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Game Design: Step by Step

Generic Systems, My Ass!

by Gareth-Michael Skarka

April 5, 2000

 

I hate GURPS.

Now, before you go lighting torches, let me explain.  GURPS products are some of the best-written, most useful sourcebooks in the entire industry.  Hell, I've even worked for SJG as an editor on one.  My vitriol is not an indictment of their quality. Nor is it entirely focused on the efforts of the Evil Genius of Austin...no, I hate GURPS with the same fervor that I apply to my feelings against FUDGE, Fuzion, and the Hero System.

In short, generic rules systems blow wet monkeys.

Why?  Contrary to what Puff Daddy might tell you, it's not about the Benjamins...it's all about a little something I like to call Genre Emulation.

Put simply, Genre Emulation is rules design that reinforces and encourages simulation of the tropes and standards of the genre in which the game is set.  Put into the briefest possible language, Genre Emulation is when a game "feels" like its subject matter.  Examples of emulative rules systems include Feng Shui (its combat system rocks...although IMO sometimes it doesn't go quite far enough--for example, you still have to keep track of ammo, which seems wrong for a game about HK action), Castle Falkenstein (the card thing...which I've lauded before), and, one of my all-time favorites, Games Workshop's early-80s, pre-Warhammer-blitz Superhero game, Golden Heroes (come on--the combat round is broken into panels, which combine into pages, fer chrissake...how perfect is that?).

Generic systems, on the other hand, plug the same rules into each setting, regardless of the conventions of that genre.  Sure, sometimes there is a half-assed attempt to write the table-top RPG equivalent of a patch file to allow for some of the more glaringly obvious incongruities (each GURPS book often features a number of genre-specific additions to the rules, for example...and then there's the "plug-ins" of Fuzion), but this, to me, is wasted effort.  If your generic system can't handle play within a genre without fixes, then the genre is too specific, and needs it's own system to be done well.

A rallying cry for proponents of the generic system model is that it allows a diversity of campaign styles, without the learning curve of a new system.  Yeah, whatever.  Easily countered by one of two arguments:  One, if you make your new emulative system rules-light, the curve is negligable anyway...or two, since the folks who are often generic game fans tend to lean into the "rules-heavy" school, and are often very into deeply studying rules mechanics, a new rules system gives them more entertainment value for their dollar, since it gives them a new rules set to pour over and deconstruct.

But that's neither here nor there.  Personally, I prefer emulative systems because playing in a game in which the rules don't seem to match the setting is jarring...it's like hearing a tune you really like played on a midi file using your PC's built-in speakers...since the instrument emulation isn't there (well, not on most computers, anyway), the file approximates as best it can, leading to a piece which technically has all of the notes in the right order and at the right tempo, but just sounds wrong.  Anything that jars me that much pulls me out of the game, making it a less enjoyable experience for me.

Well, that, and I love designing emulative systems.  It's one of the things that makes the design process fun for me.

How, exactly, does one go about designing an emulative system?  Really, it's simply a matter of identifying and prioritizing the standard elements of a particular genre, and applying those standards to your design work.  I'll take you through an example:  A lot of you have expressed an interest in RetroFuture, one of the games I mentioned in my list of projects in development, so I guess I'll use that.

RetroFuture is a pulp-genre game.  Specifically, it is set in the "world of tomorrow"...the year 2000, as envisioned by the pulps and pop culture of the 30s and 40s.  So...my first step is to nail down the tropes involved here.  A little bit of brainstorming comes up with the following staples of the genre:

1)  A naive, black-and-white world view (Right is right and wrong is wrong.  No grey areas at all)
2)  Better life through Science (The post-atomic age distrust of science hasn't reared its head yet)
3)  Heroes are paragons of humanity with NO flaws.  Villains, on the other hand, are flawed beyond belief.
4)  Stories often dealt with a major-focus hero, and his lower-powered agents, associates and sidekicks.
5)  Heroes were solid examples of a "type", and rarely ventured outside those boundaries.
6)  The action was fast and furious.  Nobody important ever gets killed, except when dramatically called for.

Just from these parameters, I can see that I need to design a system that has strict character roles...possibly even an echo of the old "Character Class" system, allowing creation of specific hero types.  The creation system will also have to allow for differing levels of character importance.  There would also have to be some sort of behavior enforcement rules...although I dislike "alignments", perhaps something that rewards genre-correct behavior and attitudes would be called for here.  The setting would be designed in such a way to be packed to the gills with "gee-whiz" scientific inventions, and, to maintain the feel of the thing, would operate on the theoretical scientific principles of the time, rather than the discoveries that were actually made from then until now (for example, broadcast electricity, clean atomic power, "solid light", etc.).

The design of heroes should be completely unbalanced.  There should be no "flaws" or "disads" to counter their considerable array of difficulties...but, on the other had, villains should have at least one exploitable flaw.  This plays into the whole hubris-leading-to-downfall nature of the genre.  The combat system should play fast, with a damage system that largely protects important characters and NPCs, while disposing of faceless goons by the truckload.  Perhaps a variation of my Hong Kong Action Theatre! system, where the difficulty to hit was based upon the target's importance to the plot, would work well here.

So, you see that giving just a modicum of thought to the genre in question has given me a direction for my design to take.  It didn't really take much effort on my part, and the pay off will be in the creation of a system that reinforces the feel of the genre, and is much more fun to play.  You can see, then , why I react the way I do to generic systems.  In my opinion, it is lazy design.

Speaking of emulation....as I've been writing this column, a thought has been nagging me.  The thing is, I'm finding that I'm not really that happy with the magic system that I've come up with for UnderWorld.  Writing this column finally allowed me to put my finger on what exactly I don't like about it.  The system as I've described it is too rigid, to structured.  Not......I don't know....magical enough.  In short, it's not very emulative.  It seems out of place.  I want something that captures the sense of wonder and the fantastic that the setting needs to exude.  Unfortunately, what I've got is a shopping list of powers, with very block-and-tackle mechanics.  It definitely could stand to be more emulative.

I'll have to give that some more thought.  I'll keep you up to date on any developments.

See ya in 7,

Gareth-Michael Skarka
gms@synistercreative.com

Underworld, and all related terms and concepts contained herein are copyright 2000 by Gareth-Michael Skarka. All rights reserved.

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What do you think?

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All "Step by Step" design columns

  1. Inspiration to Perspiration October 26, 1999
  2. Comin' wit da Nifties October 27, 1999
  3. Concepts Continued October 28, 1999
  4. Character is what you are in the Dark October 29, 1999
  5. Forces of Occupation October 30, 1999
  6. Forces of Occupation, Part II October 31, 1999
  7. Head Count November 2, 1999
  8. Subterranean Ass-Kicking, 101 November 9, 1999
  9. Next Stop, Rune Station November 17, 1999
  10. It's All 'Bout Da Merlins November 23, 1999
  11. Miscellany December 1, 1999
  12. Lords of the UnderWorld December 8, 1999
  13. Lucky 13 December 15, 1999
  14. Miracle Under 34th Street December 22 1999
  15. Gareth's December 27th 'edition' is a survey, on what you want for future Underworld columns.
  16. Statistics and Junk January 5, 2000
  17. Reality Slap January 12, 2000
  18. Once More Into the Breach... January 20, 2000
  19. The Mechanics of Mechanics January 26, 2000
  20. Junkmen and Soundtracks February 2, 2000
  21. The Iron Forestries of Hell February 16, 2000
  22. And Now, For Something Completely Different... February 24, 2000
  23. Confessions of a Language Geek March 1, 2000
  24. Flood of Ideas March 15, 2000
  25. A New Direction? March 24, 2000
  26. The Envelope, Please... March 29, 2000
  27. Generic Systems, My Ass! April 5, 2000
  28. Big News, and Magic April 12, 2000
  29. Big Guns, Razor-sharp Swords, and a Bit with a Dog... April 19, 2000
  30. What's the Story, Morning Glory? April 26, 2000
  31. And now for something completely different, Survey time! May 3, 2000
  32. The Fever for the Flavor May 10, 2000
  33. Random Acts May 17, 2000
  34. A Run Through Dark Places May 25, 2000
  35. Service Interruption June 1, 2000
  36. Endings and Beginnings June 29, 2000
  37. A Brief Return to the Underworld July 13, 2000

Discussion of UnderWorld

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Earlier Comments (Issues 1-7)

(Editor's note: I'll consolidate these when I get a chance)

Other columns at RPGnet

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