Game systems are overrated. Roleplaying game designers spend a lot of time and effort trying to create rules which replicate a specific fictional reality -- or they take on the impossible task of creating rules which replicate real reality. They do research on the probability of hitting your target with an unaimed pistol shot at close range in a sandstorm, and agonize over whether Biochemistry is a different skill from Genetics. They argue endlessly over the merits of a bell curve distribution versus a linear result.
All overrated. The big secret of roleplaying games is this: any system can be used for any game. What's essential is a good setting, a good story, a good gamemaster, and good players.
The real-world equivalent is law. Law codes don't make people good, or governments competent and honest. Countries can be peaceful, free, and prosperous or tyrannical, bankrupt dystopias with the same laws in place. What matters is the people.
In the roleplaying game world right now one of the main engines of innovation are what are known as "Indie" games: products from small publishers, or self-published by the designers. They typically focus on a very specific type of adventure in a specific setting. Examples include The Mountain Witch, My Life With Master, Dogs in the Vineyard, or Fiasco. All are games built around one particular scenario.
The antithesis of the Indie game is the older "universal RPG system" concept. Games like GURPS, HERO System, Savage Worlds, West End's d6 system, and the d20 engine spawned by D&D Third Edition. These game systems try to model all possible realities. They are generic rather than specific.
Now comes Jason Walters to show us how meaningless the distinction between universal systems and indy games really is.
Posthegemony: Terra Nomenklatura is a classic indie game. It's about malcontents (known in the game setting as "Interesting People") trying to escape a stifling future Utopia of conformity, apathy, and political correctness. Adventures all revolve around accumulating the resources to get off Earth and join a more libertarian society elsewhere in the Solar System.
And it uses the ur-example of a "crunchy," hyper-detailed universal roleplaying engine, the HERO System. You know, the one that introduced game geeks to the joys of marathon up-all-night character creation sessions with spreadsheet software. The one that lets you pit Luke Skywalker against Dracula in Narnia (Dracula wins unless the person playing Luke uses out-of-character knowledge).
The concept and the rules are exact opposites, like matter and antimatter. And any physicist will tell you that when you bring those opposites together what you get is energy. Walters's Posthegemony is charged up. The prose reads as if he wrote it during a marathon espresso bender. The whole focus of the game is people finding an outlet for their frustrated energy, and it's only right for the rulebook to seethe just like the characters.
Mr. Walters's dystopian Utopia is a great example of how to create a plausible, convincing society. It's frighteningly realistic because one can easily imagine such a world coming to pass. Born out of a whole series of natural and human disasters, the Posthegemony world is one in which all ideologies have burned out. Society exists to perpetuate itself, and life for the masses is comfortable enough. The hidden rulers have all kinds of awful methods at their disposal, but the real backbone of oppression isn't fear but apathy. There is no Emperor to depose, and no masses ready to rise up, either.
Which means that the heroes are entirely on their own. They have to figure out how to build a spaceship, find the parts and a place to assemble them -- and every success just increases the risk of discovery. The tension ratchets up until they either escape or fail, at which point it's over.
Posthegemony: Terra Nomenklatura is available from Blackwyrm Publishing. Check it out.