(Except When It Does)
So a little bit ago I listed a few topics I was planning on addressing when life gave me a break. Instead of giving me a break I got a nasty head cold which has killed my productivity. I’ve taken that as a sign from The Universe that “this ain’t going to get easy anytime soon,” so I’ll just have to press on.
At the end of that list (which wasn’t written in any particular order) was a statement about how more and more I’m of the opinion that, in role-playing, the system doesn’t matter. I waffled on that a little bit — after all, if system doesn’t matter then why do we have D&D and GURPS and Savage Worlds and World of Darkness and RIFTS and ad nausiem — but I think I’ve come back around and decided that System Doesn’t Matter (Except When It Does). Let me see if I can explain myself in a meaningful way.
On “System Does Matter”
I feel like I should start by addressing the history of this question, a history that was personally ignorant of until researching this post, despite being not-quite-indirectly influenced by it. A lot of my understanding of this history comes from Brian Gleichman’s post from 2009, so his biases may carry through.
In the mid-90s, people who think about this sort of stuff came up with a theory on RPGs called The Threefold Model, supposing that people approached RPGs looking for simulation, competition, or drama. Reading up on it, this model was made by people on the ‘simulation’ end of things (appropriate, giving our roots in wargaming) and didn’t have a very clear view of the other two motivations. In 1999, one Ron Edwards made a post on The Forge (which may have gone by a different name at the time?) titled “System Does Matter“. He took the basic ideas of The Threefold Model and criticized RPGs who “tried to do it all,” and said that an RPG system can and should be measured by how well it serves one of the three motivations, and a system that tried to satisfy everyone was deemed “incoherent.” By the sound of it, Edwards was a charismatic jerk who hijacked the discussion (and i’ve heard as much from people other than Gleichman, as well).
Edwards called his system GNS — his three types of players were Gamists, Narrativists, and Simulationists — and his theory is the one I was brought up on when I (really) started getting into the hobby in the early 2000s. At the time I identified heavily as a Narrativist and thought poorly of Gamists (and bought into the idea that Simulationists were ‘escaping’ — in retrospect, aren’t we all? I would answer no, most of us are not, in fact). Edwards, The Forge, and/or GNS drove the development of a bunch of independent RPGs that chose one motivation and strove to do it very well (at the expense of other motivations). Some of these I’ve played (such as Dogs in the Vineyards), and though I liked a lot of their ideas I was generally disappointed with their actual play. This was my first step away from Narrativism, though it would be years yet before I realized that dedication to “The Story” was the root of my biggest problems with Role Playing.
Apparently Wizards of the Coast did a study about gamer segmentation and, according to Gleichman, discovered that system doesn’t matter — that is, regardless of system, players came to the game with various goals in about equal numbers and enjoyed themselves. I can’t find a lot of information on the study itself so have to take Gleichman at his word, but it does match my own anecdotal experience — in fact, it seems to me that most players come looking for a little bit of everything, anyways.
All Generalizations Are False
So I end up back at my original statement: system doesn’t matter. Whatever your goal is, whatever system you choose can get you there. The reason for this is I think pretty simple. At their heart RPGs are about role-playing, about taking on a persona and making decisions based on that persona. The systems we have are a framework for settling disputes — for arbitrating the outcomes and consequences of our decisions — when Tommy says “bang, I shot you!” and Sally says “no, you missed!” If the only question is “how do we resolve conflicts,” then any system can give you a useful answer.
And that brings us to the “except when it does” part of my statement. That is, the various systems we’re talking about are different, and they model different things in different ways. At some point, these differences are going to change the experience that you have. And if that change or difference is meaningful to you, that’s where System can start to matter.
There’s a post at The Satellite Show, from 2010, that touches on this in a way that’s meaningful to me. He talks about how a system can “get in the way” more or less, between you and the character you’re portraying. He makes some complaints about “impersonal number crunching” and confusing rules that I think have as much or more to do with the player in question as the rules system involved (numbers rarely get between me and my characters), but I like his closing point: some systems are like wearing a Batman costume and others are like wearing a t-shirt with a picture of Batman on it. It comes down to how easily the system lets you be your character and how much it pulls you out and makes you think of your character as a pawn on a game board. It is, in part, my complaint against Dissociated Mechanics. (This touches on why games like Dogs in the Vineyards dissatisfied me.)
Another way that think system can matter (aside from the Player/Character divide) is in how well the game models the genre and setting you’re looking for. Skullcrushing For Great Justice has a nice post about this, discussing the various attempts at a Middle Earth RPG. This speaks to the way the system models things, such as lethality or the costs associated with certain actions/abilities, and how well that maps to the setting you’re interested in. World of Darkness is meant to portray a gritty, modern setting; D&D is built for a high fantasy setting with a very broad range of power levels (from pig farmers to gods). D&D could be used to play in a modern setting, but there may be some work making the mechanics fit right. And touching on another topic near to my heart, the way systems model injury changes the kind of experiences that they game will lend itself to. I’m told that the L5R RPG has exploding damage dice, making it possible for a lucky hit to insta-kill even high level baddies, whereas D&D 4E has a VERY forgiving HP system that makes lasting hard unlikely except in extreme cases, and RIFTS’s use of HP and SDC is arguable a better model for toughness vs vitality (a boxer will have higher SDC to show he can endure more punishment, but he’s probably got about the same HP as the chess club member and dies to violence just the same).
I think those two categories — Player/Character Separation and Genre Loyalty — pretty much cover all the instances where there could be a meaningful split between systems, but the point is that anything where you feel one system satisfies your preferences better than another is probably a valid place to claim “System Matters (for me)”.
But system doesn’t matter.