Setting-less Rules Sets

edited September 2009 in Story Games
Whatever happened to creating generic or settings-less rules sets? I mean, the Solar System is pretty awesome.

Comments

  • As a casual observation of the typical games released by independent designers; “indie” games tend to be smaller more narrowly focused games. The standard often is to focus so narrowly on a topic for the purposes of immersing players in its concept the system is often not very useful outside those themes. Another thing to consider is that generic games have more to take into consideration (typically) than narrow focused games and are thus not as appealing time wise as a more focused project.
  • Hmmm. The Solar System wasn't created as a generic setting-less rule set. It originally had a specific setting (the world of near) and the game mechanics and setting influenced and complemented each other.
  • Prime Time Adventures: The GURPS of indie games!
  • i wondered about this also when trying to figure out how to rightly skin my Game Chef project. The question of whether to make the color an important part of the rules? I'm veering away from that specifically in this instance (at present) but would normally advocate for setting-rich rules sets as the added color helps to sell the game and give context through which to interpret the rules.

    Take DitV which is ostensibly about Mormon missionaries but just as often, if not more often, has the setting hacked to create alternative paladins and use of the mechanics. I suspect Vincent decided to skin it with "Dogs" because it's an easier sell than strictly playing Mormon pioneers; and then too why people often keep the righteous Dog but slough off the overt religious notes in favor of fuzzier idealism. It's easier to pervert a concrete example than generate from scratch.

    I haven't read Solar System (the document needed heavy editing when i sat down to give it a gander) but continue to hear great things. Justin Jacobsen has been working on a really clean pared-down d20 mechanic that looks nice too. But often, for me, looking at the math is less enticing than say... taking Geiger Counter and stripping out the horror and adding a different kind of conflict because there's plenty of text that illustrates how the horror acts at different points in the rules document.
  • edited September 2009
    In the Indiesphere, there is already Primetime Adventures and Universalis, not to mention The Pool. Additionally, absolutely everything that has ever been released has been hacked to run some other sort of setting. Also remember that games sell on the strength of the premise of their setting. Games do not, I swear to you, sell on the strength of their clever dice gimmick. So designing a game without setting has to: (a) be better or otherwise distinguish itself from PTA, Uni, and Pool and every other game designed, as well as (b) get marketed and picked up without a setting to get it attention. Which is difficult to the point of ridiculousness.

    Edited to add Universalis
  • Universalis is there too.

    Personally, the more I design for my home-groups (I mean, who else?) to more I realize that setting is a point a view. I come up with a sweet hack for one thing, or read some new hotness, and hackhackhackhack. But then I find that if you loosen the definition of some of your terms and they can be easily be exported. So, my currents designs have suddenly become scalable and setting-less. This because I love to cater to my players and whatever genre interests they have.

    What I'd stress, though, is that the way the rules work with heavily influence how you and the players view the fiction. The sort of decisions and outcomes will also be affected.
  • Yeah, I think the key to designing successful generic story games is not to tie the the mechanics to the color of a specific setting but to tie them to the color of a specific theme. There are lots of settings that can touch on that theme...that's why its so easy to reskin Dogs...the setting color is all faux Mormons in the faux west but the rules aren't tied to that at all (except for a few very easily substituted places like the Coat).

    If you want to design a game about down and out common people facing off against an implaccable and largely faceless foe you can tie your mechanics to that theme in a way that really reinforces the feel you're going for. After that its a simple matter to find various points in history or fictionally where down and out common people face off against and implaccable foe and fill in the setting color as desired.

    Primetime Adventures, The Pool, and Universalis take a different approach. They provide nothing but mechanical structure, no setting color, and no thematic tie-in at all. At which point, see Josh's comments above...if you're going to reinvent that wheel you'd better do something really special with it.
  • edited September 2009
    It's Complicated also doesn't have a setting; it's a system for telling a certain type of story about a certain type of character, and those types of stories and characters exist in every genre. I thought hard about creating a setting for IC, but ultimately it didn't feel right for the game. We've done modern-day realism, high fantasy, superheroes-- I know it gets a lot of play at some anime con in New Zealand as an anime emulator.
    Posted By: Josh RobyI Games do not, I swear to you, sell on the strength of their clever dice gimmick.
    It's Complicated is diceless, but I sold more than a few copies to people completely uninterested in playing the game and completely fascinated by the concept of relationship map as game board.

    Edited to add: I'd rather people buy my games to play them, of course, but barring that, buying to steal ideas is the next best thing.
  • Consider Lady Blackbird. As written, the game is wrapped up in the setting very tightly; this hasn't stopped everyone from hacking the abstract system for other settings (I've seen Jason's "Bloody Forks", read about someone else's unreleased hack, and am polishing off my own hack even as I write this, and that's just from following these forums).

    Maybe the original post is founded on a shaky dichotomy. Mark, why are you looking for "settingless" games? I suspect that the question you might be asking, au fond, is more like "What games have abstract systems that can easily be adapted to reward a wide range of behaviors / to support a wide range of setting options mechanically?" or something similar.
  • I honestly think that a lot of really great indie games would be even better if the mechanics had been divorced from the packaged settings, and instead written in such a way that you could orient the mechanic on the setting and theme of your choice. Dogs is a great example. As-writ, Dogs is about what it's about, and Faith, and Duty, and Morality, but if it had been written without that, and more generic rules to allow GMs to target it on any specific themes of their liking, I think it would be better. Not to say it wouldn't be a great idea to include the default setting, just that a generic game would've been more versatile.

    Though I'm not a published game designer, by any stretch, I tinker a bit, and quite often if I come up with a great game in a cool setting, I find I can make the game better if I divorce it from the setting and then just explain how the rules would interact with a setting and/or theme, and leave that to my (theoretical) readers.
  • edited September 2009
    What I've tried to do with Other Worlds is make it 'setting-less' but also 'setting-full' at the same time.

    The group creates their own setting by means of a structured brainstorm. The characters are created with specific reference to the ways in which they reflect the setting (their archetypes) and the ways in which they stand apart from it (their trademarks and individuality). Players also have specific narrative authority to make up new stuff about the world as long as it relates to their archetypes (in effect, their own niche). There's a lot of advice about using stuff like supporting characters, ability types, and the conflict resolution system to more effectively represent the overall feel of this setting, including the inherent conflicts and tensions that have already been baked in.

    The overall effect (I hope) is to make the setting really important, but to also make that setting something the group 'owns' and 'creates' rather than just 'lives in'. Sort of the best of both, um, worlds.
  • Posted By: deadlytoqueI honestly think that a lot of really great indie games would be even better if the mechanics had been divorced from the packaged settings, and instead written in such a way that you could orient the mechanic on the setting and theme of your choice.
    Actually, I argue the opposite. I think the reason Dogs or whatever is so easily "skinnable" is because the default setting creates a frame of reference for what the game is suppose to look like in action. Or to maybe put it another way, the default setting creates a template of sorts that makes it easier to imagine new settings. I think divorcing a rules set from a setting actually makes it harder to imagine new settings.
  • Posted By: ValamirYeah, I think the key to designing successful generic story games is not to tie the the mechanics to the color of a specific setting but to tie them to the color of a specific theme.
    I feel the same way.
  • I always have trouble coming up with a setting for my games. I get these awesome rules that lead to a certain kind of play and I think "Awesome! That's a cool game!" Then I remember it has to have a setting. So I sort of paint one on there, just for looks.
  • Posted By: ccreitzMark, why are you looking for "settingless" games?
    I took notice of the fact that it didn't seem to even be a consideration in gaming - whether it be indie or big company - and wondered what people's thoughts on it were. It could be a technology that has become obsolete or it could be a cultural bias, or a prejudice even.
  • Posted By: Mark CauseyI took notice of the fact that it didn't seem to even be a consideration in gaming - whether it be indie or big company...]
    I think that we've seen some counterexamples here, especially from big companies that love to sell settings and splats. Among recent releases, NWoD is structured in this way. There are the multifarious descendants of D&D3.x too, True20 and friends. Gumshoe is agnostic with regard to setting.

    Then there are the games that are released attached to settings but keep getting re-attached to new settings. Burning Wheel spun off Burning Empires and Mouse Guard, new games that keep a recognizable core of their parent; Vincent hacked Dogs into Afraid, but kept most of the mechanics of his older game. My earlier example of Lady Blackbird into Bloody Forks of the Ohio is relevant here. And then there is Sorcerer with its many third-party resettings, and InSpectres with its.

    So I think that maybe people do write abstract systems, but generally want to offer a "complete" product to the public, so they include setting stuff and tie it closely to the rules. No one is standing around to make sure that you run Dogs in a West that never was, right?

    Your idea, that GURPSesque games that ship with zero setting are obsolete, might be the right path to explore. As soon as I see the supplement treadmill taking shape, I run away. I suspect I'm not alone in that. It's what drove me away from OWoD.
  • For the sake of the discussion, few generic games come with no setting whatsoever; rather, they tend to provide multiple examples of play/rules from various genres, demonstrating their flexibility. On that score, Dust Devils is one indie example: it has its "base" setting of the Old west, but the back two sections show how to totally drift it into (IIRC) a spy game or a cyberpunk game. This approach is really no different than Champions, though the Hero System is presented (lately) standalone.

    That said, there's genre and there's setting. The "high fantasy" that's Fantasy Hero is not the same scope or scale as MERP's setting. Ditto for Champions versus With Great Power: both are "modern supers" but the former has a canonical setting with persistent characters and factions across multiple supplements.

    The small-press and indie scene doesn't seem to take that approach often, but it's not a "dead" concept ([plug]see GLASS[/plug]).
  • Whatever happened to creating generic or settings-less rules sets? I mean, the Solar System is pretty awesome.

    People started (slowly) figuring out that these aren't games. The original idea was that if an RPG was a physics engine/reality simulation, that it could eventually be done right... it could handle any setting, any genre. Of course, these aren't games. You need context, else they're just simulations or toys. You can't play GURPS, you can only use it to play a game.

    Gumshoe is agnostic with regard to setting.
    Except that it's not. The setting of the game (location wise) doesn't matter but it's quite clear that wherever it's set, Gumshoe is a specific game and not just rules. Star Wars's setting is not outer space. Planet of the Ape's setting is not Earth in the future. These are colorless, odorless, tasteless statements that avoid the truth of the story, where the heart of the story is located.
  • edited September 2009
    Something to keep in mind about "setting":

    The common understanding of "setting" actually encompasses---and often conflates---a number of different play elements, the two most prominent being color and situation.

    Changing a game's color---like, say, converting a western landscape into a scifi landscape---tends to be a rather superficial task.

    However, most games tend to have a rather intricate relationship to situation. Take everyone's favorite example, DitV---the situation is that the Dogs, as inexperienced as they are, represent the all-powerful moral authority of the land, and it's their job to keep the order, one way or another. You CAN NOT change that without fundamentally changing the game. (This is why it's so easy to imagine using DitV for Stars Wars, because they both involve powerful moral authorities in a landscape of semi-independent communities.) Trying to use the DitV ruleset to play a bunch of bureaucratic pinons who mindlessly follow orders would change the game into something else.

    This is why I think it's often better to include a default "setting". I think it's much easier to see and understand situation if it's presented within a (color-filled) context, rather than within some sort of abstract explanation.
  • edited September 2009
    Posted By: Jared A. SorensenGumshoe is agnostic with regard to setting.
    Except that it's not. The setting of the game (location wise) doesn't matter but it's quite clear that wherever it's set, Gumshoe is a specific game and not just rules
    Let me defend a bit: It's true that Gumshoe is a specific game. It's got Drives and rules for investigation, and play is focused on those things. But the kinds of Drives, and the classes of mysteries to investigate, can vary widely, and lead to very different kinds of stories told. Are we talking about morbid obsession Driving characters to delve into Lovecraftian Mysteries Man Was Not Meant To Explore? Or about mercenary honor Driving them to investigate the erratic behavior of the sick millionaire's eldest daughter? Gumshoe supports both. In that sense, it is setting-agnostic.
  • Posted By: timfireThis is why I think it's often better to include a default "setting". I think it's much easier to see and understand situation if it's presented within a (color-filled) context, rather than within some sort of abstract explanation.
    Do you think it sufficient to present a large variety of colorful instances or elements of play? Because that seems to work very well for Hero System.

    That said, I plan to do both: build and present the system as generic, but then provide a ton of ready-to-run, colorful settings and a variety of tools for making pregnant situations (for example, "weak folks in face of terror" is only a case of adjusting starting experience relative to common encounters).

    But, yeah, just a stack of rules and their mechanics won't make a full RPG product. Unless it's Universalis. ;) The rest of us need flavorful examples, ready-to-run settings, and GM advice and mechanical tweaks (options and toggles) to establish (emergent) thematic and tonal elements.
  • I'm surprised no one's mentioned the One-Roll Engine yet. It was first presented in the WW2 superhero game Godlike. Then it was hacked in Reign to be pretty much your classic toolkit fantasy system, albeit focused on high-level group dynamics and international politics. (The entire setting of the Reign is used as an example of the ORE system.) It's been hacked for noir stories in A Dirty World and cosmic horror in the free game Nemesis, too.
  • edited September 2009
    Archipelago is generic.
  • I don't know Daniel...a single die mechanic I don't think qualifies as a generic system no matter how iconic it is.

    The full mechanics of the ORE games you mention are pretty different outside of the basic height and width interpretaton of the die pool...and even the special whizz bangs tacked on to the roll are different.
  • Fair enough! :) It was just the only genericish branded system I could think of that's been developed in a fairly independent manner, but that hadn't already been mentioned in this thread. :)
  • Posted By: Mark CauseyWhatever happened to creating generic or settings-less rules sets? I mean, the Solar System is pretty awesome.
    The malnourished businessman in me regrets not packaging a setting for Dread. A setting has just as much potential of attracting players as a solid rules set does, if not more. Which means more sales.

    Plus, the first thing a certain crowd of people do when they see a good rules set with a delicious setting is try to divorce the two--tear the rules out and use them for their own purpose. And the people who do that tend to conduct their vivisection online for all to see. Such a spectacle also means more sales. And it means your setting-less system has been parsed out for all to use.
  • Listen to Epidiah.
  • So, OK, again: is or is it not sufficient to provide copious examples of play in a variety of genres, and tools for GMs to tune to particular themes, and a few ready-to-run settings... or is this going to become The Epidiah Principle: there must be a "canonical" setting, even if your system easily drifts to other settings or genres with the same theme(s)?

    If not, what does that tell us about flexible system presentation in rules text?

    believe me... I'm curious. Because, personally, the notion of building GLASS as a single-genre, single-theme game... and then redoing it again with another supplement... and again with another supplement... seems both tiresome (to me) and a bit deceitful (to the customer).
  • More like the Epidermis Principle -- skin your game in a setting, 'cause people don't pay for rules, they pay for setting dump info, fancy cards, minis, and pre-written adventures. Cf. D&D 4E, WFRP 3e. Skin sells, bones do not.
  • David, all I can offer you is anecdotal opinion based on my response to Shadow of Yesterday.

    Shadow of Yesterday came with the setting of Near.

    Near is a cool setting. I like Near. It wasn't what sold me the game (Clinton Nixon is what sold me the game) but it gave me enough substance to recognize I was going to like it and enough guidance so I could understand why the rules work the way they did.

    Compare and contrast that to what Eero's done with Solar System...which is pretty much strip out everything Near and put it in a seperate book. Now I probably would have picked up Solar System from Eero's name alone...but I'm not sure I'd have any idea at all what to do with it if I hadn't encountered Shadow of Yesterday first.

    Having the Solar System rules already purged from Near I think makes the Solar System booklet a good design tool for a Game Designer wanting to publish their own game using that system...or a GM who is really into "building a campaign" the way we used to back in the day. But if all's I had was the Solar System booklet with no Shadow of Yesterday and no Near...I don't think I would ever possibly considering running it.

    The setting makes the rules clearer in a way that I don't think mere examples could do.

    Now Eero has released the Book of Near which is nothing but applying the Solar System rules to a setting (which happens to be the very setting the Solar System was ripped from to begin with); but I think that model might work well for what you are trying to do with Glass. Especially if one comes free with the other.

    So if I've got my Book of Raw Glass Rules over here...but then I've got my Classic Vampire Boffer LARP game "powered by Glass" over there...I can see the rules really truly in action in the Vampire setting book realize "hey, I could totally hack this into doing a Flash Gordon Space Boffer LARP" and then go to the Raw Rules to get me started.

    But trying to imagine doing a Flash Gordon Space Boffer LARP from the raw rules alone...based on my experience with The Solar System, I suspect I'd have trouble getting there.

    Does that help?
  • Posted By: David ArtmanSo, OK, again: is or is it not sufficient to provide copious examples of play in a variety of genres, and tools for GMs to tune to particular themes, and a few ready-to-run settings... or is this going to become The Epidiah Principle: there must be a "canonical" setting, even if your system easily drifts to other settings or genres with the same theme(s)?

    If not, what does that tell us about flexible system presentation in rules text?

    believe me... I'm curious. Because, personally, the notion of building GLASS as a single-genre, single-theme game... and then redoing it again with another supplement... and again with another supplement... seems both tiresome (to me) and a bit deceitful (to the customer).
    Before I get a principle attached to my name, I should point out that I'm a tiny fish in a tiny puddle. What seems true to me may not apply to other fish and other puddles. I should also point out that I enjoy coming up with setting material. That's fun for me. Which has two vaguely contradictory implications on the current discussion:

    1. From Time & Temp on, I'm probably going to have a default setting in all my games. I just enjoy coming up with them and, for reasons already hit upon, it can only help matters.

    2. As a consumer, I'm attracted to games that don't have a pre-packaged setting. I bought Solar System because flipping through it made my mind explode with possibilities.

    It's strange, but in this particular case, I'm not my own audience, and that's something I have to contemplate. Off to the Tree of Woe . . .
  • edited September 2009
    Thanks, guys, for the replies.

    So, Ralph and Epi, here's the gig: I want to have "shotGLASS" available for free, PDF download, but only on my site (ideally). If you've got the "campaign build" drive, it costs you zip to run a GLASS game (it SHOULD be runnable in its current System Test Document format, though perhaps only by experienced LARP GMs with exposure to Hero System).

    BUT, if you buy the full book, you'll have tons of examples, sidebar digressions on how to tweak Abilities or why use Ability A to do Some Spell versus Ability B, and (say) five or ten setting in the Appendices that already have "Packages" (think races and classes) and "Templates" (think spells and powers and skills) and a specific style of setting (I don't want to do "vanilla" settings at all--each one will have a weird skew from the standard motifs) and you can just GO PLAY! And, again, your players really only need the shotGLASS rules in-game, to learn Calls and action sequencing and so forth--the system.

    So on the one hand, I got the Epis of the world happy: here's the bones, start skinning (shotGLASS). On the other hand, I got the soft or hard cover book on Lulu (or wherever) that is BOTH ready to run as a setting AND all you need to start skinning bones, building your own game themes, and writing up Packages and Templates. IDEALLY, even, each setting will demonstrate another nuanced manner in which Priority and Options/Toggles interact to inform theme and tone. So, in THAT way, you also get that third ideal, where you not only see how it works with Theme A, but with Themes B through G... any of whose settings could be recolored to different genres (your Vamp -> Flash drift).

    It sounds like, from the whole thread above, this straddles all the "reader preferences" for approach to generic system: You DO get a few splat books right out the gate, but you DON'T have to buy any if you want to do all the work, AND each splat shows yet another way to tune the system. I feel confident... that it will either rock or will seem schitzoid ("What the fuck GAME is this, anyway? It's like every LARP mashed into one"--which it, ideally, CAN'T be because of Priority and Options/Toggles; but some folks skimming it might get that impression).
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  • edited September 2009
    I'm coming from a different background here, but I think some basic principles still apply.

    I like making abstract two-player board games. Games with simple rules and emergent complexity, but don't technically require a lot of setting or theme to them. Having written and/or tested about at least a dozen of these kinds of games, I've found that applying even a superficial theme to these rules makes them much easier for other people to learn and remember.

    Thus, the "purpose" of a setting, or at least one of the purposes, is to serve as a metaphor for what you're supposed to do in play. For example, in Agon you hold your defense and attack dice in different hands, just as you would a sword and shield. Or in Steal-Away Jordan, where your dice pool corresponds to your value as a slave. Or in John Wick's little Ninja game, which uses only d4s because they are "the deadliest of all dice."

    That, to me, is the primary value of having some kind of default setting for a core system. It lets you commit to a running example early in the text that can be continually referenced throughout and can serve as a mnemonic device for how to play the game.
  • Posted By: David ArtmanThanks, guys, for the replies.

    So, Ralph and Epi, here's the gig...
    It's pretty much that exact setup that got me interested in D&D again when third edition first came out.
  • edited September 2009
    [cite]Posted By: Jared A. Sorensen[/cite]Of course, these aren't games. You need context, else they're just simulations or toys. You can't play GURPS, you can only use it to play a game.
    Amen.

    Every time you've ever sat down with friends for a "session", you were playing a game. All those books you were using were products. Some of these products might have thought they were games, and the game you were playing might have even resembled what was in the product, but they are two different things.

    It seems to me this thread is about what types of products work for people (for some definition of "work").

    Products that work for me are those that legibly describe how they work. Most products do this by example, showing how the game is used in a particular setting, suggesting a particular game. Some don't realize they are doing this, instead thinking they are really the game itself.

    This is useful but, realizing the difference between product and game, I wonder if there might be other types of product, not currently being produced, that might be useful.

    One might be something that not only describes mechanics, but details how they actually work at the table, both psychologically and mathematically, with tweaks like "if you want this effect at the table, change this, otherwise, do this".

    Another might be product containing chapters of rules, followed by multiple settings, each highlighting a different strength of the mechanics.

    In other words, we've seen a lot of products that say "here's how you can play the kind of game I am playing". I'm much more interested in products that say from the start "here are how some tools work to build your game". I, and I think most people, actually use products as if they did the latter anyway, but you don't often see the product helping you do it.
  • Posted By: Wordmantweaks like "if you want this effect at the table, change this, otherwise, do this".

    Another might be product containing chapters of rules, followed bymultiplesettings, each highlighting a different strength of the mechanics.
    Awesome! That's two Yes votes for my current product offering plan (read above). :D
  • Posted By: David ArtmanBut, yeah, just a stack of rules and their mechanics won't make a full RPG product. Unless it's Universalis. ;)
    Let me add some nuance to what I said earlier:

    Most games are designed around a specific situation, or at least a specific type of situation. DitV does that, Sorcerer does that, and by-the-book DnD does that (arguably).

    A *minority* of games---which includes Universalis and PTA---provide a set of procedures or framework for constructing your own situation. But I believe this type of game is actually pretty rare. IME, "generic" games like GURPS simply leave a hole in the situation front that the players have to figure out for themselves.
  • edited September 2009
    Haven't seen HeroQuest 2.0 mentioned yet... Anyways, I have to disagree with this:
    "IME, "generic" games like GURPS simply leave a hole in the situation front that the players have to figure out for themselves."
    Games with tight settings feel like holes with sharp edges into which I'm oblidged to fall. I don't mind playing them, but running a game with a tight setting just doesn't do it for me. I've tried it, but pretty much all the games I have run in pre-made settings have approached it somehow edge-on.

    Coming up with a concept, and watching it GO is immensely satisfying. Why let someone else have that fun when you can have it yourself? Figuring out how rules work to sustain things, on the other hand, can be an immense drain of time and effort -- one that I'm more than happy to outsource.

    I'd love to read a "Big Book of Indie Mechanics", or something of that stripe: collect mechanics from umpteen indie games, strip out the splats, the crunch and the setting -- or relegate them to a half-page example.
  • Shock: has a whole setting creation engine right in there. So does Misspent Youth. They give you the tools to make a setting with thematic content.

    In short, I don't know what you're talking about.

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