Game or Engine…is that the Question?

A recent discussion on the RM boards regarding splitting up Creature Law got me thinking about something that could be the elephant in the room: are we talking about RMU the engine or RMU the fantasy game/setting? By engine I mean RMU’s basic mechanics (character creation, skill system, and combat mechanics/format: basically ChL&AL without the races and professions) and by game I mean the fantasy RMU we’re looking at now (spells, races, fantastic monsters, and even professions). The engine is something that can be used in any setting or genre, while the game is tied to fantasy and a particular setting.

From a game engine perspective, it might be nice or advisable to have a number of fairly generic monster supplements out there. Things GMs could take and plug into their own settings confident they’d work with the RMU engine. But from a fantasy setting perspective, RMU the fantasy game needs a self-contained book of creatures designed for the official setting. Nothing else needs to be included if it doesn’t fit into the setting.

So What?

This discussion matters because RMU is really two things at once: the engine and the game. Things that make sense for the engine might not work for the game, and the reverse is also true. Clear thinking is needed when it comes to the initial game release. It should have everything required for the GAME to work in the official setting, but not necessarily those bits the ENGINE requires to be flexible and adaptable. It’s those engine bits that can (and possibly should) appear as supplements or add-ons: core GAME materials should not.

Since RM started life as a series of game engine plug-ins for AD&D, this may be something of a shift for people conditioned to think of RM as an almost-endless series of supplements and additions. But if the engine in its new form is going to have a chance the game (for once) needs to come first. What does that mean in practice? Tie the game officially to a setting. Ensure the core has the races, spells, treasures, and creatures to function with that setting and don’t worry about anything else. It’s the game (engine-setting-tools) that matters now.

It’s all about the Game

Once the game takes off, it’s possible to look at a series of “powered by RM” products focusing on the engine itself. But that comes AFTER the game is out. If a race being contemplated doesn’t fit into the setting, don’t develop it now. Spells that don’t fit? Hold them for something else. Same for creatures and monsters. Everything in the core is based on the engine, but HAS to support the game (engine plus setting). If it doesn’t support the game, leave it out. The CORE GAME should have everything a GM needs to start running adventures in the setting NOW, rather than wait for another book or two.

Right now it seems to be split between a discussion of the game and the engine, often without an awareness of the difference between the two. My sense is the engine is more or less done, at least in core terms (character creation, combat, skills) as I define engine. Maybe the time has come to draw a line around what’s considered the game (setting, professions, races) and just finish that. Monsters and races not part of the core setting can wait for future supplements. If the engine’s solid it can drive any number of game types. But it needs a game to get out of the garage and on the road.

15 Replies to “Game or Engine…is that the Question?”

  1. For me the Engine is made of different parts to what you describe.

    I think a pure engine will include:
    How to create a creature and by extension a playable race.
    How to create a profession.
    How to create a combat table, the variables and the formulae used.
    How to create a spell list and how to balance the spells.
    The rules for creating talents and skills if there are any.
    How to create a critical table and balance the damage parts.

    With that toolbox you can create any genre, any setting. The same engine then sits behind and Powered by… game.

    What you describe as the engine I would see more as a more generic fantasy game. Taking this more generic game you could then just plug in the Greek Monsters monster book and you are one step closer to a greek heroes game. Plug in vampires and werewolves and you can build a fantasy game where the humans are the food that the powers fight over.

    I do not see RMU as it stands as either Generic or as a Game Engine; it is a fantasy game with a poorly defined setting that is revealed only in its rule examples and the built in biases of the existing skills, spells, races and professions.

    1. I don’t include spells or professions in the engine because to me they’re either malleable (professions) or add-ons (spells) to a core which may be used in any setting. Combat obviously modifies, but the core ideas remain the same (skill modifying to-hit rolls, criticals). Part of the reason for this is I come at engine from a wargame perspective. The engine is the sum of the genre-netrual core mechanics. Professions are tied to genre, as are spells, races, and so on.

      Still, though, I think we can agree that this is one of the big elephants in the room when it comes to RMU.

      1. Certainly.

        I included spells as they are the go to mechanism for magic and psionics and as for defining special equipment from magic to sci fi.

        There is not one game system that I am aware of that does not see itself as eminently flexible and adaptable. I think that the RMU devs and the community as a whole think of RM as specifically special in this regard and point to all the drop in options as evidence.

        This also supports the misconception that RM is somehow a generic system or it is a game engine. It is neither.

  2. I was reading something that suggests that the 5E DMG has been integrated with the Forgotten Realms setting. I’ve never seen it, so can’t confirm, and besides it’s D&D which already has enormous recognition and fan base. That might not work for many other games. Although Pathfinder (1E) does integrate the Golarion setting to a degree that makes some supplements less useful (Planar Adventures especially).

    1. I would expect they certainly tried to. 2nd edition AD&D was shot through with DNA from Gary’s games and setting, and they made a half-hearted attempt to tie the basic game to its thin setting as well. Of course Warhammer is directly linked, and the original FRP version used the same stats and skill values as the miniatures game.

  3. So this is interesting. I wonder how “small” the RM engine really is when you strip away all the game stuff and just focus on mechanics? 2-3 pages?

    1. If you go with the engine as being character creation, skills, skill resolution, and bare bones combat (say martial arts and associated tables, maybe a club or knife as well), I’d say you’re looking at no more than ten pages. Take combat away and it drops to your 2-3 pages most likely (depending on layout).

      Talents would bulk it back up a bit, although quite a few of those could be considered genre-specific. Still, no matter how you parse it I’d say the ‘engine’ is under 10 pages using my definition of engine. Peter’s makes it a bit thicker, but still fairly small considering what’s inside.

      1. Yes, I agree, with all the tools on how to set up everything I would guess at about 30 to fifty pages. A commercial book with fully worked examples would probably a 200 page book.

        I base that on FUDGE. FUDGE is a pure engine, it is not a playable game when you get it. The skill system could swallow all of RM2 and SM and it would not touch the sides but it can cope with incredible simplicity as well. It has all the rules for creating just about everything from gods to goblins to grenades. Some elements are reminiscent of RMU. It calls its size rules Scale but the idea in practice works very similar, it is just a bit more flexible.

        I think the FUDGE book is about 150 pages.

  4. Are skills part of the engine or setting/game? Skill resolution seems like the engine, but skills are setting and genre specific.

    1. I would say the mechanics of skills (resolution and general organization/stat use and the idea/model of purchase cost) are part of the engine. The actual skills and their detailed grouping/organization are game. This is in part because of how they interact (purchase-wise) with Professions. You’d likely have to have some kind of core skill group in the engine to provide examples and templates. Things like Perception, Body Development and so on might fit there because they are not likely to change based on genre. But that’s my take.

  5. Definitely agree with Peter R. Skills fall in the game category. A skill called “Starship Piloting” just implied the game is something related to sci-fi. But underlying rules that resolve whether you crash your wagon (or starship) are part of the engine. I’m also a big fan of the “Powered by… game” idea. But a new RM definitely needs to be tied to a solid game, because as a consumer, I’m probably not gonna buy an abstract rule book consisting solely of engine mechanics. I might as well crack open an old probability & statistics textbook. No, I’m gonna buy the book with the badass fantasy picture on the front that has a game setting that sparks my imagination.

    1. I don’t think anyone’s suggesting the engine be sold by itself. It was rather the desire that RMU focus on a setting (the game) while leaving the core bits (the engine) open enough it could be used elsewhere. I tend to think, as I’ve said before, that the legacy of RM being a set of plug-ins for D&D has rather hurt it when it comes to envisioning a Game using the Engine. The Game needs to be tied to a solid setting (Shadow World I suppose) and framed in that way. Full stop.

      1. I see what you mean. I didn’t know RM started as a plug-in for D&D. I started out with MERP as a kid around 1990 and never even played D&D. Never needed to because I had RM after MERP. But I did borrow all of my settings from LOTR, and one setting from a Shadow World supplement I stumbled across. In retrospect, I can see how RM could benefit from a more solid game setting of its own.

        1. RM started as a general plug-in, but of course at the time D&D was THE game so the intent was obvious. But it’s that modular mindset that to me seems to have created a number of problems down the road. Sprawling Companions often mistaken for “official” rules additions. A lack of product focus. You name it. SW came out during that period, but there never seemed to be a focused effort to pull everything together and tie it to that setting. I think we’re seeing the results of that today.

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