April 03, 2012

House Systems and Forced Fits

Regarding a previous post on why I don’t repurpose discarded sub-systems, Chris Angelucci asks:

What does this mean for companies with "house systems?" Will any game concept end up being a forced-fit?

I’d argue that mostly this doesn’t become the case, for a couple of reasons. House systems are often created by an RPG company’s key designer, who then goes on to design, or influence, later iterations. The core rules think like that designer does, and so do its later expressions. So while you might not like Joe Green’s take on superheroes, or think that the JoeGreenRules fit that genre well, they’re likely internally consistent.

On a related point, the design concept is, explicitly or otherwise, to do the JoeGreenRules take on a new genre. The core audience for a rules platform wants to see what happens when it’s applied to space opera, or swords ‘n’ sandals epics, or whatever. They’re invested in that game and way of thinking already, and want to see a game that arises in the meeting point between the game rules they know and a genre they know. White Wolf fans aren’t necessarily looking for the platonic ideal game about modern fairies, so much as they probably think the ideal game about fairies will be Changeling—a variation of the core rules and approach they already dig.

To cite a counterexample, the Ars Magica rule engine might not have been the ideal basis for Rune, the game of hyper-competitive, Viking mayhem I did for Atlas. But given that the concept itself was so far removed from anything that had been done before, and that it was a stretch for our timeline and playtesting resources, it was the right choice practically. To invent a new core engine, and make that work, and then make the GM-swapping, point build encounter superstructure also work on top of that, lay beyond our time budget.

If the call to adapt the Rune video game had come just a few years later, the D20 license would have been in play, which would have served the pragmatic aspect of the project and been a better fit. We’d likely have been able to draw from a bigger playtest pool and could maybe have sold enough copies to justify the long development window its ambition required.