log in or register to remove this ad


Jon Peterson: Does System Matter?

D&D historian Jon Peterson asks the question on his blog as he does a deep dive into how early tabletop RPG enthusiasts wrestled with the same thing.

Based around the concept that 'D&D can do anything, so why learn a new system?', the conversation examines whether the system itself affects the playstyle of those playing it. Some systems are custom-designed to create a certain atmosphere (see Dread's suspenseful Jenga-tower narrative game), and Call of Cthulhu certainly discourages the D&D style of play, despite a d20 version in early 2000s.


log in or register to remove this ad

Russ Morrissey

Russ Morrissey


Elder Thing
An interesting read, if not a surprising one.

To my mind, a TTRPG should provide rules for things that require rules; combat and magic need rules because they need a measure of fairness in their adjudication. A character is assumed to be much more skilled with the use of a sword (for example) than a player is. Combat rules provide a framework in which the character can operate in that environment independent of the player's skill.

Social situations, on the other hand, can be more easily handled by a player's capabilities. At most, a mechanic can exist that allows for a character to be more socially capable than the player (on the same logic as the combat rules, above), but as players can reasonably be expected to know how to talk and carry on a conversation such interactions just require less rules coverage.

Does a game with more detailed combat rules than social rules actually encourage combat over discussions? Only inasmuch as the game relies on dice rolls to function. I've yet to see a rule set with detailed social interaction mechanics that didn't feel like its purpose was to restrict what options I had in social situations rather than accommodate what I might want to do in them.


While the focus here is of course on OG games, I was amused by the idea of D&D being predicated on “the seeking” and combat as something to be gotten past as quickly as possible, similar to ways I’ve heard OD&D and AD&D described as being basically puzzle-boxes where combat was an obstacle to be avoided. Yet (and I don’t mean this as a judgment for or against), the main discussion particularly online over the past twenty years of the d20 era has been combat and combat optimization. Even within D&D, system matters!

(I’ve noted before that I’ve played since my childhood in late 1st edition but didn’t run any games until the tail end of 2nd edition and then into 3.0/3.5, so my own views on system generations is in-between)


Well, that was fun
Staff member
Different systems just feel different. You can use any system to play any genre, sure, but sometimes you're just putting it in a costume. A specifically tailored system can make the game feel completely different, even with the exact same players and GM.


Based around the concept that 'D&D can do anything, so why learn a new system?', the conversation examines whether the system itself affects the playstyle of those playing it. Some systems are custom-designed to create a certain atmosphere (see Dread's suspenseful Jenga-tower narrative game), and Call of Cthulhu certainly discourages the D&D style of play, despite a d20 version in early 2000s.
The d20 Call of Cthulhu doesn't get enough credit for being one of the best introductions for new players and GMs to Cthulhu. There was some excellent advice in those pages for new GMs on how to run a horror game, great ideas for running campaigns in different decades (40s, 50s, 60s), and even ways to adapt the Cthulhu mythos for use with D&D. And while it did use the d20 system, they set it up in such a way as to discourage D&D style hack & slash combat while keeping things relatively easy.

I am one of those players who argues that system matters. I came to this conclusion nearly thirty years ago when I tried to use AD&D to run a campaign based of a fantasy book I liked and found the rules were largely incompatible with that idea. D&D is fairly generic but it's not generic fantasy. These days, I much prefer it when designers create rules designed elicit a particular style of play for their games. Alien is a fantastic example of a recent publication with its rules designed to emulate the sci-fi horror or even the action seen in the movies the game is based on.


The recent Aliens RPG is fantastic.
I have yet to play it. :-( I own the main book, the starter set, the Destroyer of Worlds boxed set, and am contemplating the purchase of the new marines expansion but I won't get a chance to play it until this whole COVID thing wraps up.

But let's talk about why Aliens is such a fantastic RPG and a good example of why system matters. One of the core mechanics of Aliens is Stress level and the Stress Dice. For those of you unfamiliar with the game, the Stress mechanics introduces a little uncertainty and tension which is great for a horror game. For every level of Stress you have, you roll one extra Stress Die when rolling your skill dice. So if you would normally roll 6 dice for your Heavy Machinery skill, if your character had 3 Stress you'd roll 6 skill dice + 3 Stress dice for a total of 10 dice. This actually increases the odds of success but also increase the odds that your character will panic and lose control. This is a mechanic that works rather well for a horror game but would be terrible if implemented in a heroic fantasy like D&D.

Different systems just feel different.
Not "just feel different", but feel different and some times work different.
The recent Aliens RPG is fantastic.
There's no s on it. ALIEN, not Aliens. Aliens is the old one by Leading Edge.

I'll note that the GM's I've seen claiming "system doesn't matter" are the same ones who don't actually use the system mechanics in play.


I think it is obvious that certain mechanics and rules play out in a particular way to give flavor to a game.

However, I also think there are a lot of games where system actually doesn’t matter that much, and the familiarity a group has for a particular system is sometimes more advantageous in getting immersed into a game than any mechanical particulars about how or when you roll certain dice. Sometimes the mechanical differences between games are overstated for their impact and people’s preferences are just circumstantial. Is there any reason why, for example, that Shadowrun’s mechanics are specifically suited to the game over another system? Would it have been damaged as a gameplay experience if it used a generic rules system, like D20 or GURPS instead? I dunno, but I’m sure there would be people willing to debate it.

Does system matter? Yes, unequivocally.

Does system control? No, unequivocally.

These arguments remind me of the hoopla over the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Everyone prefers to talk about the strong version, "language CONTROLS thought," which is much more dramatic and consequential...and also trivially false, on top of never being advocated by the scientists in question. The weak version, "language can INFLUENCE thought," is nearly self-evident, as things like advertising jingles, propaganda, the Sator Square, and the Sublime Rhyme trope demonstrate...and yet no one wants to talk about that version.

It is always possible to bend a system toward what you want it to do. It will just be easier or harder to pull off, and you will get variable degrees of support. Frex, you could try to turn Werewolf: the Apocalypse into a truly class-based game, but the system will fight you and you'll probably never be totally satisfied with the result, and likewise you could turn 3e into a totally point-buy driven game, but it's probably never going to be free of the myriad balance issues riddled through its structure unless you strip it down to just the d20 core and rebuild it entirely (at which point, is it even still 3e, or is it "just" a new d20 game?)

System is everything in most games. System is what translates the artwork and crappy corebook fiction into player experiences (or fails to).

I'll never forget one of my earliest experiences (in Traveller) when my PC, with great dramatic flair, shot an NPC with a weapon that was described as 'equal to a .44 Magnum', and did two points of damage.

Seven rounds later, after shooting the guy six times (and another PC shooting him the same number of times) the NPC fled.

I nearly quit the hobby after that session, and I did give up on Traveller black box. I never forgot it, though.

If the mechanics cannot deliver, the game will fail.

Some setting, Call of Cthulhu being a prime example, are different; in those games the system is less important than the GM's ability to set and maintain a tone.

Paragon Lost

Terminally Lost
The first time I played DnD in 1978 I was hooked. It enabled the magic of reading a book you loved by placing you within the book. Ttrpg's have always been for me about that. That said, even after that first session I knew I wanted a lot more than DnD offered. The original system and 1st Ed. AD&D were to limited and lacked mechanics I wanted.

Which quickly led me to dive into Runequest 1st/2nd Edition and Traveller. Systems that were more robust and adaptable to the options I demanded from the base mechanics of any rpg I played or GM'd. Hell even 1982's Palladium Rpg was superior to DnD in my opinion when it came out, though it was a mess. I just know that when GURPs came out in 1986 I was sold on the strengths of it's base system.

Even though I say that, I still am interested in playing/trying various ttrpgs and I back a lot of Kickstarters. Currently I've got eight or nine in various stages that I'm backing. To me system does matter, a good system can free you or empower your game. A bad system retrains and gets in the way. In my opinion none of the DnD editions are good systems, though I'll admit that 5e has come a long way from all the previous editions. That's just my opinion after being a part of this hobby for 43 years this March.

Jack Daniel

Engines & Empires
System does indeed matter—obviously, trivially—unless the GM is only pretending to use the system in question and is actually using the game rules as a cover/pretense for running a freeform game (which I hate—just a bit of personal trauma from my earliest days in the hobby, when I played with a DM who ostensibly ran D&D but clearly didn't care to bother with any rules at all).

That said, I do take issue with "system does matter" as a slogan, because all too often it's a brickbat being swung at GMs who prefer one system. The unspoken assumption behind "system does matter" is that everyone ought to be using different, bespoke systems for different genres of RPG, and if you use GURPS for everything—or, heaven forbid, D&D for everything—you're some sort of heretic. Variety is a fine thing and all, but I nevertheless get sick of the attitude that playing a variety of RPGs is some sort of gamer-geek requirement.


Hobbit on Quest
Ultimately, it depends on what you mean by "does system matter"? In some ways, it obviously does, but in other ways it doesn't. I'm not at all convinced that specific choices of random generators makes that much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. The d20 of Mutants and Masterminds and the 3d6 of Champions isn't a factor in making the two systems really different - rather, it's way the games handle the effects of combat and powers on their targets. The M&M Toughness save and the results it can generate leads to a very different feel for the game than Champions damage, defenses, and ablating Stun and Body. Similarly, whether D&D uses a d20+modifiers to hit a static DC or Call of Cthulhu has players rolling d100 under their skill value, both are shooting for a character having a particular chance of success based on how much has been invested in that skill and the difficulty of the task. The fact that D&D is a leveling system with substantial growth in ability and Call of Cthulhu characters advance more gradually and in confined areas (and almost never related to gaining more capacity to soak damage) makes them play very differently as campaign games.


I think system matters was an unfortunate choice of words. I think something like game design matters gets the point across more effectively because we are talking about games, not just systems. Games have objectives, procedures, reward systems, mechanics, and defined player roles. System implies that only dice mechanics and things on character sheets are provided by the game. That's like just looking at the surface of the iceberg.

Visit Our Sponsor

Latest threads

An Advertisement