When I was doing my retrospective on games I have played I noticed some patterns and decided to share:
The Original Way: 3d6 for stats, different dice, non-unified mechanics. That's D&D and just about everything else that happened back then. Some are still popular today - Palladium and the retro clones come to mind.
The System of the 80's : Percentiles - Runequest, Rolemaster, Call of Cthulu, Star Trek, Twilight 2000. I can't think of any current games that still use this as a core mechanic other than CoC and other BRP games.
The System of the 90's: Dice Pools - Star Wars, Shadowrun, Vampire. I know Star Wars got started a little bit earlier but it clearly started a trend. Many of these are still going today.
The System of the Oughts: I think it has to be d20 which dominated everything for most of the decade. Simplified, unified mechanics is the signature of this trend even if it's not pure d20 such as the Decipher Star Trek game.
The System of the Teens: I think that it will be "lighter" systems. d20 can get pretty heavy with a codified answer to every question so this may be a reaction to that approach. I think Savage Worlds started it early but with Mutants and Masterminds 3E moving in this direction, Cinematic Unisystem following a similar trend, ICONS, retro-clones, Mongoose Traveller, and even D&D 4E going this way (simplified skills, simplified modifiers, trimming out unique sub-systems) I think it's the biggest trend I can point to. Pathfinder sort of bucks this trend, but I'm not sure it negates it - I think it merely illustrates how so much is moving in another direction. Think of the new games launched in the last 5 years - how many of them have big thick rulebooks full of crunch? Pathfinder, Hero 6th. Aces and Eights. That's about it and I'm not sure those last two are "major" anymore.
I think some of it is that a lot of the cool new games are coming from smaller, mostly online publishers and are developed for more casual games than the traditional lets all sit down once a week and play for six hours scenario. They tend to have fewer rules, smaller rule books, and unified mechanics. They also tend to be easily adapted to other types of games.
As a parallel to this it's interesting to me that companies have also shrunken their game lines down dramatically from previous years. At one point TSR had the following game lines in print:
- Basic D&D
- Gamma World
- Star Frontiers
- Boot Hill
- Marvel Super Heroes.
Now all of those games had different mechanics, enough so that supporting materials had to be published separately for each game. There was some potential for crossover between say the D&D versions and maybe Gamma World or Boot Hill, but the others were dramatically different. Can you imagine any modern company trying to keep seven distinct lines of RPG's afloat simultaneously?
It wasn't just TSR either. During the 80's GDW had the following games:
- Twilight 2000
- Traveller 2300
- Space 1889
Fasa did it too with Mechwarrior, Shadowrun, Earthdawn, and for little while Star Trek overlapped with those too. None of them shared mechanics.
West End had Star Wars, Torg, Paranoia, and Ghostbusters all with different mechanics too.
Even Iron Crown did it for a while in the 90's publishing Rolemaster and Hero System at the same time.
It seems so strange looking back now at how companies used to have such wildly different systems in-house and most of them didn't appear to see it as an issue. Current day producers seem to assume from the get-go that they're going to use one system. Green Ronin looks like the only one that still puts out mechanically different games at the same time and I like a lot of their output. Maybe it's not as terrible an idea as was once thought. I'm not sure there are real economies of scale at work when we're talking about a product like RPG's. At least, I'm not sure there's enough at work to justify shoe-horning games from radically different genres into one master system. I see the attraction from the business side, and to some degree from the player side - I like Hero and I liked the d20 run for the most part - but when I saw people trying to come up with d20 Shadowrun I just shook my head. Not everything is a good fit and sometimes the system is just so in-sync with the setting that it needs to remain its own thing.
I think from the baseline of original D&D we saw a reach for realism in the 80's and percentiles provided the most granularity that could be easily achieved and used in play. In the 90's story became king and hard mechanics were a little less in favor, so dice pools came into vogue by allowing a broad comparative rating of "this is better than that" without getting bogged down in tiny elements of realistic detail. Classes and levels, the other favored mechanic of the 80's, were a victim of this as well. Then we get to the 2000's and the unified mechanical system becomes the thing of the moment and classes and levels come back, largely driven by d20's popularity - maybe it's a "practicality" movement - "no they aren't always realistic but they work and when combined with a unified mechanic they make for a good playing experience" would be my take on it.
Now as we move into the next decade I think the unified mechanics aspect will remain as it's almost essential to a game that's mechanically lighter. I think classes and levels though are due for another pendulum swing and will fade some outside of the retro game collective, Pathfinder, and D&D - large though that crowd may be there are other games in the universe.
So it's an interesting time. I'm looking forward to whatever is next. Even if I don't like it things will roll in a way I do at some point, and until then I still have more games to play.
Postscript: It's sometimes easy to tell when someone came into roleplaying. Show a 70's - 80's gamer a new game that uses classes and levels and they're probably OK with it. Show it to a 90's recruit and they typically will use words like limiting, outdated, straightjacket, and the like. Then show it to someone that started during the d20 wave and they're probably fine with it. It's funny how things come and go then come back like that. This next decade will be interesting for sure.