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Author Topic: The "universal" issue  (Read 2738 times)
Ron Edwards
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« on: June 07, 2001, 08:25:00 AM »

Hello everybody,

Martin and I were saying hello in the Site forum, and this topic came up. I thought it might be better served here.

It seems like a good time to clarify my approach to so-called "universal" RPG systems, which apparently has become distorted over time, perhaps through the famous Telephone effect.

My basic idea is that "universal" is not a practical goal of RPG design. However, that does NOT limit RPG design simply to one system +  one setting. An entirely reasonable option would be a "generalist" approach. Generalist and universal are not the same thing.

Here are the three possible notions. Again, I think the first is impossible and the second and third are totally reasonable.

1: UNIVERSAL.
My claim is that RPG design is not capable of being absolutely, completely, and totally functional for all instances of role-playing, which is what "universal" means.

I think this is the case because a given RPG has its own G/N/S goals, its own D/F/K design, and any number of other specific details like reward systems and the limits on the breadth of character effectiveness. In play, these aspects of the game design will tend to "express themselves" through the play decisions of the group.

Since people's preferences about these play decisions vary so widely, a single RPG cannot meet the needs of ALL role-players.

2: GENERALIST.
If a system is rather good at accomplishing certain role-playing priorities, it seems perfectly reasonable to associate that system with a variety of settings that are themselves consistent with those priorities. Those role-playing priorities can than be satisfied for a wider variety of players, although still within the boundaries of the game's principles. This is what I'll call "generalist" - it is still highly specific in terms of the principles of design, but it's officially applied to a variety of settings.

Generalist design is a fine thing - it means that someone may enjoy different settings without getting his play-priorities disrupted, and it means that the game can appeal to a wider variety of people (in terms of setting preference), and thus be more marketable.

I will clarify, however, that generalist design is not universal. The constraints (or focus, if you prefer) of the game's G/N/S and other goals are still very real.

3: SPECIFIC.
This would be an RPG that includes a specific setting and the tacit or explicit expectation that to play "this game," you are using "this setting. It seems to me that in most cases, this differs very little from generalist design - the publishers are simply associating what COULD be a generalist approach with a specific setting, instead of several.

There are some cases in which a specific setting seems to be obligatory, however. The third case below might or might not be combined with one of the other two.
a) Many settings carry with them such powerful thematic potential that they deserve the full attention, so to speak, of a given RPG. The system is capable of "generalist" application, but this particular setting is just too compelling to ignore. (Justifiers is my example here, although I don't think much of its system.)
b) Many settings are integrated fully with mechanics-goals of the system, such that they support one another thoroughly. (Puppetland is my example here; Unknown Armies might be another.)
c) A setting may be a central, intentional selling-point of the game. (Earthdawn, Deadlands, and many other metaplot-oriented games.)

Martin wrote,
"What do you think of "house systems" that are modified for each setting ? For instance BRP, Silhouette, Fuzion... is that a suitable compromise in your opinion?"

Those would be fine generalist systems/RPGs as I describe above. I don't think of them as "compromises" in any way, but perfectly functional design options, all on their own.

Some years ago, I encountered many role-players who insisted there were two options in RPG design: either a "generic" system that was intended for any (universal) settings, or a specific system that was associated with a single setting. What I proposed - Sorcerer, with no fixed setting but with a highly focused system - was utterly incomprehensible to these role-players. Perhaps it's the persistence of this false dichotomy that leads my take on this matter to be misunderstood, especially when filtered through others.

I decided to put this in the design forum because it represents a crucial design decision. After all, one should choose - are you designing a system for use across a variety of settings, a system to be associated with a single setting, or (should you so choose) a system intended to be truly universal.

Best,
Ron

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Dav
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« Reply #1 on: June 07, 2001, 08:36:00 AM »

Ron:

An interesting (to me, and let's face it, that's what counts) note.  Using the generalist model (I can see John going into conniptions over the "ists" about to be unleashed), would it be possible to make a system that is specific to, say, narrativists, then another each for simulationists and gamists?  Would it be more practical to focus on D/F/K, or upon a G/N/S principle when designing a generalist system, in your opinion?

Personally, I can see the DFK being pretty much hardwired into any system (not a lot of wiggle-room once you put down the system as it stands), but a neat slew of adaptations for turning systems from G to S, or permutations thereof.  Sorcerer, for instance, while not Universal, could easily be modified to have use outside of the standard Sorcerer model (I can't recall who, but someone made mention of the RORE system (Ripped-Off Ron Edwards)).  

Likewise, Orkworld's system could see use in other settings as well, with little adaptation (the Wicked System).  

But, and herein lies the rub, I see it harder to change the RORE into a simulationist system (gamist *might*, stressed heavily, be easier), than to adapt the Wicked SYstem into other, smoother transitions.  This is not to say it cannot be done, but Sorcerer, as it stands, is very bent upon the dynamic of the Sorcerer-character, whereas the alien-ness of Orkworld comes more from the mental and social interaction of the character (it is less a part of system, and more a function of the playing).

Anyway, I'm not sure if anything of substance was said above, so I'll stop now and nod wisely...

Dav
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #2 on: June 07, 2001, 10:12:00 AM »

Hi Dav,

We can call it "general" if the "ist" bugs you.

You might have left that post in the garage a bit longer ... kind of hard to sort out the engine from the exhaust, if you take my meaning.

Off the top of my head, I don't see a direct link between G/N/S and the general/specific options.

The only application would be that a given game's goal, as reinforced by specific mechanics, would have to be consistent with the variety of settings. But that's not real insightful.

I do think that for Narrativist games, the strict meaning of Premise as I've outlined on GO would be the common thread across the settings. Thus the Premise for Sorcerer - the internal limits of power, relative to its price - applies across any number of possible settings and interpretations of Humanity.

I disagree with your claim about Orkworld's potential across settings (at least until I get to the next paragraph). Trouble is Trouble; Orkworld without it would be so different as to be another game entirely. And with it, you're back to Orkish issues, unless you want to re-define the entire meaning and standards for awarding Trouble. If you do that, you've just un-Orkworlded it again. I'd place this game in the Specific category, for the same reasons as Puppetland.

However. Conceivably, you could jump settings while keeping Trouble. The Orkworld system would work well for any setting in which Hubris is the key character issue. But this would entail a lot of stripping and rebuilding, de-orking Orkworld so to speak. Compare this with the explicit design of Sorcerer, which is written to be general. (Sorcerer is a weird general game, though, because it's DIY instead of reliant on canned settings.)

Best,
Ron
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Dav
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« Reply #3 on: June 07, 2001, 10:30:00 AM »

Trouble is one facet of Orkworld that, yes, would need revamping and changing for a new system/setting.  However, the theory of a karma build-up (not to be confused with D/F/K) should work nicely in any setting.

Yes, de-orking the Orkworld is necessary to port the system to a new game, but I don't necessarily think that this means that the system itself cannot be mutated slightly to fit a new Premise.  Removing the entire fantasy setting still leaves a working system for task resolution, complete with a karma-version (again, not DFK) metagame.  

Drop-in a space opera, or any other setting, and I think that the overall nature would not require much rewriting.  Renaming, definitely, but not rewriting.

Anyway, just my thought.  Sorcerer is, yes, a different story, so I'll leave it at that.  If you would have made a square system, we could fit it in the square peg.  But NOOOO, had to make some kind of 'super-system', didn't you?

I go home now.

Dav
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