On Generic TTRPG Systems


I love the idea of generic role-playing games, but as time goes by I find myself caring less and less. Yet, there’s still something great about them. This post explores those thoughts.


The basic premise of a Generic Tabletop Role-playing game is that you can learn this one system, and then play any kind of game with it. No need to learn new rules. Just throw together some new characters for whatever setting you and your friends have decided to have fun in.

I currently own the following generic systems:

When I step back and think about each of these it becomes clear that, with the possible exception of GURPS and HeroQuest none of them are actually trying to let you play any kind of game. Each of them has an inherent idea of what a “fun” game is and then gives you tools to play that kind of game in any setting.

For example, FATE has the baked-in assumption that your characters are very competent people who are each especially competent in at least one area. It’s really difficult to use FATE to play characters who are really flawed and not good at some things.

It’s all about the fighting

What I’m coming to believe is that most of these aren’t really Generic Game Systems. They’re just codified rules for a specific flavor of combat.

Someone I respect recently posted about a Kickstarter for a generic system they were helping to make a new version of. When I went to check it out I found myself just not caring. They obviously enjoyed playing it, and it might be a really good system, but a quick glance at the old version made it clear that this was just another codifed flavor of combat. Sure, it sounded like a slightly different one but…

In these systems you can make any kind of character you want, in any genre you want, in any setting you want… so long as it’s a story that centers around physical combat, and “heroes” who solve problems with violence.1

Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s something very cathartic about punching space-nazis in the face instead of waiting for your current flavor of failed government to do something about it. I’m 100% down for a good session of that, but there are other stories to tell. I want to play a grannie solving mysteries in a sleepy town. I want to experience what it’s like to be Bluebeard’s Bride, or a Thousand Year Old Vampire trying to hold onto their sense of self.

That’s where generic systems loose me.

I want more

I love some of these systems. I have great respect for many of the people behind them, but the world doesn’t really need another generic combat system. We’ve got plenty.

I want games that’ll engender fun experiences that aren’t focused on going places and killing people. Sometimes I want that, but not all the time.

The problem is hard

I don’t know that it’s possible to make a truly generic system. Robin came pretty close when he created HeroQuest, but that’s partially because there’s hardly anything to the system. GURPS is flexible enough that it might do a pretty good job of letting you pretend to be grannies solving crime. Again though, this is largely due to the fact that there’s very little to GURPS. Sure, there are tons of books and tons of very specific options in those books, but at its heart it’s a very bare-bones mechanic.2

Even so, both of those are going to impart a certain flavor to whatever game you play with them.

It seems like the key to making a really generic system is to make a system that barely exists. The problem with that, is that when everything is just “roll the standard test vs difficulty & apply modifier” or whatever the game stops being about anything.

I think Tiny D6 is a good example of this. There’s so little to the system that you can do anything with it, but there’s also nothing interesting about rolling the dice. Maybe you succeed. Maybe you fail. The odds are roughly the same all the time and the game mechanics never leave you particularly surprised or excited.

It seems to be intended for young kids, and I’m betting it’s great for them. I’m not a young kid though, and neither are you.

I want a game where there’s a good chance I could fail at some things, and a good chance i could be amazing at others. I want rolls to be interesting. I want to actually worry that my character might fail to do something important. Most of the games in my list do that. However, the better they are at that, the more influence they have on the story being told. They flavor it.

As soon as your game imparts flavor, it’s no longer generic, and some types of stories cease to be supported very well. I think recreating Yazeba’s Bed & Breakfast in Savage Worlds would be an utter disaster.

If they’re not really generic…

If your table is not single-mindedly focused on only role-playing combat focused stories, then there isn’t a particularly good reason to invest much time in a generic system. It doesn’t matter how much you love the system if it’s not good at supporting the next kind of story you table wants to experience.

Even if you are only looking for combat-centric escapism, I think it’s worth asking yourself if you really only want one kind. There are so many amazing flavors of action movie. Do you really want to only play John Wick type stories with different set-dressing?

As soon as you realize that you want more than one flavor there ceases to be much point in investing much energy into a generic system.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love Savage Worlds. I’ll happily play in any game a friend wants to run in it. But I also love the feel of stories that emerge from playing Starforged, or Brindlewood Bay.

If there’s a generic system that produces the type of game you prefer, and that’s mostly what you play, then go for it. What I’m suggesting is more that we should really reconsider the whole idea of a “Generic” TTRPG, because they’re generally pretty bad at supporting “any” type of story. Mostly, they’re just good at supporting a specific flavor of combat.

Maybe we should be reframing them as “generic combat systems”, and working from there.

  1. To be explicit, some of the games I listed - especially FATE & Fudge - do a really good job of supporting combat-free games. But, that doesn’t make them truly generic. ↩︎

  2. HeroQuest and GURPS are both marketed as combat focused things, but that’s also the kind of escapism that TTRPGs were used for when they were created. That hasn’t changed much. There are very few high-profile games that aren’t about killing “bad guys”. I think they both deserve more attention than they get, especially HeroQuest (QuestWorlds). Although, I should note that there was some weird business decisions that shoe-horned some RuneQuest terminology into HeroQuest’s rules. It feels very out of place, and just confuses things.

    GURPS has a reputation of being crunchy-AF, but the reality is that it’s only as “crunchy” as your table wants it to be. The minimal version of it is one of the simplest RPG systems out there. ↩︎