There are two kinds of RPG engines:
- Toolkit, or “Design what doesn’t matter,” games provide a wide range of systems, most of them quite shallow and generic, for accomplishing pretty much anything a character might attempt in the game. The goal can be said to simplify the game experience in order to allow the GMs and the players to do what they want, with the system there to abstract away the stuff the troupe isn’t worried about.
- Designer, or “Design what matters,” games provide a narrow range of systems, most of them quite deep and focused, for accomplishing specifically the actions of the game that are supposed to be significant. The goal can be said to add fun mechanics to incentivize players to pursue the primary goals of the game. Concepts that are only rarely meant to show up in the game receive virtually no rules support.
The two extremes are probably the original Vampire: the Masquerade on the toolkit end and modern story games like Dogs in the Vineyard on the designer end. Vampire, despite being ostensibly meant to be low-combat and high-social, used a core mechanic that worked across all challenges in mostly the same way, and even gave more depth to combat (because it was necessary to get out of the way quickly). DitV and other story games, conversely, may have little in the way of support for anything but the few components that are meant to make up a session, and detailed rules for how to do those things.
In general, it feels like toolkit games could almost be called “traditional” games and designer games could be called “modern.” However, while D&D has certainly gained more of a “design what matters” focus in 4th Edition, even the original editions could be called designer games in the sense that combat and magic both had extensive rules while anything largely irrelevant to dungeon crawling was left up to GM fiat. Despite this contradiction, it does seem that even non-indie games take on more and more designer-game focus each year. For example, more and more games include some level of social combat system, seemingly included primarily to try to give social scenes the same richness of tactical options that combat scenes have long enjoyed.
I’ve discovered recently, though, that my bias is against designer games. While I really enjoy the theory of a really balanced system designed with a specific goal in mind, at the table I find that I’m much more comfortable with a system that will fade into the background and let me wing it. I have no patience as a GM for constructing scenes with the proper hooks to attach to specific interactions of player traits designed to lead to a perfect genre emulation. I just want to run a game and not have to ever reference the rulebook unless something really complex happens (and, if the system is universal enough that I can make a rules call with a reasonable certainty that it’s fair, so much the better).
Ultimately, I find D&D and WoD fundamentally easier and more fun to run than many modern games that have incorporated designer elements. I don’t know whether this is simply due to years of system mastery, or their nature as toolkit systems. But I have a nagging feeling that this somehow makes me a bad person, or at least a bad systems nerd.