The Problem with Generic Systems
RPG Design is a particularly unrewarding endeavor for one to go into. It’s unimpressive to tell someone you’ve designed your own game system, the market is over-saturated, and even if one successfully publishes and makes sales one is likely to face criticism from a fickle market.
Along with that, an RPG requires both the talents of a good game designer, and the talents of a good writer. This combination is unfortunately rare, so designers tend to be substantially better at one of these things. Naturally system designers are inclined toward generic systems, and writers toward genre games. The writer in this scenario is the More Valuable Player; because a Genre Game will always beat a Generic System.
Why is this? Why are Genre Games better? Why does D20 outsell GURPS? The reason is that Generic Systems must always be too complex. Genre Games, on the other hand, provide a User Interface that enables gamers to understand and utilize the system with ease.
Let’s talk about GURPS
If you are a gamer, it is quite likely that you know about GURPS. It’s possible that you’ve even picked up a few of its supplements to adapt to your other games. However there’s a good chance you haven’t played GURPS, or if you did you remember it being “complex”. The system is described as “bland”, a “jack of trades”, “complicated”, etc… The impression so many have, many who have read the books, is that GURPS is fundamentally broken.
I am going to let you in on a secret:
GURPS IS NOT BROKEN
There! Is that settled? GURPS (especially Fourth Edition) is actually inspiring in how well designed it is. It is overflowing with options for players and GM’s. It provides the tools and resources to build a vast array of characters. It has combat options. Supplements to cover more rules. All very carefully balanced by Physicists and Engineers (no, I’m not kidding).
So what’s the problem? GURPS is almost 600 pages of rules allowing a the players access to a set of rules to cover most things relating to most genres. Supers, Robots, Magic, Mystery? GURPS has it all. This sounds great, but it suffers from one enormous flaw. It is completely impossible to sit down with GURPS and start playing anything. It is at minimum an hour prep time for a Game Master to prune the rules into a subset that is appropriate for the Campaign. (Step deemed unnecessary by experienced players)
There are a few, limited, GURPS supplements that have done this work ahead of time. Those books are not things like “Supers”, instead they are books focused on a specific setting, and even then a player get’s only references to the other rules. In these cases GURPS becomes a database of rules one references when faced with an actual game.
Let’s Talk About Something Else
While GURPS has the flaw of long prep time, other systems suffer from other problems. Specifically, the most popular setting rich games (Genre Games) are also typically using systems that are fundamentally flawed. Steve Jackson would never make armor cost a third it’s weight in gold, but D20 (3.5) does; the relative power of Dexterity vs Strength in Vampire is a problem Greg Stolze (One Roll Engine) probably would have caught.
Here’s the thing about RPG systems. They are actually complicated and hard to get right. The process of getting them right requires Architectural skills.
However these systems will always do better in the market because they produce the more marketable side of an RPG, and furthermore they actually produce a game that is playable from the gate. Vampire: The Masquerade is flawed in many respects, yet it is an intensely enjoyable game because it is a complete game imbedded in a very rich setting.
The Proof That You Can’t Sell a System
If you want a game system, you pretty much can us Google and pick from a large set of Game Systems. Game Systems no matter how well designed are cheap. Why? The quality of a Game System is a multiplier of the quality of the Game Material. Consider this… you can get, for free, the system to the most popular RPG in the world, and even adapt it to your own game and resell it. The D20 SRD, no matter how flawed, is the most used RPG rules set ever. Why? Because it’s free and tied to a rich setting which gives lots of material for anyone picking up any derivative work. WOTC never would have succeeded if they had gone the other way; if they had sold the rules set and given the settings away for free. That in fact would have been a disaster.
What about other systems? Fate Core and The Hero System are probably the most popular generic systems around right now. They have one thing in common. They both started out by publishing Genre Games and then eventually published a Generic Rules Set. No one (except maybe me) would have had any interest in Fate Core had it been Evil Hats first book. How do you sell a game like that? Instead they released The Dresden Files and Spirit of the Century which both were gripping complete games in and of themselves. Those created the momentum to allow production of Fate Core. And of course, Fate Core is published under and Open Gaming License which means that more material will be made expanding the options for anyone playing any future Fate games that Evil Hat publishes. The same analysis applies to Godlike and the One Roll Engine.
GURPS Could Be Saved but Wont Be
Steve Jackson Games could easily salvage GURPS. How? For starters they should release GURPS Lite under the OGL. Second, they should start producing Stand Alone Games based on the GURPS system. Don’t release GURPS Horror, release a few horror games with complete rules in them. These games would include all and only those rules relevant to the scope of the game. After those full games have success then release Supers, Horror, Powers, Martial Arts and GURPS Campaigns and Characters.
A Side Note
This phenomena is not limited to RPGs. It ties into the idea that Worse is Better. People need to actually use the systems. More powerful, more elegant systems are rarely chosen over systems that actually do stuff. Grep is better than your Windows file search, but “grep -rino .*find\ my\ stuff.* *” is just too much. Lisp is far more elegant than C++, but C++ allows you to brute force your way to a solution. No one cares how good the underlying system is, the product has to be immediately useful.
Relevance to Living Myth
So what does this mean for Living Myth? Living Myth will be designed not with the goal of publishing a Living Myth Core Rule Book. Instead Living Myth will be designed as an RPG system with the hope of eventually producing a Genre Game from it. Even if I never make a penny from Living Myth, I at least want it to be used by actual people in the world. This strategy is far more effective than designing a generic system and throwing it out there and hoping someone cares.