Of Universal Systems

Every so often on twitter, as I scroll through the #ttrpg tag, I see a certain type of tweet. It’s always from an account with a game-studio-sounding name I’ve never heard of, something like Darkwood Games or Blathersplotch Studios. In the tweet, they announce an exciting new UNIVERSAL table-top roleplaying system! Finally! A system that puts YOU in control! You can do whatever you want with it! Be a pirate! Or a space captain! Or (insert third generic genre here)!

It always breaks my heart a little to see these posts, maybe straggling along with one or two likes. I add my own little heart icon, because hey, buck-up champ. We all deserve a shot, right?

I suppose there’s nothing wrong with a universal system, in theory. Who doesn’t want a game that could do everything? The problem is, most people find their universal system and stick with it. They play FATE. Or GURPS. Or Cypher. Or Genesys. Or some other system I haven’t heard of. No one’s really out there looking for a new universal system to come along and sweep them off their feet. Also, if you’re thinking about designing a universal system, please, glance over those that have come before. Think about what they get right, and what they get wrong. Nothing will help your design more than reading the designs that have come before you.

So the first problem the would-be universal designer faces is one of marketing to a saturated market. But! New universal systems come out all the time, and some are pretty darn successful! Look at Cypher, or Genesys, both released in the last few years. What was the secret to their success?

To me, it seems pretty obvious. These games did not start out as “universal” systems. They started out as specific, good, focused games that did one thing very, very well, usually with an established brand name (in the case of Genesys with Star Wars) or with a big name designer attached (Like Monte Cook and Cypher’s progenitor, Numenera). The key seems to be to start with a specific idea, build a system to execute that idea very well, and then, and only then, when your game is wildly successful, start thinking about spinning off a generic system.

Some of the designers I see on twitter seem to have already absorbed some of this, their posts announcing a NEW, EXCITING GAME built on the ALL NEW whatever-the-fuck GAME ENGINE, the FLAGSHIP GAME in what’s sure to be many, many other iterations!

Here’s the thing. You never want to tell people this is just your first pass at cramming a universal set of rules into a specific genre. They don’t want to hear about how adaptable your system is or all the great things your going to do with it eventually. No, they want to know about your game, the one you’re making right now, and what makes it so special. The way the market is going, people want games with cool, specific theming and a system that supports the theme in interesting ways.

Again, none of this isn’t to say that generic systems are an impossibility. After all, some massive success starts by going against the accepted wisdom. And you should probably be doubtful of any stern pronouncements I make, given my track record when it comes to success. Still, I think more tightly focused game systems, focused on bringing out the best of the setting and the theme they were built for, would make the ttrpg scene more diverse, exciting, and interesting.

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