Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Second Most Popular RPG of all Time

Okay, that's a bit of a stretch, The RPG market share is of dubious value at best, and it tends to shift from year to year. But according to the best info I can gather in the past two days, RPG Market Share looks something like this:
  1. Wizards of the Coast
  2. Paizo
  3. White Wolf / Steve Jackson Games / Mongoose and occasionally others
And like I said this is dubious at best. But let's talk about the past few years. For the past few years, WoTC has been the massive top dog without apparent rival. And for a long time White Wolrf's World's of Darkness was a fairly clear second. However, with the advent of 4e Paizo has actually made huge gains on WoTC. Third place has always been a dog fight of at times epic proportions. But one thing is without question--since the early 1980's Steve Jackson Games has been battling for that 3rd place position. And has never really dropped below the top five companies.

But speaking as a tried and true Texas boy from the home of Steve Jackson HQ itself, Austin--I can say that growing up GURPS was always second place to the obvious ruler Dungeons & Dragons. So for myself when I talk about teh second most popular RPG of all time GURPS still holds it for me. And over time there are not many games or comapnies that ahve held their steam like the world's best generic gaming system--not even D&D.

Alot of this has to do with Steve Jackson himself and how he ran his company. Would that Gary had made similar choices back in the day. Oh well. Suffice it to say that I want to spend a bit of quality time talking about this decidedly crunchy, but very old school game GURPS.

The reason for this is that we have turned our attention to skills as a means to accomplish PC customization and though it wasn't the first GURPS is definitely the most experienced in engineering skill based systems and endless PC customization. Now, granted GURPS doesn't do everything well. High fantasy is difficult to achieve in GURPS and some have complained that HERO does supers gaming for accurately. This makes sense to me. While GURPS can do anything, it does best with realistic milieus. And Supers and High Fantasy tend not to be too concerned about realism--generally speaking of course.

So we look at GURPS for it's ability to capture something I think the original game inspired: endless creativity. literally anything goes, based on the collective vision of the GM and his players. You can build just about anything with the GURPS system. This open ended approach allows for a mechanically driven system that caters to just about anythig you can come up with. Like the original game, which fostered this GURPS captures some of thsi same vision.

However, GURPS doesn't need house rules--at least not many. It is a rules heavy system in that regard, and unlike the original D&D system which encouraged and really required house ruling. GURPS demands that you work your imagination into the system. The system is the vehicle through which you imagine your wildest dreams. That allows the rest of the game world, not to mention the PCs in the game, to interact with those dreams in a consistent and believable way.

Which brings me to the mechanism by which players are imbued with ultimate power gauged at a level predetermined by the GM. In other words the GM sets the power level (and in GURPS this is with build points) and the PCs have free reign within that power level to determine who there PC is and what they can do. Ultimate PC freedom within a system designed to allow just about anything you can imagine.

But the system is certainly not D&D. Don't get me wrong--it's a good system. One I think rival's d20 for its' intuitive nature. There are however, lots of sniggledy exceptions and additional rules to take into consideration in certain situations. But if we want a system that is lite and flexible, yet has ultimate freedom of PC development we are going to have to look elsewhere.

The problem is in choosing to go with say original D&D we have ultimate freedom but little player options. So what are possible solutions?
  1. Allow PCs freedom in inventing new abilities, skills and the like when they create their character. Maybe with a simple tit for tat mechanic that for everything you can do above and beyond your base class, you have to give something else up or do it worse. This will keep power creep to a minimum, but still requires lots of GM and Player judgment calls. ie is a d12 hit die tit worth a dietary restriction tat? And the like. Such judgement calls are likely to be enshrined as house rules over time.
  2. Add a skill bundle system, like LA, into the rules lite structure of 0e and allow players to define how their skill bundle is used of manifests within their PC. As mentioned in my last post this is a weak solution mainly because a loosely defined bundle allows too much leeway for PCs to abuse or even underuse their bundle. It will also require some, but admittedly less, judgment calls in order to decide what is too little or too much.
  3. Add in a more exhaustive skill system by which PCs can customize their PC. Perhaps under a single mechanic to keep the game lite. However each skill may require special circumstance rulings that will either engender house rules, or a more complex rule mechanic governing skills.
  4. As an extension on most ability systems we will need to determine how these abilities advance or get better the more a player adventures. Bonuses are favored in the d20 system. Skill ranks in GURPS, or % skill ability in games like LA. Either one needs mechanics or tables to handle how such skills would advance.
While not an exhaustive list of possibilities, each one of the above points towards a more rule heavy, crunchy system being the end result--even if it is a houseruled 0e game. I don't see a way that this can be avoided, except perhaps in one scenario:

Make it up as you go: Rarely satisfying in the long term, and incredibly difficult to manage is the type of game where rules simply aren't referred to--hardly ever. These types of games take he spirit of 0e and never let it go. PCs can literally do just about anything--be just about anything. This type of game requires a supportive DM that can go with player wishes and dreams for their PC. That says yes more often than no. The higher level the PC the more the GM lets them do, and become. these games can be wacky, wild and completely over the top at times. Everyone seems to have fun, realism isn't a concern--and a lot of us played this way when we first started the game.

However, after a time such games can wear a bit thin. Just like literature of this type usually stocks children's bookshelves, we grow out of such games as well. The "anything goes" philosophy gives way to a world that has to make some sense, at least internally. That plays more like a LoTR novel or maybe even a Conan novel. And we realize their has to be some consistency, and some expectations. Which engenders rules.

And that is fine--the game wouldn't be a game without rules. Even make-believe back when we were kids had rules. The point here is that to give players what they most often want we have to find a way to offer options for PC development. And when we do that it means more rules, more crunch and less of a rules lite flexible game. I really see no way beyond or around this problem. Unless maybe you go diceless or narrative resolution in design--and to me those get away from the concept of a TT RPG altogether.

And unless someone can show me otherwise, that leaves me with the question of which game does it most to my liking.


  1. Do you share your insights on other gaming systems with the young'uns?

  2. Yeah, that's a good question Alex. I do try to, but it's hard to bridge a 30 year gap in experience. For them it's new, the details don't always matter. They are just having fun, and usually in love with whatever system they start playing in.

    Very few of them read my blog--but I don't advertize my online presence very strongly at school, me being a teacher and all.

    Generally speaking they don't quite "get" what I'm doing in my game analysis. They see their chosen game as fine, and have very little to relate to in debating systems merits.

    I do have some more PF experiences to relate tho' coming up soon. Thanks for stopping by.