Universal May Mean Plain Oatmeal

I’m currently organizing the work needed to design four unique settings. Each of these settings will use the Fudge RPG system for the underlying mechanics, but each will also require setting specific rules. Interoperability was one of the things that I listed as a potential design requirement, but after a little bit of thought I decided not to pursue it.

I used to believe (about 20 some years ago) that a good system would already have the rules needed to cover every situation that might be encountered during a game. I then shifted to the opinion that a good game system does not attempt to cover every possible situation, but that it could accommodate new rules as needed. I now believe that a good game system cannot be used to design every type of rule or mechanic that might be needed, and that the games that use the system should not use all of the rules available for that system. The games shouldn’t even be played together.

So your universal game system should be like plain oatmeal. Wholesome, nutritious, and boring as the color beige. You should not throw anything cool into the universal system. You should not provide any flavor to it at all. That universal system should be the bare minimum needed to play a game with.

That flavor should come from the settings and the actual games themselves. You might use the universal game system to design a WWII fighter aces game with rules for dogfights and aerial combat, and you might use the same universal game system to design a game about immortal cosmic beings who feed off of stars and can crush planets, but you should not attempt to design those two games to work with each other. Even after all of that work some people may still not like the game system regardless of the unique flavors that it comes in. Some people just don’t like oatmeal.

Just because two games use the same underlying game system does not mean that they need to interoperate together. Just like you might make a bowl of oatmeal with peaches and cream, and another bowl of oatmeal with maple syrup and brown sugar. By themselves those two distinct bowls of oatmeal are awesome tasting, but once you combine them you probably just end up with one overpowering the other and neither tasting very good.

Don’t believe me? Look at Rifts. Lots of great settings, lots of great materials to work with, and a system that is spread so thin that it really is not a system at all. Maybe you feel differently about the game, but that has always been a problem for me with Rifts. It tries to be everything for everybody, and in the end it fails at everything for everyone.

I also feel that same thing was true of White Wolf’s games during the 1990s. Yeah you could play a vampire in one game, and a werewolf in another game, and those two different games blended together rather nicely. But then along came those mages and any player worth half their dice bag could mop the floor playing a mage against any vampire or werewolf. Flashlights were full of sunshine and every blade and bullet were made of silver with a couple of simple spells.

This is not to say that the individual games were bad. I felt that they were all quite good by themselves. They just didn’t blend well, and perhaps they were never meant to.

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment below.