System Doesn’t Matter

Posted: 23 August 2012 in The Hobby
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(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.

  1. Tom Coenen says:

    Dissociated Mechanics tend to separate character and player knowledge.
    Personally I dislike them but I can live with them as long as they don’t break suspension of disbelief.

    The most irritating part about dissociated mechanics is that players tend to solve problems with mechanics instead of thinking about what their character would do and mapping that to a mechanic.
    This of course depends on the group and play style.

    The genre divide is new for me as I mostly play D&D 4E, although house ruled to be a bit less forgiving. Anyway, thanks for the article.

    • Jack says:

      Yeah, dissociated mechanics are kind of a death mark for me; it may be possible to tolerate them, but they attack what I feel is the real core of role-playing and so I have little inclination to put up with them.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  2. Brendan says:

    I think it’s the higher level aspects of the system that end up affecting play no matter what. For example, XP, incentive, or advancement systems. How death and danger are handled are also pretty important.

    So yeah, have to somewhat disagree. System seems to matter a whole lot. In my current OD&D game, one wrong move and you can be dead (generally there’s a save too, but that’s still in the hands of the fate). I also don’t award any XP for defeating monsters. My players are really careful, and hesitant to engage in combat. That’s all system, right there. XP comes from gold, so the PCs are treasure hunters. If I was giving XP for something else, that is what the PCs would be doing.

    In the 4E hack game I ran before this, the death rules were much more forgiving, and though PCs could get XP for treasure, they could also get XP for killing monsters. What did they do? They looked for monsters to kill.

    I think this is orthogonal to the “playing a roll” aspect of gaming, which all players seem to do no matter what to the degree that they like to act.

    System complexity also matters as a bar to entry. I can master a 64 page rulebook much easier than a 300 page rulebook (and many more casual gamers won’t even touch something that looks too complicated or involved).

    • Jack says:

      Oh, shoot. Yes, I forgot to address incentives, which are a big deal because, like you say, the things that are incentivized are likely to be the things your players go on. I do think that this falls under the Genre Loyalty notion, though — if the system incentivizes things that make sense for the genre (finding treasure, hunting monsters, solving riddles, etc) then that’s a positive feature.

      I disagree with you that it will always affect the game no matter what. Not to step onto Rule 0 Fallacy territory, but the DM is always free (as you have done) to change the incentives if he chooses. And I can play E6 or even declare that Levels will only be granted as Story Rewards, and those are valid ways to play. More directly to the “system doesn’t matter” point, though, is that Advancement and Incentives only matter if it matters to your group. For example, if I’m not motivated by character advancement (which I tend not to be), then it doesn’t much matter where the Experience points are, I’m going to do what I find interesting.

      I think I addressed lethality and death in the Genre Loyalty bit pretty directly, and again while it’s not a trivial system, it has a lot more to do (I think) with how the group handles system-death than how the system handles it. If characters only die when the group says they die (at a narrative appropriate time, for example), rather than at 0hp, that’s a valid way of addressing the issue. They may still be out of the fight at 0hp, but they are plenty of people who play with something of a standing “you got captured instead” rule, and they have fun with that.

      System complexity is an interesting beast, and one I’m chewing on now. I DEVOUR game systems, but my players… don’t. I’d like to play some of these other games that I have, and so the question I’m asking myself (and may post on) is “how much system mastery are players required to have?” In my investigations, I’m leaning towards “not a whole lot.”

      • Brendan says:

        If characters only die when the group says they die (at a narrative appropriate time, for example), rather than at 0hp, that’s a valid way of addressing the issue.

        That, too, is system.

        Regarding genre loyalty… I’m not sure what I think about this. When I run a game, I am certainly influenced by books, movies, etc in terms of mood and style, but past that I’m not sure anything else comes through. My thoughts are kind of all over the place on this. Then again, I don’t really think emulation is meaningful in roleplaying, and don’t really believe in genre as a meaningful category in literature or art, so take that as you will. 🙂

        Just as an empirical observation, I don’t think I have ever run or played in a game that would be meaningfully recognized as belonging to a genre, past the trappings like the existence of elves or vampires or whatever. Now that I think of it, I wonder why that is, and if it’s true of other gamers generally speaking.

        • Jack says:

          That, too, is system.

          At some point down that path you simply define “system” as “the way you play,” and I can’t dispute that “the way you pay” matters. I’d defining system much more narrowly as the general rules-system in place (D&D, RIFTS, WoD, etc) and contend that any of them are capable of satisfying essentially any play-goal. Beyond that… -shrugs- It all becomes academic. If you’re having fun, go have fun.

          I don’t think I have ever run or played in a game that would be meaningfully recognized as belonging to a genre, past the trappings like the existence of elves or vampires or whatever.

          But that’s kind of what the definition of genre is. Forget what they taught you in English class, genre is just a way to talk about things that have similar qualities. You have have higher-level genres, like “fantasy”, that catch a whole variety of things in it’s net, and you can have more niche genres, like “modern gothic paranormal romance” or something. Genre isn’t about emulation, and you might not care what genre you’re playing per se, but you do care about the trappings of your setting (at least to some extent). The less you care, the less genre loyalty will be a breaking point to you. But there it is.

          • Brendan says:

            At some point down that path you simply define “system” as “the way you play,” and I can’t dispute that “the way you pay” matters.

            If the modification being discussed is significantly changing parts of the rules in a consistent way, it should be considered as changing the system, in my opinion. For example, is E6 just a way to play Third Edition, or is it a different system? I would lean towards calling it a different system (though it is certainly a related system). Certainly, you would want to let potential players know whether E6 or standard 20 level 3E was being played.

            I agree, at some point it is splitting hairs, but the example you gave above about character mortality is a really fundamental change to the game. I imagine different people will draw the line at different places. For example, I would consider D&D without full plate to not be a different system, despite the fact that someone might argue that access to full plate is part of the fighter class, and thus part of the system (and they would have a point).

            • Jack says:

              A fair point, and I agree that you should be clear with your players about what changes or additions you’re making, but I disagree that e6 or “narrative mortality” makes a new system. I feel it’s a lot more like telling your players what kind of tone or setting you’re playing in. I’m not saying that stuff doesn’t matter or players aren’t going to have preferences one way or the other, but it’s not “system” the way I’m addressing it here.

              D&D and RIFTS are different systems. Burning Wheel and WoD are different systems. E6 is just a variant of D&D (and comes with all the pros and cons of it’s parent, with a couple changes).

  3. llanwyre says:

    Interesting post! I do think system matters, and I think your own post betrays that a bit: you spend the penultimate paragraph talking about lethality and injury. You’ve made a fundamental assumption that players want to roleplay fighting. Most do, but not everyone does, and trying to get D&D to model other kinds of interactions as fully as it does fighting won’t really work. On the other hand, try to do tactical fighting in Freemarket and you’ll drive yourself to insanity.

    Game designers have to make a decision about what kind of conflicts are at the center of play. For 90% of them, it’s combat with a splash of morality thrown in. After years of hacking through goblins (albeit with some nice stories involved,) I now get excited when I see a game whose designer doesn’t give much of a damn about combat and has come up with other central conflicts–and I get REALLY excited when I see a game whose designer has come up with a central set of conflicts I hadn’t even though of before. To that extent, I think system matters profoundly because it defines which part of a character’s experience matters to game play (and by extension, to the players.)

    • Brendan says:

      Just because all or most of a game’s rules are about combat doesn’t mean that game is about combat though. For why, see here:

      Probably 90% of the rules in OD&D are about combat, yet my game is all about learning how the different parts of the environment (including NPCs) fit together, and avoiding combat whenever possible.

    • Jack says:

      Yeah, I’m going to agree with Brendan on this one: having a robust ruleset for combat doesn’t necessarily bias your game toward combat — it just means you have a robust set of rules for combat. it’s possible that a similar system for, say, diplomacy is unnecessary (because it needn’t be that complex) or unwanted (say, because the designers want to keep it simple to encourage that kind of play).

      I think you’re confusing the tools that are available with a group’s desire and ability to engage the game in a certain way. A big part of what this blog is about is finding the gaps in a system (say, meaningful overland travel in 3.x) and thinking about ways of filling those holes with new or borrowed mechanics. Obviously, if you have a system that is utterly without rules for combat (which I gather Freemarket is) it’s foolish to expect it to cater to a combat-heavy game, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. The DM could just wing it (uhm, ok, roll a d6 to wound) or borrow a system from some other game.

      I did not use the whole paragraph to talk about lethality; I did mention lethality as one of the things that can contribute to Genre Loyalty, and I think Genre Loyalty is one of the places where system can matter (but doesn’t necessarily). Many games do include a system for combat because the genre they’re modeling (heroic fantasy, gritty urban, etc), so it’s expected to handle those situations. If those sorts of setting don’t interest you then that’s fine, but that doesn’t make our preferred settings “less” than the ones that do interest you.

      I feel that the players are the ones who decide what’s important to them and what experiences they care to address, and I argue that those experiences can generally be addressed regardless of the system used.

      • llanwyre says:

        Hmm…I typed out a long response, but I think I want to think it through some more. I actually think I disagree with your fundamental assumption that RPGs are for playing the role as an individual character (ridiculous as that assertion sounds,) but I want to mull it over a bit more before responding. Thanks for the feedback, though! (And by the way, I’m sorry if I came off as a snob–I didn’t mean to! I mostly run Warhammer FRP, myself, so I have nothing at all against fantasy settings or combat-oriented play. I just find the RULES to those settings ultimately less interesting than others, probably because I can predict the conflicts they’re meant to handle and the ways in which they’re going to handle them before I even open the rulebook.)

        • Jack says:

          Hey, no problem — it’s the Internet, I try to not read tone into text.

          The Alexandrian (here and here) and Angry DM (here) have a couple posts that have contributed to the formation of my concept of what is and is not an RPG. That’s not to say I think non-RPGs are inferior games and in fact I have a huge collection of games (board, card, and otherwise) that I really enjoy. But when I say I want to play a Role-Playing Game, I’m not looking for Monopoly, Bang!, Arkham Horror, etc. I’m looking for a game focused on playing a role; other games may be fun, but they aren’t RPGs.

          • llanwyre says:

            Those are great articles; I’m familiar with them. I’m not talking about games like Arkham; I’m thinking about traditional RPGs. But I do think that every RPG system’s rules choose to privilege certain types of experiences over others, and to me, the choice of a set of experiences is perhaps most important when sitting down to game. I’d rather ask my PCs “Hey, do you guys want to fight/do airship battles/trade and craft/investigate?” and choose a system that has the most robust system for describing that type of activity instead of sticking with the system we’re already using and houseruling it until those activities fit. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I’d rather entirely keep those types of games separate so that we can focus on each type of experience/play as fully and thoughtfully as possible. I think that’s where you and I differ. Reading between the lines, I get the sense that you’d like to see an individual PC experience a fully-rounded “life,” complete with combat and investigation and trade and romance, but I’d rather my players pack up, roll new characters, and get in a totally different headspace so that they think differently about a new experience.

            That’s not to say that my WFRP games don’t include elements of all of those types of play. But if my players suddenly really got into the idea of roleplaying trade, for instance, I’d want to shut the game down and go find them a system that gave them more to think about in terms of how trade works.

            Does that make sense?

            • Jack says:

              That makes total sense, but I’m not sure it’s the same as saying “I disagree with your fundamental assumption that RPGs are for playing the role as an individual character.”

              For my part, I’m being strongly informed by my player base and while they’re good folk, they have an intense aversion to learning new systems. (I don’t get it; I love learning new systems). If I required my players to learn new rules for everything whenever they wanted to try a new experience, we’d never get anywhere. Worse, if we were playing a game with robust rules for X and a player decided they wanted to do Y, you can’t just full-stop and change systems in medias res (OK, you maybe could, but my players would flay me).

              But yes, I like characters with full lives; players in my games should feel as though they can attempt any action.

            • Jack says:

              I’d want to shut the game down and go find them a system that gave them more to think about in terms of how trade works.

              I’d be inclined to find, re-purpose, or build such a mechanic that played well with what we already had, to preserve the characters, setting, and narrative we already had.

  4. Laraqua says:

    When it comes to the whole ‘game mechanics that are largely about combat’ doesn’t necessarily mean the game is *about* combat, I think the old adage ‘When you have a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail’ really comes into the fore. If my players are decked out in high tech gadgetry covered by rules they spent hours searching through, they will want to use those gadgets. If they decked themselves out in slick combat routines with several different types of sword slashing options, they will want to swing their sword. It’s not true for all players but it certainly does tend to have an influence.

    I’ve run a lot of different styles in D&D but generally (outside of solo games) it still has a combat once every session or so – whether its high adventure or investigation.

    • Jack says:

      That really only applies if your only tool is a hammer, or if the only tool you choose to use is one. If your D&D games have combat it’s either because you’re putting it there or your players are seeking it out, but because D&D requires it.

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