The phrase “ahead of its time” is usually hyperbolic, at least a little bit. That said, when you are truly ahead of your time, there are consequences for getting somewhere before everyone else is ready. What made Greg Porter’s Blacksburg Tactical Research Center (BTRC) ahead of its time was moving to PDF-only distribution of their RPGs in 2003, back when PDF was little more than an annoying format you needed that Acrobat Reader thing for. By exiting physical distribution way before everyone else, BTRC made their games pretty hard to find unless you already knew what you were looking for. Fortunately, the rest of the world has caught up…and now the rest of the world can go check out EABA.
EABA stands for “End-All Be-All” (speaking of hyperbole), and is BTRC’s universal RPG. EABA aims for a broad, simulation-driven ruleset, akin in philosophy to GURPS or the Hero System. Like GURPS and Hero, EABA has a single unified mechanic, and like GURPS and Hero, this unified mechanic revolves around three d6s. The ways EABA is different, though, are both incredibly smart and in at least one case show a willingness to completely walk away from a generally accepted standard in games. Even the rulebook document itself is designed in a way to take advantage of being a fully digital product in ways most game PDFs aren’t (extensive colored text, embedded quick links on each page, a literal in-document dice roller). While there’s a lot to be said about the EABA PDF as software, I’m going to focus primarily on the rules of the game. Digital flash is neat, but the substance behind it is what’s more important.
Character creation will look quite familiar to anyone who has played GURPS or Hero. Each player gets a certain number of points with which to build their character, based on the power level of the campaign. EABA divides these points into distinct pools, though: separate points for attributes, skills, and powers, with traits (the system’s version of advantages and disadvantages) able to use any of these points unless otherwise stated. It’s also worth noting that the point totals are relatively small in magnitude: a ‘normal’ character starts with 35 attribute points and 10 skill points, which is a far cry from your typical GURPS build of 150. EABA also defines the limit on points gained through negative traits as one-quarter of the point total; GURPS limits for disadvantages are often around one half of total, creating way more opportunities for creating wacky and flawed characters. One thing I do like about how EABA treats its negative traits is that each description covers how the trait should affect a character in very direct terms. The trait ‘Secret’ is a good example of this. While GURPS has the same rule about replacing a lost disadvantage with one of the same value (i.e. what happens if a secret is revealed), the description in EABA gives clear examples and explains how a GM should treat this in-game.
While I like the execution of EABA in particular, the basics of character creation are largely similar to any other point-buy game, and the trait and skill lists are, while more constrained than those in GURPS or Hero, built around the same basic concept. Traits are given applicability tags that the GM can take into account, but just like any other universal system there is going to be pre-work to define what is and is not allowed in a game setting.
The core system of EABA aims to keep target numbers constrained, and does so by using a “roll and keep” system. All dice are d6s, and you keep your best three results, excepting specific circumstances that allow you to keep more or force you to keep less. One neat thing that the game does with the math is declare that a +3 is functionally equivalent to an extra die, meaning that rolls will never have more than a +2 modifier. This also means that the game can be built on modifier-driven rolls and still enjoy the bounding constraints of roll and keep. Modifier-driven, by the way, doesn’t even begin to get at how EABA organizes its roll evaluation.
What drives every single roll in EABA is a single page in the book containing the “EABA Universal Chart”, commonly referred to as The Chart. The Chart is a sequence of distances, sizes, weights, currency quantities, and other values all lined up by the value jumps they make to increase or decrease a relevant die roll by 1. Need to figure out the bonus to shooting a 50 foot tall object? On The Chart. Need to figure out how much to bribe the guard in order to have a better than 95% chance of success? On The Chart. Wondering about throwing a javelin through a car window fifty feet away? The size and the distance modifiers are both on The Chart, and you just add them up. The Chart provides, through merely adding and subtracting, modifiers for essentially every situation and every skill, and it’s all on one page. The Chart isn’t a mechanical innovation, it’s a reference innovation, and used judiciously it should cut down book lookups dramatically compared to something like GURPS.
The actual rolls are fairly straightforward, keeping the best three results (if you have three dice) from pools of typically between one and five six siders. EABA uses subjective difficulties ranging from 3 to 19, which adds an extra adjudication step compared to roll-under systems like GURPS. These difficulties are listed alongside a die pool which would beat that difficulty half the time, and a die pool where the roller would be able to automatically succeed. The automatic success rule is called “Take 2s”, and it allows you to skip a die roll and instead use a value equal to every die in the pool being a two. The Take 2s rule has interesting effects at smaller difficulty numbers and die pools, which is used to explain how normal people get by with relatively little capability in, for example, driving a car. While the Take 2s rule is nice to have, it serves more to provide a theoretical basis to the GM for why you don’t need to worry about rolls for procedural tasks.
While I tend to prefer “baked-in” difficulties like those found in GURPS to GM-set difficulty numbers, overall the core mechanics are nicely presented and pretty easy to use. The Chart may look overwhelming, but because the information density is so much higher any group should see the benefits after some practice. While there are good design decisions in play here, the core mechanics of EABA are merely well-done, a logical development from its ancestors. To see some true innovation, though, we’re going to look at the combat system.
The wildest thing about EABA, period, is that combat turns don’t take the same amount of time. It’s not that this is a narrative game where timekeeping doesn’t matter, or structured time like Genesys where time is abstracted. No, EABA measures turn length precisely, but the turns get longer. Each turn is twice as long as the last: first you have a one second turn, then two, then four, and so on. What’s more, a combat in EABA can only last ten turns. The logic here is that after the length of time modeled in ten turns (16 minutes), something has inevitably happened to change the situation: the police arrive, the air strike comes in, whatever it may be. It’s also worth pointing out that a 16 minute combat would be 160 turns in D&D and an eye-watering 960 turns in GURPS. Even if you wanted to have a combat that lasted that long, running it in most traditional RPGs would be simply untenable.
So here’s how it works. Each turn has a modifier called “turn mod”, which is dependent on how long that turn is: the longer the turn, the higher the turn mod. Players can spend turn mod on actions in their turn, so the longer the turns are, broadly, the more likely actions will succeed. In practical terms, turn mod negates a certain quantity of multiple action penalties, providing justification within the rules for how much characters can do in their less limited time.
The rest of the combat system is interesting, but doesn’t have the same degree of ‘WTF’ as variable length turns. Initiative is bid, with higher bids winning initiative but resulting in higher action penalties. Melee attacks are opposed rolls, ranged attacks are static rolls with a difficulty equal to range (from The Chart), size (from The Chart), and hit location if applicable. Damage rolls are interesting. First, armor is applied to the die value of the damage, so whether or not the attack penetrates armor is not random. Second, damage is applied to a static hit track, similar to Cyberpunk 2020, where certain damage levels begin applying penalties to actions. There’s an interesting rule here: at each penalty threshold, you subtract some of the damage you apply. The logic is that while a lethal hit can be a nasty shock, beyond a certain point the marginal damage being done by each subsequent hit is less. It makes sense, to a certain degree: if you’ve survived a gunshot and are still up, the second one isn’t going to slow you down as much as the first did. While that makes characters harder to kill, the hit track is still only eight boxes long. A 9mm pistol does 2d6+1 damage (same as in Cyberpunk 2020, coincidentally), so there is a very good chance that without some armor or a good toughness score, you’re down for the count in one shot.
Like in GURPS, there is an extensive set of circumstantial rules and optional add-ons to the combat system. That said, the basic combat rules fit neatly into 23 pages. Not too shabby for a deliberately crunchy game.
Powers, Minutia, and Gear
Two of the longer chapters in the book are detailing how to model things in a given setting within the rules. The Powers chapter covers any sort of ability modeled ingame, while the Minutia chapter goes into detail on vehicles, Tech Eras, and other setting and non-combat mechanics. The Power framework in EABA is designed with the same intent as the framework in Hero System: Model any useful effect in-game by breaking down an item or ability into modular, constituent parts. Here, the primary parts are Effects and Modifiers, which boil down to what powers do and what their limitations are, respectively. The power design involves taking the Effects and Modifiers and using their given values in the book to find a power level. The power level tells you what effect magnitude the power would have if you spent 1 power point (from character creation) on it. Effects with high potency or few limitations tend to have negative power level values, while very narrow Effects and Modifiers which impose limitations have positive power level values. The higher the final power level, the more powerful the power is at a base cost of one point, so making powers which aren’t hideously expensive requires a number of Modifiers to mitigate the power. Of course, the magnitude of power effects is yet another thing which can be looked up on The Chart. Making this interesting is the addition of gameworld modifiers, which can make specific types of powers more common or potent. Gameworld modifiers are also the basis for the mechanical difference between Tech Eras, the first section of the Minutia chapter.
The Minutia chapter is a disparate set of non-combat rules. The first sections, Tech Eras and Vehicles, pull directly from the preceding Powers chapter. While each Tech Era is given some flavor, similar to Tech Levels in GURPS, the mechanical core of the Eras is that each one has a gameworld modifier which directly affects how potent given technology-based powers are going to be, as well as some narrower power modifiers which apply to specific technologies based on historical precedents. From there, the chapter continues with vehicles, showing how vehicle creation can be done using the Powers system. Just like in Hero System, I found creating objects with power templates a bit hard to wrap my head around. It is significantly easier than attempting to use the Vehicle Creation System from GURPS 3e, though, so credit where credit is due. The rest of minutia goes into a range of non-combat rules and prompts, including cost of living, weather, reaction rolls, and non-combat medical situations like drugs, diseases, thirst, and hunger. These two chapters, in mild conjunction with the GM advice in the next chapter, are the grounding for building a world and populating it with interesting items, abilities, and vehicles. There is also a gear chapter, which is mostly tables of, well, gear. Between these three chapters, you have all the mechanical scaffold you need to set up your campaign. The comparisons between Hero System and EABA should be fairly obvious to anyone who has read both, but EABA’s continued referencing back to The Chart has paid off in terms of making the process easier and light on the math.
Like the Hero System and GURPS, EABA is for builders, people who want a mechanical backstop for any creation they wish to put in their game. It also makes some deliberate (and in some cases pretty wild) mechanical decisions to add both realism and playability. The economy of EABA’s rules is commendable for the amount of detail it packs in, and The Chart shows how well everything was considered to avoid writing excess rules. The one problem comes down to how intuitive the system is. Porter knew this when designing, and the writing is heavy on explanation and examples to help readers understand the decision making behind the rules and how to apply them. This is definitely a crunchy game, though, and good explanatory writing can’t change the fact that there’s simply more to “get” in EABA than in, say, Apocalypse World.
Unsurprisingly, EABA will have the same type of workload as GURPS: a lot of effort on the front end to characterize the setting and stat out everything, and then a relatively smooth play experience. It’s a dense read, but EABA is a combination of tried and true universal RPG concepts from GURPS and Hero with some really interesting rules innovations to help make a game of that heft play more smoothly. If you’re a fan of GURPS or Hero, or if the idea of a universal RPG construction set appeals to you, EABA is worth checking out.