From Bespoke to Universal: Let's Talk About TTRPG Systems and Themes

Reynard

Legend
Supporter
One aspect of TTRPG design that interests me is the choice between creating a bespoke system for a particular theme/setting/milieu/whatever, versus applying a generic system -- and the continuum between the two.

Being an 80s kid, I grew up with D&D but also GURPS and Hero, both of which promised to be "universal" and succeeded and failed in varying degrees depending on what theme you applied them to. Then the 90s arrived and (usually convoluted, because 90s) bespoke systems became all the rage. From Shadowrun to Vampire to Deadlands and less known titles, designers went whole hog on creating unique mechanics for their games. Some of them even worked.

Then d20 appeared in the form of D&D 3E and it seemed like everyone jumped on that bandwagon. Not only did many existing games create d20 versions of their rules (almost universally to the detriment of the game; I can't think of one in which the d20 version was an improvement) but new (often licensed) games appeared with d20 as a foundation. D&D 3.5 mostly killed that trend dead in its infancy, but some games held on for a while. Ultimately, though, the mid 00s and 2010s were a time of innovation again.

5E hasn't had quite the same deep impact on the whole design space as d20 did, but there are still plenty of examples of games that were made 5E for no discernable reason other than "it's popular." In addition, House Systems have picked up steam again, with the likes of the Year Zero Engine and 2d20 each comprising a large number of different games, with those systems tweaked to better fir the specific theme and milieu of the specific game. The same can be said for Powered by the Apocalypse game -- except it is essentially the inversion of a House System. that is, many different houses use that system as a foundation, creating a huge amount of variation within its loosely defined borders. OSR games currently reside in a similar space.

There are of course new games with well defined bespoke system still coming out, even if they are sometimes hard to recognized in the sea of PbtA, FitD, OSR and 5E games.

"Universal" systems are less common these days. While GURPS and Hero still exist, the only intentionally universal system I can think of with any traction is Savage Worlds (currently in the form of Savage Worlds Adventure Edition aka SWDE). I really like SWADE and use it often. I create and run specific themed convention campaigns meant to go for 3 to 5 sessions all in one weekend, and SWADE has worked great for 80% of those. I don't like it very much for supers or horror, though, so not everything fits.

How do you feel about bespoke systems versus House Systems versus "universal/generic" systems. Are there certain types of games where you prefer one over the other? What about the proliferation of one system, be it something like 5E or something like PbtA, that eats up a lot of design space in the hobby? When you decide you want to run something, how do you decide on the system?

Thanks.
 

log in or register to remove this ad

I mostly run GURPS, simply because the kinds of semi-historical games that I like to run fit it well, and my players are used to it. I don't feel any pressure to conform to fashions in the hobby. The only other rule system I've run recently is AD&D1e, for the setting I've been running since 1979.

The modern system I've started playing recently is Blades in the Dark, where I'm starting to suspect that the advantage of the system for GMs is that it offloads much of the fitting-actions-to-rules work to the players, and the same goes for most systems with limited sets of moves or playbooks.
 

payn

I don't believe in the no-win scenario
I just received my Cowboy Bebop KS recently. I sprung for the special dice sets for each character and figurines too. There are rules for making your very own Cowboy Bebopper but I have no intention of doing that. This will strictly be a one shot bespoke experience for love of the series. I also have BladeRunner from KS as well. Same there, there are rules for making characters, but i'm more likely to run it one shot. I just want to concentrate on a great singular experience.

Now I have a friend who views RPG systems as entirely from a universal perspective. Bladerunner for example, he expects there to be detailed car rules and attack ships in space with plasma rifles and whatever else is mentioned in the film. He scoffed at the idea when I told him I planned to make pregens for whenever I get around to running this. Oddly, they feel the same about Aliens. Any RPG for them should be a universal kit with campaign implications.

For some im guessing tradition has set the expectation. Others have a very deep seated idea that an RPG must be universal or it cleaves too close to video/board game territory or something. Not sure how it forms in the minds of gamers but ive seen all different types. Now, I do enjoy universal systems like Traveller, D&D and Pathfinder. I like that they are general world sims that leave a lot of room for GMs to make whole cloth stories or use published campaigns to expand into detailed campaigns. I truly think both genral and bespoke systems are neccesary for the hobby. I simply dont have the time or the players to do a level 1-20 RPG expeince in every theme and IP under the sun. I find value in both styles of play.
 

soviet

Hero
The main point to make is that games can be universal in terms of genre and subject matter but how you approach those genres and subject matters is absolutelty system dependent and variable. Even within the family of D&D games we see very different emphases on simulationism vs gamism, gritty survival vs cinematic protagonism, etc. GURPS can run a variety of different genres but they will all be through a detailed simulationist prism. My own game Other Worlds can run a variety of different genres but they will all be through a cinematic or narrativist prism.

I'm not sure that d20 had much of an impact on the design space so much as it had an influence on the commercial space. There is some interesting design work behind 3e but it's mostly in applying patterns of uniformity and simulationism from other games to the D&D millieu. I don't think there is any such innovation behind 5e and to the extent that it has been universalised in the design space this is solely a result of commercial imperatives.
 


payn

I don't believe in the no-win scenario
I will say im a bit strange when it comes to general RPGs in that I dont like true universal systems like GURPs or Savage Worlds. If I go from fantasy, to modern urban, to sci-fi, to Victorian, etc.. the mechanics always take me out of it and remind me exactly what system im using. So, for me it tends to be PF/D&D for fantasy, Traveller for Sci-Fi, etc.. I dont have and never will have one to rule them all.
 



Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
So, I think there's a bit of intricacy that can enter into this discussion - several of the engines you mention here straddle the line between universal and bespoke.

PbtA is an example of this - it isn't a game. It is a framework for games - and each PbtA game you see has its own bespoke playbooks. We see this also in Cortex Prime - you can't actually open the book and play the game. It is a toolbox, and you must make several choices (like what your stats are, and how you are handling "health") such that what you end up with is pretty specific to what you want to do.
 

Reynard

Legend
Supporter
PbtA is an example of this - it isn't a game. It is a framework for games - and each PbtA game you see has its own bespoke playbooks. We see this also in Cortex Prime - you can't actually open the book and play the game. It is a toolbox, and you must make several choices (like what your stats are, and how you are handling "health") such that what you end up with is pretty specific to what you want to do.
PbtA versus something like Cortex Prime is interesting because as far as I know, there is no Cortex Prime like book for PbtA, no toolkit manual to help you build the game you want. I think that makes Cortex more like Hero (even though gameplay wise they might be far apart). PbtA is more like a genus of games, if that makes sense.
 

Voidrunner's Codex

Remove ads

Top