Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Balancing Rules & Setting


A previous Game Design Journal subject -- the feasibility of creating a “core” D6 System rulebook -- sparked some insightful discussion on Google+. The examination of the issue focused exclusively on a core book of setting-neutral D6 rules, though with the possibility (if not necessity) of offering some brief setting samples to demonstrate rules elements and their adaptability to different genres (much like AntiPaladin Games’ Mini Six version of the D6 System).

Gamers and game designers have long debated which is more important, rules or setting. In many cases designers specifically craft rules to suit a particular genre. In others they adapt a core game engine (with or without a publicly available core rulebook) to original settings. Can a rules set successfully exist without a compelling setting?

Part of the challenge in creating a core, system-neutral rulebook like one for the D6 System remains finding an audience for a rules-only book without an exciting setting associated with the mechanics. Many gamers are fans of systems already attached to existing settings and seek to port it to other genres (much like West End Games’ Star Wars Roleplaying Game, the parent of D6). Others look for core rules sets compatible with their play styles to adapt to their favorite genres. Both highlight a key point -- the preferred setting -- the absence of which makes genre-neutral core rulebooks rather flat; a setting not only inspires interest but demonstrates how the rules operate within the context of a specific genre. The larger the core rulebook and more complex the system, the more work gamemasters face to adapt setting-neutral mechanics to a particular genre.

The list of popular roleplaying games with innovative, popular settings is far longer than the list of successful, generic rulebooks derived even from those exciting games. R. Talsorian’s Cyberpunk (both the 2013 and 2020 versions) emerged at a time when that literary science fiction genre remained popular in the public’s eye; but the associated Interlock system and its iterations saw only limited popularity as a stand-alone, setting-neutral game engine, despite its use in some the company’s other games. Guardians of Order’s TriStat system served it well for its Big Eyes, Small Mouth series of games but didn’t find much popularity as a separate entity. Fudge, a rules-light game engine from Grey Ghost Press, Inc., found its way into a handful of specific settings over the years, morphed into the more currently popular FATE system, and still remains available for free at the publisher’s web site. West End Game’s first attempt at a generic system, MasterBook, premiered with a setting-neutral core rulebook and two “World of” genre sourcebooks (The World of Bloodshadows-- an original property -- and The World of Indiana Jones); despite numerous licensed settings, the game failed to take off thanks in part to a game engine overly complex for its presumed media fan audience. Apart from the Star Wars Roleplaying Game, West End Games’ D6 System found brief resurgence at least twice: first in the mid 1990s when associated with the Indiana Jones and Hercules & Xena licenses (though the latter used a success-based derivative called D6 Prime) along with the D6 System: The Customizable Roleplaying Game setting-neutral framework; then in the mid 2000s as long-format D6 Systemcore rulebooks, what I call the D6 Trilogy (D6 Fantasy, D6 Adventure, and D6 Space) under the auspices of Purgatory Publishing (as West End Games). Arguably the system has seen recent resurgence with Wicked North Games’ stewardship of d6 Magazine and its incorporation of an iteration of the D6 System in its Cinema6 Framework, Azamar, and Westwardgames, and to a lesser-known extent as AntiPaladin Games’ system-neutral Mini Six rulebook (a personal favorite of mine).

Most of these systems have fallen by the wayside in the wake of more popular games firmly based in compelling settings or brands. Few can survive successfully for long in the face of the hobby’s juggernaut brand, Dungeons & Dragons (in whatever edition/flavor you choose, including the powerful Pathfinder Roleplaying Game brand). Some, like the D6 System, have enjoyed some degree of resurgence thanks to an active fan base and publisher advocates, much more feasible in an Internet Age of Facebook, Google+, and web site forum communities.

Exceptions: GURPS & Risus

Two exceptions come to mind demonstrating how a core rulebook can find success separately (for the most part) from a compelling setting: S. John Ross’ Risus: The Anything RPG and Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS.

The free Risus rules provide an “RPG lite” based on character clichés instead of skills, with a built-in depletion mechanic for dealing with hit points, power loss, and similar ability drains. The brief rules offer several optional systems to vary gameplay across genres and play styles. Its ease of adaptability -- based on character clichés covering broad skill sets -- enables gamemasters to quickly customize Risus to any genre, even those beyond the humorous ones for which the game suggests it’s best. Much of the game’s success comes not in a financially profitable sense compared to other game releases in the roleplaying game “industry,” but from a broad fan base, online community, and generous creators sharing new material. The Risusverse online community serves as a nexus for the game’s fans and a resource for numerous settings, scenarios, and even cliché lists. Other authors, like the prolific Brent Wolke, have crafted slick-looking supplements to mold their original settings to the Risus rules available on their blogs (in this case, Wolke’s engine of thwaak).

Thanks to its immense popularity, long provenance, and strong product support, Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS remains perhaps the only successful, system-neutral rules set. Unlike Risus, the game indulges in the comprehensive rules “crunch” many hard-core roleplaying gamers enjoy (I’ve not played it, but I own and have perused the “lite” version, a past edition, and a German edition). With the power of one of the largest and oldest game companies left in the “industry,” it has solid marketing and online community support. Perhaps GURPS derives its greatest power from the numerous volumes of compatible setting sourcebooks covering particular genres, specific settings, even licensed properties. They’re incredibly inspirational not only for fans of the game but those seeking resources to adapt to their own favored game engines. For instance, I’m not a GURPS player, but I still own sourcebooks for ancient Egypt and Rome, plus a few other non-historical genres (such as the fascinating Warehouse 23, designed by Risus creator S. John Ross). GURPS’ success comes both from fans and strong market performance, though, like many roleplaying game lines, it may seem eclipsed by other popular hobby gaming pursuits.

Balancing Act

Most of this missive has focused on the existence of a core rules set apart from setting, and the viability of that as a stand-alone publication. Perhaps the lesson learned -- after this ponderous examination -- depends on one’s intent. Going to the rules-only extreme runs the risk of a limited audience focusing only on game mechanics apart from setting. Creators merging rules within a specific, compelling setting -- the usual strategy -- balance the best of both according to their own tastes, with the benefit of an appealing game world putting the rule in practical context and tempting gamers with an inspirational setting. Some folks (myself included) eschew the rules altogether in favor of primarily setting material (as I’ve done with my Any-System Key setting sourcebooks Pulp Egyptand Heroes of Rura-Tonga). The balancing act depends chiefly on the creator’s intent and future marketing strategy. No matter what proportion of rules to setting one provides, it must seek success among gamers with often mercurial, broad-ranging tastes in both.