A passing thought about RPG systems and conversion

So, my sleeping shadow army, riddle me this: how might one go about designing an RPG system that wasn’t necessarily meant to be played in and of itself, but was designed instead for easy and consistent conversion to any reasonably traditional RPG system?

I don’t even know if there’s any good writing out there on the main concerns, generically speaking, in doing conversions. So throw us a link if you’ve got one.


  1. Get a copy of ENVOY (a Peter Adkison vehicle that I worked on the D&D conversions for):


    That in and of itself will only be marginally useful.

    What you really want to look for is some of the old Primal Order/Capsystem products by WotC (I think Knights had the conversion). They used a generic language to describe everything and then had system-by-system conversions from that language to system X. Got them sued by Palladium.

    Other conversions, specific to weapons and damage can be found in Greg Porter’s “Guns, Guns, Guns” product.

    Somebody (Armory?) also had like a 32 page rulebook of game-to-game conversions for all sorts of products (Hero, D&D, etc.)

    I can offer much more substantial thougths on this, if needed, but that should get you started.

  2. Griffon Publishing Studio produces source material and adventures using the Any-System Key, a means of describing character skills and task difficulties easily customized to most skill-based roleplaying games. It’s not a comprehensive game system, but more of an outline to enable gamers to use Griffon Publishing Studio’s materials using their favorite game engines. You can find it at http://griffonpub.home.att.net/NESys.html along with keys to using it with the HERO System, D6 System, and RISUS, plus a PDF form to help in conversions.

  3. James: I love that Dread is out there, but for our purposes here it definitely fails the “reasonably traditional” clause. (Unless you’re arguing that any two people who disagree over how a character is converted should just play Jenga over it… which is sort of persuasive.)

    Lee and Peter: thanks very much for these. I wonder, though, about the way they both break skill ratings ‘n’ such up into three or five very coarse categories. Doesn’t the challenge of conversion of numerical stats demand a little more precision for portability’s sake? Why not use a percentile scale that can translate to any other scale with a few button presses on a calculator?

    The answer, of course, is that precision doesn’t actually help you map out the length and breadth of a system past a certain point – said point being basically the beginning of the list of feats. RPGs are so exception-based, and so free in the ways they can apply those exceptions, that trying to make a consistent means of mapping one skill system to another would be a bottomless rathole of complexity. So yeah, I get the appeal of chunking things out much more broadly and leaving the finishing touches up to individual groups.

    But I have kind of a problem with that. It works for individual groups just fine, but when anybody from one group, or one play history, or one entire way of thinking about what we do, interacts with another one, they won’t have a firm common ground. By which I mean that they will probably have a long, fruitless argument and walk away thinking “Man, that guy was an asshole.” When all that really happened was they entered a hobby that left the details up to them (good!) and let them believe their way of finishing the details was the obvious way, the best way, and the only way (bad). And pardon me, but my recent history on forums has left me a little allergic to that kind of interaction.

    I want gaming to stop getting balkanized, divided and conquered, so I keep looking for little ways to eliminate just one pointless religious argument from the equation. System conversion seems to be one source of those arguments for some, hence my interest. But yeah, I guess making some kind of uber-rules meta-system to rule them all is not a very practical approach.

  4. Didn’t Polymancer develop a system for use in their magazine? The Polymancer web site is not functional for me so I can’t check there. I do hope they put it up somewhere.

  5. To me previous list I think Flying Buffalo had a variety of city books with generic methods of describing characters.

    Mike, you really need to comment on your intent. Your notion of using a calculator for conversions is a sure sign of a man who has never hand-converted a module. It’s very tiresome, and most systems that have tried to generate modules that people have to do a stat-by-stat conversion haven’t been that popular.

    I think you are best off using a generic Fudge RPG type descriptive system, and then instead of including conversion notes for people to do it by hand, you should have downloads for the module by system. In general, nobody wants a really nit-picky generic descriptive language that requires an hour or two of grunt work to convert a module. They are more likely to take a well-written, readable product and flesh out appropriate monsters and villains themselves or will seek to have pre-converted downloads they can use.

    As an undergrad I was designing a system called (surprise, suprise) “VERITAS”. I did a huge amount of work on it, but didn’t code it. It was a hyper detailed generic rules system that was like a Chinese menu. You said “I want Damage System A, Magic System D, Combat System H, and Skill Specificity Level K.” You’d press a button and software would merge these and generate a custom rulebook in electronic form. Monsters, spells, etc. could be passed through the algorithms to come up with a custom bestiary and grimoire. I still contend that this is, in the long run, the best way to design story content that is, in part at least, agnostic from the rules. The system required the developer to design his characters, monsters, etc. in a very, very detailed form that the program could be pick through ad nauseum to slice it, dice it, and shape it appropriately. It would NOT allow it to be converted to any possible system, but it would allow it to be converted to an extremely wide variety of systems.

    This methodology with XML, book markup, PDF export software, and POD technology would really let you take advantage of a system like this.

  6. I’ve just summed up my intent – reduce gray areas that people can argue over – and it sounds like any attempt to do so in this department will just create new gray areas. So nevermind.

    I like the sound of VERITAS, though. I look forward to the day when open tools for collaboratively logging RPG-system stuff (such as those available now with some of the more sophisticated wiki codebases) give way to generative and creative stuff of that nature.

  7. Mike, making a “universal translator” will NOT reduce arguments. Reasonable and rational arguments surrounding RPGs come in two flavors usually: 1) around poorly written, vague, or only partially complete rules; and 2) over the way the rules and game SHOULD be.

    So, arguments over what is fun and what is lame are not going to be halted by a generic game module system, because it won’t address the source of the argument. A generic module system also won’t fix rules being poorly written. In fact, if anything it will make them MORE likely, because you’ll have to rely on the completeness and reliability of the target system plus your conversion notes to make a workable module, and further, your notion of balance in a generic module form may not work out to a specific level of power and balance equally in all target systems.

    Generic module languages (like the Flying Buffalo city books) are really useful to give you interesting characters and plot ideas for the GM to flesh out. They add a lot of depth to the world for little work. Why? Well, an enormous number of NPCs in almost any RPG system can be consistently and entirely fudged, from start to finish by the GM, particularly if they just interact with the PCs on a non-combat roleplaying level.

    You’ll never keep roleplayers online from arguing about things. In groups, the best way I have found to keep people from fighting bitterly during gaming is to collect a group of people who genuinely like each other and hang out outside of gaming. That’s more likely to create an underlying level of respect for each other which will transcend petty gaming disputes even when they do arise. It also helps if every person is happy with the game being played and nobody is going along for reasons of pure peer pressure.

    In general with RPG design you want to pick not only a theme but a specific target audience before you get too involved with the design. You need to keep both in mind throughout the process, because the rules, almost inevitably will not appeal to all people equally.

    I own Universalis. I don’t mind diceless systems at all. I like rules light gaming for many genres. Universalis is probably not a bad game for the right crowd. I will probably never ever choose to play it. I don’t like the system or the way it handles storytelling. Clearly your mileage on that point varies from mine. So if we talk about role-playing goals and expectations you and I will never quite agree on all the details because that would be like me trying to debate with you to convince you that you no longer like your favorite food and instead prefer my favorite food more than your old favorite food.

  8. “You’ll never keep roleplayers online from arguing about things.”

    Given that my last post agreed with you and you’re only now bringing out the all caps, yes, I’d certainly say not.

    The real goal is not to prevent arguments; the goal is to prevent arguments from making other things impossible. Things like, say, a wider community of practice that can serve as a resource for each individual group. Things like a gaming culture oriented around something other than “everybody hide further in your basements, because no one else understands what you do.” Anyone can put together a group that works, given time and communication; what if we had a whole hobby that could consider diversity of play options a strength, rather than just something to defend your group against?

    That’s the opportunity cost of throwing up our hands when faced with the challenge of bringing people to terms about simple things.

    Obviously, an argument about whether someone’s skill should be Great or Superb when moving from System A to System B isn’t an argument that’s operating at the tippy-top of that scale, and this discussion is increasingly silly in context of the original post. Sorry, everyone. Also I’m not sure how Universalis got into this, but that’s good to hear. I suspect, Lee, that the conversation we’d have about roleplaying in general would be more productive than you imagine, specifically because you call out “goals and expectations” – which are really all that these disagreements are made of. (Just knowing that makes a huge difference to the quality of the discussion.)

  9. I don’t know that I’m particularly disagreeing with you, Mike. I brought Universalis in as an example of a system that you like a lot that wouldn’t benefit that much at all from individual stats rated with “87%” that you or I might try to convert to the system. I mentioned my dislike of it as an example of expectation and desire clashes surrounding a game which is nominally thoughtful and good for it’s stated purpose.

    If you want to shape gaming community culture the way you are talking about and do it through a publishing medium then you have to contribute a lot of useful material and probably need to contribute it for free. Why? If you set up a community resource site that has a lot of content for free already, people will feel more inclined to contribute to it. Too many supposed repositories of knowledge on the web have failed because they had no critical mass of content and so looked like the ravings of a madman.

    Re: the goals stated in your last post, a well-run social gaming networking forum/website will be 1000 times more likely to accomplish your purpose than any system of translating games that you or I are likely to develop. The one purpose it won’t accomplish is getting people out of their basements.

    For something like that to occur you’d have to start an organization dedicated to lobbying state and local governments to provide space for tabletop and live action gaming events as a means to keep people safe, happy, and otherwise out of mischief. At least up here, if you don’t have space to host your game at your house, then you can sometimes go to a mall or one of a handful of game spaces in the whole Boston metro area.

    In our area, pretty much only college game associations have easy access to play space on a really reliable basis. If that changed people would be more likely to game.

    Right now, it’s so expensive with gas, parking, etc. in Boston that it’s often easier and cheaper for people to play online than to commute every week to a game. I think encouraging face-to-face social gaming time generally decreases hostility over silly details for many (but not all) people. Why? Over the internet intent and tone are hard to convey easily in a short time, while in person they really are much easier to handle.

    Start a social movement, Mike. Plenty of people will back you.

  10. Jack, which systems did Role Aids convert to other than being D&D with the serial #s filed off? I don’t have any of my Role Aids supplements in front of me to look at.

  11. Fudge has been my ‘base descriptor set’ for a long time. Any new system I look at gets at
    least a partial conversion to that as I am reading it.

    Creating a set of conversions from X to Fudge and another set from Fudge to X would not be a difficult task, just a detailed one.


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