Not Really Universal

Cam Banks, the brain in a jar over at Margaret Weis Productions, was pondering the future of games and cited a conversation where it seemed the desire was for “a unified set of RPG rules.”

Now, this was just a conversation, on the Internet no less, so it has just about the statistical significance of a gnat’s fart, but it caught my interest all the same. Follow RPGs for any period of time and you know that the demand for that unified ruleset is out there, serving as a holy grail for many would-be designers.

This is one of those ideas you buy or you don’t. I don’t, but I don’t hold it against anyone who does. The fact that I think it’s asking the wrong question is another gnat fart – more power to them for trying. My sole warning (and this applies to a lot of things): if you reach a point where you feel the only thing that has been missing in solving this big a problem is your unique insight, take that as a reason to re-examine your understanding of the problem.

Anyway, the reason that Cam turns this into an interesting discussion is that it speaks pretty directly to how Cortex Plus is positioning itself and attempting to address one common failing of universal RPGs – that a specific game can produce specific ends more effectively. The CP model, as seen in Leverage and Smallville, is a reasonably thin engine – just enough to tell you how to roll and read the dice and teach a few concepts – with a custom build to reflect the specifics of the game in question. Even setting aside my own fondness for Cortex Plus, this is a pretty smart model. Combine it with the fact that CP is one of the two post-4e game engines to really grab me (the other being Dragon Age) and you’ve got the formula for some good stuff.

Now, I’m not going to tout this as super novel. Frankly, it’s the model that White Wolf has been using forever, but without WW’s approach to setting. Nor am I saying this is a panacea – the reality is that as easy as it is to _say_ you just build on a light framework, it takes work. It is entirely possible to suck.

But what does intrigue me is the way the model creates a tiered structure. You have the core game, as held and owned by MWP, surrounded by a second tier of specific implementations (Smallville, Leverage). What grabs me is the third tier, the personal hacks, which are much more derived from the second tier than they are the first. That is to say, the core may remain important for communication and clarity, but the real fiddly bits are outside of it.

This is not to say that an industrious amateur couldn’t produce a tier-2 work. Such a thing will almost certainly happen. But for the vast majority of hackers, tier 3 is a sweet spot. They can pick and choose bits they like and add in only enough stuff to feel good about it. It’s like knitting without needing to make the yarn yourself. That’s a powerful place to be.

Will this stay interesting? I dunno. A lot will depend on what MWP does in the future and how they interact with the fan community. I have a lot of faith in Cam, but the future is fickle. But I’ll be curious to see how it goes since it’s such an interesting mix of classical and nouveau hacking that I expect very interesting things of it.

21 thoughts on “Not Really Universal

  1. Eruditus

    Twenty years ago I sat down to write THE DEFINITIVE UNIVERSAL RPG. That’s right, mine was going to be IT. I got about three quarters the way in giving players a heap of options – what stats to include, what dice based on scale of your game and a host of ads and disads and powers in adnauseum. I stopped and finally said “uh, why do I somehow think THIS is the way people should game?” I gave up after a 200 page manuscript (on a Tandy and 5.75″ floppy mind you).

    I have come to realize “different strokes for different folks.” No game is going to scratch every gamers itch – and I’m agreeing not saying you think this… I know better 😉

    How does Cortex differ from, say, Savage World in the department of building on meat around a skeleton?

    While many of the games we play have a lot of the flavor of the setting built in (something I prefer) many can be modified to meet raw criteria for other settings – Dogs, Mouseguard, and Mountain Witch, nevermind FATE.

    So what catches your attention with CP?

  2. Elizabeth

    These are pretty interesting points!

    I think MWP does it better than WW when it comes to the implementation. I haven’t played the full depth and breadth of WW games— just Exalted, W:tA, M:tA, Kindred of the East, and a mortal one-shot of NWoD. But it seemed to me like the customizations of the system were both less involved and less novel than what MWP does in Tier 2. So it’s not groundbreaking theory, but I agree with you that the implementation MWP does is awesome.

    I think one of the very coolest things about how MWP has it set up are the hacks which are basically selecting aspects of various Tier-2 systems and putting them together with novel connective tissue to make a super fun Tier 3 system with little fuss. The modularity involved with MWP’s model is really the hacker’s killer app, I think.

  3. Evan

    I had a long comment which Blogger consumed and fed to the crawling chaos of the interweb, so I will just say that we are as likely to get a universal system as we are to find a single setting that would be universally accepted. In other words, I am intensely skeptical that our fractious tribes of gamers will ever unify under one banner ever. Still, doing both the formulaic calculations as well as the anthropological observations to make a broadly useable and easy to modify tool (for your tier 3 untility) has merit. Especially if it helps lower the complexity and broaden the appeal of the hobby to keep it socially and comercially alive and viable. System and setting though are two sides of a very complex equation for us all. People are wedded sometimes to systems and sometimes to settings, but always the main goal is the fun of the game at the table. Completeley inappropraite systems in the right hands can still run a beloved setting, and the “ideal” sytem built to manage a setting can fall flat (in my case Heroquest for Glorantha; my Glorantha could work under any number of rules sets, but Heroquest would never be my first choice). I hope that explorations continue, because I think systems can really matter (and things like CP and FATE3 and PDQ# can be really exciting) but only to the degree that they accomplish fun in the hands of the users (and I had a long story about how not everybody has the same view and experience of fun, but I won’t bother to rewrite it).

    As long as the hobby continues and smart people like you and Cam (and Fred and Chad and so many others) continue to put forth the effort, I can live without absolute unity.

  4. T.W.Wombat

    @Eruditus – I think I got off lucky. I started to design a universal system, then 2 weeks later Steve Jackson released GURPS. A few years later in college we had a group trying to design a universal system by committee, but that turned into a circus of clashing egos in a hurry.

    I think you can strip a setting and slap it on top of a different ruleset and make a decent game. “Decent” and not “Great” in most cases. Some things won’t line up and the mechanics may not support the setting (using D&D to model a war of attrition falls down thanks to the 15 minute workday issue, for example), but you can do it.

    Can a universal system exist? I don’t think so. I think you’ll always run into some situation that isn’t covered in the rules and the GM will need to make a judgement call, and if the rules don’t cover all situations they can’t be called universal.

    Does it make sense to try? If it keeps game designers off the streets, I say why not? I like GURPS because it’s easy to move settings and interact with the locals without fiddling with stats. But it’s hard to have something completely different in one of those settings. Magic is a list of skills when you come right down to it, and reskinning it to psionics or rituals or superpowers won’t fundamentally change how magic works in that system.

    I like modularity. One of my ideas for D&D 3.5 involved setting up a checklist for what rules you wanted to use, then being able to share or print your game’s specific Player’s Handbook. The fundamental “roll a d20 plus bonus to hit a target number” wouldn’t change, but things like systems for healing or a fame score or active defenses could be swapped out from campaign to campaign to reflavor the system.

    I love that this modular model is baked into Cortex Plus. And I can’t wait to see what other permutations people will apply to the core rules. I’m still getting the Leverage rules crammed into my head, and after that I’ll see what I can do about getting Travelleverage off of my list of gaming projects. Woo!

    Thanks for the insights. This blog is a great place to start thinking. Please keep your cranial output up!

  5. Jonathan Walton

    You onto something cool here, Rob. And honestly, I think a similar thing is happening with Apocalypse World, but we’ll see for sure once some of the more popular hacks (like Dungeon World) establish their own communities and we see if there’s interflow between them.

  6. Eruditus

    Let me say, yeah, AW rocks. But that’s neither here nor there. lol

    Rob, can you please describe a bit what you mean by the 3-tier setup in CP? I’ve been exposed to the model before but I want to make certain we’re on the same page since I have only read the Serenity rules.

  7. Eruditus

    One of the pieces that really makes me squee is seeing how each system develops a certain method of game play uniquely… how it pulls a very particular play experience out of the mechanics. Honestly, if a system doesn’t do this it winds up among the thousands that came before it on my shelves never to be played again.

    I dig Savage World for what it does but it doesn’t DO anything… it doesn’t make my players go “wow, I feel really differently or look differently at game play.”

    I was running FATE (Dresden specifically) because I like what aspects do in game play but when we got into a situation where several characters found their way into a debt/romance/slave relationship with a major villain in the campaign My Life With Master was a natural seque for the next arch instead of FATE.

  8. Greg Christopher

    I see where you are coming from, Rob, but I just don’t like Cortex. I have both the base core rules and the Serenity rules (Haiti bundle). I have read them both. I just don’t like the system. Now I don’t want to turn this into a rant against Cortex, I just want you to know that not liking the system may be a bigger problem for universality than producing specific ends. If someone wants to play Serenity, I am actually going to suggest using that book as a sourcebook and going with another system. For that specific end, I don’t think Cortex does the job.

    Now I don’t hate it. Just like I don’t hate GURPs or the White Wolf core system, or whatever. I just don’t like them enough to use them all the time. If you walked into my house tonight and said, “Greg, I wanna game with you and we are going to play Cortex.”, I would play with you because I value your time more than the pain of using Cortex. Contrast that with say Carcosa, which I would never play with anyone. ever.

    I think many people have a pretty large pool of games that they are open to playing with the right people, but just don’t really like. To do what you are going for, you would have to design a core system that everyone liked. That is the big obstactle to overcome.

    I don’t know how you would go about doing that, or else we wouldnt be having this conversation. I would be relaxing in my mansion.

  9. Cam_Banks

    Greg and Eruditus: Cortex Plus is not Classic Cortex (the system MWP used in Serenity, BSG, Supernatural). I made the decision when I became the line developer to change how we did things design-wise, which is what Rob is talking about.

    Since there is no Cortex Plus generic rulebook, the Tier One is in fact a common thread of design language across all the Cortex Plus games (which are Tier Two). It’s obvious that they share similar underlying mechanical ideas but they’re not the same rules in the sense that Savage Worlds games are.

    It is much closer to how WW handled it in their oWoD, before they changed their model to create a single core rulebook plus add-on games (V:tR, etc).

  10. Cam_Banks

    To follow up my last post: Cortex Plus is presently seen in LEVERAGE (which Rob co-designed with me) and SMALLVILLE. These games have been heavily modded and hacked by people into new campaigns and genres, which has lead us to publish a book that specifically addresses this: the Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide, which is due out in May. That’s an anthology of hacks and mods by a number of writers, showing off how this kind of thing works.

  11. Evan

    The Hacker’s Guide sounds pretty sweeet. I think it mihgt be the only kind of “universality” we are likely to see in gaming. Everyone house rules something and some people house rule everything. If you make the system a tool for realizingg the appropriate vision of fun for an individual group’s play, you can get a lot of mileage from it. Somepeople, however, are not going to be happy if they think they have to do a lot of work to get their vision up and running. There are poeple who are not going to be happy with the approach. And, of course, for others, the setting is going to dominate over any system considerations. I love the idea of design flexibility and custimization, but I will probably still buy things like Cubicle 7’s Middle Earth game because I want to see what they do with the setting, and I will buy 4E stuff because that is what my son wants to play.

  12. Fred Hicks (Evil Hat Productions)

    Yah, it’s important to realize that the Cortex Plus chassis is a recent (like, 2010/2011) phenomenon. Everything prior to Smallville is significantly different — Serenity/BSG/supernatural are all from the older stuff. Critiquing Cortex Plus on their basis is a lot like critiquing d&D 4e on the basis of a read through of Pathfinder.

  13. Leonard Balsera

    “Anyway, the reason that Cam turns this into an interesting discussion is that it speaks pretty directly to how Cortex Plus is positioning itself and attempting to address one common failing of universal RPGs – that a specific game can produce specific ends more effectively.”

    The other thing going on here that stands as a real killer app for Cortex Plus is that the base stats themselves can change in *meaning*, rather than just detail.

    In other words, a generic system might give you a set of six stats – let’s go with the d20 thing, Str, Dex, Con, Int, Wis, Cha, and maybe give you the option to mess with that by changing the names (Brawn, Acumen, Sturdiness, Learning, Cleverness, and Charm) or streamline to something like Physical, Mental, Social.

    What hasn’t changed, however, is what these stats fundamentally mean or measure – fundamental aspects of character capability. That’s huge, because it means that no matter what you do, your resolution mechanics are always going to depend on measuring character capability in some way. This limits what the system will reasonably “cover”.

    Enter Cortex Plus. Now you have a system that tells you, “As long as the dice work relatively the same way, you can change the fundamental meaning of the base traits to your liking.”

    So you want that human drama game? Your base stats are Relationships and Values, and you need not ever deal with measuring a character’s capabilities if you don’t want to. Want that kicking down a dungeon game? Your base stats are Attributes and Classes, and you need ever worry about the dramatic element.

    Thus, presuming you like the way the dice work, the amount of available options suddenly becomes staggering. And that’s quite hot.

  14. Reverance Pavane

    Well, wasn’t this the secret to the success enjoyed by the Basic Roleplaying, even back before it was codified as an actual system. You had the same basic system that everyone was reasonably familiar with, but it was actually implemented in different ways with the different products. Thus Runequest was different to Stormbringer, which was different to Ringworld, Call of Cthulhu, Nephilim and Elfquest, but all held a common heritage, and with a small amount of work, cross-genre games (such as a Call of Cthulhu set in the Elric universe, to quote one such game I ran), were quite possible.

    The collateral advantage is that it’s a lot easier to sell the next product in the line up if people are already familiar (and happy) with the basic game mechanisms. But it also means designers have to happy with ignoring legacy components that just don’t fit, and adding components that do.

    Personally I don’t think a truly Universal RPG is possible (unless it is so simplistic as to not really qualify as a system), or in fact desirable. All the really good games have been to some degree tuned to the genre/world they are emulating. And not just in colour text, but in actual system. For example, I consider Bushido to be far superior to Sengoku for this reason.

    [I do make a distinction between mechanisms and system. Mechanism is embodied in the system, but system is what creates the actual game. It’s possible to have a universal mechanism, but not a system.]

  15. Anders Gabrielsson

    I don’t think a universal RPG system is possible (and I say this as someone who digs the hell out of Cortex Plus and expect to play variants of it for many years). Different systems do different things, and even if a system can run any setting and can focus on different aspects of that setting it will still do so through a particular lens.

    Just to take an obvious example, while you can put together a solid dungeon crawl game in Cortex Plus (one of my projects once I have the Leverage rules) it won’t be 4E – it won’t have the tactical combat or puzzle-like character building created by that particular set of rules. You could play the exact same type of stories in that you could make combat-heavy heroic fantasy adventures with lots of magical items, you could probably even emulate the class and level aspects of it if you really wanted to, perhaps even reach the same amount of pure crunch, but it wouldn’t be 4E. The same way Cortex Plus can’t be Nobilis, or Castle Falkenstein, or The Adventures of Baron Münchhausen, or any number of other games where a fundamental part of the experience is the system itself. It may be able to tell the same types of stories as those games, perhaps even do so with less interference from the rules, but there will always be someone who prefers the original system. To sum up this longwinded post, there’s a huge difference between a system being universally applicable and universally appealing.


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