Game Design: Step by Step
Generic Systems, My Ass!
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)
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,
Underworld, and all related terms and concepts contained herein are copyright 2000 by Gareth-Michael Skarka. All rights reserved.