A THOUSAND DREAMS
Usually I do something light or vaguely insightful for these headers. That’s a little harder right now. I grew up in the 1970s terrified of being blown up by nuclear weapons. My father taught International Relations. He had maps on his office wall showing exactly how far a blast would reach if it hit a major city like Washington or Chicago. I remember when The Day After TV show came on, showing the aftermath of an attack. And then hearing my dad’s colleagues talk about how it’d be much, much worse. So yeah, nightmares.
Gaming was an escape- a way to make worlds and have control of them. I loved the idea that they could overlap- that characters could pass from one to another. I dug stories like Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld & World of Tiers series, Dr. Who’s multiple genre jaunts, Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius and the concept of the Eternal Champion, Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber. Worlds could get effed up or be awful, but you could go elsewhere. I loved that fantasy conceit. There’s an appeal to that in universal games. It isn’t a big pull, but it’s there. The concept that stories and characters can move from one world to another. That’s not a profound thought, but it’s what I’ve got.
Normally I point to my Patreon supporting these lists. Instead I want to point to Kate Bullock’s work. She writes on games, feminism, representation, and a host of other issues at Bluestocking's Organic Gaming Blog. Every few months her work gets spotted and she’s subjected to harassment. Yesterday she woke up to rape threats as her work popped up again in the view of some assholes. WTF. I back her Patreon-- check it out and support her.
LAND OF CONFUSION
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. Awesome Adventures (2008)
Willow Palecek’s development of Fate 3.0. According to RPGGeek, a printed version landed in '08, and it was made available on Lulu later. Awesome Adventures cuts out stunts, taking a different path from Evil Hat's later Fate Core. At root, Awesome Adventures slims down Spirit of the Century. That's a good thing-- SotC gave me my first look at Fate and I didn't get it. I couldn't put together how it actually played. I had to read a couple of other Fate iterations to see it. When I went back to SotC I could see the game without the characters and setting submerging it. Palecek appeared on the Master Plan podcast to discuss her design choices. It's worth listening to if you're curious about this adaptation.
2. Basic RolePlaying (2008)
BRP has been the silent workhorse of universal systems. Sure Chaosium churned out a host of fringe games built on it (Ringworld, Elfquest, Hawkmoon). But more importantly it became the backbone of a host of hacks, especially outside the US. When I spot a game from Europe, there's a decent chance it will explicitly or implicitly be built on Basic Roleplaying. Before d20, many gamers took those concepts-- Stats, Percentile Skills, and whichever ornamentation they liked-- and made them their own.
This version of BRP offered the largest collection of material yet. It finally made the mechanics into a stand-alone product, a peer to GURPS, Savage Worlds, and HERO. Far from the original 16-page pamphlet, this one comes in at about 400 pages. That's presented in the usual dense Chaosium layout, so there’s a lot here. BRP goes straight for the generic, rather than setting up toolboxes or modules for the GM. I hadn't realized how much having most of the skills printed on the character sheet, rather than writing them in, affects the feel of a game. We used GURPS and HERO standard sheets for a variety of settings because we wrote in all the genre-specific info. These BRP sheets require players to ignore or mark-out non-relevant skills (Psychotherapy, Heavy Machine). GMs could probably build their own sheets but this default’s an interesting choice on the designers' part.
Building characters follows the same "lump it all together" approach. There's a list of professions, not broken out by genre, time, or tech level. Instead they aim to be generic...sort of. It includes things like Computer Tech, Cowboy, and Wizard. The skill system follows this kitchen-sink style. The character sheets include many lines for additional or optional skills. I expected we might see some of those in the book, but instead it suggests GMs can create those as needed.
Chaosium classifies all weird abilities as Powers: Magic, Mutations, Psychics, Sorcery, and Super-Powers. Magic feels like the usual BRP system: spells have individual skill levels, they're generic, high success can modify effect, and otherwise they're pretty set. The other approach to magic, Sorcery, doesn't require a casting check, but instead is based on a resistance roll vs. target. It offers a more flexible approach. Mutations are set abilities that do things in the fiction (like flying, enhanced senses). The section includes adverse mutations. Super-Powers, on the other hand, are enhanced skills. They're built with point-buy system that isn't Hero or M&M level complex, but does have some crunch. The psychic powers work like super-powers, but they're more limited and specific.
As you'd imagine with this many modules, character creation takes up the first 40% of the book. Combat, resolution, etc follows. It's worth noting that the "Spot" rules for unusual situations (acid, light sources, volley fire) take up two dozen pages. Equipment comes in at about 40 pages. The last quarter plus of the book covers gamemastering: generic advice plus some options. For example it presents a version of Pendragon's personality trait system. The chapter on Setting lists different genres and gives a quick list of suggested character types and optional rules. Then we oddly get Sanity rules. BRP closes with a pretty huge Creatures section, followed by the appendices (including conversion notes).
Overall BRP offers what BRP enthusiasts asked for: a big collection of rules. It set the look for the line; for better or worse. It looks like a Chaosium game from the period: from the layout you know who published it. Unfortunately that also means you get the usual weak art. The company supported the line with lots of modules, setting books, and source material. A few third-party publishers followed suit. A couple years later they began to vary the book design, making them more interesting and inviting. Compare the earlier BRP covers to something like Chronicles of Future Earth or Devil's "butt-shot" Gulch. Eventually Chaosium would do some spin off approaches. Magic World, for example, offers a self-contained version of BRP for fantasy, a step back from universal mechanics.
3. Cortex System Role Playing Game (2008)
I'm a terrible gamer. Some systems absolutely escape me. Others I could pick up and play immediately even if I hadn't seen them in decades. I last ran GURPS in '05, but if I had the skill cost & ST damage charts, I could throw down a session right now. It's not a great talent; I'm sure most gamers could. But my talent for not grokking some games is probably rarer.
Cortex for example. I'm not saying it is a bad game. But there's something about the approach that loses me. I played Marvel Heroic and dug it. In that moment, with the GM helping, I got the system. But the second I went away from the table I lost it. I read MH a couple of weeks after and became completely lost. I've tried to read Smallville, Leverage, The Cortex Hackers Guide...each has stumped me. Feel free to laugh. I'm also unable to snap my fingers.
Stand-alone Cortex arrived in pdf in '08, with a printed edition a year later. This version has come to be called Cortex Classic. It's the backbone of Battlestar Galactica, Demon Hunters, Serenity, Sovereign Stone, and Supernatural. A later version, Cortex Plus, would supersede this.
Cortex generally works with multiple dice pulled together into a roll. Traits, details, attributes, etc have different die type ratings. Based on what you pick to do your action, you combine those dice. That allows the system to abstract many elements. Die pool creation's a key factor of the play. You set your fiction and illustrate it through those choices. It’s simple, so I don’t know why it eludes me.
4. The genreDiversion 3E Manual (2008)
This appeared in pdf form in '08, with a printed one available a year later. That's a weird common theme for products on this list. While there'd been earlier editions, genreDiversion i, this is the first with a printed edition (AFAIK). Characters have a simple set of stats (pursuits) plus abilities. They roll 2d6 plus those values versus a target number. You can go random or pick to build your character. While genreDiversions has some samples and examples, it aims for a thin system easily adapted on the fly. The core book includes sub-systems for things like chases, as well as an example setting-- Unbidden & Forsaken-- for modern horror. Precis Intermedia also included conversions for their many other systems: genreDiversion i, Iron Gauntlets, Story Engine Classic, and Active Exploits Diceless Roleplaying. The company supported it with a supers sourcebook but little else.
5. Karma Roleplaying System (2008)
So here's a problem I've mentioned a couple of times on these lists: how far down do I dig? My general rule has been to only include products with a physical release. I make exceptions for large or influential pdf-only releases, but I try to list those sparingly. So what about Lulu-only print books? Or, as in the case of Karma, a Createspace release via Amazon. I'm going to include those, at least here because I think they're an interesting development. It's anecdotal, but I've seen more Universal PoD-release games than in any other genre.
Karma has an interesting design philosophy, "The Karma rules system sprang from one truism in gaming: gamers house rule everything. That is because even the most thought out rules system cannot account for every conceivable scenario. Nor can it account from the wealth of backgrounds and knowledge gamers bring with them to the table...So Karma is designed not as a firm set of rules, but as a framework to build a game around. The Karma core rules book is less a set of rules than it is a guide. Take the game mechanics, and then customize it based on what you need for your own game."
It offers a simple system. Roll d20 + relevant modifiers vs. task number. Modifiers include attributes and abilities. Specialties affect critical failures. I spotted a couple of interesting details in the Karma Quick Guide. It splits development between experience points and training points. That reminds me of older hour-based systems (GURPS, Daredevils) but with more flexiblity. Karma also includes a simple system for spell building. I assume those mechanics can be adapted for other powers.
6. Paradox (2008)
Google-fu failure. Paradox is from Manic Fiddler, "...a publisher of roleplaying games based in central New Jersey." It appears to be a class-based system using multiple die types. The character sheet's dense and kind of bland. For the rest, I have to turn to the publisher blurb:
- "rules for time and interdimensional travel
- guidelines to create characters from 5 classes and 12 subclasses
- character level information from levels 1-20
- historical maps
- fantasy setting, including maps, history and descriptions of cultures and creatures
- accomodates modern, future, medieval, western, GrecoRoman, military, fantasy and other genres without having to reroll characters or end a campaign
- three prewritten adventures that can be modified for a variety of character levels."
It's that sixth point that sticks with me. Is this a game about moving characters between game genres? They mention interdimensional travel...I wonder. Anyway you can check out the publisher's web-page here.
7. Saga Machine (2008)
Saga Machine came out from Tab Creations and then vanished. It seems to have been removed from sale and I haven't yet found any reviews. The publishers eliminated that and instead rolled it over into other, more specific games. In particular the "Saga Machine" engine powers Against the Dark Yogi and Shadows Over Sol. According to the website:
"At its heart, Saga Machine consists of eight basic stats and two central mechanics, appropriately called the action mechanic and the consequence mechanic.From there, the core is supported by numerous subsystems, each tailored to the specific genre and themes of the game in question. For example, Shadows Over Sol comes with both engineering and hacking system, as befits as science fiction game, while Against the Dark Yogi has a system for channeling cosmic energies."
Saga Machine uses a deck of cards as a randomizer. Draw a card from the central deck. Add its value to your relevant stat+skill. Actions have an associated suit and you can "trump" with a test. Simple, but in Shadows Over Sol, at least, that's bolted to a mid-weight complexity chassis. Action Points in combat rounds, multiple kinds of consequences, skill "specialty" tracking, and various other sub-systems. I'd put it in the same category as fully-kitted Savage Worlds. I'm assuming most of that holds true for the now forgotten Saga Machine universal system.
8. Solar System (2008)
Finnish designer Euro Tuovinen’s universal adaptation of The Shadow of Yesterday. The designer has a nice statement of intent at his website, in particular his usual distaste for universal systems. There's a printed version available, but you can also find a Creative Commons HTML version here . Solar System uses Fudge dice for resolution. It offers a fluid collaborative approach to creating the setting. Characters have Abilities (backgrounds, skills) associated with a pool. They may also have secrets (special tricks and powers). Most importantly they have keys- details and behaviors the characters need to hit to advance. Overall Solar System takes an interesting approach, including calling out "crunch" as a thing in the rules. Worth checking out.
9. Tab-System Classic (2008)
Another vanished game from the same company that brought you Saga Machine mentioned above. It also uses card-based resolution. Maybe one's a derivation of the other? This product had significantly fewer pages (64 vs. SM's 256). Also Tab-System Classic came out of a fantasy rpg,
"In 2000 the 'Swords & Arrows Role-Playing Game Core Rules’ were completed, as well as a novel-length story set in Trystell, The Aggression of Licad. The edition of the rules and setting survived as the authority on the topic until 2002, when an attempt to make a second edition was started—and even a full campaign ran in the developmental version of the second edition rules—but ultimately the attempt at a second edition was aborted in favor of a full conversion of the Trystell setting to the d20 System.""From there development moved away from the rules that would become Tab-System Classic. A d20 version of Trystell was completed in early 2005, followed by a revised d20 version in late 2006. But the earlier system did not die. It was kept alive, revised and revived in mid-2007.""And here it is: ready to play. This edition of the rules has been made setting neutral at its core, so that it might be used to power the many house settings that have been developed over the years."
Is it generic? RPGGeek and RPGNet list it that way. There's little info available elsewhere.
10. Wordplay (2008)
In Wordplay, you define characters via Traits-- words or phrases. These have a value from 1 to 12 with higher being better. Each trait can be associated with Body, Mind, or Soul. After a starting concept, players set goals for their characters. Players gain or lose dice depending on whether they're working towards their goal or against it. Failing a goal can also cause Doubt, a negative condition. Players may generate their traits in a number of ways. It's a process similar to HeroQuest (see below). You could make a simple list or write a story and pick out elements. Supernatural powers have their own mechanics, but generally operate by the same trait system.
Wordplay characters end up with a lot of traits on their sheets. The sample one has 33 numbered traits, plus Concept, Age, Goals, and a pre-play story. For resolution players roll a number of d6's, looking for X number of successes. That's always determined by an opposed roll-- either from an active opposition's traits or a set difficulty for a passive one. Players build this pool by choosing a "Foundation Trait" which shows the basis of their attempt. If you don't have a trait that quite fits, it increases the difficulty. Then you build on this with other traits: supporting ones from your own set, help from allies, pushes from goals, use of equipment, etc. Flaws and damage can also add dice to the difficulty. Success is 4+ on each d6, with a 6 counting as two successes. Beat the opposition’s roll to win.
The system's heavily narrative and fairly simple. It takes a fully generic approach to Universal gaming. By that I mean there’s no approach to sub-systems. Everything can be handled via this resolution system. It doesn’t require further articulation.
11. HERO System Sixth Edition (2009)
It's another new edition of this classic crunchy system, but one which made major changes. The shift from HERO System 4th to 5th lost a number of players- myself included. Still many found the changes necessary and not overly elaborate. They went with the 5e BBB that could literally stop a bullet. Seriously- look it up.
In 2009, Hero Games again moved the game engine forward, this time with fairly drastic revisions. These aimed at simplification and consistency: attack and defense split from characteristics, elimination of secondary characteristics, improved disads (now called complications), reduced stun multiple for killing attacks, heroic action points, and a host of others. Champions grognards will understand and appreciate the scope of that. HERO remains a chunky system, split into two volumes of 464 pages and 320 pages. Or you could go for the stripped down version which leaves out the bells and whistles at 138 pages.
HERO remains the definition of a "Mathy." My wife could handle the math; it was the level of work and the deep advantage for system mastery that bugged her. This edition produced fewer "niche" rpg settings and sourcebooks (like Lucha Libre Hero or Pulp Hero). Instead we got just the usual suspects: Champions, Fantasy Hero, and Star Hero. The company's output has slowed and we've gotten fewer supplements offering new bolt-ons for the core universal system. More development in recent years has come from third-party publishers.
12. HeroQuest (2009)
Woot! A game I've reviewed before; that makes things easier. HeroQuest 2e is a generic engine for running narrative-centered games, primarily written by Robin Laws. You ought to know going in that HQ2 structures itself in nearly all senses around the way stories are presented. It builds from literary forms and conceits. Laws makes a forthright case for considering the needs of the story as shaping the rules and the play. That can be a turn-off for some players, a point Laws actually addresses in the GM section.
For only a 130 pages, HeroQuest packs in a lot of ideas, material and more importantly tools for building the kind of campaign you want. The introduction begins by setting up the core idea that HQ2 will be starting from: in dealing with challenges and conflicts, the difficulty depends on the story. Or as Laws states it for the GM- "Pick a resistance, then justify it." He compares it to standard games where to calculate the difficulty of an action you analyze the physical factors, determine range, figure wind speed, and come to a target number (or whatever works in the system). This might be a little Straw Man-y these days, but it wasn’t always so.
Any character is defined by the abilities they possess-- there are no stats or other factors (like wounds or willpower). It’s a little like Wordplay. Abilities can be anything-- and options are provided for the GM to set them more or less loosely. Depending on what the GM wants the player might write out a block of description and then pick out from there, make up a list, or even come up with them on the fly. The player then assigns ratings to these abilities.
Players' ability ratings have a number with points to spread around. When an ability hits 21, it shifts and the character gains a “mastery.” Characters roll a d20 against their abilities when presented with a challenge. If one side has more masteries in the relevant ability than the other, they may bump up their result by one level (i.e. failure to success, success to critical success). They can also spend a hero point to bump up results after rolling. The GM compares the results and determines the level of victory for one side or the other (tie, marginal, minor, major, or complete) and narrates the results based on this.
Contests can be simple or extended and everything's done this way. This is important in that you can be "killed" or effectively removed from action on any of these fields of conflict. In a simple contest, the loser fails and also suffers a penalty to their relevant ability. Those consequences can be even more severe in an extended contest. For example if it was an economic one, the loser might expend resources or have their control shaken. Most of the rules elaborate these simple mechanics-- exploring the various permutations (like group simple contests, options for representing support abstractly, parting shots, disengaging).
HeroQuest came out of Laws' original HQ1, based on Glorantha. The book provides details on how to circle this back to that setting. That offers a nice window on how you'd adapt this for fantasy world.
13. MADS Role Playing Game (2009)
Short for Mental-Attack-Defense-Skill aka "...the four types of rolls that form the core mechanics of the MADS character conversion system." MADS offers a different universal approach. Rather than building within the game, you convert characters over to this system. Then they can play together and find a "good way to answer the question "Who really has the toughest character?"". If that's what you've been looking for in a game, then you're in luck. It reminds me a little of the Flailsnails set up, intended to allow various OSR gamers to play together online.
MADS rates characters with eight statistics: Strength, Agility, Endurance, Willpower, Intellect, Mysticism, Charisma, and Perception. Players look at the benchmarks from their original system, assuming they have them, and then make a judgement call. This gives you the final stat. If your original system didn't have ability scores, just roll a d10. Players follow similar procedures to determine how much damage they can take before dying. Then, based on levels or the general sense of competency, they assign an Experience class. This determines how many d6 they may distribute among the four basic tests. Rolls are further modified by values from the eight stats and skills. Skills, special abilities, spells. etc follow the same pattern of rough eyeballing.
It’s an interesting approach, but one that gives a lot of leeway for judgement and discards balance. Some groups will be cool with that. Most tests are rolling pools against another pool or a set difficulty. But there's also a bunch of add-on smaller mechanics which can complicate this (like Extra Damage Capacity). In other places, the game forgoes complexity—for example it says the GM should come up with a critical hit or miss system if they want to use one.
MADS has had several supplements and a revised version in 2011.
14. No Dice (2009)
As you might guess, this rpg gets rid of the dice. It replaces them, for the most part, with cards. Is that a cop-out, trading one randomizer for another? The designer says,
"Let us just tell you, we love it when people come to play a sample game with us and say: "Well we wanted a different kind of RPG and when we saw yours was called 'No Dice' we just felt we had to try it!"
Yeah, that's good.The slight disappointment that tends to follow when we hand out packs of cards we're less keen on..."
As someone who has been playing a card-driven rpg for a little shy of two decades, I feel for them. Cards offer interesting options- hand management (DragonStorm), additional information (Wrath of the Autarch), suit trumps (Saga Machine), strategic push-your-luck (Action Cards).
No Dice opens with a confession/plea/argument I've seen other rpgs. It wants role-playing to be about Story. Other games didn't provide that so the designers created this one, a game which tries to get the mechanics out of the way. How much of that kind of call is a marketing pitch and how much is the designers' sincere experience with other rpgs? It's odd that a game this recent still has to make these kinds of arguments. No Dice echoes them throughout; it creates an odd tone. The first 60 pages are just meta-discussions about rpg play.
Resolution takes two forms in No Dice's "Vanilla System." A 50/50 chance split or a task number. Players draw a card and compare that value to the task difficulty. Characters are made up of whatever stats and scores the group wants. Short version: make up everything. It’s all written as optional. I'm in favor of freedom, but it makes it difficult to track what we're supposed to take away. I've heard people call Story Games loosey-goosey (and worse). This may be the kind of thing they're talking about.
About half the book's taken up with various scenarios. Here's where we actually get some mechanics. These showcase different combinations and approaches based on the setting. It's weird. All the rest of the book could have probably been cut down to just a few pages by removing the philosophy and explanation of role-play. When you actually get to the scenarios, you get everything you need. It's more a collection of variant systems, each using cards. Those have some interesting ideas, but they're buried in this 250 page book.
You can see the publisher's website here, though it hasn't been updated since 2012. They clearly had some supporting projects in the works. If you're interested you can download a free copy of the core book from there.