Sunday 8 August 2021

Game Design #83: Generic Settings & Backgrounds (bad) vs Familiar Mechanics (good)

Yes, this post is out of sequence - it's something I wanted to discuss in an unfinished post about lame campaigns (#82), and I felt it merited its own space.

Folk sometimes take umbage on my preference for simplicity and familiar mechanics.
"Won't all games be like 40K?" 

Familiar mechanics make a game easy to learn; but does not mean the game itself is identical to the rules it borrows from. By changing activation and "chrome" (the extra elements like resource management and magic) and the "how" you act, you can create completely new games while retaining much of a familiar, easy system. I could use 40K roll d6 to hit, roll d6 strength vs toughness, roll d6 save throw on a spaceship game and have it play nothing like 40K.  Indeed, I could make it play nothing like any other spaceship game you've ever played. A preference for easy to learn games with predictable mechanics does not mean I want to play an identical game - because dice rolling mechanics don't set the tactics or determine what makes a game fun or dull.

The focus of this post is to point out another issue - how the "generic setting" and the "do-everything toolbox ruleset" beloved of indie devs tends to create uninteresting, samey bloated rules - far more harmful to variety than sharing some dice rolling mechanics.

In many cases this stems from a praiseworthy desire to allow players a free choice of models. This is great! But sometimes in trying to allow players to use every model and game very setting with one set of rules, designers detract from the appeal of their game. You end up with a bloated, generic game - just like every other bloated, generic game of the same genre.

It's very important to have a clear setting and background in mind. This helps set up how you want your games to play out on the table and informs design decisions. It keeps your game more narrowly focussed and helps you concentrate on what makes it unique.

- Having a clear setting/theme makes a game more appealing with background fluff

- Having a clear setting/theme does not mean locking the rules to particular minis

- Having a clear setting/theme means designers do not attempt too much with the rules (diluting or bloating them) and allows them to focus on what makes their game "special"

We often notice mechanics and rules that get adapted for what they are ill-suited to, i.e. we have WW2 navy in space copy+pasted to be a space game. Or a melee-based fantasy (WFB/40K) ruleset used for modern infantry combat (Bolt Action).

Making a "universal spaceship game" that attempts to cover all TV shows/movies or a "universal fantasy game" that tries to cover every aspect of fantasy is just another aspect of the same problem. In an attempt to create a universal toolkit allow people to use any minis (good), designers often create a universal, generic, uninteresting background that copies common tropes (bad).  In attempting to allow players to game every conceivable setting the rules do nothing well, and merely become one of the many similar generic fantasy or sci fi rulesets.

You can have completely different mechanics and still end up with the same end results. Rolling 4+ on a d6 or under 11 on a d20 still has the same effect. And if you shared the same activation method and spell list, then your fantasy game isn't actually any different. Dice resolution mechanics seldom determine tactics or the feel of a game.

Designers can create a strong theme without locking players into using specific miniatures. You just need to focus your rules on a specific aspect or element of gameplay. What will your rules do to set themselves apart from the 101 similar games? This doesn't necessitate 'exclusive' minis.


My homebrew "Middleheim" rules focus on psychic knights riding dinosaurs. The "magic" system is very focusssed and specific - telekinesis, mind control, etc - and it's "different" as psionics is more associated with sci fi and is rare in fantasy. The emphasis on dinos as both mounts and as mind-controlled "not-Warjacks" is also very specific and gives a strong theme.  

Even then there is still some flexibility - when I say how English longbowman and their ankylosaurs defeated the French velociraptor knights at Agincourt, it creates a different image of my game world then one where a last alliance of men and elves, assisted by sentient pterodactyls, use dino-controlling psy-amplifing rings to oppose a mighty psychic dark lord.

While I am not claiming everyone will like my background (it's merely what I wanted to play) there is certainly a strong theme/setting.  By focussing on a narrow less standard brand of "magic" (psychic powers) and a clear focus - on hacking/controlling dinosaurs - it can create a more unique game experience. Spell (power) lists can be more carefully streamlined and balanced as we aren't attempting to make rules cater to every fantasy trope.

But there is still a lot of flexibility in miniatures - you could use anything from Age of Sigmar to LoTR to Perry's War of the Roses; and I'm using a range of toy dinosaurs from the $2 shop whilst you could buy 3D printed ones.  Having a strong theme/setting does not automatically mean locking players into specific models.

 A Specific Setting/Narrower Focus Cuts down on Bloat & Improves the Rules

Trying to cover too many settings compromises your rules. You will bloat the rules by adding special rules trying to cover every possible contingency. By trying to make your game work as a 'universal system' you risk making it bland and similar to every other 'universal system.'

Regarding bloat: if you want to game every aspect of sci fi skirmish, you will need an enormous range of weapons, gear, skills and special rules as you attempt to cater to all possible sci fi media. And if you are an indie dev - how do you plan to playtest them all?


With my homebrew "Delta Vector" starship rules I was inspired by Lost Fleet and EvE Online. Important gameplay hooks were the ability to warp jump on the tabletop; vector movement, relative velocity and lightspeed impacting accuracy, and reaction mechanics. There was a kinetics-missile-laser approach that focussed on missiles as AoE denial. The game was relatively simple and streamlined, and relatively unlike other space games.

Then I decided I wanted to be able to replicate BSG, Star Wars and Star Trek using the same rules. So more rules crept in to cater to this. More recording. More bloat. I made the mechanics more generic "WW2 in space" (matching the TV shows) - the very thing I originally had been trying to avoid! I could no longer play battles of more than 4 ships as things got too cluttered with recording shields, hits, detection, etc.

Then along came Firefly/The Expanse. I finally realised something had to give and finally split my game into two games: one game aimed at PT-boat sized gunships (a la Rocinante) with a strong Descent vibe focussed on detection and crew skill; and I trimmed the original big starship game back to its EvE/Lost Fleet roots. I made two better, more focussed games instead of one generic game that was poor at everything. No, I couldn't replicate Star Wars settings any more - but I could still use any minis.

You don't need to be somewhat good at everything to be unique; you can just be good at one or two things in a way no one else is.

I recently reviewed Dracula's America - it wasn't a bad game, but I was disappointed it did nothing I could not already do with Deadlands/Savage Worlds It was just another generic Weird West game - it changed the dice and cards (mechanics) a bit; but in the end result was the same. Different rules, same gameplay.

Activation & Chrome: Keys to Differentiation

Dice mechanics are just a way to find percentage chances of things - for movement, missile, melee, morale -  which tend to be what I'd class as "core" mechanics. But if dice rolling isn't the key to differentiation - what is?  Here are some suggestions:

Activation/Initiative - "when" and "how" you move/act/react is far more important that the dice methods you use to determine the outcome. To avoid going over this again I'll refer you to my game design series (see sidebar). The decision between IGOUGO, alternate activation, reaction mechanics etc - it's more important to the flow of the game than you might think.

Chrome - this is what I'd class as "everything but the core mechanics." This includes the "5th Element" - maybe magic, or hacking - or something unique to your setting.  If your magic is just like every other generic magic - then you've missed an opportunity to differentiate.  Resource management (dice pools, tokens, etc) also fits into this category but could be applied to applicable areas - like even morale.

^For example: I'm keen to avoid my homebrew 15mm sci fi rules being just another Stargrunt or 40K clone.  So I'm making the game focus on demon-possession; basically like Warmachine, only your warcaster (demon) is a pile of off-table resource tokens and anyone can be possessed/buffed - and your opponents human models can be possessed/hijacked. Robots are immune to enemy possession but cannot be demonically boosted either, and are vulnerable to EMP/hacking - sort of a paper-scissors-rock of flesh hacking vs electronic hacking. Detection/stealth/darkness and fear is also a focus as it's a horror flavoured game taking place in unlit space station corridors.  It might not appeal to everyone, but it's not just rebadged Stargrunt or 40K with a bunch of generic special rules and background.  It has a specific setting and theme. Yet I can still use any 15mm minis - any "alien" looking ones are just bioengineered humans.

Tactical (Gameplay) Focus What have you decided is important? What tactics do you want to emphasize? How do you want your players to play your game? A typical decision is move vs shoot. If you want maneuver or close combat to matter more; then double movement ranges and/or reduce gun range/accuracy. If you want shooting and cover to be supreme; make weapons long ranged and lethal but give big defensive cover bonuses.   Imagine we are using 40K mechanics, but doubled movement and -1 to all shooting rolls; vs another game where we doubled gun range but allowed cover saves to be re-rolled. Same dice mechanics, but both would play very differently.

All these choices to differentiate (activation, chrome, tactics) are driven by the background/setting. The setting should determine your choice of special rules/chrome/tactical focus. What to include and (more importantly) what to leave out. While historical games are more constrained; but for sci fiction and fantasy - why should two sets of rules play in similar fashion?


Rules that share dice rolling mechanics are not always the problem that creates generic "samey" games. The game's setting is also important.

A generic fantasy ruleset which attempts to cover every possible generic fantasy trope using generic fantasy spells, weapons and tactics won't differ appreciably from another generic fantasy ruleset trying to do the same thing, regardless if one is using d6s and the other d20s. Using the same ruleset for every possible era and situation is another side of the same problem (fantasy 40K =? WW2 Bolt Action).

A unique, engaging background/setting should lead to unique, engaging gameplay. A generic, copy+paste background will probably lead to generic copy+paste gameplay.

Rules that try to cover too many eventualities or eras can be bloated and end up being a "jack of all trades, master of none" - and similar to the other jack of all trades rules from that genre.  A pair of rulebooks can use similar dice mechanics and be wildly different games - but if a game is designed to "play" every TV spaceship battle, then it probably will play like other games with a similar design brief - regardless of the dice mechanics you use.

A unique setting/background helps you trim down the bloat, and focus on what you think is important - what make your game better or more unique than others in the genre. Having a unique setting does not mean prescriptive models - a game focussed on medieval dinosaur riders could still use any dinosaurs and any fantasy/medieval rider.

What is your game's "hook" - What about your setting and background is unique and cool - what makes the game play differently from other games of the same genre?  If the answer is "it uses cool d10 dice rolls not oldskool d6" (cough Warlord Games cough) ....then you probably missed the point.


  1. Let's hope lots of aspiring game designers read this and move away from simple copy-paste to thinking more deeply about the game as game. Even with unique settings defaulting to zero-degree familiar rules concepts can lead to a ho-hum game.

    I like Turnip28 for its setting and miniature look & feel, and the rules do not get in the way. But I wouldn't play these rules with regular historical miniatures, since I'm not particularly interested in those settings, and the rules themselves are nothing special and not very deep or challenging tactically. They work, they're not inappropriate to the setting, they're ok, and that's it. I'm not even sure how long I would enjoy actual games of Turnip28. Still, if I ever get the change I'd give them a go.

    1. Is Turnp28 the one using Perry WoTR? I think I recall that from a few months back - the idea was intriguing!
      I'd definitely check out the rules, but if they simply mimic another ruleset I'll pass.

      Foe example, Turnip28 rules need to also answer:
      What makes vegetable tactics different? -Otherwise it's just another napoleonics or medieval ruleset with cool minis/fluff.

      I wonder why folk are so confident others will want their generic "game any setting" fantasy/black powder/sci fi ruleset, when many gamers have several "game any setting" rules already.

      Neither am I interested in buying the same ruleset (with tweaks) to game a different era - i.e. I eyed off Stargrave, but I decided to pass as I am 100% confident it will merely be a Frostgrave reskin.

    2. It is indeed only a Frostgrave Re-skin. I hope The Silver Bayonet uses a different core set of mechanics.

    3. "I hope The Silver Bayonet uses a different core set of mechanics."

      ...But I'm not holding my breath....

    4. Turnip28 is indeed the WOTR/Napoleonics/Vegetable mashup :-)
      As an alternative ruleset for this sort of thing there's now also Sludge, which I haven't read yet. But will.

  2. I understand why Max Fitzgerald created the Turnip rules. People liked his concersions and illustrations and the wacky backrgound he invented, all of which are *great* and they wanted rules. So he obliged. I just wish he had either put more development effort in them or outsourced it to someone good at creative game design. OTOH, I'm also pretty sure many Turnip fans wouldn't want anything other than a reskin of something they're familiar with, be that Frostgrave or something GW.