Friday, July 13, 2018

History of Universal RPGs (Part Nine: 2016-2017)

So I’ve finally finished these Universal RPG lists. It’s been hard, harder than I imagined when I first started work on them. I’ve seen novel approaches executed with grace. I’ve seen striking concepts completely undercut by text design. I’ve seen character sheets burning off the shoulder of Orion…

Or something like that.

I’ve said before, but Universal Systems present the greatest challenge to a designer. Sure you can come up with an interesting resolution system, but how do you build that up? How do you make that compelling to players? You don’t have the hook of genre and setting. I’ll buy games for system I’m probably not going to run if the setting or premise grabs me. My overladen shelves bear stark witness to that. My group’s given up on Gumshoe, but I’ve bought every single game for that system. They have exciting worlds.

So when you’re pitching a Universal system, you have to do it ten times better than a genre game does. But you also have to avoid bullshit and hyperbole. Gamers have a keen sense for that; you have a keen sense for that. You’re competing with every system someone has ever played. If you dismiss those completely and proclaim your brilliance, you’re going to turn buyers off. So what do you do?

Figure out what your game does well. Tell us what it puts emphasis on. Point us to the new mechanics or combinations of mechanics you’re bringing to the table. Get your playtesters’ impressions about what works for them. See what they find novel. And then tell us that clearly in your blurbs, jacket copy, and online pitch. Sell us on what you do—not what you’re reacting to.

I only include core books here. I’m also only listing books with a physical edition. I include electronic releases 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 2016-2017, leave a note in the comments.

Universal Systems can be dry. Designers face that challenge in different ways. Some use clever text design, some examples, some art, some quick-hit summaries. EVERYVERSE RPG (yes, capitalized in the text) avoids these solutions. The first illustration comes on page 11 and it’s a Gaussian distribution curve. There's little page formatting besides the most basic two-column layout. The game describes itself as layered. You can just go with one stat or you can build up layers of complexity. And that gets complex pretty quickly. For example, you have five distinct methods of character creation.

EVERYVERSE wants to be a toolkit, but it keeps rolling in more stuff and doesn't break out the options well. Basic concepts aren't laid out clearly, but fringe bits get major attention. The flexible approach feels hand-wavy in many places, without discussion of the implications or how you might fit everything together. It's like a movie of scenes, but there's no through story. The company has released one supplement, Paranormality, which adds additional options for strange powers.

2. Kridzyt (2016)
A self-published game done through Amazon (it has CreateSpace and Kindle editions). Kridzyt has a point-buy system and uses d10 for resolution against a task number. That d10 explodes on a 10. The core book has basic resolution mechanics, some powers elements, and in the words of one reviewer "weirdly specific setting material." While it has striking cover art, the interior looks like a Word doc.

All that being said, I'm glad people are still exploring and designing small games to suit how they play. The reviews for Kridzyt put me in an old quandary: what reviews do I trust? In this case, the assessments split 50/50 between one and five stars. Are the five star reviews just associates of the designer? That's my usual guess. But in recent months I've heard and seen gamers hate-rating products. That complicates my reading.

3. ReadWriteRoll (2016)
Designer Berin Kinsman has written many books weaving together story writing, literary approaches, and roleplaying games. He's also created setting specific games (Kaiju Patrol) and supplements for rpgs, including Pathfinder. ReadWriteRoll is a guidebook which includes a stand-alone generic rpg, but has a wealth of material on storytelling and campaign creation. The book’s broken into three sections. “Outline Your Story,” talks about campaigns types, game prep, and building acts for your plot. “Create Characters,” covers both the narrative and mechanical elements of characters (motivations, aptitudes, experiences, resources, wonders). “Tell Your Story” has the actual play mechanics.

ReadWriteRoll uses a d20 plus modifiers. A high result indicates success; a low result indicates failure. But the wrinkle comes in who gets to narrate those results. An even total gives the player control; odd means the GM (or opponent) gets to say. There's additional mechanics allowing players to add an extra die, with larger die types offering greater rewards but also significant risks.

ReadWriteRoll has some ideas and if you're a fan of Kinsman's other work on story and game, it might be up your alley. In 2017 Kinsman released the Lighthouse Roleplaying System. This seems to be a refinement of the RWR game, but with a tightened presentation and sample character templates.

4. Revolution D100 (2016)
Ah, the noble percentile. Die of choice for those who love both granularity and a smooth results curve. I spent years in the trenches with this combination polyhedral, from Call of Cthulhu to Rolemaster to Runequest. Revolution d100 follows in the footsteps of Basic Roleplaying. The makes sense for publisher, Alephtar. For many years they offered some of the best and most interesting third party BRP products: The Celestial Empire, Merrie England, Dragon Lines, and Rome: Life and Death of a Republic. They worked with both standard BRP and Mongoose's flavor of it. However they seem to have dropped those titles. On Drivethru most have vanished, with only an R100 adaptation of Merrie England appearing. Perhaps we'll eventually see other products converted.

BRP has always had crunch. Even the most slimmed down versions have kept lots of like bits and calculations. It's appealing-- an easy roll-under core mechanic with room for lots of bells and whistles. A few years ago I tried Mongoose's version of BRP and found it crazy complicated and specific. The level of depth and choices meant that you had to seriously invest in an area to have a reasonable chance to do an action. Like parry a blow.

Revolution 100 follows that track. You can check out the SRD here. The rules have plenty of options, advanced rules for combat, modules for flexibly handling powers, but that comes at a cost of density. If that's your bag, then this might be the game for you.

5. ScreenPlay (2016)
I earlier listed Primetime Adventures as universal adjacent. So why does that fit there and Screenplay fit here? Both use the concept of real world dramatics to frame their games. But Primetime Adventures leans into that, bringing the meta into the gameplay. You run characters in a TV series, with trappings of the form as playable elements (like fan mail and such). So those stories, though open, are still a TV series. But Screenplay takes the techniques of drama and screenwriting makes them a rules framework. It's collaborative play with Writers (players) and the Director (GM) building the story together.

In Screenplay each writer creates a lead character. They can also create supporting characters as needed. Characters have a role as defined by the setting and genre. For example in the Ironsworn Quickstart, a fantasy setting, we have five roles: Commander, Blade, Scout, Shieldbearer, and Arcanist. Characters have motivations and hindrances. The former acts as a reward source and the later can be used by The Director to up the challenge. Screenplay shifts the normal success/fail paradigm, "There is no failure. There is no success. There are only complications, efforts made by other characters (or the Director) to make future descriptions harder, restricted, or bring a character’s impact in the story to an end." That's combined with a dice-step system for tests.

Screenplay has lots of interesting ideas. I recommend checking out the Ironsworn PWYW QS version available on Drivethru. It's really well done and offers a ton of material for a simple introductory kit. I should note that the designer, Todd Crapper, has another free product (not part of Screenplay) up for an ENnie as of the writing of this piece: High Plains Samurai.

6. Unbound (2016)
I love when Universal RPG writers acknowledge the glut of Universal RPGs. Take this bit from the Kickstarter for Unbound, "ANYWAY the game we have written is called UNBOUND and it is STELLAR. Here’s why: it’s a UNIVERSAL GAME, and before you say “oh Grant, we don’t need another universal game,” let me say NO, YOU DON’T, you need THIS ONE. It can run ANYTHING so long as it’s got FIGHTS in it, and ALL the best stories have fights in them so THERE."

OK then.

Unbound comes out of a successful Kickstarter by Grant Howitt and Chris Taylor. They would go on to write The Spire, an urban fantasy-rpg with a highly successful KS. It notably doesn't use the Unbound rules as a base. Unbound looks sharp-- with a striking cover and good text design. Though I don't dig color/textured backgrounds, the page frames don't crowd the text.

The game uses card-based resolution. Each player has a deck. Players draw and compare against the GM’s draw, with traits modifying ratings. Suit can also impact the final result. I dig it because it doesn't seem to use hand management, but instead the deck acts like a die, with some potential card-counting. The system also uses cards to mark stress, a nice tweak that changes things up. Unbound focuses on collaborative story building and scene setting. It's a recent Universal worth checking out if you like interesting randomizers combined with indie play.

I picked up Forthright for a couple of reasons. First, it has a striking and colorful front cover; don't underestimate how shiny things draw attention. Second, and more importantly, the writing team includes Sarah Perry-Shipp. She's one of the people I follow on G+ and she always shares interesting articles, ideas, and images. There's a small group of G+ Users that constantly make Sherri and I say to each other, "Hey, did you see..."

A bit from Forthright's introduction struck me, that the game's "about shaping and being shaped by civilization in a fictional world." That's a cool way to look at things and one that (I hope) reflects my own GMing philosophy. It echoes the openness Forthright’s approach. It definitely aims to be a story game accessible to new players. The tone, structure, and established expectations show this.

A campaign begins with building a Game Charter to set expectations. This includes discussing what's out of bounds, what players want to see, the emphasis on different kinds of challenges, and any house rules applied. It's a strong collaborative approach. That feeling runs throughout the rules. For example we have a "retrospective" phase at the end of session. We've seen mechnaical EoS moves in PbtA games. But Forthright tries to codify a Roses & Thorns approach without being judgmental or moving to workshopping.

For an open story game, Forthright has a lot of options you set for your character: Principles, Stats, Fighting Stances, Persona, Skillset, Boosts, Relationships, and Sanctuary. The game handles all of these fairly simply-- we have areas to pick from, but we don't descend into granularity. Actual resolution uses a d20 with four possible results. On a Setback (1-7) the action fails and additional problems occur. An Exchange (8-13) gives the player a mixed success or success with complication. A Win (14-20) is solid success and a Boon (21+) grants extra effect to the win. Both players and the Guide have tools to affect this.

If you're looking for a flexible, story-driven rpg to introduce new players and draw them into creating the world, I'd recommend this one. As of this writing Forthright’s up for a 2017 ENnie.

8. Genesys (2017)
I have gone on record as not liking stupid dice tricks. It's among the most curmudgeonly of my many curmudgeon traits. I know people love the multiplicity of DCC dice, but it’s not my bag. I kind of hated Fireborn and Weapons of the Gods solely for having to sort and move my dice around on the table. Modiphius' 2d20 system bugs me for its unique damage dice. And I once got Fred Hicks to challenge me in my mentions for my impression of Don’t Rest Your Head’s mechanics. Mind you I'm a hypocrite on this. I love Mutant: Year Zero despite the unique dice representing different elements. But at least those you can easily dub over with standard d6s.

Anyway that's on the table as I look at Genesys.

This system from FFG repurposes the system used for their now-defunct Warhammer Fantasy RPG and more importantly Star Wars. The big hook here is unique dice with different colors and symbols. These give standard resolution results, but add in markers for bonuses, complications, and other details. The different dice have distinct roles, sizes, and results. I played SW: Edge of the Empire once, using an online roller specifically built for it. From a design perspective, I appreciated the design space this opened up. It lent itself to interesting permutations and results. From a play perspective I did not dig it. It felt confusing and gamey to me. It felt like a fad that wouldn't take off.

(cut to years and multiple supplements later)

So I was more than a little wrong. Anyway, Genesys uses the SW mechanics but with different symbols on the various dice. There's an app for rolling, but you'll need to buy new sets or do a double mechanical translation in your head of the symbols. Star Wars had distinct career paths with build trees. Genesys opens that up more, but still gives players an archetype path. You spend build points on attributes, skills, and talents. Overall it feels like middle-weight generic system with a complicated dice mechanic at its heart.

One of the nice things about games major publishers-- lots of reviews. If you're curious about how Genesys actually performs you can check out Gaming Trend, Sticky Bunton, and Nerds on Earth. The overall feeling is that while it has cool ideas, the end product’s underbaked. It lacks details in key places and doesn't offer tools for a full range of genres. The only supplement we've seen so far for the system is Realms of Terrinoth, an adaptation of the Runebound board game setting. Hopefully we'll see more.

As a side note, FFG is working on a new Legends of the Five Rings rpg. They're using the "Narrative Dice System" for that. But at least in the beta documents, it wasn’t a Genesys sourcebook. Instead it’s a stand-alone rpg, with yet another set of unique and incompatible dice. I haven't seen the most recent iteration, but it seems an odd way to support a generic, house system.

9. High Stakes (2017)
I was more than a little surprised when I saw Andrea Sfiligoi's name on this. Sfiligoi's an Italian designer who has made a little industry out of his simple Song of Blades and Heroes miniatures games. He's adapted that to many genres including three for Osprey's line of miniature rules (A Fistful of Kung Fu, Of Gods and Mortals, Rogue Stars). I actually just received an Kickstarter update for the game adapting those mechanics to spaceship combat. OOH Sfiligoi's worked in rpgs before with Familiars and his Tales of Blades and Heroes series.

High Stakes offers a basic narrative system. PCs have attributes (Body, Mind, Aura), 5 traits (skills, talents, etc), and 3 relationships. To make a check players roll d6 equal to their attribute, but they can increase that pool by adding descriptors and relationships (ala Lady Blackbird or Cortex). The GM sets the difficulty and consequences before a test. Difficulty is the number of 3+ results a PC must rolls. But there's an interesting twists-- one worth stealing for other games. Players can ask for extra dice by Raising the Stakes. They accept a worse outcome for failure if they do. It's not the raise/counter of Dogs in the Vineyard or the extra cost of the Devil's Bargain in Blades in the Dark. But it’s a cool and easily applied push-your-luck mechanic.

The game has a few other details-- 1's rolled add complications, 6s can explode. But overall it’s fairly straightforward. The High Stakes free beta has no illustrations, but it does present a lot of general rpg advice and discussion. If you trimmed that down you'd have a super tight product.

10. MONAD System (2017)
An Italian RPG. Their website suggests they're working on an English translation. They have an interesting pitch line, selling the game as focused on "interpretation, narration, and resource management."

Actually their list of reasons to give it a go is worth looking at. I'm torn about it. On the one hand it feels too vague; on the other it does make me genuinely curious about the game.
  • Deep mechanics, yet easy to explain: core mechanics can be explained to players within minutes, but the system offers depth for more demanding players.
  • The system encourages roleplay linking advancements to the character's objectives, ties, convictions, and stances.
  • Combat is deadly, cinematic and brutal: not a formality, but a calculated risk.
  • Choices and strategy matter and wise resource management is key. Knowing when to risk and when to play it safe is part of the game.
  • Tests can be overcome in three different and complementary ways: being the character, managing resources or rolling dice.
  • Encourages co-creation: a deep Backgrounds system allows the creation of history-rich characters with immediate impact on the story. REM Cards also offer players the opportunity to surprise the GM and rewrite some parts of the story outside of the general narrative.
  • Roles are flexible: everybody can learn to do everything, with some practical restrictions based on archetypes, story, and setting.
  • A betting system keeps players on their toes while they watch the most crucial events unfold. 

From what I can glean, the system has a basic skill vs. task difficulty resolution. If the player’s skill is sufficient, they don't have to roll. If not they can roll, spend resources to gain successes, or mix the two. The game also uses cards in several ways-- for resolution, character story elements, and narrative hooks. The combat seems to be old-school granular but with high lethality. Overall it looks neat and I'll definitely check it out when the English version arrives. Also they have an interesting setting for this in the works, Nostalgia: The Nomad Fleet. That's described as nihilistic science-fiction, which isn't usually my bag, but the art’s striking.

11. Pip System (2017)
Eloy Lasanta doesn't get enough attention or credit in the industry. He's designed or worked on a ton of interesting projects, including AMP, Part-Time Gods, Apocalypse Prevention, Inc., Camp Myth, Mermaid Adventures, Wu Xing the Ninja Crusade, Infestation, and one of my personal creepy favs-- KidWorld. Lasanta always strikes off in his own direction with his systems. They're lighter than things like d20 or Storyteller but still have a good deal of crunch and plenty of options. He falls in same basket that I put 13th Age and Star Trek Adventures-- trindie, trad-indel, or whatever you want to call it.

The Pip System builds on some of Lasanta's earlier concepts, pulling the system out to make it more accessible and multi-purposed. Pip uses d6s in two colors to resolve actions. A character rolls white d6s based on skills and favorable circumstances. They also roll black dice based on the obstacles to their actions. Each die which rolls 4+ counts as a success. Whichever side rolls more successes wins the roll. Ties become a success with a cost. Characters have an archetype, a few mechanical stats, skills, special abilities, hindrances, advanced qualities, and gear. It has granularity but doesn't get in the way of the play.

Lasanta pitched his successful Kickstarter for Pip as a "family-style" rpg. I think that's a good description. It has the joy of rolling bunches of dice combined with the ability to quickly read and resolve those interactions. The core book has several genre kits, including modern, fantasy, sci-fi, and "spooky." If you're looking for an entry-level universal rpg that will be well supported in the future, consider this one.

12. Solipstry (2017)
A universal rpg built on ideas drawn from D&D 3.5 and 4e. Solipstry shows its d20 roots but looks cleaner than many earlier d20 adaptations. That being said, the character sheet’s three pages long: P1-- stats, skills, HP, etc; P2-- abilities, equipment, talents, “enlightenment truths”; and P3-- more talents and skill perks. They’ve clearly integrated those editions and then built that up with other elements they dug. “Soon we had Power Words, a Luck system, and Blocking. Enlightenment brought buffs, both personal and party-based that allow for even more versatility, in and outside of combat.”

While this might not be my bag I appreciate the feeling of a game which the designers have crafted to match what they want at the table. I’ve read a bunch of these “why we did it” introductions in my hunt for Universal rpgs. Some designers speak of their creations as sui generis, sounding like they’ve invented the idea of role-playing. Some spend inordinate time crapping on other games to show how their ideas are superior. But I appreciate when designers acknowledge the past and talk about how they’ve built on that. Don’t underestimate being positive.

There’s a free 20-page introductory pdf for Solipstry available. It does a nice job of selling their fairly crunchy system, though the text design is super packed. You can also check out their cleanly designed website here.

These rpgs can be used for a variety of genres, but have a meta-framework or a tell particular styles of stories.
  • Conspire: Players take the roles of conspirators meeting to negotiate and shape the world. Has an interesting hidden-role mechanic. Players create roles for each other and then distribute them. Everyone reveals their goals at the end of the session to assess how they did.
  • Follow: Written by Ben Robbins, designer of two of my other favorite universal-adjacent rpgs Microscope and Kingdom. Follow’s a GMless, single-session game for telling the tale of a journey (race for a cure, a quest, hunt for treasure). A great, light game.
  • Karma: A Game About Consequences: A GMless rpg that borrows Fiasco's aesthetic. While its presents itself as generic, it has a structural hook: single session play leading to a final showdown conflict. The core rules include several thematic modules that feel like playsets
  • Tales of Entropy: A Game of Conflict and Consequences: Offers an adaptable system for stories where the players begin pitted against each other from the start. Rather than being free-form, a game's built on a pre-written scenario. Players build characters with a simple trait descriptive system. The company has an extensive library of scenarios available online. They're worth checking out.
  • 3Deep Core Rules: Uses a simple 2d6 mechanic and focuses on episodic play.
  • ALONe: A Solo Game Engine: Connected to a genre neutral card accessory called The Gamemaster’s Apprentice. ALONe allows players to generate characters and then solo play through stories spun out by that deck.
  • BURPS: Bez's Universal Role Playing System: I love the weird summary on RPGGeek. First it quotes from the introduction, “…has been designed as a reaction to the many systems out there where high-level, competent characters routinely do things flat-out impossible for ordinary people. Anyone can get lucky, and anyone can be unlucky when under pressure.” Then there’s a single sentence user summary, “The combat sequence is surprisingly complicated.”
  • Crazy 8s Core Rules Second Edition: I’m always excited when I find a new term for the GM, in this case “Talespinner.” Uses, as you might guess, 2d8s for resolution.
  • Drudge! Core Rule Book: There’s a lot of “It’s X but you can Not X” in the game’s self-description. I also appreciate that it’s “Six-sided dice based, for ease of transport and use.”
  • Hands of Destiny: Card-driven, as you might guess. Has hand-management as a key element of play. Cover has striking pixel art.
  • Phase Abandon (3rd Edition): This GM-less, narrative game has a wild cover, but one that makes me unsure what it’s selling. Narrative control shifts in this game with resource bidding to control that power.
  • SystemMech: “Chance-free tabletop roleplaying.” Straddles the line between rpg and a skirmish-scale tabletop miniatures system. The rules refer to it both ways. Very, very old-school miniatures-y despite being diceless.
  • StoryCube: The Roleplaying Game: A fan-created rpg using the eponymous dice. When Rory's moved to do their own board game-rpg hybrid they asked Creepy Assassin to remove their project.