Generic RPGs: Do we really need those?

Yes, the caption is meant to be controversial. If it works for big media, why not for me? Smiley mit geöffnetem Mund But in all seriousness, what is the big deal with generic rules systems like GURPS, Fate, and others?

A friend of mine came up with the question earlier today. He’s no fan of generic system. He prefers the “one book – one system” model. If he wants to play Star Wars, he picks the Star Wars RPG from the shelf. If he wants fantasy, he picks up D&D. And if you think about it, this is something you don’t see that often in other types of games. There is no generic strategy boardgame ruleset which comes with various expansion for different settings or genres. You don’t see this with video games either.

If we look at the history of RPGs we notice that the first modern RPG, Dungeons & Dragons (1974), was basically generic. It was meant for fantasy, yes, but there was no setting. The game assumed that the GM came up with his own stuff. Nowadays D&D is more than just the rules. Settings like the Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk are part of what we call “D&D” today. But things have been vastly different a few decades ago.

While it didn’t take long for RPGs written with a setting in mind were released, but generic RPGs still were very popular. In my opinion the main reason is that GMs still love to create their own worlds. And this is much easier if the rule system you use doesn’t shoehorn you into a certain genre or setting.

The other advantage of generic systems is that you can stick to one system while exploring all kinds of different settings and genres. Most players (and GMs) don’t like learning new rules. And the older we get the harder it gets to pick up new rules quickly. So a lot of us try to find a system they are comfortable with and then run everything from fantasy to horror and sci-fi with it. I guess this explains why games like Fate, GURPS, Savage Worlds and other are so popular.

In my opinion there are good reasons for using a generic RPG system – especially if you the kind of person who loves creating your own worlds and campaigns. And as long as there are people like me, there will be a market for this kind of game. The “one game – one setting” model also has its advantages. Several of my favorite games follow that model. I always love the 1st edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay because the core rulebook was everything you needed to play for years. Everything else was just icing on the cake. But if I want to quickly get a game in any genre up and running I’d probably pick something generic like Fate Core especially if I want to use a setting from other media.

So, what is your take on the subject? Do you love generic RPGs as I do, or do you hate them? Is the “one book – one system” model preferable? Please share your thoughts below. As always every comment is highly appreciated!

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

8 thoughts on “Generic RPGs: Do we really need those?”

  1. Oh. I see the argument for generic. And I have a few. But is it changing the landscape of book we buy and own.
    I love my shelf to have different books, game system and settings, but is it going down the road of one company one system multi settings.
    No sure I want that.
    ie. Hmmm today I shall run sifi horror, let’s use the fate system.
    Next month let’s play secret agents in a communist state. Let’s use the fate system .
    see. I want the book to emulate what I want not what I want to emulate the book.

  2. I’m on the “One Book-One System” side. BUT… FATE.

    As commercial strategy, One System-Different Settings looks like a better way to reach more players. ¿Do you like post-apocalyptic medieval Mad-Max-Stile genre? Welcome to Dark Sun! ¿Fan of gothic horror with all tropes of a Hammer’s film? Ravenloft is for you! No matter what the players want, they can find their game within D&D. And you can convince other players to try your game easily, as the core rules are the same. ¡Let’s set aside Eberron tonight and play this really good adventure for Planescape I’ve just write!

    FATE do the same to me: One set of rules, a lot of crunchy bits to thinker with and adjust the system to emulate different worlds. And it works, as long as you play high-octane adventure games full of action.

    GUMSHOE system was a blast: a system tailored to investigation. And it works sooooooooooo good that it becomes in THE investigative genre system to me almost instantly. Ashen Stars, Trail of Cthulhu, Mutant City Blues, you name it.

    And then I found the infamous Call of Cthulhu d20. Man, what a mess… I tried to make it work, but it feels like trying to dress a horse with a scuba suit. d20 just doesn’t fit the genre. And that’s the key: GENRE.

    So now my conclusion is One System-One Genre. Yes, there are games with a very specific, laser-focused rules to emulate a particular experience, and I love them, but this kind of design only works for and how it was designed, to play the way it was designed, and offers a very narrow space to move your own games. That’s not bad per se, but is true that we, the RPG community, tends towards the creative ones who wants to port our favorite video game / novel / film from their native media to our tables. And the generic rules can help us, as long as we understand the genre we want to emulate.

    Genre is like food. Some time I want icecream, some times I want burritos, sometimes I want pizza. Having a lot of flavors and ingredients to choose is great, but you have to understand the pros and cons of each one, and why they work. Of course, you can have a burrito pizza, and maybe it works for you and your players. Genre determines the system, and some systems are designed with a genre in mind. If the genre is investigative-procedural heavyly focused in deduction and mistery, is GUMSHOE. If I want to play a tactical miniature combat simulation, kill-the-monsters-take-their-stuff, D&D is my jam. ¿High adventure I-don’t-know-how-long-my-steam-powered-crosbow-can-shoot-and-I-don’t-care? FATE is for you.

    1. I really agree with the One System – One Genre idea you put across here. For me, mechanics should really generate the emotion you are looking to simulate through the story.

      I’m currently running:
      > GUMSHOE for Cthulhu investigation
      > a brutal rules-light system of my own devising for a science-fantasy game

      I’m also looking to the emotional expectations when designing rulesets for games too.

  3. In my experience, GURPS doesn’t do a very good job of being something other than GURPS. What I mean is, remember when there were some World of Darkness supplements for GURPS? Vampire, Mage, and I think Werewolf all had GURPS versions. And while they had some interesting flavor variations for GURPS, they didn’t really duplicate the WOD in a way that still felt like the WOD (in my opinion, and in the opinions of almost every gamer who has expressed their opinion about it to me, so far).

    A specialized system, if well written, will hit its genre and/or setting more specifically and accurately than a generic system. But specialized systems will have issues when you try to shoe-horn genre and/or setting mashups into them, if you stretch past their specialized limits.

    It’s a true-ism. GURPS is great for certain styles of game. It works well if you don’t mind your game feeling like GURPS … but if you want something more epic, or something with more depth into the genre you’re playing, it’s going fall short. If you took GURPS Cyberpunk and GURPs Fantasy (and/or GURPS Magic), I know you could come up with a near-future techno-fantasy that had a lot of the same trappings as Shadowrun. But it wouldn’t _feel_ like Shadowrun, as you play it.

    And that’s true across the board. d20 games always feel like d20 games. I am willing to bet that Cypher system games will always feel like Cypher system games (which isn’t an problem, it just is what it is).

    So, you have to start with a few questions:

    a) does system X do things the way you want? (I don’t like spell slots based magic, for example)

    b) do you plan to run your vast bulk of your campaign within the sweet spot of system X’s design? (whether that’s a particular genre, or setting, or game-style, or whatever)

    c) is system X a system your game group knows, or is comfortable learning? (I once ran in a group that didn’t really want to do much with Fudge, nor with using HERO for non-supers games, for example … so even if I had a version of Fudge that did things the way I wanted, and was ready to go for my setting/campaign, it wouldn’t matter … they didn’t want to play it)

    d) how much work do I have to do, in order to put together the boiler plate for starting the game? (this one almost always rules HERO out, for anything … and also why I tend to not use d6 for many things … one of the nice things about FATE is, you generally don’t have to do any system level things in order to play)

    IMO, those are all things you need to know before you decide to use system X, and they matter whether you’re talking about a generic system or a tailored system.

    For me, generic systems work best when:
    1) there isn’t a successful specialized/tailored system for the campaign/setting you want to run (ie. (b) above), and/or
    2) the generic system in question does things the way you want (ie. (a) above), but the specialized/tailored system doesn’t.

    and, of course, (c) is always the over-ruling factor … for me, that means if the campaign/setting I want to run doesn’t fit with the set of systems that the players are willing to play, then I don’t run that campaign/setting :-}

    I’m not going to drive myself crazy trying to run Star Wars using the Mage:TheAscension rules (I honestly tried to put that together once… nice in theory, but I always felt like some things were missing once I tried to put it into practice, and that nagging feeling kept me from ever actually running the game). Nor am I going to let GURPS failing at the epic not-very-realistic edges of things be the system I use for running Star Wars. And, really, I probably wont use d20 for Star Wars either, because that never really felt right to me, either. I’ll probably pick WEG’s d6 or the FFG systems for it.

    WEG’s d6 system is, technically, generic now … but, I didn’t really feel like it stretched well into D&D-ish Fantasy, so it probably wouldn’t pick it for running that kind of Fantasy game, either. It wouldn’t have the right feel, to me. And how much work would I have to do to put all of the D&D-ish tropes together for it, anyway?

    It’s 4:30am here (I’m only awake because my dog woke me up to go out)… so I’m not sure if I made my point. I like generic because I like to do genre twisting and mash-ups… and because I have certain quirks (like the thing about not liking spell slot based magic). Finding the generic system that fits me seems to be a better path than trying to force a fixed system to be flexible (much madness caused by trying to use d20 to do genre-mashups, is the cause of that statement).

    But, when I want to run something that I know will stay within its own system’s sweet spot? … it seems hard to justify trying to force that to use a different rule system. Not even if that other rule system is my own favorite rule system.

  4. I’ve had great success with generic systems. Back in the 1990s, I used GURPS for fantasy, steampunk, superheroes, space opera, and time/dimension travel. In the early 2000s, D20 became my go-to system of choice, with lots of third-party support for various genres.

    Yes, rules sets tailored for specific genres may serve them better, but it depends on how willing a player group and Game Master are to learn and invest in new systems for multiple games. If a particular role-player cohort is more focused on storytelling than crunchy combat, or prefers certain character options to a classic feel, a generic system may work better.

    Lately, I’ve turned to FATE for my homebrew campaigns, and it was easier to describe my settings rather than shoehorn them into something more pulpy or more gritty. Sure, my group is looking at D&D5e for fantasy, but we’ve been playing FATE, Savage Worlds, and other indie systems for lots of one-shots and miniseries for several years now.

    I understand the “one system, one genre” preference, but with the exception of various D&D editions, the diverse role-players in my groups would have a hard time coming to consensus for other genres without generic systems.

  5. The two factors I’d mostly consider when I start thinking about a new game would be what the setting was intended to be and how the game would be meant to play. And the second is more important than the first. So if a generic rules set won’t play the way I’d like the game to play, then while I might get some useful background (Gurps source-books are excellent for that) it’s not my primary consideration driving the choice of a rules set. I can deal with a certain amount of rules adjustment to better match a style, but if that style is better done by another game I’ll use that and do the setting work instead of a rules rewrite – I’ll certainly still need to do a lot of work on the setting anyway for most games.

    I’ll also note that just because a system is written for a particular setting, that doesn’t mean it isn’t usable for something else. Pendragon is a case in point. While written for Arthurian romance, it’s adaptable to other situations where heroic warriors with a variety of significant emotional traits act as leaders and/or battle champions, and where magic tends to be subtle and mysterious. So heroic knights from Arthurian romance, but also Greek heroes of the Iliad, Chinese warlords of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, or perhaps Indians from the Ramayana.

    tl;dr I match a system to what I want to do, rather than picking a system and then trying to make it do something.

  6. One book one setting games only work if you want to run the exact setting. Sure, if I wanted to run a Star Wars game, I’d probably buy one of the Star Wars RPGs. However, if I want to run my own science fiction setting, it is going to alter Alternity or BRP or GURPS to it then any of the Star Wars RPGs.

    The other thing is I’m playing a horror game on Tuesday, and a fantasy game on Thursday, and both are at similar power levels, so GUPRS works for both, and I don’t have to flip between two rules sets.

    That said, I find GURPS works best in a specific power range; if I wanted D&D style impossible to kill characters that sling spells all day, I’d probably move games.

  7. Generic RPGs: Do we really need those?

    No, of course not.

    It comes down to ‘neat’ minds and ‘scruffy’ minds.

    For almost a decade I gamed out of the box B/X and sated my need to tinker by writing adventures.

    Then a friend got me hooked on world building with D6.

    They are different, not better or worse.

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