There are a few RPG’s out there that try, or at least purport to be, “universal” or “generic” in nature, i.e. they supposedly can be used for any genre, setting, character, etc. GURPS, Savage Worlds, Cortex, Masterbook, and Fate are just some examples of these sorts of games. They advertise simple systems that can be applied to just about anything you can imagine, and support “multi-genre” games, or games that characters can hop from setting to setting without trouble. For example, a character designed to be a sword-n-sorcery wizard can travel in some manner to a high-tech, far-flung space opera game without having to change or remake the character.
This is said to make the inevitable change of setting easy and painless. Every group I’ve ever belonged to has eventually gotten a bit burned out by the current game, or have a GM (like me) that can’t seem to stick to one game for more than about six months or so. If you’re using a universal system, you wouldn’t lose a game day to character creation, and could keep leveling up (or similar) the character through all the worlds of imagination. This is also supposed to save everyone money, as they only ever need the one core rulebook.
Or so they say.
It’s been my experience that it just doesn’t work. There’s a few reasons for this, and I’d like to go over what I see as the primary weaknesses of such games.
The first problem is one that is hard to explain. I’ll call it Paradigm. I’ve tried in the past to use one game system (not a universal) for a different genre, but one thing always catches me up. I can’t mentally break out of the trope. For example, I tried once to use a spy adventure RPG (Top Secret S/I) for adventures with “civilian” characters in a horror setting. It didn’t work because the game system had some inherent building blocks that support the spy adventure setting. These blocks would constantly interfere and pull the players out of the story, ruining immersion.
Now, I know that the universal games specifically try to avoid such specific building blocks, but they aren’t always successful. It’s damn hard to be truly generic without being truly boring.
On the topic of saving money by not needing all those different types of games, I call bullshit. No single core rulebook can have everything for every genre, so the publishers always put out sourcebooks covering popular genres. Doesn’t that fact pretty much define the fact that they game isn’t universal? If I wanted to use X Universal RPG in Z setting, I’ve gotta either go buy the Z setting sourcebook, or create all the content myself. If I buy the sourcebook, couldn’t I have just as easily bought an entirely different RPG that treats the subject with a lot more detail, background, races, etc.? Sure, I’d lose the ability to “dimension hop” the characters when we get tired of Z setting, but that’s poor GM’ing, not poor rulebooks.
Universal or generic games also suffer when it comes to scaling up the action. For example, at least two of the games I mentioned above use a die-type scaling system, meaning that the higher the attribute or skill, the higher number of sides on the die used. A super strong person may have a d12 Strength while people like me would have either a d4 or d6. This runs very quickly into the Silverback Paradox problem I posted elsewhere on this site; if a character can have the highest die type available in the game, what are you supposed to do for creatures/people/devices whose attributes are so much higher (or lower) than the human range? If a character can have a strength of the system’s max of d12, then what would a full-grown silverback gorilla have for its strength? D12+2? That’s ridiculous. And what scale would you use for cars, trucks, planes, starships, etc.?
If they have an answer for these questions, I’d bet that it leads to awkward mechanics that break immersion.
The universal feeling of such games also seems more mechanical and less organic. I mean that any game that has rules covering everything from magic to psionics to high-tech engineering to time travel probably has rules that don’t have any real uniqueness or feeling to each of those systems. A mage casting a spell does it in the same way a space-jockey fires his blaster carbine. Without those subtle differences, the flavor of the game is lost. Think about Dungeons and Dragons and its spell casting system. Cantrips, spell levels, material components, area of effect; those are all very specific to spell casting and nothing else. This makes the wizard a wizard and makes her feel like a wizard, and therefore special. No universal or generic system can do that. If they do, that just means even more sourcebooks to buy.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I don’t come here to tear down the hobby I love. Nothing’s perfect, and that includes me and my opinions. That said, please remember that all of this is my opinion. I would hope that someone would read this and maybe, just maybe work on trying to fix these issues. Maybe just maybe someone will take some of what I’ve written here to heart and develop a universal system that really works better. Heck, maybe that person will be me. Time to shut up and put up, right? I’m still working on my percentile/percentile system… maybe that will be The Most Excellent RPG Ever Made Ever. Maybe (probably not). But at least I’m trying, right?