Sunday, 4 March 2012

Generic = Bland

This thread provides interesting food for thought for someone such as me; I'm not old by any means, but I'm getting older, and I'm also busy. Nowadays, the prospect of picking up a 200 (or more likely 400) page-long tome of new rules fills me with dread and boredom rather than excitement, and I find that my attention span is only a fraction of what it used to be. It doesn't help that most RPG rule books are full of extraneous crap that no sane person could possibly want to read, like page after page of "game fiction" with no purpose other than exercising the game designers' frustrated-novelist demons, either.

So the thought has occurred to me: isn't it easier to just give up on learning new systems and pick one generic system which will allow you to run anything?

And yet I'm obviously not alone in finding generic/universal systems unutterably bland and dull. Whether it's GURPS, d20 Modern, Savage Worlds, or whatever else, something about a generic system leeches all the enjoyment out of gaming for me. The process ceases to feel immersive and begins to feel increasingly gamey in the worst sense, almost like a lesser simulacra of what role-playing is: all the flavour disappears.

I'm pretty sure this is to do with authorial voice and authorial intent. Because, while I might despise the kind of ridiculous fiction which appears in some game books, it can't be ignored that there is something personal in the best RPG systems. OD&D is not just a fantasy role playing game - it's a fantasy role playing game created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. Pendragon is not just a game about Arthurian romance - it's a game about Arthurian romance created by Greg Stafford. Apocalypse World is not just a game about the post-apocalypse - it's a game about the post-apocalypse created by Vincent Baker. Cyberpunk 2020 is not just a game about cyberpunk roleplaying - it's a game about cyberpunk roleplaying created by Mike Pondsmith. (I could go on, but you get my drift, I think.) Those games and, I would submit, most games that really work, contain something personal of the author in them - something that communicates passion, mood, emotion and personality above and beyond merely being a ruleset. They come from something the designer loved, not something the designer thought would fulfil a certain function.

Pretty much by definition, then, I feel, generic rulesets will lack the crucial element of authorial personality. They will by necessity be an exercise in engineering rather than flavour, because they are created not from the heart but the brain, and this will inevitably lead to them feeling dry. They may be exquisitely designed. But they won't contain any spirit, or passion - and they will inevitably tend to dullness.

(Naturally, there is one exception to this: Risus. But Risus always defies categorisation.)


  1. Theory.

    If I am designing a game, I should include:
    1. Tools to do it any way
    2. Instructions to do it my way

  2. I made a generic system about year ago. Rules are only five pages long. I was motivated because I was tired of going through manual after manual for material and sifting through all the rules. I also want to empower my players to think out side of the well-defined boxes of things like races and classes and just do whatever they wanted. I've played it couple times with my friends and they seem to enjoy it.

  3. I don't find that Gurps robs my campaign of spirit or passion. Those are elements that my players and I bring to the table. The books we use, genre we play in, or even the style of the campaign don't seem to alter that, for us. It's always on. Where there's a will to have fun, there will be fun.

  4. Zak: Isn't that sort of what basically any non-generic system is, if you boil it down to its essence? I mean, for example, you could use OD&D to run a hard SF game. Nothing stopping you - the tools are there. But the instructions tacked on top are for you to do it Gygax and Arneson's way.

    Nate: That's cool. I'm not trying to piss on generic systems or people who create them. But can you maybe agree there's a difference between what you've done, which is very personal (a game you and your friends enjoy) and GURPS or Savage Worlds, which were engineered in a deliberately personality-less sort of way?

    Kerry: I would never suggest that, ultimately, the group is not the most important element in having fun. All I'm saying is that, given the choice between generic and non-generic, I prefer the latter for the reasons stated.

  5. I tend to find that some modern systems which shall remain nameless don't have enough of that novelist-demon-stuff. Part of why I enjoy going back and reading old gaming books is the flavor and the context. The trick is, it has to be interesting... and not just mindless drivel designed to propel mechanics.

    So for example, designing a god to fit the need for "some priest that can do fire damage" is rarely as interesting as designing a volcano god that just happens to have priest followers. If that makes sense?

    Also, I prefer GURPS setting-books to the actual base ruleset... they just seem more... playable.

  6. Noisms: Yes, I think there is a difference. In games like GURPS and Savage Worlds, each different genre is still defined through races-classes-skills-equipment. The rules tell you what your character can and not do. In my rules characters are only defined by the concept of game. So long as characters conform to the concept (you're not going to play medieval knight in a cyberpunk setting), the players are free to pursue their characters which ever way they want. During one game in which everyone had to play a goblin, a character a skill called "Freaking Out," so the player had to think of all the ways that he could apply freaking out to a scenario; maybe it meant shouting at someone, maybe it meant running away in blind terror, or maybe it meant going into a berserk frenzy. The players make the game personal by how they choose to play it.

    It's funny, I've always felt that the World of Darkness games were capable of conveying the most flavor in their manuals. If there's anything you can accuse the WoD writers of it's "frustrated novelist syndrome." But then again WoD isn't an adventure game, it's story game, so setting the manuals up like stories does lend itself to the atmosphere.

  7. I agree, but I don't think I'd count Savage Worlds as generic; when I played it it seemed to be strongly aimed at 'Hollywood or Hong Kong Action Movie' type gaming; almost its own genre. I didn't *like* it, but partly that was because it didn't suit the grim-zombie-horror campaign I was playing.

  8. I guess I don't agree, since I use Fudge for literally everything that isn't classic (A)D&D. :)

  9. Nowadays, the prospect of picking up a 200 (or more likely 400) page-long tome of new rules fills me with dread and boredom rather than excitement, and I find that my attention span is only a fraction of what it used to be.


  10. Personally I like that there is a certain amount of authorial control in my hands with d20 Modern and similar sets. Same with E6 and other takeoffs of more 'author-driven' work. It requires me and my players to step up with filler to create our game.

    Also, so many people develop 'idea blindness' with developed material. The ideas are great, but then people just get so stuck in the mold and cannot accept that a Samurai may not be someone wearing lacquer armor, or a Psion isn't going to look like some silly tattooed git in puffy sleeves.



  11. Nowadays, the prospect of picking up a 200 (or more likely 400) page-long tome of new rules fills me with dread and boredom rather than excitement, and I find that my attention span is only a fraction of what it used to be.

    Same here. That's why I just stick to basic D&D now! I even couldn't be bothered recently to spend the time to get my head around Call of Cthulhu, from a rules perspective. Personally I think now that I'd simply use D&D as my generic system, house ruling it a bit for each different genre or setting. Might be a bit of a stretch in some cases (not too much though, look at Mutant Future, which is basically D&D), but I think I'd find that easier and much more enjoyable than learning new systems.

    I have also wondered if this has anything to do with ageing :)

  12. What about generic systems that were designed for a single genre and then expanded (such as d6 or Basic Role-Playing)?

  13. isn't it easier to just give up on learning new systems and pick one generic system which will allow you to run anything?

    Yes it is.

    Blandness. Hmm.

    I find BRP to be one of the most inspiring rules set there are. Every time I pick it up I want to run a new game with it!

    While the blandness might be there when read, I've heard so many times that it will feel quite different in play. Just look at GURPS. It can be run as quite a simple game, and also as a very detailed and simulationist game.

    Have I done it. no. I am a sucker for new games and will never tire of getting new ones. That's why I don't use generic systems...

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  15. I think this is the standard reaction, universal systems were really a 90s thing weren't they? I think of V:tM GURPS as the nadir of that stuff. A lot of the Forge ultra-specific indie game stuff is sort of a reaction to that trend - it made people see how much system mattered.

    Though to expand on Simon's point about Savage Worlds, I think each supposedly universal game really has an implicit favoured genre. GURPS has dungeon fantasy settings yeah, but it approaches them from the perspective of a Dan Brown simulator.

    Although for GURPS its generic-ness is sort of part of the implied genre- the iconic adventure there, for me, is the one where you tell your players to make modern day characters and nothing else, then the adventure is they are kidnapped and lost in an alien city and have to make their way home- it really gets across that survival movie setting where you just aren't prepared for this sort of thing, which wouldn't work in any game that didn't let you spend all your points on historical knowledge and contacts in the belgian constabulary. And similarly the iconic setting is the illuminati run university where anything from any game line can crop up as some secret plot. Basically the only reason to have a system that can do anything is if you have a plot that relies on you (potentially) doing everything.

    Though FATE is actually the best system for everything I will fight anyone who says otherwise.

  16. I think the point about "system matter" is important. System will matter a lot, and I think what's crucial for a generic system not to feel to bland is for it to be possible to take out modules of the system and slot others in for different feel.

    Too me it looks like GURPS has better model for that than, say, Savage Worlds. I'd love for someone to prove me wrong with actual play experience, though!