Friday, April 25, 2008

My Case Against Generic Systems

As I type this, I'm sitting in my home office next to my gaming bookshelf. I have discovered that I've literally run out of available space for my ever-growing collection of games, and my wish list remains mostly unpurchased (I did get Savage World of Solomon Kane recently, a topic for another column). Still, SWoSK comes in as the 42nd RPG system on my shelves at the moment. Of these systems, I'd only call five of them true "generic" systems - built to supposedly handle "any genre" sorts of systems. One of these is GURPS, of course. Another is Greg Porter's CORPS, a game that I'm rather ho-hum about - it's not a bad design, but it smacks of a little too much...hrm...not sure if "pretension" is the word I'm looking for. Ego perhaps? There's something in the way this game was done that just sticks in my craw. Another is called Infinite Domains, and I'm sure this thing died a sad, quiet death (found a harmless little Hungarian gaming website that gives a decent description of this game). The others are a handful of half-decent generics I found online that looked worthy of printing out - The XPress Core System and The Open Core Quick rules set. I've got a few others kicking around on my hard drives that I haven't had a chance to look at, but that's at least a sampling of what I have.

Along with those, I've got a good handful of "generic but genre-d" systems, such as RoleMaster, Chivalry & Sorcery, HARP, the Palladium RPG, Castles & Crusades, Hackmaster, Multiple editions of A/D&D, and on top of all this, at least half a dozen indie "generic fantasy" RPG systems - what Ron Edwards would label over at The Forge as "Fantasy Heartbreakers".

There's nothing inherently wrong with generic systems. They, like all RPG rules-sets, are tools to achieve two primary goals - Character Creation and Task Resolution. Most every RPG, when you boil it down, is pretty much just those two things - how to make PCs, and how to challenge them and find out if and how they succeed or fail those challenges. A lot of people would in fact argue that such is all you really need. I can't completely disagree with that, but in the end, there's always more to it under the surface. Yes, you need a way to make characters and rules for challenging them, but this right here doesn't make a game - it just gives you formulas and probabilities and statistics - it's all the math, and none of the...soul?

This is my first problem with generic systems. Contrary to popular belief, no one "plays D&D" or "plays GURPS". Rather, you play in worlds arbitrated using the rules of D&D or GURPS. Now, this is not the most major of the problems I have because lets face it, if you're into gaming, you probably have a laundry list of campaign world premises and genres and time periods you'd love to game in as long as your arm. Coming up with settings is the least of your problems, so the fact that there is no "D&D Setting" or "GURPS Setting" is not an issue.

Of course, both of these systems do in fact have their own (multiple) settings. It only makes sense. But it points to the first of the reasons why non-generic systems (or at least game products - they can use generic systems in them, like Savage Worlds etc.) have an edge in my book - people need a setting to populate their characters, and believe it or not, making a campaign setting takes a bit of practice and a lot of work. Getting someone else to do the work for you is often worth the $$$ you pay out for a non-generic RPG product. I mean, I could sit down and build the Star Wars universe into a RPG from the ground up using GURPS or CORPS...or I could just take down WEG's Star Wars RPG from the shelf and have at it. I do months of research into world history and technology circa 1600 AD (not a terrible task - pretty cool stuff really), or I could break out Savage World of Solomon Kane.

Tied into all this is my second, and bigger, problem with generic systems - they are either too massive and detailed for the task at hand, or too simple and require a great deal of added rules material supplied by the GM for their specific game. One of the most common problems people have with games like D&D or GURPS is that there are so many books and rules out there that half your work is determining what material you're not using for any particular campaign. I remember back in the days of AD&D 2E when the handbooks and supplements were coming out and suddenly all the players were trying to get Elven Bladesingers into their games, and man, that was back in, like, the mid-90's! I look at the absolutely staggering amount of material out there for D&D 3E and it blows my mind. I mean yeah, you can always stick to the "basic books" of any generic RPG, but come on...we're gamers. How long does it take before you pick up "just one of these supplements, cuz it looks kinda cool...and stuff...", and before you know it, you've got two dozen supplements sitting on your shelf that have upped the character and equipment options for your generic system by an order of magnitude.

And that's at the macro-RPG end. What about the lean little indie systems? The "generic lite systems"? I don't necessarily mind lightweight systems - I have a terrible time keeping overly-complex systems straight in my head as a GM - but for any but the most boilerplate-standard camapign setting types (generic pseudo-medieval fantasy, generic modern,
generic near-future sci-fi...), you're probably going to have to write your own material for almost everything. This will be an especially big pain if you need a magic system and the "generic lite system" either doesn't have one, or the one it has it completely unsuited to the game you want to run. And what if you need other special rules for running the campaign? What about immortality and sixth-sense rules for a Highlander-like campaign? What about rules for vampirism and lycanthropy for a modern monster/horror game? What about rules for psychic powers and space combat for a Space Opera-esque sci-fi game?

I know I'm being picky about all this, but for me, generic systems are more and more a case of Goldilocks and the Porridge. This system is too hot (Information Overload). This system is too cold (Skeletal Ultra-Light Rules Set). Where is the porridge that's just right?

Not every tailor-made RPG & its attendant system are successful. I've got the FASA Star Trek RPG (2nd Edition). As a summation of the ST universe in gaming terms, it's not bad. As a RPG, I think it's almost unplayable. I see Top Secret and The Morrow Project RPG in a similar light - great ideas, lousy games. Ron Edwards' Sorcerer RPG is a pretty interesting exercise in non-standard game design, but I can't imagine actually playing it as anything but a curiosity (I think Edwards has some really good ideas and a lot of talent - his Sorcerer & Sword supplement is one of the best treatises on S&S gaming I've ever read - but he is waaaay too arrogant and egotistical in my book to be taken seriously. I mean, really's a role playing game, not a theory on the creation of the universe).

But, I do think a lot of tailor-made games, or games "powered by" carefully sectioned-down generic systems, are wonderful products. The Solomon Kane RPG I keep mentioning is one good example, as is WEG's Star Wars. Most of Dream Pod 9's game are very well done, and I think Millennium's End, although not amazing mechanically, is one of the best "technothriller" games ever written. Call of Cthluhu is a freakin' masterpiece, and Feng Shui for me is a textbook on fast-and-loose pulpy gameplay. I'd much rather run a Mythic Greek campaign using Mazes & Minotaurs over D&D any day, and while TSR's Conan RPG and the D20 version put out by Mongoose both have problems, each has its merits (although Mongoose makes me angry - essentially three editions of the game in five years, at those prices and production values? No effing thanks...). White Wolf's behemoth of a system/world/metagame/whatever you can love or hate, but it definitely revolutionized gaming in the mid-90's. And even the two old rivals, D&D and GURPS, have good examples - Dark Sun is probably the most radical of the D&D worlds, turning most of the old D&D-isms on their ears and presenting things in a new and very specialized way. GURPS has their Traveller line, the WW 2 series, and Prime Directive, systems and campaigns ready to go "as is".

One thing I have noticed as I've grown up is that my time is at a premium. No longer do I have the energy and enthusiasm for sitting down and de-constructing/re-constructing systems to fit my every need. I have become an endothermic GM, requiring the energy needed to run games to come from outside of me - friends asking me to run something for them, or finding a really cool game to use, or a movie/show/book so awesome it drives me to run with it. My time and energy need efficiency in order to warrant being used up by gaming, and ready-to-go games, for me, provide the best ratio of effort to effect.

In the end, if something works for you, run with it. The above argument is just how I feel about generics, but hey, I've been playing D&D for 15 years, and GURPS is my second-biggest pile of gaming matierals, and some day I might actually get around to GMing it. If it happens, I'll let you know.

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