System is not the Problem (or the Solution)

Today’s post comes is inspired by reading some other entries in the last few days. It wasn’t what I originally intended to write about, but hey, there’s always another entry, right? As I was browsing through various blogs in the last few days I read in interesting post about Social Combat over at Age of Ravens. Thinking about this post for a while linked up in my brain with another post by Sunglar I read at Stargazer’s World on his experiment to try and take a “bad” game and make it fun with a “good” GM. I’m not really responding directly to either of these posts, I just wanted to set the stage for my own thinking and credit the inspirations…

The Age of Ravens post is a well-written beginning to an exploration of character skill vs. player skill when it comes to social interaction. I have my own thoughts on this topic, some of which agree with the premises set there, but some that don’t necessarily. But it wasn’t so much the idea of social interactions that caught in my mind from that post — rather, it was the introductory idea.

AoR says,

A system encourages what it rewards, but it also encourages what it actually provides mechanics for. Where a game system glosses over something significant, the GM and/or players may rightly assume that such elements are secondary to the gameplay.

I’ve heard this thought expressed a few times before… and I’ve never really given it a lot of thought before — I get a little frustrated with the amount of “theory-crafting” surrounding RPGs (though we’re all guilty of it, even me). But I realized that I don’t really agree with that statement. I can’t speak for “the gaming community at large” and wouldn’t dare try, but I’ve been gaming nearly 30 years, and in my own experience, it is not the system, but the group, that limits or expands the scope of what happens at a table.

For example… I started playing when I was 8 years old — D&D Basic Set, Moldvay Edition. We, apparently, played the game wrong. I’m really just joking, but what I mean is, we never realized back then that the game was about “exploration” or “dungeon-delving.” We played drunken fighters and crafty wizards (ahem, Magic-Users) and irreverent clerics. We spent more time during Keep On the Borderlands talking to people in the keep than fighting monsters and we never once gave XP for treasure. Because my DM thought the game was about playing a character… so that’s how we all learned to play together. It also fit nicely into our thinking because at 8 we spent most of our time in trees pretending to be other people anyway. I wanted to be Lando Calrissian… really badly. If you’ve ever met me, you’ll know why that’s funny.

Later, (many years later) I went on to run and play Amber DRPG. That game has limited mechanics, but honestly, those it does have primarily encourage competition between the players — and one of the sample adventures in the back of the book is all about fighting for the throne. The game thrives on social interaction (for example) but has no rules whatsoever for such “contests” and the book devotes most of its page-count to describing the NPCs of the universe and the very expensive, dangerous powers the PCs can buy.

And yet. Amber is perhaps the most role-playing intensive experience I’ve ever been involved in — on either side of the screen — and we tended, both in the games I ran and played in to take a different road. Those games involved the PCs forming close bonds, relying on one another in a hostile and dangerous universe and carving out a niche for themselves in their various families of demi-gods.

I know a player who joined a Werewolf game with a group he didn’t know, and he took flak from the other players for “speaking in character.” They didn’t really do that, you see. Strangely enough, I once joined a GURPS Werewolf game myself and ended up a minor superstar in the group because I did speak in character — and they all started to follow my lead for being such a forceful roleplayer that they learned it was actually interesting. And they turned out to be a great group to play with even after the honeymoon period ended. The GM started getting excited about the play we were doing and so he rewarded it with praise and encouragement (not in-game rewards) and it became standard practice in the group.

Enough of anecdotal answers. My point is, I distrust saying that system matters so much. I know plenty of people who run roleplaying intensive 3.5 D&D games and plenty of people who run combat intensive 3.5 games. I think that the reason our games went the way they did is because we — at the table — showed what types of play were encouraged, valued, and rewarded — not the system. My games, I don’t tolerate evil characters, or those that turn on the group. I’ve lost players over that ruling — but the ones that have stayed did so because they were committed to that play-style and enjoy being the good guys. And they are rewarded for it. Is that heavy-handed? Yes. Is it more shaping to a group than a rule-set? I believe also yes. Players will do what they are encouraged to do by each other and the DM/GM. The social aspect of the game still trumps the rules.

Which is also the reason I find Sunglar’s post curious. Don’t get me wrong, whatever he likes is up to him and his — and he says in the post that, you know, they’re just doing it for fun, so good. He also completely acknowledges that what makes a “bad” game is subjective (after all, I like Rifts — even if I agree that it’s a wee bit complicated). The experiment just seems odd to me though because, unless a system is actually unplayable (that is, so poorly written that rules are just left out, forgotten, nothing makes sense, etc.) then it probably works for someone. So saying that you’ll play a “good” game with a “bad” system is really just saying, “I’m going to run something I don’t really want to run — and that my players probably don’t want to play.” That is not an indictment of his experiment, but of the idea of running a game you don’t want to.

Again, my example. I fell in love with the world of 7th Sea the minute I read the books. I immediately started running it. I wouldn’t run that game again if my players were paying me. I hate the system. Gives me nightmares sometimes still… But I know people who were in that game that have since gone on to run the game themselves and really enjoy it. My game suffered — not because I’m a bad GM, and not because the system is bad in and of itself — but because my heart wasn’t in it — because I didn’t like the system.

Now, these two thoughts interact in a way that may seems somewhat contradictory. I say “system doesn’t matter so much” and then talk about how I don’t like a game for the system. Right? I suppose the point is — if a system does not work for you, then you might not want to use it — but, for me at least, it wasn’t about what 7th Sea encouraged or rewarded (I support wholeheartedly the types of things the game supports and encourages) but about the way it did everything, from bottom to top. I think, mechanical rewards and built-in encouragements are far less necessary in game design than we believe. At the end of the day, the stories we remember, the fun we have, the experiences we share, will be shaped by the people we share them with and the community (however large or small that is at a given game table) that we choose to shape those experiences with.

Perhaps you agree? Or disagree? As always, thanks for reading.


9 responses

  1. FWIW, the author of the post you’re talking about is frequent contributor Sunglar, not blog owner Michael Wolf (Stargazer).

  2. Thanks for the heads up. I did not pay enough attention. Doesn’t change what the post inspired, but I am sorry for attributing the wrong writer.

    Thanks again.

    1. No reason to change anything, except maybe swap Sunglar for Stargazer in the one sentence “Which is also the reason I find Stargazer’s post curious”

  3. I’m going to disagree with you a touch – I fall more heavily on “system matters” in that a great group will overcome a bad system, and a good system will not save a bad group, but a system can raise the difficulty for the far more engaged.

    I ran Exalted for the better part of 3-4 years. Both 1st and 2nd edition with the same campaign/functional group. By the end of it, most of my players were running away from trying to engage with the setting in a systematic way because it just wasn’t any fun – and doing things by GM fiat was ceasing to engage them. This isn’t the only case of bad system mismatch making it harder to have fun, just the most dramatic.

    As far as your games of Amber, well, I’d say the great games were the ones where everyone on the table came with the same assumptions. Thus, the GM fiat nature of the game worked well, because everyone had buy in. I’ve played in several games where what I expected and what the GM expected were different, and thus the GM fiat of “No, of course that wouldn’t work” rubbed me wrong; in a game without a resolution mechanic, the resolution mechanic is finding the solution the GM will approve of, either by figuring out what he wants, or convincing the GM.

    A couple years ago I came across a quote that I kept as a reference point, “You can either let the dice decide or let the GM decide, this goes for any type of resolution from social mechanics to hitting with a sword to finding a trap.” And as a GM and a player – I prefer the dice as the resolution system as a rule which is why I keep trying to find a system that does what I’m looking for in a way that my player base will enjoy engaging in.

    1. @Scott

      I certainly agree that a system can make life more difficult for even a good group… though as I say, I think that issue is, again, more about playstyle than it is about whether a game is “bad.” Exalted is a good example. Some people love the mechanics in Exalted (including, heh, the social interaction rules) but for me, as you experienced, I find the Exalted mechanics frustrating. It is, as you say, “system mismatch” not “a bad system.”

      As for the issue of GM Fiat… well, I tend to disagree with that concept. Amber is the most player intensive game I’ve ever played. You say though, that it’s about table expectations — I agree. But again, that’s about expectation within the social group and what they want at the table, not the system itself. I ran a homemade system, D&D2e, and D&D3e and Mage with that same group and we had similar experiences with each game — because of what we encourage at the table — despite the vast differences in each of those systems.

      If you’ve read my blog much, you’ll know I really disagree with that quote… not because it’s ‘wrong’, but because it leaves out the value of players as a part of the social group that is a game session. I appreciate a strong DM presence, but only when that DM is working in concert with their PCs to make a good experience.

  4. I’m going to agree with you pretty generally about the things you say here- and I think it points to me expressing my sentiment inexpertly. I say “A system encourages what it rewards, but it also encourages what it actually provides mechanics for.” And I think that’s true. I think it makes things easier where it provides mechanics for…most of the time. Sometimes those mechanics make me want to throw my hands up and avoid any of those situations. Certain parts of GURPS for example, any kind of vehicle building mechanics. No, I guess what would be better put is that a system expresses the designers expectations for what the game is about through the mechanics. Perhaps even how the designers expect the players to play. So as a result we get the awful, arcane and overly detailed rules for most things in the nWoD to make sure every power and ability is absolutely delineated and kept in check. or we get GURPS consistent hamstringing of mages to make sure they maintain balance.

    So I think the game mechanics represent a particular designers perspective on that.

    “Where a game system glosses over something significant, the GM and/or players may rightly assume that such elements are secondary to the gameplay.”

    I think your point about this second part is pretty to to be on the mark- especially since our groups experience is one of home-brews, house rules and kludging systems to do what we want. I think I’ve built a straw man in that statement- the bad player who goes back to the rule book, who gets irritated when the GM or other players go off the reservation of the rules. And that’s based on my watching a lot of those groups over the years (time spent at conventions, years running a game room) but I suspect and hope they’re in a minority. I guess more accurately put to what I was thinking would be “Players may be forgiven that when rules are absent from a game system, that such things will not appear or will be secondary in the game as played.” I don’t know if that’s fully true, though, as your point about groups shaping is how I would want things to play out.

    And yes, the 7th Sea System sucked. So does L5R, so we’ve always played those with other systems.

  5. @edige23
    I certainly agree with what you’re saying here about the game system being a reflection of what the designer prioritizes and values. And as someone who is kind of a RAW guy by nature, I think it’s important to have buy-in to what that system prioritizes when you start playing — being aware of what a system prioritizes can make a difference when you start playing and is one of the reasons I want my players to learn a system well when we are using it.

    And your comment about 7th Sea gave me a laugh. I know a lot of people who think it’s heresy when I say the system is awful. I’m impressed you’ve run it with other systems though… I never got around to trying.

  6. cauldronofevil | Reply

    Great post. I hear what your saying…but…

    I think System matters.

    Because on a practical level there is simply no other way to find a ‘playstyle’ group!

    I want to find Roleplayers and Storytellers. And avoid Hack-and-Slashers, Casual Gamers and Munchkins.

    So how do I do this if ‘the System doesn’t matter’? (Assuming I don’t have a regular play group.)

    As a practical matter systems will give you this information 90% of the time.

    If there’s a group playing D&D that are actually roleplaying I’ve never seen it (and don’t believe it’s possible – nothing in the system will encourage it). Is it theoretically possible? Of course! But do I want to keep trying D&D games until I find the one who’s ‘playstyle’ is the exact opposite of the rules? I just don’t see that being a worthwhile way to spend my time.

    I’m not picking on D&D here – the system is just an example, you could use GURPS, Hero System, Vampire, FATE, Traveller or whatever.

    The point is, if you want (these) types of players and gamers, you’re chances are much better with (these) types of games.

    Players will generally gravitate towards systems that reward certain styles of play more than others.

    How else could we do it?

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