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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.


AnE#37-simbalist-system.jpg
 

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Russ Morrissey

Russ Morrissey


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TwoSix

Unserious gamer
Supporter
I think I do - it's a fight between two different views of "system", from what I can tell.
TheSword is looking at 5e as a system by looking at its chassis - 6 stats, checks are made on those stats modified by proficiency modifier, etc and asserting that system can be used for gritty sci fi like Alien by changing or reskinning the details that are hung on that chassis.
The people he is arguing with aren't separating chassis from details when looking at 5e as a system.
Yea, I think that's largely correct. The mechanical chassis is an important part of the system, but all the other details are also part of the system. Like, 3.0, 3.5, and PF all have the same chassis, but I would say they are all different systems.
 

I think I do - it's a fight between two different views of "system", from what I can tell.
TheSword is looking at 5e as a system by looking at its chassis - 6 stats, checks are made on those stats modified by proficiency modifier, etc and asserting that system can be used for gritty sci fi like Alien by changing or reskinning the details that are hung on that chassis.
The people he is arguing with aren't separating chassis from details when looking at 5e as a system.

The below post addresses this: ...just a (a) core action resolution engine +(b) a set of play priorities + (c) GMing ethos = chassis or base game. Differing (d) through (f) with (a) - (c) fundamentally intact constitutes a hack (eg Dungeon World is a hack of Apocalypse World in in the family of PBtA games).

I mentioned in the other thread what I see as the fault line for a "hack" (which is a new game despite being in the family of games of the original):

* Blades in the Dark isn't just a (a) core action resolution engine and (b) a set of play priorities and (c) GMing ethos. Its a game with (d) a specific setting/genre, (e) a specific Win/Loss Con. Then it has (f) a particular set of mechanics that integrate and facilitate the realization of that a - e.

So all of that a - f has to be in there for it to be BitD.

* Forged in the Dark (FitD) is just like Powered By the Apocalypse (PBtA). Its a chassis that always incorporates (a) (though not exactly the same in each instantiation), (b), and (c). Meanwhile, d - f is subtly (or more) different in each case.

* Band of Blades is a stand-alone, FitD game that is different d - f than Blades in the Dark.

So, I would say a 5e hack is when a game has (a) - (c) kindred with 5e but d - f are subtly (or more) different to create a new game.

Obviously if any of (a) - (c) are changed then you must have a new game (and not even a hack).
 

Aldarc

Legend
I tend to call the one thing an engine and the other a system. The D&D engine is very flexible while the system isn't. To play sci fi successfully you'd need a different system wrapped around the engine.
While the 5e engine is incredibly flexible - as it's really just a modified version of the twenty-year-old d20 system - I don't think that the game is necessarily equipped to handle other types of games or genres as well as some imagine. I think part of that comes from a reticence for including the sorts of mechanics that makes other games appropriate for certain genres and/or playstyles. One just has to discuss those other mechanics and you can see the hairs stand on end. It's the subtext that reads "Of course the 5e engine could do that but don't bring those mechanics anywhere close to the 5e engine."
 

fearsomepirate

Adventurer
If you want to see how badly the basic D&D approach of ascending damage, defense, and hit points works if you do something other than "journey to the fantastic," even within high fantasy, try the game Divinity: Original Sin II some time. You spend a great deal of time traveling laterally, from city to city. In order to somehow squash this into a D&D-ish mold (yes, I know it's not based on any edition of DnD), everyone from military officers to beggars and stray dogs have increasingly higher and higher hit points and do more and more damage as you progress through the story.

Mechanically, it's absurd to see a 220-hp dog after you had earlier slain a 25-hp warrior, and illustrates the basic inadequacy of this sort of "more hit points and damage dice" structure to handle this kind of adventure.

D&D is also completely incapable of handling the "legendary hero killed by a twist of fate" trope, which is as common in myth as it is in real life. Many an experienced warrior has been killed by a stray bullet , surprise ambush, or duel gone wrong, by a comparative nobody. In D&D, or any game that follows its basic structure, the chance of a powerful warrior being killed in a blow by "just some guy" is zero. You'd need something completely different than escalating hit points and damage to represent power.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
D&D is also completely incapable of handling the "legendary hero killed by a twist of fate" trope, which is as common in myth as it is in real life. Many an experienced warrior has been killed by a stray bullet , surprise ambush, or duel gone wrong, by a comparative nobody. In D&D, or any game that follows its basic structure, the chance of a powerful warrior being killed in a blow by "just some guy" is zero. You'd need something completely different than escalating hit points and damage to represent power.
Or resolve the "twist of fate" as something more than, e.g., one attack. Not arguing, just mentioning another possibility (as someone who has at times come to think of Multiattack, at least for PCs, as representing/modeling at least the possibility of doing more damage with a single blow).
 

TheSword

Legend
Supporter
I think I do - it's a fight between two different views of "system", from what I can tell.
TheSword is looking at 5e as a system by looking at its chassis - 6 stats, checks are made on those stats modified by proficiency modifier, etc and asserting that system can be used for gritty sci fi like Alien by changing or reskinning the details that are hung on that chassis.
The people he is arguing with aren't separating chassis from details when looking at 5e as a system.
That’s pretty much it. The system is just a way of working out how likely something is to succeed or fail. Whether that’s jump a gap, kill a monster (or a PC) or drive a cart. Abilities, equipment etc just modifies this in unusual ways.

What I like about D&D is balance, simplicity, and ease of modification. While still playable with minimal effort in its own right.

If I want a particular monster for conversion from another system i can generally do it in a couple of mins in a Roll20 NPC template. Less if there’s a suitable alternative as base. Same with items.

Yet it has enough crunch that there ARE alternatives and I’m not creating everything from scratch.
 

fearsomepirate

Adventurer
Or resolve the "twist of fate" as something more than, e.g., one attack. Not arguing, just mentioning another possibility (as someone who has at times come to think of Multiattack, at least for PCs, as representing/modeling at least the possibility of doing more damage with a single blow).

"The Commoner has held a grudge against you since you accidentally trampled his beloved cat with your horse while riding through town. Yes, you're 20th level, but owing to the situation, he gets 40 attacks during the first round."

I mean, you could.

I think if you wanted to handle Achilles getting got by Paris, Wild Bill getting shot in the back of the head, or King Saul dying to a stray arrow, you'd need a system that, instead of Hit Points and Damage, relied instead heavily on luck. Dice pool systems are much better at this.

So a system where hit points are extremely bounded, we're talking no more than 10, ever, but a large dice pool means the chance of a low-level character ever killing a high-level character is zero, can easily admit something like, say, a Vendetta score or a Favor of the Gods score.

So, e.g., Wild Bill is a high-level Gunslinger. His dice pool is big. Jack McCall is a low-level Hunter. His dice pool is small. But Wild Bill is sitting with his back to the door (remove some dice from his pool) and Jack is pissed off from losing the game last night, so he gets extra dice from his Vendetta score. Since Jack was drunk when Wild Bill tried to help him, there's a chance your help gets perceived as an insult, bad roll, so Vendetta increases, Jack gets extra dice.

By the time you've resolved the pools, Jack has a surprisingly good chance to kill Wild Bill, due to events modifying the pools.
 

TheSword

Legend
Supporter
If you want to see how badly the basic D&D approach of ascending damage, defense, and hit points works if you do something other than "journey to the fantastic," even within high fantasy, try the game Divinity: Original Sin II some time. You spend a great deal of time traveling laterally, from city to city. In order to somehow squash this into a D&D-ish mold (yes, I know it's not based on any edition of DnD), everyone from military officers to beggars and stray dogs have increasingly higher and higher hit points and do more and more damage as you progress through the story.

Mechanically, it's absurd to see a 220-hp dog after you had earlier slain a 25-hp warrior, and illustrates the basic inadequacy of this sort of "more hit points and damage dice" structure to handle this kind of adventure.

D&D is also completely incapable of handling the "legendary hero killed by a twist of fate" trope, which is as common in myth as it is in real life. Many an experienced warrior has been killed by a stray bullet , surprise ambush, or duel gone wrong, by a comparative nobody. In D&D, or any game that follows its basic structure, the chance of a powerful warrior being killed in a blow by "just some guy" is zero. You'd need something completely different than escalating hit points and damage to represent power.
You understand that this is a choice though not a flaw. Most people don’t want to have their year and a half invested character taken out by an arrow from a goblin. I do think bounded accuracy is the closest we’ve got in the editions though past level 5.

WFRP had deadly combat, low wounds and limbs flying in everywhere. But it mitigates this with fate points so that you don’t really die much more frequently - you just nearly do.

I’m currently working through Assassins creed Odyssey which levels up enemies like you described. I’m sure you know it’s to facilitate the sandbox open world setting just like Skyrim, and a host of other poplar games.

There are games that avoid this like the Dark Souls franchise but they usually do it by making enemies so damned hard to start with you’re glad of the break.

I always like the Guildwars system of levelling up where you didn’t necessarily become stronger you just gained more powers. After a brief intro, everyone was level 20 and development was about finding equipment and elite powers. It was very playable.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
I think if you wanted to handle Achilles getting got by Paris, Wild Bill getting shot in the back of the head, or King Saul dying to a stray arrow, you'd need a system that, instead of Hit Points and Damage, relied instead heavily on luck. Dice pool systems are much better at this.
I guess you could get somewhere close by using Massive Damage rules closer to what d20 Modern did, where IIRC the damage threshold above which instant death was possible was your CON score. In 5E you'd be making those rolls all the flipping time, but you've have a much deadlier combat--and the possibility of the commoner getting lucky with their one attack.

This isn't a recommendation that anyone try that, especially not if your combats already run slow (and I think I've seen that you have at least one player who decides slowly, so yours do).
 

fearsomepirate

Adventurer
You understand that this is a choice though not a flaw. Most people don’t want to have their year and a half invested character taken out by an arrow from a goblin. I do think bounded accuracy is the closest we’ve got in the editions though past level 5.

Oh, absolutely. A system such as I described would not be very good at "Epic Hero Wading Through the Goblin Hordes." My point is simply that system very much influences what sort of stories emerge from the games you run. D&D doesn't do so hot at particular sorts of stories, but systems designed for those stories don't do so hot at spelunking the Underdark.
 


billd91

Hobbit on Quest
"The Commoner has held a grudge against you since you accidentally trampled his beloved cat with your horse while riding through town. Yes, you're 20th level, but owing to the situation, he gets 40 attacks during the first round."

I mean, you could.

I think if you wanted to handle Achilles getting got by Paris, Wild Bill getting shot in the back of the head, or King Saul dying to a stray arrow, you'd need a system that, instead of Hit Points and Damage, relied instead heavily on luck. Dice pool systems are much better at this.

So a system where hit points are extremely bounded, we're talking no more than 10, ever, but a large dice pool means the chance of a low-level character ever killing a high-level character is zero, can easily admit something like, say, a Vendetta score or a Favor of the Gods score.

So, e.g., Wild Bill is a high-level Gunslinger. His dice pool is big. Jack McCall is a low-level Hunter. His dice pool is small. But Wild Bill is sitting with his back to the door (remove some dice from his pool) and Jack is pissed off from losing the game last night, so he gets extra dice from his Vendetta score. Since Jack was drunk when Wild Bill tried to help him, there's a chance your help gets perceived as an insult, bad roll, so Vendetta increases, Jack gets extra dice.

By the time you've resolved the pools, Jack has a surprisingly good chance to kill Wild Bill, due to events modifying the pools.
Would you really want to model this in a game system's combat rules, though? Or is this better handled by some kind of narrative decision?
 

Jack Daniel

Engines & Empires
I think I do - it's a fight between two different views of "system", from what I can tell.
TheSword is looking at 5e as a system by looking at its chassis - 6 stats, checks are made on those stats modified by proficiency modifier, etc and asserting that system can be used for gritty sci fi like Alien by changing or reskinning the details that are hung on that chassis.
The people he is arguing with aren't separating chassis from details when looking at 5e as a system.

I tend to call the one thing an engine and the other a system. The D&D engine is very flexible while the system isn't. To play sci fi successfully you'd need a different system wrapped around the engine.

Pretty much. Like, anyone who says "the D&D system can't do sci-fi" is clearly using a definition of "system" that excludes White Star, Stars Without Number, Hulks & Horrors, Colonial Troopers, Spelljammer, Dragonstar, d20 Future, Star Wars d20, Farscape d20, Stargate d20, Starfinder, etc., etc.

I'm not. Those games are all clear examples of one D&D system or another "doing sci-fi." If you think Star Wars d20 isn't 3rd edition D&D, we have very different concepts of "system."
 

TheSword

Legend
Supporter
Choices can be flaws: e.g., "Let's use a cheaper, less durable part for this component in our product to save on our production costs."
Of course you’re right. I should have said ‘element the designers thought would make people enjoy the game more overall.’

Though to your specific point above, that choice isn’t a flaw. The flaw is a consequence of the choice which might come with its own benefit to the consumer. Bringing it within the price range of people who couldn’t otherwise afford it at only a small decrease in durability for instance.

Businesses (and individual) weigh up pros and cons all the time.
 

TwoSix

Unserious gamer
Supporter
Pretty much. Like, anyone who says "the D&D system can't do sci-fi" is clearly using a definition of "system" that excludes White Star, Stars Without Number, Hulks & Horrors, Colonial Troopers, Spelljammer, Dragonstar, d20 Future, Star Wars d20, Farscape d20, Stargate d20, Starfinder, etc., etc.

I'm not. Those games are all clear examples of one D&D system or another "doing sci-fi." If you think Star Wars d20 isn't 3rd edition D&D, we have very different concepts of "system."
Yea, then there's a terminology issue here. I wouldn't consider LotFP, Hulks and Horrors, and ACKS to be the same system even though they're all derived from B/X. Same with 1e and 2e. I'd say they have the same chassis or engine, but aren't the same system.
 

Aldarc

Legend
Also, just because a published game did emulate an IP using a particular game engine, doesn't mean that it did it well. This was especially obvious during the times of the d20 System, which made this point abundantly clear. Even by d20 System enthusiasts, a lot of those games were getting flack for their conversions and the limitations of the d20 System in regards to the emulated material. It's hardly a coincidence IMO that Ron Edwards's "System Does Matter" essay came out in 2004 amidst the d20 System publishing bubble.
 

Arilyn

Hero
To get away from D&D, I recently picked up Liminal, a modern fantasy rpg inspired by Charles De Lint, Rivers of London, Neil Gaiman, etc. I have my old World of Darkness books, so why not just use them? The games share similar themes, but Liminal is lighter, less personal horror and politics. The system is lighter as well. We used WoD, in the past, to do what we plan on doing with Liminal. Liminal is just going to fit our tastes and gaming style much better. We won't be fighting against the rules. We are happier, cause system matters.
 


Posted this in the wrong thread so reposting here. I don't see an embarrassed emoji...so...oops?

Here is a quick anecdote from my last night's game that shows how "system matters" in a way where some might think "system doesn't matter there...the issue is the players!"

I've got 3 games going right now, but last night's game features two brand new TTRPGers (every now and again I try to introduce people to the hobby). One is slightly reserved (not full-blown introverted) while the other leans toward extraverted. This Dungeon World game is about 4 months old and we play every 3 weeks or so (this was session 5). Like all PBtA games, Dungeon World is very demanding of players. You cannot be passive. You have to actively advocate for your character. You have to actively be a participant in the conversation of play and answer provocative questions when asked and bring to bear interesting answers which are genre/theme/continuity-coherent which propel play forward. Its taken a few session, but these guys are finally getting there and enjoying themselves.

Last night we brought in a new player (a friend of two of us). She has also never played TTRPGs but she is an extraordinary reader (of all genres including fantasy) and has a lot of exposure via other mediums. She's also somewhat extraverted (though not hugely) and also attentive, empathic, and self-aware.

No disrespect to my two pals, but she is a natural. She blows them out of the water in every way; "knowing the room", "advocating for her character aggressively and coherently", "fitting into the chemistry of the conversation", "deploying immense creativity", "smoothly trying to keep everyone involved." She also makes fundamentally sound decisions (talking through her thinking) when navigating difficult decision-points. Right now (her first time ever playing a TTRPG game), she is one of the best gamers I've ever run games for and an absolute perfect fit for games like PBtA, FitD, DitV, et al.

These two guys went from "getting it" and having solid chemistry together (and within the framework of play) to suddenly deferring to her awkwardly and playing extremely passively. They were clearly intimidated and it wasn't because they weren't comfortable with her and/or they're hyper-introverts.

I was dissatisfied with the play experience due to the (I'm going to call it) "regression" of my other two friends. It wasn't a bad session, but nowhere as good as the last two because the "collective energy" wasn't well-distributed. This would not have been an issue in a system that isn't uniquely demanding of players where the significant majority of that aforementioned collective energy that propels play is concentrated in the GM and the metaplot (AP or the GM's own).
 

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