. I have plenty I’m certain I’ll never get to the table. But Storium sounds so cool. And it might be a way for me to overcome my dislike of play by post games. I’ve tried them and there’s something about the medium that kills me. Even when we’re creating a cool story, I can’t bring myself I write responses. I don’t know what it is.

Storium’s gotten a ton of positive word of mouth—and you can try it for free. But I know it’s dropped off the map for many of its earliest and most enthusiastic advocates. When I’ve talked to folks about their experiences, they describe a trail of dead and half-finished games. OOH that’s how I’ve heard PbP games described in general…

8. Zettel-RPG (2014)
A short, saddle-stapled German rpg. RPGGeek lists it as part of Gratisrollenspieltag (aka German Free RPG Day). The Geek makes this great comment about the game, "Jens Stengel's photographs of everything from dice to walnut shells provide a refreshingly unorthodox backdrop."

9. CdB Engine (2015)
CdB apparently stands for Cacería de Bichos, which I’ve seen translated as Bug Hunt, Bitter Hunt, and Bite Hunting. It’s a massive Spanish-language universal rpg split into three volumes: Manual del Jugador (300 pages), Manual del Director de Juego (288 pages), and Manual de Equipo y Vehiculos (336 pages). That last book may hold the record for a game-associated equipment supplement. CbB’s blurb describes it as "hard, realistic and considerably tactical." That makes me suspect it might not be for me. The same rules also power the game Walküre, a transhumanist alternate-reality rpg.

It looks like the company has supported the line, judging by this page of supplements. There's a solid review of the system here. If you're curious about it, check out their crowdfunding page which has descriptions and sample pages

10. Cypher System (2015)
Cypher comes out of Numenera and The Strange, two already versatile rpgs. The latter's multiversal setting offered a proof of concept that the system could handle multiple genres. Numenera and The Strange have core books with dense information and detail on the setting. They're about disgorging a ton of content. Cypher’s core rules does the same, but with character options and bits as the detail dump. It's a massive book with dense layout and text. But what’s weird is it isn't that complicated a system. In fact, I think it conceals its simplicity under a ton of chrome.

Characters have only three stats (Might, Intellect, and Speed). When they attempt something challenging, the GM sets a difficulty from 1 to 10. The player negotiates to modify this. The final difficulty times three is the number the player must meet or beat on a d20 roll. Stats don't affect the roll directly, instead players can spend from these to reduce difficulty. So state task, GM assigns difficulty, modify difficulty, roll a 20.

The complexity comes in the modify difficulty section. Characters have skills, talents, gear, weapons, armor, and effort. Each can reduce that difficulty. Nothing creates a huge swing, instead you collect incremental shifts to make things easier. Some of these details can be complicated. For example, using a stat to reduce difficulty isn't straight 1 for 1. Instead characters spend Effort which is three points from their relevant pool to reduce the difficulty by a step, BUT that cost can be modified by an Edge. At higher tiers characters may spend this effort to reduce it by more than one, but that costs 2 from the stat not 3. Also you can only apply an Edge once in the sequence of an action—to effort or other special abilities. Learning the system means pushing aside the bells and bobs to see the core; playing the system means mastering those bells and bobs.

Cypher's core simplicity extends across the board; for example damage is measured in a handful of states. It reminds me a little of True20, core simplicity with levels and classes, plus a lot of ornamentation atop that. The game also has a couple of key mechanics outside basic resolution. For one, experience is about exploration and discovery. As written the GM doles out experience not for mission success or defeating villains, but for learning about the world. It's a cool concept, but requires tweaks depending on the setting.

GM Intrusions are the other key idea. At any point the GM may add an unexpected complication to the situation. This is aimed at a single character's action (though the repercussions may be broader). The GM offers experience points to the player in exchange for permission to have this happen. If the player accepts they have to deal with the problem, get 1 XP, and give 1 XP to another player. Players can refuse by spending XP. The intrusions feel like PbtA soft moves, but more parallels GM compels from Fate. The rules encourage the GM to intrude at least once per session, but no more than once or twice per character. That seems fairly doable.

I've run three different Cypher games this month hoping to learn via stress-testing. I’m still figuring out what I think. Character creation’s a mix of loose and restricted. The different setting books have key shifts about heightened powers and the cyphers (one-use items which are a main feature). Probably the most challenging part for me has been setting the difficulty number cleanly. The GM’s supposed to do that without reference to a character’s skills, assets, or position. It’s on the players to bring those forward. As well a player’s stats act as a pool—a spendable resource and a measure of damage taken. Some characters will death spiral; others won’t

Monte Cook has recently released a 16-page quick system guide for Cypher. It does a good job of distilling the basics. The following year Monte Cook ran a "Worlds of Cypher" Kickstarter, adding several new full-book settings. It included Predation (timepunk dinosaurs), Gods of the Fall (like Godbound), Unmasked (weird '80's teen supers), and a collection of chapters handling different genres.

11. Krendel Core (2015)
A system with an unusual opening. Universal rpgs have a common problem: where do they start? Genre-specific games can begin with a setting summary, lay out typical play, or drop game fic on unsuspecting readers. OOH universal rpgs don't have that defaulting beginning (though some still vomit game fiction forth). Krendel starts with a discussion of the gamer contract and expectations. From there it moves to explanations of Declaration vs. Intent, Narrating Success and Failure, and Tailoring the Rules. I haven't seen another game on these lists begin with that high level discussion. We've had "what is an rpg?" and "This is why I wrote this universal heartbreaker" intros, but nothing quite like this.

Krendel itself uses a single d10 roll for resolution. Actions have a target number of 4 + skills & bonuses - penalties. Players try to roll as close to that number as possible without going over. If they succeed, they get successes equal to the number rolled. Difficulty applies penalties to the TN and successes can be spent on various effects. It reminds me of Fading Sun's roll under mechanic.

The game’s simplicity connects to some serious crunch in places. The discussion of scale, volume, area, and range came out of left field and signaled a shift in the rules. Krendel opts to present all the mechanical bits before we get to character creation or even a sense of what characters might look like. Eventually we get to the lists of traits and skills and their associated rules, but the thread’s hard to follow.

Krendel has a ton of optional mechanics. It presents these in callout boxes next to their corresponding system rather than pulling them to a distinct chapter. I like rules options and I dig that it's as much a toolbox as it is a system. But while I appreciate having options close by for later reference, it distracts while reading initially.

Overall Krendel feels trad, complete with pages and pages of powers and abilities, detailed guns & equipment lists, systems for building unique items, defined environmental threats, and more. Also in some places Krendel seems tied to a specific setting (the Artifice section) and in others moves to the universal. It has great chapter header art, but the in-chapter illustrations look sketchy at best. If you'd like to check this out, both the Core and the Power rules can be found for free right now on DriveThru.

12. Lite (2015)
A German-language universal rpg. Until recently you could find it on DriveThruRPG. Lite’s a stat-based, dice pool system with point buys. It was released with a Creative Commons license (a more and more common approach). Designer Jürgen Mang also created the comedy RPG Das Weltenbuch and the SpacePirates RPG. The latter has had a long life, with several supplements.

13. PowerFrame (2015)
An anime-inspired universal rpg, though not as far down that road as OAV or BESM. PowerFrame has a cartoony look and a clean layout. Characters have abilities measure from -5 (appalling) to +5 (masterful). To test an action, players roll a d6 and add their relevant value. These dice explode both up and down. The final result has to beat a target number set by the GM. A roll of -3 or less is a critical failure.

To build a character players pick from a list of abilities and assign points to those. The game seems simple enough, though it does use specific ranges measured in hexes and the weapon list from the rules primer takes up a full page. Armor has protection ratings in each of the four different types of damage. Overall I like the look and feel of the game, but it drops down to trad lists and approaches in places (distinct action types and lists, dual-wielding rules, movement points, travel & exposure). If you're looking for something relatively easy to pick up and play, but want a hex-map anime combat feel, this might be for you. There’s a quick start available.

14. QuestCore (2015)
An rpg from a Swedish company. QuestCore came from a Kickstarter which I think supported both the language editions. It has a small core book-- less than 60 pages. The blurbs mentions D&D and d20 as inspirations a couple of times. The system itself uses the oft-ignored d12 for resolution. Characters have seven basic stats (Will gets added to the usual lineup) and skills. Overall it feels like a slimmed down version of d20. tdphillips does an extensive read-through over at RPG Geek and confirms that assessment.

The Kickstarter page is worth looking at. It's nicely designed and presented, using the best of the game’s art assets. It sets up some of the games selling points: simpler than D&D, Skip Williamson's writing an adventure, universal mechanics. But there isn't much meat to the discussion beyond that-- no quick start or sample material to seriously examine.

15. Those Who Play (2015)
Subtitle: A Narrative Focused RPG. Another one funded via Kickstarter; this had modest goals and 45 supporters. Those Who Play appears to be built on a d10 dice pool system with abilities and skills associated with one of four pools: Physical, Mental, Spiritual, Social. Beyond that it's hard to say-- the KS page is remarkably thin on details and there's no reviews so far. And the 114 page pdf goes for $18.29 on DriveThruRPG. That's about $7 more than if you'd backed the KS originally.

16. Universal Adjacent
Several games come close to being universal but place some bounds on play. I'd originally planned to put Chronos Universal LARP on the list above, but the game has a multiversal setting. In each world players can explore "Aether" which has shaped history in different ways. Chronos uses special cards for generation and resolution.

Downfall has you play child characters in a decaying civilization. While you can use any kind of world, the play's structured around telling those stories of collapse. It’s a sharp game and worth checking out. Will Hindmarch used IndieGoGo to fund Odyssey: Journey and Change a few months before his Kickstarter for Project: Dark began. Odyssey delivered in late 2014. In it you explores stories of journeys and how those change the characters. It's an interesting concept applicable to many settings. Finally Primetime Adventures 3rd edition offers the most recent version of this TV-themed rpg. You can play out any genre, but done as a television show. That framing device shapes the narrative. Players who love PTA seem torn on this revision; some appreciate the changes while others prefer 2e. I hope we can see some violent edition wars over this.

17. Electronic-Only RPGs
The following universal rpgs have a substantial electronic-only edition:
  • AARG Preflight Edition: A 3d6 based system. Designer Steve Keller released this slim version, but doesn't seem to have followed up on that.
  • Amazing Roleplaying Game: Has a fully generic version and one with an alt-history steampunk setting.
  • Cornerstone: Ben Dutter's 1d6 based "answer to Freeform Universal, Fate, GURPS, and Savage Worlds.”
  • Modos Roleplaying Game: Though it presents the fantasy genre as a default, Modos is intended for universal play.
  • Monad System: An Italian universal rpg which has released several supplements in recent years
  • Multiverse Adventures: The in-house generic system powering many of Starbright Illustrations shovelware rpgs.
  • Pangenre 2e: A d20 universal system which does away with ability numbers, classes and levels.
  • The Sigil System: The universal version of the system Stormforge Publishing uses for their other game The Runed Age. The company also released The Glyph System, a lighter version of this.
  • Simpli-6: Base rules includes the "Arkalanon" setting. The publisher has released a couple of supplements including Mythic West and Mars Rising.
  • Solo Gaming Rules: Pretty much what's written on the label.
  • VIP Core: "VIP stands for Variable Initiative Point. The system gets its name because in the VIP System all actions have an initiative point cost."

History of Universal RPGs (Part Eight: 2014-2015)