Friday, November 12, 2021

Open Game Engines: Advantages & Disadvantages

In this article I want to give a brief and incomplete history of open game engines, and then talk about the pros and cons of using them. 


Open tabletop role-playing game engines I didn't start with the Open Game License, but the OLG certainly sparked off the wildfire of open game engines created in the last 15 years.

When the OGL was created, it was hoped that it would create a lingua franca for tabletop role-playing games. That because anyone could create something compatible with the system setup for Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition, also known as the d20 System, it would spark a huge upsurge in creativity in the industry while also boosting the sales of (the then-struggling) D&D 3E products by turning them into developer resources.

It worked, too! For the first seven years, we both saw Wizards of the Coast licensing products such as Call of Cthulhu and releasing them as d20 System games, other companies releasing licensed d20 products, such as Green Ronin's Stargate SG-1 RPG, and a profusion of companies releasing adventures and player resources such as Necromancer Games and Goodman Games which produced a huge number of products built on the d20 System.

It became apparent very early on that system does matter, and the d20 System didn't  necessarily do a good job at some things. For example, Call of Cthulhu d20 was not nearly as fun to play as the original Chaosium system, as characters were far tougher than CoC characters, and levelling is antithetical to the slow decay of a CoC hero. Anumber of alternative systems very quickly cropped up. 

Older Online Community Projects

And, of course, there were already community projects to develop play game engine as a shared project. Thrash comes to mind immediately. Originally a game built to simulate the Final Fantasy games, and derived from the engine that ran underneath Final Fantasies 1 - 7 and 9. Anyone who is a participant in the thrash for him was welcome to contribute their own rule modules, etc. That it was not an officially licensed project eventually LED some members of the Thrash community to build a game based on the engine divorced from Final Fantasy as an IP, and to rebrand Thrash as an anime action game.

A more modern example of this that I will be looking at is the GLOG (Goblins Laws of Gaming)  which is a highly modular crowdsourced RPG. 

The Proliferation of Engines

Actually openly releasing a games engine, with a license similar to the OGL, however was essentially a new innovation. Many of the early open engines released didn't stand the test of time. However a few, especially ones grounded in communities of designers have and endured for quite some time. 


The OSR itself is a particular the interesting development. There was a legal risk taken on by the early developers of OSRIC and Labyrinth Lord to see if Wizards of the Coast would consider earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons fair game under the OGL. After all, they were mechanically somewhat different, even if the third edition rules covered by the OGL were derived from them. Once it became clear that Wizards of the Coast would honour the OGL with regards to games built out of the older editions of D&D, it caused an explosion of games derive from Basic, Advanced, and Original Dungeons & Dragons

In effect B/X, BECMI, Original , and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons have all become their own open game engines.

The Forge

One of the most fertile grounds for creating new open engines was The Forge. This was an online community of game designers interested in creating a tabletop game that told better stories. Their philosophies and principles eventually led to the schism between traditional role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons and story games like Fate Core and Apocalypse World. You can read more of the history in my previous discussion of the Powered by the Apocalypse engine, which is one of the crowning achievements of that community.

A large contingent of The Forge and the other Storygame communities that have since branched off of it are committed to open culture. Games are released with generous content creation licenses or with open engines. The Fate Core engine, the Fudge engine, GUMSHOE, Lasers and Feelings and Forged in the Dark are all examples of popular open engines created by the storygaming community. Most of them with licenses that are incredibly generous for as open as possible, such as a Creative Commons license on the entire game.

Using an Open Engine

Each open engine creates a very different gameplay experience. A game. With a baseline d20 System engine is going to be heavily combat focused, demand a lot of character options, and offer lots of options to circumnavigate the exploration and resource management components of the game. An OSR gme, on the other hand is going to require player characters to pay attention to resources, etc.. A game built with the Mark of the Odd engine will be a highly lethal game that discourages combat except when the players can be crafty about winning. A game built on the Powered by the Apocalypse engine will be highly focussed on genre emulation and creating a specific sort of story.

An open engine enables a creator to build a game swiftly without needing to do as much design, testing, and overall engineering. 

You can look at the body of work on how Mark of the Odd works, get a feel for whether it's the game you want to play, and then simply create a list of items, equipment, and has ruled sweets you would like to use to make your version of the game. A lot of your design and development work is freed up so that you can work instead on world building

Example: Carapace 

Carapace cover by The TorVic
©2020 The TorVic
Let's take the game Carapace as an example. It was one of the many truly compelling offers in the help Tiago Rolim fight COVID-19 charity bundle I promoted last year. 

Carapace uses a very stripped-down version of The Mark of the Odd system. To create a setting in which you play pariahs of a community of intelligent insects living in a world that has been warped by magic. Hunks of marble are used for currency in this world, and so the quickest way out of deep debt and trouble in which you character begins his  scavenger enough supplies to buy a cannon, and then hunt down and destroy one of the many "Titans": marble statues that have become animated and wander around near your warren.

The game replaces the standard stats with guts, metabolism, and instinct in order to emphasize this strange insectoid feel of the story. Hit points are replaced by a hardness stat in order to get the idea that you are defending yourself not through skill, but simply by having a hard insectile shell.

Random tables for birth sign and previous molt your life before you fell deep in debt and have been forced to join a marble hunting crew. These offer some special abilities and role-playing tips for a given character.

The promise of earning enough marble to form a warband and by artillery to destroy a statue, that's becoming a wealthy hero drives the game, giving a player's a reason to play. 

Carapace replaces the achievement based advancement system with an experience points system that is earned by successfully bringing marble chips back to the blacksmith in payment towards their Cannon. With a final level gained once they use the cannon to destroy a Titan. This reinforces the scenarios loop oh, by making earning the money to by the cannon the most important part of the game if the players wish to advance.

It also includes a mini-game for actually attacking a titan with artillery. 

In essence, Victor Pereira, (The TorVic), the author of Carapace, was able to take a preexisting role playing game, and make minor adjustments to create a very unique experience. You was able to copy and paste many of the rules, rather than having to develop them himself, which in turn allowed the game to go from development to play testing in a very short span of time.

It was nothing standing between him and this scenario in his imagination except the time it took to write and arrange the zine.

Example: Down and Out in Dredgeburg 

Down and Out in Dredgeburg 
cover, Art by Skullfungus
©2020 Skullfungus
Down and out in Dredgeburg by Skullfungus does something very similar with PbtA.

The Powered by the Apocalypse Engine's mechanics do not make heroes feel competent. Almost every die roll is going to come with a negative consequence. Characters are frequently going to succeed only by the skin of their teeth and only at great cost.

This is perfect for a story where you want to make characters feel a bit bungling or overwhelmed.

Down and out in Dredgeburg takes that Powered by the Apocalypse Engine to create a story of damned souls existing on the fringes of Hell trying to eke out a living by working as mercenaries or getting involved in heists.

The usual weakness of the Powered by the Apocalypse engine is that it is bulky GM's are expected to design a set of moves to help emulate genre. However, a game called World of Dungeons broke that usual expectation, by abstracting everything to a single task resolution roll instead of "moves." 

By taking this minimal approach, GM's are handed a great deal of fiat, and a much simpler game.

Skullfungus took the innovative design of World of Dungeons, and created a minimalistic game where the characters are desperate bunglers in a world full of pain, torment, and disappointment. With only the simple mechanics of World of Dungeons, which take up only four pages, Skullfungus was able to focus on using his incredible art style and evocative d66 tables to build a strange and warped he'll escape to play in.

I have a play report of a One-Shot I ran in Down and Out in Dredgeburg called Lonnie goes to Heaven. Adventure notes are here, summary of play here.

Advantages of Open Engines

Choosing the right open engine allows you to build the scenario, setting, or game experience you are looking for and have rules that are congruent to that play experience without needing to go through the hassle of developing an original rules system of your own. As most of them have system reference documents that can be simply copied and pasted, even the process of writing the game can be accelerated.

The real key is knowing which engine is most congruent with the experience you want to create.

There is also the additional benefit of having an instantly accessible game system. If you have played one MotO or PbtA game, you only have to do a quick skim of the rules section of the game to look for any major departures before you can sit down and play.

Personally, I don't hesitate to have a long look at hey MotO game or one based on B/X D&D because I know that he'll at least be a familiar baseline. Likewise, I, most of my players are immediately suspicious as to whether a game marked Powered by the Apocalypse will be compatible with my play-style or to my taste.

Disadvantages of Open Engines 

The downsides of a given game engine, aside from the fact that it may deter people are not a fan of a particular engine lies primarily in the context of the specific game license. 

For example, the OGL allows you to use almost any edition of Dungeons & Dragons to create a product, however, you are not allowed to use the character advancement system described in the 3rd or 5th edition core books, and Wizards of the Coast is free to make use of any innovation or non-licensed creature, class, or magic item that you might include without paying or credit thank you.

It is also worth noting that a number of derivative systems, like retro clones such as Lamentations of The Flame Princess or Old School Essentials have additional requirements for you to declare your compatibility with them.

Old School Essentials, for example, has a very particular style specifying things like the use of gender pronouns, page layout, and acceptable topics before one can declare OSE compatibility.

Final Thought

Open game engines may not be a perfect solution when it comes to creating the game you want, but it is a quick and effective way to construct a functioning game fast without having to start from scratch. And, if you're willing to put in the work to tweak the rules to best convey the experience you are trying to create, they can be an excellent time saver.

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