In the early 1990s the game studio that had brought the world Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), TSR Inc., found itself faced with a growing number of competitors who were often challenging the company for dominance in the role-playing game market. One of these competitors, Steve Jackson Games, had produced a wildly successful role-playing game called the Generic Universal Role-Playing System (GURPS) which allowed players to play in any setting they imagined during any time period. GURPS produced a unique challenge to the dominance of TSR’s flagship game and as a result the company made the strategic decision to challenge GURPS by launching its own universal role-playing system: the Amazing Engine.
The Amazing Engine was designed to be a light framework of rules which would allow TSR to then sell robust settings through their “Universe Books” which would provide players with supplemental rules and with game worlds to explore. While this format was similar in concept to other universal role-playing systems it differed in one major way – the players earned the experience points and not the characters.
The system hinged on the idea of the “player core,” or as Karen S. Boomgarden described it in Dragon Magazine:
“. . . The player core is a shell, if you will, created by dice rolls. There are four pools into which the points go: Physique, Intellect, Spirit, and Influence. Each of these, in turn is split into two sub-categories: Fitness and Reflexes, Learning and Intuition, Psyche and Willpower, and Charm and Position. Once all these numbers have been rolled and assigned, and minor modifications (explained in the System Guide) have been made, you are ready to determine the Stamina points and Body points this core will have. These numbers for the basis, or core, for as many player characters as you care to make from this blueprint. All characters created from a single core have basically the same makeup; all are strong if the Physique pool has high numbers, all are ‘movers and shakers’ if the Influence pool contains the most points, and so on. That is not to imply that they’re the same character, however. Far from it . . .”Boomgarden, Dragon 195
This concept of a “player core” presented a significant shift from the way that traditional role-playing games dealt with character creation, experience, and the continuation of a player’s experiences with the game itself. David “Zeb” Cook elaborated on how the “player core” would further move from the traditional conceptions:
“. . . The AMAZING ENGINE system is more than just a collection of universes. In the AMAZING ENGINE system the advances a player character gains in one universe can be used to help player characters in another universe. Starting a new AMAZING ENGINE setting does not mean starting over from the beginning; this means players and gamemasters can experiment with the wide range of universes . . .”Cook, System Guide
This idea of continuation from setting to setting is not all that dissimilar to such recent online experiments as the Flail Snails games where a character would play in multiple online games under a variety of Game Masters, regardless of rule system origin, and would grow accordingly. Yet even with such tangential connections the idea that a “player core” could move from character to character, improving them as it went, was something uniquely special to the Amazing Engine.
It was a concept ahead of its time.
The Amazing Engine would only be published for about a year and would produce nine books in total (one system book and eight setting books): Amazing Engine System Guide (1993), Bughunters (1993), For Faerie, Queen, and Country (1993), Magitech (1993), The Galactos Barrier (1993), Kromosome (1994), Metamorphosis Alpha to Omega (1994), The Once and Future King (1994), and Tabloid! (1994).
If we judge the Amazing Engine by its sales then the system was a tremendous failure for TSR Inc.; however, if we discuss the game not in terms of sales, but rather in terms of its success as a game that provides players with a fun and exciting experience, then what would be the result?
That’s a difficult question as I’ve discovered few people who have actually played the system and developed enough of a relationship with the game to discuss it online. Now it could be argued that such a situation would point to the game being of poor quality but it is equally as likely that due to the game’s “player core” concept, and the time when it was published, that the game did not find a receptive audience within the role-playing enthusiast community which resulted in few people being familiar enough with the game to form a true opinion of it. The only solution then is to learn the system, explore a few of the setting books, and evaluate it under its own terms. Which is exactly what I will be doing.
I hope you’ll join me then.
Boomgarden, Karen S. “The Game Wizards #2 The little engine that could: the AMAZING ENGINE story.” Dragon Magazine, vol. 18, no 2, July 1993. pgs 41 – 42. DIGITAL
Cook, David “Zeb”. Amazing Engine System Guide. TSR, Inc. USA. 1993. pg. 4 PRINT
7 thoughts on “An Introduction to the “Amazing Engine,” the Role-Playing Game to Conquer Them All that Never Did”
I have heard of the amazing engine, but I have never seen a copy in the wild. I’m looking forward to reading more about the details.
Off the top of my head I wonder how it handled a new player coming in when the other “player cores” are already established.
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I found a copy of Bughunters at a local used bookstore a few weeks ago and it really got me interested in the system as a whole. I hope you’ll stick around for the exploration of the system in my next entry.
I have copies of the System Guide, For Faerie, Queen & Country, and Bughunters! bought about the time they came out (might have been in a convention dealers room). Never found a single person willing to try playing it. I did make attempts to file the serial numbers off Bughunters! and port it to other RPG systems though. Nobody would play those, either 😦
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Why didn’t they want to play it? As far as I’ve made it through the System Guide it doesn’t seem like we’re talking about a bridge too far for most players.
I have the System Guide, For Fairy, Queen and Country, Magitech, Bughunters and The Galactos Barrier. I ran a 4 session one-shot of FQC which went well and a much longer campaign of Magitech that was basically Terminator.
I didn’t like the starships in Bughunters, specifically how they all look like Southend Pier. I spent hours redesigning the ship modules so that they ships could be more three dimensional. It wasn’t an improvement. Nobody liked the magic system of Galactos after playing Magitech.
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I’m trying to work my way through the system guide right now, but it’s damned dry reading.
I played a heap of Kromosome back in my college days and I’m trying to start a group focusing on Amazing Engine right now. I think the idea of XP accumulation in a player core will work really well if I run a series of stand alone adventures in the different Universes.
Kromosome had one of the most unique visions of a dystopian future I’ve ever seen in an RPG. I think the books worked best if you used them as a template and expanded it out to your own vision of that Universe, because the lists of equipment, spells and enhancements in them were often fairly sparse with a steep increase in power, but there was enough to give you an idea or two to fill in the spaces. Kromosome, for example, hinted that the AIs on the Net were up to something but didn’t say what. It touched on offworld life but only enough that you had to figure out the rest. Ultimately, you have to put your own spin on things just to fill in the blanks.
I also remember the dice rolls being difficult, resulting in slapstick fight scenes where everyone looks ridiculous. They had fun, though.
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