Great Generic RPG Systems

Posted by on March 30, 2012
'recognize the poison in my heart.' by zephyrance on Flickr

'recognize the poison in my heart.' by zephyrance on Flickr

Many players come across a world that’s just begging to be role-played, but for which no system fits perfectly. So, how about grabbing a generic system?

The following systems can be used to model just about any world or genre, and they’re all free (to various extents).


d20 is, of course, based on the Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition system of ability scores, skills, and the core d20 mechanic: roll a 20-sided die, add and/or subtract small modifiers, and compare the result to a difficulty rating.

This system’s been around forever because it works. It’s been stretched and tested and explored in every way conceivable. It can be stretched so far that it breaks, but that usually happens for those trying to break it.

Wizards of the Coast provides the d20 3.5 System Reference Document.


FATE is an adaptation of the Fudge system–which I describe in the next segment–that was designed to model narrative story flow. FATE excels at modeling characters from literature (from “high lit” to the Dresden Files).

Version 2 and version 3 are freely available and cover all the basics.

FATE gives players a bit of narrative control, thanks to Fate Points and Aspects. Each player starts with a couple of Fate Points, and each character has a couple of Aspects. Aspects are taglines that describe a character’s personality, such as “Never Tell Me The Odds” or “Trust Me; I’m a Scientist!” Players can spend a Fate Point to invoke an Aspect, giving them extra dice on an action, or the GM can compel an Aspect, giving them an extra Fate Point but triggering the negative side of that Aspect (rushing into danger or unstable experiments, to use these examples). Players can resist a compel by spending one of the player’s own Fate Points.

The Fate economy encourages players to play to their character’s actual personality. A character that repeatedly succumbs to weakness builds a supply of Fate Points that can be cashed in later to be awesome.


Fudge is different. I’ve heard it described as a toolkit for building a role-playing system, which is close to the truth but not quite accurate.

Fudge has a core mechanic, and provides many character options that use that mechanic. The group decides on the character options to use.

For example, D&D has six core attributes: Strength, Dexterity, Consitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. Fudge lets your group use as many attributes as you want. Same thing with skills; players add points into a set of specific skills in D&D, while in Fudge, players can make up whatever skills they want (as long as the group approves of them). The entire system is limited with a point-buy mechanic, which the rules provide advice about.

All these character elements–attributes, skills, etc.–are represented with a number (usually 1 to 4) which corresponds to the Fudge Ladder. This is a set of adjectives that correspond to each number: 0 is mediocre, 1 is fair, 2 is good, 3 is great, -1 is poor, -2 is terrible, etc.

This works because there’s one mechanic in Fudge, and provided the attributes (or skills, or whatever) have some limit, they will work with the mechanic. Which means you can use any character representations you want, as long as you adapt them to the Fudge Ladder.

'Hanging on at F'B'ULL Speed' by VinothChandar on Flickr

'Hanging on at F'B'ULL Speed' by VinothChandar on Flickr

Fudge uses Fudge Dice, which are six-sided dice that have a +1 on two sides, a -1 on two sides, and a 0 on the remaining two sides. Every time you want to do something difficult, you pick a relevant character element, roll four Fudge dice, add them, and add the value of the relevant character element. Depending on the game, you may be able to use multiple elements on the same roll. The result tells you how well you did: If your barbarian with a +2 Strength attempts to grab the bull and ride it to the ground, and rolls a total of +1 on the Fudge Dice, he did a great (+2 = great) job.

The Fudge dice provide a beautiful distribution curve: usually 0, often +1 or -1, all the way to a very rare (less than 1% chance) +4 or -4. This means you’ll usually do as well as your character elements you will.

The adjectives provide a quick-to-graps representation of your character’s abilities. Let’s say your character sheet lists a +2 in Swordplay. So, your character is Good at Swordplay. Boom. You intuitively grasp what that means in the world, and how well you’ll usually do when swinging a sword.


I’ve never actually played GURPS, but I have a lot of GURPS source books, and the system is a paragon of flexibility.

It’s a point-buy system, with a few tweaks surrounding the core character attributes. Characters are made up of core attributes (strength, dexterity, intelligence, and health; all of which cost different amounts of points), advantages (which cost points), disadvantages (which give you extra points), quirks (non-mechanical distinctive elements of a character), and skills (which cost points).

One advantage of GURPS: there’s probably a sourcebook for whatever you’re trying to run. There are already GURPS books for Watership Down, The Prisoner, ghosts, gothic steampunk, Andre Norton’s Witch World, Celtic myth, and superhero temp agencies.

GURPS Lite is a free, basic version of GURPS.


I love Risus. The entire system can be described in a paragraph, and it handles pulp adventures stunningly well. It’s less-suited to other genres, granted, but it’s free.

The system: each player starts with 10 six-sided dice. Each player makes up a character, which is described by a couple of clichés such as “Never Tell Me The Odds,” “I Have A Plan,” “Femme Fatale,” or even “Mob Boss.” The player puts dice in each cliché. Done.

When attempting a difficult action, the player rolls the dice in the appropriate cliché, trying to beat either the GM’s target number. If a player is facing a specific enemy, the enemy will have dice, and they roll off. If the player-character loses, the player temporarily removes one die from the cliché used. If all dice in one cliché are removed, the character’s knocked out.

That’s Risus. Characters are easy to grasp, play proceeds quickly, and at least when I played, we had tons of fun racing through an adventure.

I hope this helps. If you have a go-to generic system, please let me know in the comments.

3 Responses to Great Generic RPG Systems

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *