Going Generic! An Introduction to Generic RPGs!

2021 is the year of the generic RPG here at POCGamer, and it’s long past time to kick this series of posts off. And where better to start than by examining what exactly a Generic RPG is, and what strengths and challenges they can bring to your gaming experience. So it’s time to go Generic! 


The Background

Generic RPGs emerged almost immediately while the roleplaying game hobby was still in its infancy. The first, to my knowledge, was Chaosium’s Basic Role-Playing (BRP) way back in 1980. They generated it in response to the desire for a single system that could handle multiple genres and styles of games without changing systems. The idea caught on but never flared to dominance, instead becoming a steady background radiation in the larger RPG hobby. GURPS was the first Generic RPG to make a big splash, and that was in the 1980s. Today, Generic RPGs like Savage Worlds and FATE have carved permanent niches for themselves on the gaming landscape.

Why haven’t I heard of them?

You probably have! To be perfectly honest, despite being entirely new player and new GM friendly, most Generic RPGs are marketed towards people already playing an established Themed Game (e.g.: D&D, Pathfinder, or Call of Cthulhu) who are looking to branch out, or they’re the core mechanics for popular properties being turned into games (e.g.: Netflix’s popular show The Dragon Prince was adapted to the Cortex Prime system as Tales of Xadia). Other times they’re distilled, as BRP was, from a system developed for a Themed Game (Genesys’ core mechanics and systems were first in the Star Wars: Edge of Empire game), but then not heavily marketed outside the existing user base.

And that’s why this year is the year of the Generic RPG here, to demystify some of the stuff around these games, and to get the word out about them.

What is a Generic RPG?

Generic RPG is a tool box of components that you assemble to meet your needs depending on your desired genre and other game mechanic needs. Think of it like getting a bucket of Lego full of parts and an illustrated guide to what you could build if you want versus getting a specifically themed Lego set that can build one thing and things related to it easily, but has issues building outside its theme. 

Are Generic RPGs Really Universally Generic?

The answer here is “sort of”. Generic RPGs are still subject to design biases by their creators. Those biases, along with the goals of the game designers in terms of style of play, affect where a game will shine or struggle in terms of genre or play style. For example, Cortex Prime, Open Legend, FATE, Genesys, Cypher System, and Savage Worlds will all provide system unique experiences and do genres in different ways from one another. They’re all “generic”, but the ideas that drove their design and conceptualization make them different animals. 

Challenges and Strengths

In the opening, I talked about challenges and strengths. This is because, like any game system, Generic RPGs will present you with things they do well and things they have issues with. 

Challenges

On the challenge side, there’s really only one significant thing in my experience. GM work. Things are way better today, with games having large online communities and lots of guidance and supporting materials more or less readily available, not to mention campaign settings/genre books to get you started, but the GM will still have some heavy lifting to do. There’s the world building parts, figuring out what components of the game you and your group want to use, and then creating the stuff for each adventure. I know it sounds like a lot, but once you find your groove, the work is only a bit more than Themed Games where you’re not running pre-made adventures. 

Strengths

On the strength side, there’s three big things in my experience. The first is flexibility to try new genres with a system that doesn’t have to be battered into shape and then still doesn’t really work. You can’t throw a rock in RPG space without hitting someone who either says they don’t have time to learn a new system for a new genre of game, or that tried to adapt the system they were using to a different genre with mixed results. Generic RPG flexibility can deal with this, and when you find one that matches your group’s jam? It’s amazing. 

The second strength I’ve encountered is that the worlds you create with them, and games in them, are memorable in ways that Themed Games can’t compete with. This is because, in my opinion, the worlds reflect the GM and group’s creative intent and desire more, and the characters created by the players reflect their imagination better. This leads to deeper immersion and excitement about the game. 

The last strength I’ve encountered is with genre mixing. Where most conventional games can do this to to some extent, Generic RPGs excel at it. The reason is that all their components are designed to work with or without one another; and can be added or deleted without harming the game you’re playing. Non-generic games tend to struggle here because they’re designed to work with all their components present, so adding or deleting can lead to issues ranging from “this is weird but workable” to “oh wow, this is game breaking and not fun for anyone”.


Final Thoughts

Generic RPGs are a treasure trove for fun and creativity, but they often languish on the periphery of the hobby. Eclipsed not because they’re not as capable, or because they’re “only for experienced gamers”, but because they just aren’t aggressively marketed to people outside the hobby. Or heavily marketed inside the hobby for that matter.

So hopefully this post is the first step on your road to Generic RPGs! As this series unfolds, I’ll be looking at the following games, thanks to the supporters I have on Patreon and Ko-Fi, whose donations let me buy many of the books!

This series will include, but not be limited to covering:

2 comments

  • rabbithatfarm

    You should take a look at BRP too: it is still in print – https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/24384/Basic-Roleplaying

  • Talk about a good start! This article already helped me out just by listing modern generic RPGs, as I was looking for something to run a sci-fi campaign I’d been envisioning. I haven’t run a generic RPG for many years, and the ’90s ones I used back then seem too clunky in the era of PtbA and so on. I didn’t even know Open Legend existed – it seems cool, and I’d love to hear more in-depth thoughts about it, and looking at Cortex Prime, which I’d somehow mixed up with Cypher, that looks potentially perfect for what I’d like to do, with so many options to customize it.