Tuesday, March 12, 2013

D6 System Core Rulebook

Creating a core rulebook for an easy-to-learn, popular roleplaying game engine like the D6 System remains a challenge, especially when it’s reverse-engineered from the system’s popular, setting-specific version. A recent dialogue on Google+ with Wicked North Games’ venerable Brett Pisinski briefly dared me to consider whether I’d release a game using the D6 System rules and lamented that no core game book really existed. In thinking back on it I took far more time than I should have to examine the issue and decide whether -- even in the distant future -- developing a core D6 System rulebook was something that interested me.

I’d debate whether a core rulebook already exists. West End Games, resurrected under the auspices of Purgatory Publishing in late 2003, produced the D6 Space, D6 Fantasy, and D6 Adventure rulebooks, along with a handful of setting supplements. AntiPaladin Games more recently released Mini Six, a concise summary of the core and optional rule concepts along with a handful of brief settings across the genre spectrum. The Purgatory Publishing and AntiPaladin Games offerings remain available for free in PDF form and have been released for broad use and modification under the terms of the Open Game License (OGL), a scheme under which Wizards of the Coast encouraged a flood of third-party publishing in secondary support of its third edition Dungeons & Dragons d20 game engine in 2000.

(Of course I’m not including in this discussion genre-specific games employing versions of the OGL D6 System, such as Wicked North GamesAzamar and Westward; these incorporate and modify the D6 System mechanics to particular settings and thus cannot function as core D6 System rulebooks…and I’m no longer aware whether the company’s Cinema6 framework remains freely available online.)

Caveat:I’m a longtime gamer, primarily of games using the D6 System. I’ve worked on official material for West End’s Star Wars Roleplaying Game, Men in Black Roleplaying Game, Hercules & Xena Roleplaying Game, supplements for D6 Space, even Wicked North Games’ Westward. Many games I’ve run for friends or at conventions use some form of the D6 System, even if based on my original source material using the Any-System Key.

Past D6 System Books

The D6 System has a long and convoluted history (one I wrote about more comprehensively at the Griffon Publishing Studio website long ago). Originally designed by Chaosium for the licensed Ghostbusters roleplaying game published by West End Games in 1986, it found immense popularity in the second licensed setting to which it was attached -- West End’s Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game -- through essentially three editions (first, second, and Second Edition, Revised & Expanded, considered by many a third edition).
Despite its popularity when merged with other licenses (including games based on Men in Black and Hercules & Xena), it did not receive anything like a core D6 System rulebook treatment until 1996, when West End published The D6 System: The Customizable Roleplaying Game. Under time and financial constraints, the company assembled the80-page hodgepodge of rules, advice, and options for customizing D6 to any game setting. The book served more as a D6 roleplaying game toolkit than a full-fledged game system. It suffered from cramming all the trappings of a complete roleplaying game -- chapters on character creation, combat, running adventures, and gamemastering -- while also incorporating new rules developments. As such it included no sample settings and little genre material. Established Star Wars players seeking guidance on translating their favorite game worlds to D6snatched up the short print run and advocates of West End hailed it as the beginning of a new campaign to promote D6 apart from Star Wars, but the product failed to soar on its own without an associated setting, an outstanding graphic presentation, and a steady stream of official support. At the time it served effectively as the D6 core rulebook in the absence of any other effort.

After West End’s bankruptcy collapse in 1998 the D6 System foundered for several years, used for licensed games in a few desperate releases. When Purgatory Publishing acquired the rights in late 2003 it embarked on an ambitious campaign to re-launch the game engine through the D6 Space, D6 Fantasy, and D6 Adventure rulebooks and a handful of supportive supplements. It licensed the system to other publishers, but the envisioned resurgence of D6 didn’t take off as planned, and the system languished until Purgatory Publishing put it in the realm of the Open Game License for others to use. With the internet enabling more people -- both fans and professionals -- to publish gaming material in PDF and print-on-demand format, several incarnations of D6 System rules appeared, the most notable being AntiPaladin Games’ generic Mini Six and Wicked North Games’ Cinema6 (along with its fantasy-genre Azamar). These recent efforts kept interest in the D6 Systemalive in the gaming public’s collective consciousness, though marginally important in a market where consumers’ attention often remains split between favorite “classic” games and the “new and shiny” groundbreaking game systems coming out with maddening frequency.

One might argue whether any of these attempts succeeded based on different criteria various gamers might impose. Genre-neutral core system rulebooks rarely do very well; the only one I know with any staying power over the years has been Steve Jackson Games’ esteemed GURPS, well-supported over the years by a horde of excellent setting sourcebooks. West End’s own MasterBook core rulebook -- released in the early 1990s when company management believed the generic rules derived from TORG and Shatterzone were the future course for new game releases -- sold poorly on its own, though it was packaged with numerous licensed and at least one original game setting.

The View from My Desk

I’ll go out on a limb here and -- by my own standards and expectations -- claim that AntiPaladin Games’ Mini Six remains the best distillation of the D6 Systemcurrently available and as close to a “core” D6 rulebook as we’ll get for a while. Purgatory Publishing’s trilogy of genre-specific D6rulebooks have beautiful covers and some wonderful interior artwork, but each repeats about 75 percent of the core information, with minor variations for genre-specific elements. Some might view the “optional” disadvantage, advantage, and special ability system as needlessly excessive for a core game, something Mini Six concisely distilled into brief “perks” affecting in-play game mechanics and “complications” that added background depth to characters with deeper roleplaying ramifications.

One starts pondering questions regarding design rationale behind any generic core rulebook. Should it stick to a concise summary of the rules and options, or should it become a comprehensive examination of what gamers can do with the system? Must a generic core rulebook tap into a massive fan base -- much like GURPS built over the years -- and have the support of numerous supplements for both broad genres and specific settings (original or licensed) for success? Can it function and encourage gamers to play it without some sample setting material, however brief?s

In my estimation, a “core” rulebook for a game engine -- particularly D6 -- requires three key elements:

* Core rules summary, including an overview of character creation and advancement rules (with possible attributes and skills briefly described), combat and task resolution, monster and vehicle creation, and exceptional applications for such rules (like magic, psionics, extraordinary vehicles).

* Setting customization guidelines, a “how-to” guide to adapting the generic rules to specific settings.

 * An authoritative publisher to release, promote, and support the rules as the “definitive” version of the game for customization by players and professionals.

By my estimation, AntiPaladin Games’ Mini Sixhits two of these three key goals, with the added benefit that it’s well-written and concise. I offered a more in-depth look at Mini Six over at Hobby Games Recce a few years ago; rereading that feature and thumbing through the book I realize with more certainty that it is still a worthy successor and “core” D6 System rulebook.

While my examination of what makes a good core rulebook inspired some interesting ideas on how I’d do it -- keep things basic and concise, include PDF forms for character sheets, vehicles, and adversaries, offer a few four-page settings, and distill rules into key elements -- after casual consideration I’ve decided it’s not worth my time pursuing on my own as a project of Griffon Publishing Studio. I’m not as familiar with the Open Game License as I’d like, (including its applications and limitations), and am not certain one could re-package D6 unattached to some original, proprietary game setting. And if the constraints of the license did allow me to present a version of the D6 System, I’m not sure folks would want to pay for something they could find online for free in several other formats and customize to their own purposes. Peter Schweighofer and his Griffon Publishing Studio are hardly an authoritative publisher (despite my past experience with D6); right now I certainly don’t have the time to adequately promote and support the release of a core D6 book and any “resurgence” of the game system on my own.

The debate whether I’d use the D6 System OGL for my own, original setting game projects remains open to discussion. The game engine remains my preferred system for personal play, as I’m most familiar with it having both played and written for it in various incarnations throughout my more than 20-year professional publishing career (and even longer time as a gamer). I even recall drafting a quick, three-page fantasy version of the mechanics (along with an informative character sheet) around 2000 to run a game based in the wonderful Thieves’ Worldsetting of Sanctuary, as published long ago by Chaosium. I came very close to “licensing” the system from Purgatory Publishing’s incarnation West End Games in the mid-2000s for my Pulp Egyptsetting sourcebook -- and in fact began writing that manuscript complete with D6 System stats and mechanics -- but this was before Purgatory Publishing put the system into the realm of the Open Game License, and I wasn’t interested in limiting myself to the company’s whims regarding licensing, however much I admired the company’s generosity at the time.

So for now I’ll put any inspirational vision I have for a D6 System core rulebook in the back filing cabinet of my mind; I would love to develop it someday if I had the authority and marketing momentum to promote it properly, but it would be a labor of love that, sadly, I’ll set aside for the moment.

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