8. Simulacres (1988)
A French rpg from Casus Belli. The main volume, Simulacres, came out as a 96-page special release. It offered a tight set of mechanics, about ten pages worth, accompanied by seven different settings. Each genre section had different authors and ranged from medieval fantasy to pulp adventure to horror to spy stories to TV dramas. Each section had two pages of rules for handling distinct elements, followed by a 5-6 page scenario. Simulacres seems to be a touchstone for French rpg gamers, judging by the comments and arguments over it on Le Grog. The roots of Simulara seem to be a release from the comic publisher Humanoids. Called La Fleur de L'Asiamar, it had a BRP-style booklet and a scenario co-written by Alejandro Jodorowsky. Simulacres received several supplements: Aventures Extraordinaires & Machinations Infernales (a Vernian setting my Steampunk lists missed); Capitaine Vaudou (piracy); Cyber Age (cyberpunk); and SangDragon (fantasy). In '94 the publisher released a revised version which focused more on general role-play issues.
9. Binary (1990)
Another French game, apparently one page long. The minimalist Binary came in a plastic bag with those rules and an advertisement twice as long for other games. Players resolve actions by tossing a coin in Binary. Normally I'd leave something like this off, but it seems to have been actually distributed and sold in stores.
We played a lot of supers in the 1980's. Champions stood on the top of the heap for local groups. Sure everyone made occasional detours into V&V and DC Heroes, but GMs eventually returned to 12 phase rounds, calculated characteristics, and killing attacks. Hero Games recognized early on they could use Champions’ base system for multiple genres. They tried a few variations, like Espionage! The Secret Agent RPG, its better sequel Danger International, and Fantasy Hero. Some didn't go over well, like Justice, Inc., Robot Warriors, and Star Hero. My group stood ready for a universal edition of the system, having already adapted it to G.I. Joe, super-wuxia, and Middle Earth.
Hero delivered big with two versions: one bundled together with Champions (the big blue book) and the other a supers-free standalone. With George Perez covers and smart design, players immediately switched over. I don't think I've ever seen a smoother edition shift. Hero supported the line with theme tracks: Champions, Dark Champions, and Fantasy Hero as well as smaller genre lines like Western Hero and Cyber Hero. They'd carry that format through to 5th edition.
Hero System offered a point-based, complete construction, math-driven system. Rival GURPS collapsed and abstracted elements: you don't pay points for everything like weapons & equipment. But Hero made that an important part of play. GURPS performed well at the low end of the scale, making it ideal for "normals" games. We ran for horror, gangsters, and the like with it. But GURPS broke down at higher levels; stronger powers meant more points and more tracking. Balance went out the window. Hero had the opposite problem. It worked fantastic at higher levels, which made sense since it came out of supers. But characters felt same-y at lower levels. Options didn't feel as distinct as those offered by GURPS. In the end while we admired Hero System’s symmetry, balance, and mechanics, we went with GURPS when we weren't playing supers.
11. Saga System (1991)
This German RPG seems to be the culmination of a long-running series of generic products. The company had previously released trap books, riddle collections, fantasy settings, and a generic magic system. Saga offered a simple but complete set of rules which could be used with any of those or applied to other genres. From what I can tell it used a d20 for resolution combined with an action result table. Saga System seems to have lasted, and I believe there's still an edition of it in print today.
An all-in-one system you may not have heard of that has a new edition in the works. The 160 page Adventure Maximum core book looks efficient. The back cover smartly goes through its selling points: quick character creation, comprehensive skills, simple mechanics, visual combat, and coverage for equipment & magic. The game itself feels a lot like GURPS for character creation, with advantages, disadvantages, and a stat/skill combo. But it shifts away from there to more complex terms and numbers.
Characters choose a Creed (Saintly, Villainous, Diabolical, etc) and assign values to a Personality Profile. The PP rates your feelings about different concepts in five degrees from Love to Hate. The 15 areas include Authority, Children, Foreigners, and Torture. Then it assesses your personality traits in five degrees from Very Weak to Extreme. Attitudes include Confident, Pious, Suspicious, Vengeful. The game's character sheets take up three pages with the first for stats, that personality profile, and skills. The second tracks armor, equipment, abilities, and disads. The third covers all of the combat details. That’s important because the system rates attacks across different attack profiles (Jab, Slash, Impale, etc) and armor/damage across sixteen hit locations. Note that my assessment comes from a reading of the 2008 playtest document for a revised edition of Adventure Maximum, so the original may be different. The designer has continued to work on the system and you can check out his blog here.
13. Amazing Engine (1993)
Prolific designer David "Zeb" Cook took the lead in this, TSR's first attempt at a universal system. The Amazing Engine base rules came as a 32-page booklet. This covered the basics of character creation, action resolution, and combat. Amazing Engine took the standard path of stats and skills combined with a point-buy approach. It also went with with percentiles for tests. The whole idea wasn't bad. GURPS had cut a path for them and seemed to be doing well. However the Amazing Engine line lacked focus and support. As well the settings on offer weren't that exciting or spectacular. Non-TSR gamers thought they looked weak and TSR gamers stuck with tried & true AD&D products. The company released nine setting supplements: For Faerie, Queen and Country, Bughunters, Magitech, The Galactos Barrier, Once and Future King, Metamorphosis Alpha to Omega, Kromosome, and Tabloid!. They all felt middle of the road, with perhaps the exception of Metamorphosis Alpha to Omega which tried to reignite that franchise. One year later TSR, still flailing for direction, shut down the line.
Theatrix is a strange beast. I remember flipping through it and being turned off by the references to dramatics, directing, and staging. I read that as pretentious rather than innovative. I was firmly embedded in the classic gaming culture of the time. Both the local game store and gaming community had begun to pull in several directions: Old Grognards, Standard Trad Gamers, Storygame LARPers, and an incoming generation just picking shiny things off the shelf. In particular LARP and anything that smacked of LARPing got a bad rep from the older gamers. I assumed Theatrix was just another Mind's Eye Theatre thing, which it wasn't. The company didn't do itself any favors with its first setting supplement: Ironwood, Bill Willingham's soft-core fantasy sex comic. We had to pull that off the shelf.
But there's a lot of amazing stuff in Theatrix I missed. It offered a diceless system (with optional diced mechanics), collaborative creation, aspect-like approaches, a focus on improvisation, and highly scalable mechanics. However for all it wants to be simple and easy to play, Theatrix obscures the rules. Some of that comes from overwriting and over explanation. The game has minimal Basic Rules, but then straps a ton of other stuff to that. But more opacity comes from the desire to use dramatic, theatrical, and cinematic terms and ideas for everything. The whole thing feels like it could be cut down by at least two-thirds. Still it's daring for the time and a strong precursor for games like Primetime Adventures.
15. WEBS Basic Gaming System (1993)
This game has quite the cover. It’s like a Geocities page. WEBS is a self-published, universal system that seems to rework of D&D. It uses stats, skills, and point-buy. The points seem ridiculously high, with a human starting out at 2000BP. The system has skills and sketchy versions of magic and psionics. While the core book's only 86 pages, 24 of that's given over to equipment. WEBS seems like a heartbreaker hodge-podge. Yet they released a second edition two years later, managed to get tepidly positive cover blurbs from Shadis & Starlog, and even released a sci-fi supplement twice as long as the core book. I don't know what to make of that. For a detailed review, check out this one on RPGNet.
Several games in this period took a generic, settingless, or multidimensional approach:
- Dream Park: You play as character playing in a park as characters. A short and solid game that had pregens for quick play and light, adaptable rules.
- In The Labyrinth: As I mentioned above, ITL aimed for a flexible fantasy system which many people adapted to other genres.
- Lords of Creation: A game taking place across all times, dimensions, and myths. While it has a universal approach, there's a strongly sketched frame. Players are the Lords of the title, gaining power to shape reality.
- Morpheus: The Roleplaying System of the Mind's Eye!: Playing in a future VR reality. The back cover states that it has been "(h)eralded as the best roleplaying system ever developed." Wow!
- Phoenix Command: A multi-volume, suuuuper crunchy system, which tries to just model combat. And guns. Lots and lots of guns.
- Risus: The Anything RPG: This only gets left off the list because it’s an electronic release. A great and simple system. It arguably influenced later designs.
17. Universal Aspiring
Several of the game systems of the era had portability, but never went full universal. TSR chose not to carry the same mechanics across their different rpgs. Others embraced that, whether for convenience or the desire to keep refining their work. Palladium Megaversal's probably the most important of these. A similar basic system powered Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Rifts, Palladium Fantasy, Beyond the Supernatural, and many more. They weren't exactly compatible, but you could make the transition. In ’91 they released the Palladium Conversion Guide. Tri-Tac likewise used the same clunky system across all of their titles: Stalking the Night Fantastic, Fringeworthy, FTL: 2448, and beyond. They had differences in stats and skills, but each shared core systems like insanely detailed hit locations. You could also see parallel mechanics in several FGU titles (Bushido, Daredevils), but they had even more titles which spiraled off in other directions.
In another approach, Iron Crown Enterprises tried to establish compatible systems for the big two genres: fantasy (Rolemaster) and sci-fi (Spacemaster). Likewise the French system Mega went through several iterations with different genres. But ICE also dabbled in strange genre books (Oriental Companion, Robin Hood, Cyberspace, Outlaw). They wanted RM to be universal without a stand-alone universal system book. White Wolf also built a cross-platform engine with Storyteller. They bolted a ton of disparate games to it. Eventually that lead to an 'almost' universal system with World of Darkness.
History of Universal RPGs (Part One: 1978-1993)
History of Universal RPGs (Part Two: 1994-1997)
History of Universal RPGs (Part Three: 1998-2004)
History of Universal RPGs (Part Four: 2005-2007)
History of Universal RPGs (Part Five: 2008-2009)
History of Universal RPGs (Part Six: 2010-2011)
History of Post-Apocalyptic RPGs
History of Steampunk & Victoriana RPGs
History of Superhero RPGs
History of Horror RPGs
History of Wild West RPGs