There’s a world of games out there, but they still just scratch the surface. Maybe your favorite book series or movie hasn’t caught the eye of anyone making RPG adaptations. Maybe you have your own spin on a popular genre that you just can’t pull off with an existing game. Or maybe you just want to run something wild and straight from your own head. No matter the reason, if a game off the shelf doesn’t quite do it for you, you’re looking for a generic RPG.
We’ve talked a bit about generic RPGs before, reviewing Cortex Prime and Everywhen, discussing Fate, and even using GURPS as an example text for looking at how to use generic games. This article is less about what to do with generic games, though, and more about how to find the right one for you. We’re going to discuss three broad types of generic games: Engines which are designed to model as many situations with as few rules as possible, Codexes which use a simple base ruleset and then expand it with a wide library of additional mechanics, and Chassis which take more traditional setting-driven RPGs, strip out the specific parts, and then (hopefully) build back up to something useful. The ‘Chassis’ generic RPG is the most common and popular, but the other two design modes may very well have more to offer the prospective game master.
One method of making a game do anything is to generalize the core mechanic down to a point where it can indeed model anything. Fate is the platonic ideal of the generic engine. Something can affect a scene? It’s an aspect. More complicated than that? It’s a character. What other rules do you need to know? Well, here are some adjectives to give you a rough idea of what a “+2” or a “-1” mean. Fate does end up being a highly narrative system, because ultimately the core mechanics of the engine are about what elements affect scenes and stories. Now this isn’t all that limiting…the Fate Space Toolkit has some great examples of how you can parlay literal rocket science into Fate mechanics.
Another approach to the generic engine is to genericize the actual dice mechanics instead of the rules. This is the magic that makes Cortex Prime work. The GM can choose any number of ‘prime sets’ to model key character and story elements…stats and skills can do duty, but so can relationships, powers, even what type of team formation a character works best in. Thanks to the roll and keep dice mechanics, these can all be stacked atop each other with minimal fuss or balance issues. The game even provides asymmetrical mechanics to make GMs able to throw balanced encounters at their players while still modelling groups, individuals, social encounters, combat encounters and any combination of the above with the same relative ease.
The issue with the ‘Engine’ approach to a generic game is mostly that of presentation. You don’t want everything to feel the same, but at the same time you don’t want so much uniqueness that your genericization isn’t doing any work. Fate is an excellent example of this, for the most part. The aspects introduced ingame and the Fate Point economy keep things moving, and are easy enough to use that they encourage GMs to really work their own creative muscles. Fate does live and die by its aspects, so in that way clever encounter design and writing on the part of the GM is rewarded. Cortex hews more closely to the level of rules specificity seen in other traditional games, but it still benefits greatly from the versatility of the dice and the fact that there’s no need to model anything particularly closely.
What if you want to model things closely, though? What if you want your game to live and die on the relative merits of 7.62mm or 5.56mm, and know for damn sure that the next planet the PCs set foot on has 1.2Gs of gravity? You don’t want an engine capable of running anything. You want to crack open the codex that tells you how to run everything.
I’m going to be perfectly honest with you, there is only one system out there currently which fits the standards of a “Codex” style generic RPG, and that is GURPS. GURPS is all about building one mechanic (the skill roll) around one piece of math (the bell curve of three six-sided dice) and then letting the cadre of statistics nerds at Steve Jackson Games model everything with it. GURPS is not ‘gritty’ or ‘cinematic’, rather there are prescriptions of which rules will net a gritty or cinematic result. GURPS doesn’t inherently model anything…but the models of all those guns you want are in GURPS High-Tech, GURPS Thaumatology explains how to build a magic system that reflects Occult Gnosticism, and GURPS Powers tells you the difference in the character point budget between Dr. Strange and Iron Man. Well, not directly, but the derivations are in there. The ‘Codex’ style of generic RPG is the ‘old school’ generic RPG, where everything is calculated and the spread of different interpretations and possibilities are there in front of you. And even though the Fourth Edition of GURPS is over 15 years old at this point, it’s still more elegant than the ‘charts-and-tables’ style of math-heavy RPGs that preceded it.
GURPS is showing its age in other places though, and its insistence on modeling everything with numbers creates some problems. There are issues which require nuance that statistics alone won’t create, and both the underwritten ‘social stigma’ disadvantage as well as the game’s entire philosophy around disability are, if not straight to ‘yikes’ territory, at least quite unfortunate. And even beyond particular problematic disadvantages, the GURPS character modeling around advantages and disadvantages creates issues that games like Cortex Prime and Fate have solved. While an advantage/disadvantage schema works well for a strictly mechanical game, and tends to do well when modeling things like adjusting stat values up or down, the mathematical basis of advantages and disadvantages relies on the fallacious logic that what is good for the character is always good for the player, and what’s bad for the character is likewise always bad for the player. This simply isn’t true. Consider the simple examples of an ally and an enemy. In GURPS, an ally shows up and tries to support the character, while an enemy shows up and tries to hamper the character. GURPS has these abilities as relatively parallel, so in theory an ally and an enemy of similar power level and similar frequency of appearance should be worth the same magnitude of points (the ally being positive, the enemy being negative). Here’s the problem: every enemy a character has is another opportunity to put that character in the spotlight. So while a character with an ally gets some spotlight time and an assist whenever the ally shows up, the character with an enemy gets the same (positive) spotlight time and a (negative) interdiction. These aren’t worth opposite magnitudes of points. This same phenomena happens across most if not all of the disadvantages beyond mere stat reduction; the disadvantages tend to make characters interesting and give them more screen time, which mitigates if not outweighs the gameplay disadvantages. Add to that the fact that the actual rules guidance about how disruptive a given number of negative point disadvantages should be is rarely followed, and pretty much all inclinations of character balance are out the window (and that assumes you set the game up correctly in the first place).
GURPS is clearly not perfect, but in many ways it stands alone in terms of the breadth and granularity of its gameplay options. Anyone who’s ever collected GURPS supplements will almost certainly keep them; the quality and depth of writing and background research make all but the most rules-heavy supplements useful at some level for any game using the subject matter within. That all said, GURPS also perfectly illustrates why games like Fate work the way they do. A good generic game need not be narrative, but the place where GURPS falls down hardest is not including narrative utility in its advantage/disadvantage math.
To what extent are games limited by genre? I mean, there’s nothing about a twenty-sided die in particular that says it must be used for a fantasy game, right? It does turn out that most games can be pared down (and hopefully built back up) to run any genre. For every D&D there’s a True20, for every Deadlands there’s a Savage Worlds. But what makes a game built off of the chassis of something more specific good at being generic? Or, if we’re talking about what more commonly happens, what doesn’t?
There’s nothing wrong with generic RPGs built out of the chassis of another game. Pretty much every game turned into a generic version was excellent; that’s generally the reason someone thinks making a generic version is a good idea. But two things happen in the process…either you strip out the things that made the original game good, or you don’t really add in enough to make the new game stand out on its own. Take Basic Roleplaying as an example. There’s nothing wrong with BRP as a game, but it also doesn’t have the character of its predecessor, Runequest. Savage Worlds is much the same with respect to its predecessor Deadlands. Now, BRP has been a platform for several successful games which licensed the system, and Savage Worlds has a number of excellent settings which are compatible with the game. Neither of these things make the underlying games good generic RPGs, though…they more show the relative inability of judicious editing to screw up simple dice mechanics. To be a good generic RPG, the game must help its target market (the GM) use the game to play whatever they want. If there’s no tools to make game creation at my table easier…I can get half a dozen d20 games for free.
The key with a game chassis is you have to really like the bones you’re working with. Savage Worlds runs big combats really smoothly. Genesys provides the funky (but very neat) Narrative Dice System mechanics. What these games often don’t have enough of is setting support. With Genesys you can play around with Cyberpunk and fantasy thanks to some of the supplements, but there’s not a lot of “there” there when it comes to writing your own stuff. You don’t have a big and applicable mechanic like Aspects to meld into whatever you need, and you definitely don’t have a big book giving you fifty ways to write a magic system. Still, Genesys does give you enough that if you really like the dice mechanics you can bring them into any game you want. And that’s ultimately what gives ‘chassis’ RPGs their staying power…they might not give the most tools or have the most resources, but they still let you bring your favorite mechanics into your game, be they funky dice, incrementing dice, or d100s.
What truly differentiates generic RPGs from other games is that they are selling the rules over and above setting or genre. The rules they’re selling, though, are the ones that allow GMs to easily bring any world or campaign idea they have to life. What makes a game like Fate or GURPS or Cortex a better generic RPG is not that the rules are ‘better’, but that the collection of rules and procedures that make up the game are tailored towards GMs who want to tweak, to adjust, and to model easily. Pretty much any generic RPG could be used to run a good game. What makes great generic RPGs truly great is not the games they produce, but rather how well it enables a GM to produce a great game with minimal effort. If you like running games in your own worlds, and like going your own way with setting and even genre, it’s a good idea to have at least one very good generic RPG in your library. Whether the rules engines of Fate or Cortex are more your style, or you like the massive library of GURPS (or maybe you want to split the difference with Hero System), a game that helps you create is a game that will bring more of your flair and creativity to the table.
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