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Universal System

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A Game System that can, in theory, be used to play a game in any genre or setting.

Universal systems are good in that if you want to switch genres you don't need to do much more than the standard preparation for a new game. You already know pretty much everything you need to about the rules. Many universal systems begin as a gaming company's House System, which after several separate games becomes a generic system with multiple worldbooks.

In practice, universal systems tend to be better at some things than others. This is especially true if the system was not originally designed as a universal system but grew into one over time. In particular, a number of 'universal' systems — especially the more complex ones — turn out to support basically human characters best and increasingly break down the further a character or creature is removed from that default assumption. (Obviously, this is mostly a problem for groups trying to play in more fantastic genres like Comic Book superheroes, horror, or, well, fantasy.)

Some universal systems are also generic, meaning they can be used to play any style of game, from near-freeform roleplay, to fantasy dungeon crawling, to equipment-focused tactical play involving tons of preparation. The difference here is not in the subject or setting of the game, but in what the players have to do in order to play it. This type of Game System needs to have a lot more rules than any particular game played with it will need, so generic systems will usually be "modular," meaning that optional rules can be easily added and removed from the game as it is convenient to do so. It usually isn't possible to design a game so that none of the rules are mandatory, so generic Game Systems conventionally have a small set of rules designated as "core" rules. These are often distributed separately from the optional rules, sometimes in multiple versions of varying depth; for instance, the sixth edition of HERO offers a "lite" edition for free, a Basic edition in softcover that omits the more esoteric options, and the full rules in hardcover.

Tabletop RPGs, in general, have been using Universal Systems more often in recent years, and many game designers who are designing a system from scratch for their particular setting will nonetheless give it some qualities of a Universal System, such as simple, general task resolution mechanics, and combat systems that work the same regardless of the particular actions the combatants take. The same things that make a system Universal also make it easy for Game Masters to use the system in precisely the way they want to. Game Masters tend to like this.

The distinction between a House System and a Universal System is that a Universal System is made available in a version that is independent of genre and setting, or is used extensively by multiple creators for multiple genres and settings, while a House System is tightly tied to a given company and is not available outside of their specific genre-based and/or setting-based games.note 


  • Apocalypse Engine (Apocalypse World, City of Mist, Dungeon World, Masks, Monsterhearts, Monster of the Week, Spirit of '77, etc)
    • Pros: Extremely simple 2d6 system, easily adaptable to any setting
    • Cons: Very storygamey, reliance on pre-existing "moves" which can be quite limiting in terms of what characters are able to roll for.

  • Basic Roleplaying (Call of Cthulhu and its associated works, RuneQuest)
    • One of the earliest universal systems; it began as a House System for Chaosium based on RuneQuest. Uses expanded version of The Six Stats: Wisdom is removed, and Size and Power are added.
    • Pros: Uses percentile dice, meaning you can easily tell what percent chance you have of success for any given roll; easy to learn. Simple advancement mechanics that improve the skills that characters actually use, quickly at first but then more slowly as the character advances - it's easy to get good but becoming great takes time and effort.
    • Cons: Limited material. Combat tends to be brutal and very rough on characters; works best for low-power settings where characters are intended to be squishy.

  • CORPS v2 (Complete Omniversal Role-Playing System) (TimeLords, Apocalypse)
    • A universal version of the Conspiracy Oriented Role-Playing System (CORPS v1), by Greg Porter of Blacksburg Tactical Research Center. The system is designed with a goal of minimizing dice rolls while maintaining realism; many tasks will automatically succeed with no roll required. When rolls are necessary, they are a single d10 roll. Skill trees are provided for space opera, modern adventure, and high fantasy. EABA (q.v.) is the successor, and the system for CORPS v3.0.

  • Cortex System (licensed games for Battlestar Galactica (2003), Firefly, Supernatural, Leverage, Smallville, and more)
    • The Cortex System is a series of systems originally published by Margaret Weis Productions and primarily used for games based on licensed properties. There are three major editions, now called Cortex Classic, Cortex Plus, and Cortex Prime. Its primary mechanics are traits rated by dice - d2 or d4 for a poor stat, up to d12 for an excellent one - and Plot Points used to adjust rolls or create assets. In addition to the licensed property rulebooks, generic rulebooks were published for Cortex Classic and Cortex Prime, making it a Universal System and not just a House System.

  • Cypher System (Gods of the Fall, Numenera, Predation, The Strange, Unmasked and Vurt)
    • Lightweight system, began as a House System for Monte Cook Games, based on Numenera. A Three-Stat System designed around 'cyphers', some form of ubiquitous one-use items. Notable in that players make all the dice rolls.
    • Pros: Lite and adaptable rules, usually only uses 1d20, the different games are almost completely compatible.
    • Cons: Too many similar characters sections, PC have "tiers" while NPCs have "levels". New players have a hard time getting the cypher economy and often try to hoard them.
    • Note: The Strange can overload the system. It's possible to have a Focus for every world visited in a setting that includes other public domain settings, and even adds pseudo-foci (like the Kro crows or Cataclyst mutants).

  • D6 System (Star Wars, etc.)
    • West End Games's House System, originally created for the Ghostbusters game and refined into its more-final version for Star Wars.
    • Pros: Simple, adaptable core mechanics; easily learned and customized; available free under SRD; low gratuitous complexity, meaning little maneuvering room for munchkins. Works for almost any setting.
    • Cons: Skill advancement has never really worked; the scaling system sometimes produces strange results; feels samey. Makes almost any setting feel like The Thrawn Trilogy, so not truly "generic". Little support compared to GURPS and d20.

  • d20 System (d20 Modern, Dungeons & Dragons, etc.)
    • Began as the third edition of D&D, but notably made partly open-source under the OGL. This led to it being used for dozens of games by dozens of companies, across practically every genre.
    • Pros: Sheer number of books (especially fantasy ones), most famous game on the market, easy to make a character, easy to guess approximate odds of success. Core system free online.
    • Cons: Level-based system, mostly fantasy. Lends itself to being broken, as it's almost always possible to get enough bonuses to make important dice rolls trivial. Often uses multiple dice of varying sizes.
    • Note: There are many alternate rules-sets including 13th Age, BESM d20, Dragon Age, Microlite 20, Mutants & Masterminds, Pathfinder, Star Wars RPG: Saga Edition, True 20, and more.

  • EABA (End All Be All) (CORPS v3.0, TimeLords, WarpWorld)
    • A universal system (now on its second edition) designed as a successor to CORPS (q.v.), also by Greg Porter of Blacksburg Tactical Research Center. The settings provided include several from earlier BTRC games, such as TimeLords and, of course, the conspiracy world of CORPS. It uses a d6-plus-adjustment system reminiscent of West End Games's d6 system, except that only the best three dice rolled are used. As with CORPS, the system is designed such that many tasks have automatic success and dice rolling is not needed.
    • The rules are designed to be modular, and the book content is color-coded to distinguish between key information (green), more-advanced optional information (blue), and very advanced number-crunching details (red).

  • Fate (Spirit of the Century, The Dresden Files, Mindjammer, AtomicRobo, Strands of Fate, Fate Core, Fate Accelerated Edition, Fate Condensed Edition)
    • A more-structured Spiritual Successor to Fudge, while remaining relatively rules-light.
    • Pros: More structured than FUDGE while retaining freeform elements and adding some fundamental new concepts (notably Aspects and the Fate Point economy); several commercial derivatives covering popular genres available.
    • Cons: No two releases share quite the same system due to evolution, genre-specific additions, and/or licensed publishers' individual takes (a dedicated universal "core" rulebook came out in 2013, revising the rules again in a number of ways); fairly elegant system hasn't prevented commercial products from turning into well-intentioned comprehensive doorstoppers; game inherently relies on some "metagame" mechanics (Fate Points et al.) that may not be to everyone's taste. Many — though not all — versions retain the use of Fudge dice (see below).

  • Forged in the Dark (Blades in the Dark, Scum and Villainy, Band of Blades)
    • Pros: Relatively simple pool-based dice system. Various cut-to-the-action techniques allow for skipping over boring parts of the story and returning to them retroactively as needed. Players are given a lot of power to direct their own story. Adaptable to almost any kind of setting (similarly to PbtA).
    • Cons: It can take multiple sessions to grok how all of its subsystems work together, yet using the system to its fullest potential is a prerequisite for the most rewarding play. With a huge emphasis on action and bringing change to the setting, self-reflection and character-focused role-play moments can easily fall by the wayside. Players must be ready to come up with and to drive their own plots, while the GMs must concede much of their traditional narrative power to them.

  • Fudge
    • A very lightweight system built around use of special dice (d6 with two sides marked '+', two blank, and two marked '-').
    • Pros: Freely available, potentially rules-light and intuitive system, highly customizable.
    • Cons: Relatively obscure with little explicit support; default resolution mechanic based on special "Fudge dice" (effectively just d3-2 each, but official products can be hard to find); customization all but required for any but the most free-form play => potentially high up-front preparation workload for the Game Master.

  • Fuzion (Artesia, Cyberpunk v3.0, etc.): A blend of the Hero System and the "Interlock System" used in Mekton and Cyberpunk 2020.
    • Pros: Got some exposure in anime licenses like Bubblegum Crisis and Dragon Ball Z
    • Cons: Very difficult to expand into settings that didn't have official support; system is largely dead due to lack of continuing support

  • Genesys (Terrinoth (Descent: Journeys in the Dark), Shadow of the Beanstalk (Android), and Secrets of the Crucible (Keyforge): House system for Fantasy Flight Games, originally created for their Star Wars: Roleplaying Game
    • House System for Fantasy Flight Games. Built around use of a set of six special dice, which provide both success/failure and degrees of advantage/disadvantage.
    • Pros: Originally built for Star Wars-style space opera, so the system aims for fast and fluid combat. Custom dice allow for shades of success and failure; success with an advantage, success with a threat, and just a plain success all give different results. Story Points (Destiny Points in the Star Wars games) give a nice interplay where when the PCs or GM use a point, it goes into the other side's pool to be used later. Good community support through the Genesys Foundry.
    • Cons: Requires the use of special dice, with symbols that take practice to learn. Interpreting the dice can be difficult and require significant improvisation skill on the part of the GM. Not a lot of resources provided by Fantasy Flight, with only three settings provided so far, all of which come from other FFG games.

  • GUMSHOE (Trail of Cthulhu, The Esoterrorists, Fear Itself, The Dracula Dossier, Mutant City Blues, Ashen Stars, Night's Black Agents, TimeWatch, The Yellow King) by Robin Laws
    • Pros: Ideal for mystery campaigns, in fact, designed with these in mind. The rules are completely based around finding clues in a fashion that prevent them from being lost to the players.
    • Cons: The non-investigative skills don't work quite as fluidly as the investigative ones. The frequent use of points rather than dice rolls is also not as enjoyable for some players. Although the rules themselves are easy enough to adapt, it also lacks a generic build that allows the mystery rules to be used in a generic campaign.

    • Generic system created by Steve Jackson Games, based on The Fantasy Trip crossed with Champions building an entire system around Point Buy. Unusual in that it was designed from the beginning as a universal system.
    • Pros: Sheer number of books, very well researched, quite internally consistent, tons of skills. All success rolls are against the character's skill modified by the situation, meaning there's no need to arbitrarily determine the number to roll against. All success rolls are on 3d6, giving a realistic probabilistic curve. The system is designed to be very modular, adaptable, and customizable, with most rules being optional. Combat actually moves pretty quickly once you get used to it since a lot of the "standard" modifiers are prefigured. No levels or class restrictions. Basic "Lite" rules free online.
    • Cons: A lot of point-juggling (4th edition offers a lot of templates, but they aren't exactly easy to read), 3rd edition vehicle rules. It's easy to get situations with tons of modifiers, bonus and penalty. Character creation can be very intimidating from the sheer breadth of options and skills, especially without GM help. Balance issues at very high power levels.

  • HERO (Champions, etc.)
    • Point Buy system originally created for Champions but expanded into a House System and then into a fully-generic system.
    • Pros: Open-ended, user-defined power system based on effects rather than causes, which provides internal extensibility — like a programming language, one can even use the Hero System to simulate other game systems' mechanics. The rules are designed to scale to ridiculously high power levels, while still functioning reasonably well at normal power levels. Lots and lots of optional rules that are truly optional, so players can fine-tune the "physics" of their game world if they want to. The base rules work just fine regardless of setting or genre.
    • Cons: "Big grained" scale, where attribute/base skill rolls only have 4-5 meaningful values within human norms; abbreviation-dense jargon ("4d6 NND EB, 0 END, OAF"); number-crunchy character creation (at least when powers are needed); lots and lots of optional rules ...

  • Kingdom, made by the same designer as Microscope below, is a game designed around power struggles within any body of power, everything from a high school to imperial galactic government
    • Fast, easy to work with. The nature of each role that players take allows for everyone to contribute to the story in different ways.
    • The fact that it is exclusively a narrative game is not as appealing to certain types of players. It also largely requires players interested in PvP, as the diceless mechanics require player conflict to have story conflict.

  • Legend System (d20 variant)
    • Pros: Built with balance in mind. The track system and an insistence on letting players and GMs come up with their own fluff combine to allow you to build literally anything. Monsters are built to the same specs as Player Characters, which results in loads and loads of abilities flying around during combat. Despite all this, it's a slim rulebook and currently free.
    • Cons: As a d20 game, it's not well suited to low powered campaigns at all. Died shortly after it began, so official support is little more than the core rulebook (a single official adventure was published).

  • Microscope Is a Worldbuilding/storytelling game with very few rules, where players (there is no GM) collaboratively build and play in an epic history.
    • Pros: Very fast and fluid, almost no preparation.
    • Cons: Designed for games that are epic in time and space, does not play as well for smaller-scale stories outside of some of the rules included in the Microscope Explorer expansion book.

  • Mutants & Masterminds (d20 variant)
    • Pros: Has a wide range of powers and rules to customize said powers and/or the character itself. It is sold as a superhero game, but because of the nature of the superhero genre it ends up being much more flexible. The basic books are so devoted to customization that the most of the different books add little new rules and deal mostly to adapt some concepts to a new fiction genre.
    • Cons: The GM must keep an eye the players to avoid any major game-breaking. Latest editions introduce severe Power Creep, Power Seep due to mishandled combat system adjustments.

  • One Roll Engine (REIGN, Wild Talents, Monsters and Other Childish Things)
    • Pros: One-roll task resolution for each participant showing if they succeeded and how well (such as attacks and damage, or a competition and degree of victory), system built to enable easy point-buy or random generation. Rules are usually set at a good medium level of crunch difficulty but can be tuned down or up, as different titles demonstrate. Usually, averts Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards. Adaptable to low-power gritty settings or high-power wild settings.
    • Cons: Task resolution and reading the dice can be unintuitive for newcomers and occasionally slows down even experienced players. Usually averts Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards, but can go wildly out of control when playing it straight (some powers in Wild Talents can be a bit much...). No single truly universal version.

  • Palladium (Heroes Unlimited, Palladium Fantasy, Rifts, Robotech, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, etc.)
    • Pros: Wide variety of material to support the system, much of it produced for the Rifts game.
    • Cons: System suffers from its lack of consistent central mechanics and significant Power Creep, Power Seep. System creator Kevin Siembieda's stance against posting conversions to or from the system and (to a lesser degree) any original material for the system on the Internet is off-putting for some fans.

  • Prose Descriptive Qualities (Dead Inside, Monkey Ninja Pirate Robot, Truth & Justice, etc.)
    • Pros: Easy to learn, extremely fast character creation. Rules-light, but with some structure to provide direction. Factors combine to make most PDQ games good for one-night pick-up games or decent longer-term campaigns.
    • Cons: The "universal" version is extremely bare-bones, potentially requiring a lot of work to customize. Potential for qualities to overlap is very easy to abuse if not carefully policed. Very slow advancement in some games and the relatively low granularity of the system can make power scaling very awkward.

  • Risus
    • Pros: Speedy character creation, easily-understandable rules. Also, free.
    • Cons: Lack of reasonable balance - for the most part, the character with the most dice will always win. Not well suited for serious campaigns, although it's doable.

  • Role Master: Fantasy system, originally by Iron Crown Enterprises, which was expanded into more genres. A streamlined version of it was used for the original Middle-Earth Role Playing game.
    • Initially created as modular add-on supplements that could be used with D&D to make combat more realistic, it expanded into a full set of completely separate rules, sharing few elements with D&D beyond the basic elements of role-playing.
    • Pros: Large amounts of detail, with a goal of being as realistic as possible. Individual charts for how each weapon type interacts with 20 different types of armor. Extensive skill lists, spell lists, and critical hit charts. Open-ended rolls allow for incredible overachievement.
    • Cons: Individual charts for how each weapon type interacts with 20 different types of armor. Vast amounts of complexity. Critical hits largely obviate the point of armor. Mostly a fantasy system that has had other genres tacked on; the only other genre that got any significant support was Spacemaster.

  • Savage Worlds
    • Pros: Extra simple, with a slim rulebook that only costs $10.
    • Cons: Universal, but not generic—every Savage Worlds game plays like an action movie. Character customization is mostly limited to assigning ranks to skills.

  • Storypath system (White Wolf/Onyx Path Publishing's Trinity Universe 2E Scion 2E)
    • Pros: Similar to Storytelling system below, but with better combat and three systems for Physical, Mental, and Social challenges. More action-focused.
    • Cons: Very, very hard to wrap your head around.

  • Storyteller/Storytelling systems (White Wolf's Exalted, The World of Darkness, Scion, etc.)
    • Pros: Streamlined skill system, only one die type (D10) required, focus on non-combat actions.
    • Cons: Material of wildly varying quality, pricy books ($30 on the low end), combat can be awkward.

  • Tri-Stat (Big Eyes, Small Mouth, Silver Age Sentinels, etc.)
    • Pros: It's free, and fairly easy to learn. It's animesque.
    • Cons: Combat's slow. Easy to break.

  • True20 (d20 variant) (games include the original Blue Rose, Damnation Decade and Imperial Age)
    • Pros: Greatly simplified d20 system, so most players will already have a grasp of the rules.
    • Cons: Powers are BROKEN. Uses a confusing and easily-overpowered damage track system instead of hit points, resulting in odd outcomes - for example, a non-combat-specialist one-shotting extremely powerful enemies because it couldn't see him.

  • WOIN (What's O.L.D. Is N.E.W.) (Judge Dredd & The Worlds of 2000 AD)
    • A set of three games built on the same core system, "O.L.D." (fantasy), "N.O.W." (modern-day), and "N.E.W." (science fiction), all by EN Publishing. The core character description is reminiscent of the Cypher System ("a reckless human smuggler who enjoys gambling"), but the system is built around eight attributes and an intentionally open-ended skill list. Character creation is based around building the story of how the character got to their current spot, with origins and careers to fill in their backstory and develop their abilities. A "countdown" system gives a random but constrained way to handle "ticking clock" situations such as defusing a bomb.

The concept is also used outside of tabletop role-playing:

  • A few Collectible Card Games use the concept of Universal Systems to bring together similarly-themed licenses under a single banner. This list includes the Universal Fighting System (which covers fighting games like Street Fighter and the Soul Series), the VS System (covering comic books like those of Marvel and DC) and the Crusade System (covering Anime, primarily Humongous Mecha series like Macross and Code Geass).
  • Hero Clix is a miniatures battle system which started with just Marvel and DC, but at this point encompasses a wide variety of franchises, including assorted video games such as Gears of War and Street Fighter. Add in Horror Clix (which has compatible rules), and the Clix system will soon enough become as universal as a miniature system could possibly be.

Other universal systems which could use fuller descriptions: