Generic Systems – Are They A One-Stop Solution?

Do generic roleplaying game systems work well across various genres and settings or do they work better for some over others? This short article will attempt to answer that question, but we must first look at some generic systems out there and assess their strengths and weaknesses. This article will only look at the most prominent players in this arena—Generic Universal RolePlaying System or GURPS, Savage Worlds, and open gaming licenses (OGLs).

The two most prominent systems are GURPS and Savage Worlds. GURPS (1986) and Savage Worlds (2003) have been around for decades. Each has several editions and many supplements in a multitude of genres: superheroes, spy thrillers, horror, high tech, etc. Falling in line behind these are various OGLs allowing rule sets, such as Wizards of the Coast’s 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons or Chaosium’s Basic Role-playing (BRP), to be used by third-party publishers in interesting ways. Thus, they can morph and become part of the generic roleplaying game arena. I want to point out that Chaosium’s BRP rule set has, in fact, been around for decades as well but has only recently been made available as an OGL.

Before moving on, I think it necessary to distinguish that a generic system or OGL adaptation stands alone and is different than taking something like Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu and publishing a Sci-Fi scenario via their community content program, The Miskatonic Repository. The reason for this distinction is the essence of the game and its fundamental core—cosmic horror using Call of Cthulhu’s rules—has not changed. Only the time and place the scenario occurs, and perhaps some supplemental rules have changed. Moreover, there is no overt assertion of the core rules being generic. Quite the opposite; Miskatonic Repositories authors must adhere to particular rules to avoid deviating too far from the game’s core product identity.

Wizards of the Coast’s OGL is used by many as a common platform on which to build their game. Over the last few years, the 5th edition of the “game” has been adapted to nearly every imaginable genre, which helps to place the OGL itself in the realm of generic systems. However, all OGLs have rules that publishers must abide by to ensure the integrity of intellectual property and goodwill. Beyond that, a publisher is free to adapt it to any genre or theme.

GURPS is a long-time player in this arena, and its game system is truly generic to the point where buying the rules is just the beginning. You must purchase supplements for whatever genre you want to work with to make the most of the game’s adaptability. The supplements not only give you a setting or genre-specific flavor but also rule changes specific to the genre. Savage Worlds is similar, but supplements do not impart as many changes to the fundamental rules as GURPS might. Savage Worlds also has a third-party publishing license, but not quite an OGL.

With a basic understanding of the big players and some basic definitions, the question remains: Do generic roleplaying game systems work well across various genres and settings, or do they work better for some over others?

GURPS is by far comes the closest to working well across most genres and settings, but in reality, it still does some better than others. According to reviewer and game expert Pookie (Reviews from R’lyeh), GURPS shines in most genres but falls short in areas like transhumanism and superheroes due to the genres’ complexity.

Savage Worlds has not had nearly as many genre-specific supplements, settings, or sourcebooks as GURPS, but it has had many adaptations like Dead Lands, Weird Wars, etc. Unlike GURPS, Savage Worlds’ rules are designed to accentuate over-the-top action and derring-do. To that end, it excels with supers and pulp-oriented, high-action themes. But in my experience, it falls flat in genres and settings that are not focused on over-the-top action, such as traditional horror.

Wizards of the Coast’s OGL is just not a good generic system to work with. It does fantasy well, and even Sci-Fi, but once you stray too far from the middle of the road, the constraints imposed by the OGL tend to hamstring publishers by imposing the use of specific language, core mechanics, etc. I think this particular OGL should not be used to shoehorn a game concept into just because… but I understand why it is used—player familiarity.

I am still looking for a generic system that is the be-all and end-all in terms of adaptability. With what is currently available, I think GURPS gives players the broadest canvas to work with, followed by Savage Worlds. I don’t want you to think I am discrediting what generic systems and even OGLs bring to the gaming space. They have their place, and some excel in certain areas better than others. Depending on your needs, a generic system can also save you money. That said, I believe Gamemasters are better served by seeking out a game designed to support the type of story they want to tell. If it is horror, find a horror game that meets your basic needs, and I am sure you will find it will likely do a better job of supporting the story you want to tell than a generic system pressed into service to support a horror story. The same holds true for all other genres.

The above is my opinion on this matter; what is your opinion on generic systems? Comment below and let us know.

~ Modoc

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One Comment Add yours

  1. dana atterbury says:

    I have used GURPS since 1991. I find its ability to create a useful skill system and cross genre terms to be highly useful. It mostly doesn’t interfere with fantasy / modern / or sci fi world creation. Some criticisms were a universal economy model that overly smoothed out important era differences and bell curve adjusted dice resolutions that didn’t allow for more exciting player outcomes.
    Tactical combat is realistic and can be crunchy goodness at times. Magic system could use more choices for GMs to fit better w themes but overall comprehensive. Rules for modern /sci fi vehicles somewhat opaque as players attempt to optimize their crazy plans.

    Liked by 1 person

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