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Is it possible for a system to be universal without implying anything about setting? If it isn't, why?

There are lots of universal systems, but they all seem to have mechanics that pin down assumptions about the setting, making them have at least some implied setting. GURPS, for example, implies something about access to knowledge and training since the difficulty to improve a skill is tied to the skill, disregarding that in one world it may be easier to improve your computer use skill than in another world. A truly generic approach in that regard would have been to state different difficulty levels of learning, and it would have been the GM's task to apply a level to each skill he intends to use for his campaign world.

Examples don't prove that it's impossible though, so I'd like to know if there are any truly universal rules systems that imply nothing about how a setting works. Just one good counterexample would prove it's possible.

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How strictly are you judging "setting" here? Does the presence of physical attributes disqualify a game because it implies that characters will have a corporeal form? –  Jadasc Apr 6 '13 at 14:06
    
Yes, it does. The basic d6 system, for example, assumes the existence of attributes and skills, but both their number and how exatctly they are specified depends on the GM. –  schlossblick Apr 6 '13 at 14:09
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It sounds like your question is asking for advice on how to design such a system, rather than asking for examples of existing systems which meet the criteria. Is this because you think they don't exist, or are you honestly not interested in seeing what other people have done and want to work on it yourself, unbiased? –  BESW Apr 6 '13 at 14:17
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GURPS 3e actually did per-world skill learning the way you describe, but it was changed in 4e. See this question: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/7427/… –  SevenSidedDie Apr 6 '13 at 19:53
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Oh, and the answer is "yes". One example is the accurately-titled Universalis which handles any genre without conversion. So does The Pool. Then there's The Window, and Fudge … the list goes on. The pitfall is being too generic of course, and you'll see what I mean if you take a look at those games. (All good games, and some free online; it's just that they give you so much rope to hang yourself with.) –  SevenSidedDie Apr 6 '13 at 19:55
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Yes, completely setting-agnostic games do exist.

The trick is that none of the truly generic systems that have no implied setting manage to do it by either being very rules-light about how tasks are accomplished, or they have a more normal amount of rules but the rules are about managing players' control over the action rather than what individual characters can and can't do.

One example of the latter is the accurately-titled Universalis which handles any genre without conversion. Instead of giving you rules for creating characters and how skilled they are, it gives you rules for passing (or seizing!) narrative control, introducing new characters into scenes, adding story-relevant features to characters or things, and introducing new rules. Play focuses on setting scenes, discovering conflicting ideas of what should happen next, and then bidding in a very game-y way for the directorial rights for the resolution of the conflict. A point economy is at the centre of the rules, which makes sure that the more control you exert over the game, the longer you have to wait until you can take control again.

By having rules that operate entirely at the level of story-construction and development rather than the level of in-world skills or abilities, such systems can represent any setting at all without implying any setting details at all. The disadvantage is that maintaining setting integrity is left entirely in the hands of the group.

Then there are systems that are so rules-light that they don't say enough about how characters work to accidentally imply anything about a setting. The Window is the first game that I ever learned of that worked like this. It rates skills with a description, like "good acrobat" and "poor chef", and gives you a basic rolling system to resolve using those skills. It says nothing about how characters can improve their abilities, apart from some basic principles like "treat characters like real people." So, again, characters change (or not) according to what makes sense in your setting, and you just do it when it makes sense. Has the bastard child of the king spent the past year raising and training troops? Then maybe they now have a "decent leadership" skill on their sheet, just because it makes sense. Or maybe you take the rules of The Window and add to them in small ways so that they suit your setting.

Fudge is another system like that, which gives you only a set of mechanical tools and then expects you to construct the game you want to play out of it yourself. Fudge is on the heavier side, having lots of bits and pieces that you can bolt together into a tailor-made game system. The Pool is another system that is even lighter than Fudge or The Window.

That kind of basic toolkit system gives you enough to represent characters and resolve the challenges they face, but gives you no rules about what constraints to place on character creation or guidelines for how hard or easy anything should be. By giving you a rolling system for resolving things, but leaving it up to you to decide when and how to apply it, it ends up implying nothing about setting.


The gotcha with all truly setting-agnostic game systems is that they're so agnostic that you're really left to your own devices as to how to make them work to represent your setting. They give you so much rope to hang yourself with that, if you're used to universal games like GURPS which has a rule for everything, systems like Universalis and The Window may make you feel a bit lost in the woods. To not imply a setting, they have to give you absolutely nothing about setting.

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Without an implied setting? Sure

I'd argue that GURPS, Rule of Cool's Legend, and several other systems are sufficiently generic to not have an implied setting at all. But...

Without an implied genre? No

A game's mechanics imply things about the stories told within them. As you noted with GURPS, for example, systems with an emphasis on "realism" tell grittier stories. Systems like Legend or Dungeons and Dragons tell 'heroic' stories, where systems like Shadowrun tell tense, lethal stories. There's really no escaping this consequence of mechanical creation; indeed, most attempts to escape it have ended up compromising the themes and genres a game is trying to work with (observe the train wreck that was oWoD's skill system). In my personal opinion, a well-designed 'generic' game embraces this consequence of game design and makes a mature decision about the genres it does, and does not, want to work in.

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Games that give generic systems for emulating genre exist and work fine. You only get implied setting with generic systems when they attempt to more-or-less emulate some kind of physics model (a.k.a. "trad" games). –  SevenSidedDie Apr 6 '13 at 20:01
    
I'd appreciate some examples if you feel you have some; the closest thing I can think of is D20 Modern's modular approach but even that is closer to separate systems/settings than truly genre-blind gaming. –  Lord_Gareth Apr 7 '13 at 1:50
    
I mentioned four in a comment on the (now closed) question. The Window is probably the most accessible of the four from a trad background (because it clearly explains how it's different, but the skill-based system isn't too weird), and it's online. It's pretty light, but then most truly genre-generic systems either have to be light and not weird, or detailed but weird. –  SevenSidedDie Apr 7 '13 at 2:16
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I don't think its possible to create a "truly universal" ruleset. Its like trying to get every country on the planet to unite as one. As well as agree on the same set of laws and ethics.

To apply (let alone create) a singular ruleset you would have to have a large number of option covered so that there isn't much guessing. It can't be universal if it doesn't cover everything. Simply too much for one person alone to do.

There are way too many genres and timelines. Too many weapons and tools as well. And each inside their own setting.

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