Cam Banks, the brain in a jar over at Margaret Weis Productions, was pondering the future of games and cited a conversation where it seemed the desire was for "a unified set of RPG rules."
Now, this was just a conversation, on the Internet no less, so it has just about the statistical significance of a gnat's fart, but it caught my interest all the same. Follow RPGs for any period of time and you know that the demand for that unified ruleset is out there, serving as a holy grail for many would-be designers.
This is one of those ideas you buy or you don't. I don't, but I don't hold it against anyone who does. The fact that I think it's asking the wrong question is another gnat fart - more power to them for trying. My sole warning (and this applies to a lot of things): if you reach a point where you feel the only thing that has been missing in solving this big a problem is your unique insight, take that as a reason to re-examine your understanding of the problem.
Anyway, the reason that Cam turns this into an interesting discussion is that it speaks pretty directly to how Cortex Plus is positioning itself and attempting to address one common failing of universal RPGs - that a specific game can produce specific ends more effectively. The CP model, as seen in Leverage and Smallville, is a reasonably thin engine - just enough to tell you how to roll and read the dice and teach a few concepts - with a custom build to reflect the specifics of the game in question. Even setting aside my own fondness for Cortex Plus, this is a pretty smart model. Combine it with the fact that CP is one of the two post-4e game engines to really grab me (the other being Dragon Age) and you've got the formula for some good stuff.
Now, I'm not going to tout this as super novel. Frankly, it's the model that White Wolf has been using forever, but without WW's approach to setting. Nor am I saying this is a panacea - the reality is that as easy as it is to _say_ you just build on a light framework, it takes work. It is entirely possible to suck.
But what does intrigue me is the way the model creates a tiered structure. You have the core game, as held and owned by MWP, surrounded by a second tier of specific implementations (Smallville, Leverage). What grabs me is the third tier, the personal hacks, which are much more derived from the second tier than they are the first. That is to say, the core may remain important for communication and clarity, but the real fiddly bits are outside of it.
This is not to say that an industrious amateur couldn't produce a tier-2 work. Such a thing will almost certainly happen. But for the vast majority of hackers, tier 3 is a sweet spot. They can pick and choose bits they like and add in only enough stuff to feel good about it. It's like knitting without needing to make the yarn yourself. That's a powerful place to be.
Will this stay interesting? I dunno. A lot will depend on what MWP does in the future and how they interact with the fan community. I have a lot of faith in Cam, but the future is fickle. But I'll be curious to see how it goes since it's such an interesting mix of classical and nouveau hacking that I expect very interesting things of it.