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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

Campbell

Legend
@Manbearcat


When I play more traditional games I enjoy the experience, but feel like I often have to moderate my play. As someone who is very extroverted and likes to play games hard I find that I often have to read the room and hold back on my play. When I play Masks or Apocalypse World that concern fades away because there is no real danger of grabbing the spotlight because when the GM turns to me and says "Character name, what do you do?" the spotlight is on my character and when it's someone else's turn it's on them. I get to play as hard as I want to.
 

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@Manbearcat


When I play more traditional games I enjoy the experience, but feel like I often have to moderate my play. As someone who is very extroverted and likes to play games hard I find that I often have to read the room and hold back on my play. When I play Masks or Apocalypse World that concern fades away because there is no real danger of grabbing the spotlight because when the GM turns to me and says "Character name, what do you do?" the spotlight is on my character and when it's someone else's turn it's on them. I get to play as hard as I want to.

Yup. This is a huge deal. We talk about authority distribution all the time (and, while certainly related, they aren't exactly the same), but the expectation of how the collective energy is distributed is equally important.

Then (after expectation is established) we can talk about procedurally how to orient toward energy distribution parity (which is, in part, about authority).
 

Arilyn

Hero
Some players like to just float, roll dice, and leave the decision making and tactics to the other players. These kind of players are not a good fit for PbtA games. A typical D&D game, however, allows them to just roll dice and observe.

I didn't role play back in the day, when AD&D was pretty much the only game in town, because I hated the system. The system was a huge barrier for me.

I'm glad we have a large variety of games that are much easier to access. System matters is a boon, in my opinion, because there is a much higher chance of matching people up with a game that'll sing for them.
 

Jack Daniel

Engines & Empires
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.

I would definitely characterize those games as all sharing a system. ("Engine" and "chassis" might as well be synonyms.) That's their whole draw.

White Star is my go-to sci-fi game and not Traveller precisely because it's "D&D in space," and that's the sort of experience I want out of a sci-fi RPG. System matters -- more than fluff or branding IMO -- but that's not license to claim that genre emulation is determinative.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I would definitely characterize those games as all sharing a system. ("Engine" and "chassis" might as well be synonyms.) That's their whole draw.

White Star is my go-to sci-fi game and not Traveller precisely because it's "D&D in space," and that's the sort of experience I want out of a sci-fi RPG. System matters -- more than fluff or branding IMO -- but that's not license to claim that genre emulation is determinative.
To me, if I can't do a thing without extensive changes, it's a different system. White Star uses a d20 and class based design, but that doesn't make it the same system as other d20, class based systems, even though they'll have lots of similarities. I also find this opinion largely held by people that haven't stepped out of that d20 design world, or into games that alter the assumed power dynamics of the game. It's a comfortable place to be -- you can quickly pick up related games (this is a draw for PbtA games, as well -- understanding the core engine means the different systems are about adapting to the specifics rather than learning a new thing). But, this doesn't mean that an engine that can sub into multiple genres is capable of any genre (again, Monsterhearts is a clear example).

If "system" just means a basic resolution system, then it's far to broad a term to be useful. I find little to be similar to a game of 3.x compared to Mutants and Masterminds, even though they share the same basic resolution system.
 

MacD

Just a tourist passing your way...
I think mostly system FLAWS matter; yes, most games would be hard to be re-written for a completely another genre, but it would be possible somehow.
On the other side, if you play a system and encounter strange odds (rulewise, not plotwise - in cthulhu it´s totally ok to encounter stragne odd things) that disturb the feeling many times a day, playing starts to feel wrong.
Earlier this thread someone mentioned a traveller version´s combat system - if you want to shoot sometimes without the need of killing everything, that´s ok, if you want to KILL somebody like weapons should do it´s a big system flaw.

I remember nearly-undestructible Cyber-Trolls in Shadowrun 3 - killed by slipping some stairs. Just because system says falling damage may not be prevented by armor - neck broken, character dead.

By the way, I somehow don´t like systems that use combat-like systems for social encounters (Infinity, I´m looking on you), but I also dislike the nearly-total absence of social abilities in d&d.

Ever played a game that provides three! combat systems (Fighting, social encounters and "infowar"- influencing the meaning of many via media in a way you want to)?
You will always feel weak.
You know you play a great fighter - but if your enemy is a politican he will talk you into the ground and three days later half the city believes your fighter is a murderhobo.
Yaaay.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I think mostly system FLAWS matter; yes, most games would be hard to be re-written for a completely another genre, but it would be possible somehow.
On the other side, if you play a system and encounter strange odds (rulewise, not plotwise - in cthulhu it´s totally ok to encounter stragne odd things) that disturb the feeling many times a day, playing starts to feel wrong.
Earlier this thread someone mentioned a traveller version´s combat system - if you want to shoot sometimes without the need of killing everything, that´s ok, if you want to KILL somebody like weapons should do it´s a big system flaw.

I remember nearly-undestructible Cyber-Trolls in Shadowrun 3 - killed by slipping some stairs. Just because system says falling damage may not be prevented by armor - neck broken, character dead.

By the way, I somehow don´t like systems that use combat-like systems for social encounters (Infinity, I´m looking on you), but I also dislike the nearly-total absence of social abilities in d&d.

Ever played a game that provides three! combat systems (Fighting, social encounters and "infowar"- influencing the meaning of many via media in a way you want to)?
You will always feel weak.
You know you play a great fighter - but if your enemy is a politican he will talk you into the ground and three days later half the city believes your fighter is a murderhobo.
Yaaay.
I play systems that have 1 resolution systems for fighting, talking, and whatever infowar is standing in for. Works a treat! The problem you're referencing, though, isn't a problem with differing systems, but with differing system weights -- if talking can convince a city that you're a horrible person and need to be evicted/arrested but you can only beat up one or a few people at a time, then the issue isn't the resolution method, but the balance between scopes. Clearly, in this game, you shouldn't put a lot of effort into learning to beat things up.
 

Aldarc

Legend
If "system" just means a basic resolution system, then it's far to broad a term to be useful. I find little to be similar to a game of 3.x compared to Mutants and Masterminds, even though they share the same basic resolution system.
It's hard to imagine that the OSR would have any of the momentum or legs to stand on that it did if simply having six attributes and a d20 resolution system was all it takes to be the same system as the WotC era of D&D.
 

jayoungr

Legend
Supporter
My answer:

Yes, but in most cases, not as much as some people claim.

I think you can do most adventure-type scenarios with most adventure-type games, and the differences created by the game system will be relatively minimal.

If you want to do something that isn't a straightforward adventure scenario, then you might need to search for a more tailored system.
 

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.
Who needs Tales of Equrestria when there's Ponyfinder!!
 


pemerton

Legend
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.
System is much more than this. Consider:

* Who gets to establish initial fiction? Who gets to establish which characters are in a scene/situation? Who gets to decide what is at stake in a scene/situation?

* What is the range of permissible player-side moves, and who polices that?

* Who gets to establish consequences of player moves? How does this change, if at all, depending on whether the player succeeds or fails on a check?

* Who has access to "off screen" fiction and is able to bring that on-screen or leverage it in other ways?

* When a participant does introduce new content into the shared fiction, what constraints operate on that? This is especially important if the game includes a GM-type participant, whose participation in play is not channelled through a particular protagonist in the shared fiction.​

In 5e D&D, the answer to nearly all those who questions is the GM, and the answer to the question about constraints on the GM is generally none that are not either self-imposed or established by informal social understandings.

There is a big contrast with (say) MHRP/Cortex+ Heroic in this respect. The GM establishes the initial fiction, and can establish what characters are in a scene, but that is rationed (via the Doom Pool). There are mechanical constraints too on the GM introducing new fiction, including consequences: this either has to flow from Doom Pool expenditure or be the result of successful actions by GM-controlled characters. Players other than the GM can access "off screen" fiction, by spending resources and/or succeeding on action declarations.

The answers to these questions aren't irrelevant to running a gritty futuristic sci-fi horror game, either. For instance, the more that the system gives players control over which characters are in a scene/situation, the harder it is to do that sort of horror. The more that the system looks to the GM to establish consequences in all cases, and not just failed checks, the greater the risk it comes across just as the GM hosing the players. The more gonzo the range of permissible player moves, the harder it is to maintain a gritty horror feel. Etc.

These are some of the matters I addressed upthread in my discussion of using Classic Traveller to run a gritty futuristic sci-fi horror scenario. None of them is about the way of working out how likely something is to succeed or fail. The fact that that phrase doesn't even have a personal pronoun that might refer to one or another of the participants in the game shows how inadequate it is as a way of thinking about RPG systems.
 

TheSword

Legend
Supporter
System is much more than this. Consider:

* Who gets to establish initial fiction? Who gets to establish which characters are in a scene/situation? Who gets to decide what is at stake in a scene/situation?​
* What is the range of permissible player-side moves, and who polices that?​
* Who gets to establish consequences of player moves? How does this change, if at all, depending on whether the player succeeds or fails on a check?​
* Who has access to "off screen" fiction and is able to bring that on-screen or leverage it in other ways?​
* When a participant does introduce new content into the shared fiction, what constraints operate on that? This is especially important if the game includes a GM-type participant, whose participation in play is not channelled through a particular protagonist in the shared fiction.​

In 5e D&D, the answer to nearly all those who questions is the GM, and the answer to the question about constraints on the GM is generally none that are not either self-imposed or established by informal social understandings.

There is a big contrast with (say) MHRP/Cortex+ Heroic in this respect. The GM establishes the initial fiction, and can establish what characters are in a scene, but that is rationed (via the Doom Pool). There are mechanical constraints too on the GM introducing new fiction, including consequences: this either has to flow from Doom Pool expenditure or be the result of successful actions by GM-controlled characters. Players other than the GM can access "off screen" fiction, by spending resources and/or succeeding on action declarations.

The answers to these questions aren't irrelevant to running a gritty futuristic sci-fi horror game, either. For instance, the more that the system gives players control over which characters are in a scene/situation, the harder it is to do that sort of horror. The more that the system looks to the GM to establish consequences in all cases, and not just failed checks, the greater the risk it comes across just as the GM hosing the players. The more gonzo the range of permissible player moves, the harder it is to maintain a gritty horror feel. Etc.

These are some of the matters I addressed upthread in my discussion of using Classic Traveller to run a gritty futuristic sci-fi horror scenario. None of them is about the way of working out how likely something is to succeed or fail. The fact that that phrase doesn't even have a personal pronoun that might refer to one or another of the participants in the game shows how inadequate it is as a way of thinking about RPG systems.
Yes you are of course right. It is possible to have a game system to generate the plot elements that a DM would typically arrange to delight and entertain their players. Yes.

I revise my statement to be “in the most games 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.”

I disagree that horror is better with player control. Part of the experience of being scared is not being control.

I don’t believe how you generate the story is any more than just a personal preference. It is not inherently better or worse.

I’m going to regret this but can you give an example of your system leads to a scenario that is more horrific/scary?
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
@pemerton is talking about how a given game apportions agency, which is not at all what you seem to be responding to. It's also fundamental to people's enjoyment of various games, or their lack of enjoyment. It's a big part of what a game system is, it is very different from system to system, and also has nothing to do with how likely something is to occur in the diagetic frame, which I find an entirely unsatisfactory and incomplete definition of what a RPG system is and what is accomplished though its use at the table.
 

Arilyn

Hero
Games have default expectations about characters. Nobilis, for example, is about very potent beings, god like. The rules of the game, therefore, are wrapped around these expectations. Even Fate, which is a very flexible generic system assumes a certain type of play.

If I want to do investigative play, I'd turn to a Gumshoe game, because it excels at this. If I want super heroes, I have a lot of good choices these days, that do it better than trying to get 5e to work. Mutants and Masterminds is based off d20, but has been greatly stretched and altered.

Class and level based games don't work for a lot of genres. And as pemerton says, if you are looking to delve into a game that is not GM focussed, it's necessary to look beyond the more traditional mainstream games. Sorcerer could not be done with D20, Fate, Cortex, Genesys, etc. It has a very specific game play, where system matters a lot.

We need system to matter, or the hobby would not be as varied and rich as it is.
 

pemerton

Legend
Yes you are of course right. It is possible to have a game system to generate the plot elements that a DM would typically arrange to delight and entertain their players. Yes.

I revise my statement to be “in the most games 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.”

I disagree that horror is better with player control. Part of the experience of being scared is not being control.

I don’t believe how you generate the story is any more than just a personal preference. It is not inherently better or worse.

I’m going to regret this but can you give an example of your system leads to a scenario that is more horrific/scary?
To me this suggests that you haven't understood my post.

Let's look at just one issue: who gets to leverage offscreen fiction?

I'll provide one example, which is taken from a sidebar in the 3E D&D module Bastion of Broken Souls with the heading "The Second String". I don't have my copy ready to hand, so I can't remember all the names of the characters. But what the sidebar says, roughly, is that if the PCs kill a particular NPC, whose function in the "plot" of the module is to be used by the GM to drive the players towards certain goals and decision-points, then the GM should introduce the "second string" of NPCs - a group of 3 balors - to perform the same function.

That instruction to the GM only makes sense because the 3E system, like the AD&D 2nd ed and 5e systems, takes for granted that the GM has unfettered authority over what is happening offscreen, and when and how it can be brought onscreen.

That assumption is not part of Moldvay Basic D&D and Gygax's AD&D: these assume that, once the dungeon key is written, the GM can only introduce new content during a delve via the wandering monster rules. What happens between delves is a bit more vague - and in fact I think there are contradictions between Gygax's PHB and his DMG in this respect, perhaps reflecting his evolving thinking - but the limit on GM authority during a delve is enough to illustrate the point that the assumption is not universal.

MHRP/Cortex+ Heroic doesn't have anything like a wandering monster or dungeon key process as part of the system, but also imposes constraints on how the GM can access the offscreen and bring it onscreen, and gives players authority to do so also.

These allocations of authority are as much a feature of 5e D&D as other systems that have similar or different such allocations. The fact that they are invisible to you suggests to me that you don't have much experience with varying them. That helps to explain why you tend to doubt that system matters, and also while you seem to frame all RPGing through the lens of the players working through the GM's pre-established story.
 

That assumption is not part of Moldvay Basic D&D and Gygax's AD&D: these assume that, once the dungeon key is written, the GM can only introduce new content during a delve via the wandering monster rules.

I think what is extremely illustrative of the point here is consider the implications on delves when you do but one thing:

Sub out the Wandering Monster "Clock" (and all of the integrated machinery including tight time-tracking in Exploration Turns, Rest, Reaction, Morale) and sub in GM extrapolation of the setting and abstraction of time.

The same thing goes when you sub in Torchbearer's Light and Condition Clocks (and all of the integrated machinery). Its MUCH closer to the experience of Moldvay Basic, though certainly not the same. And neither are anything like GM setting extrapolation and abstraction of time.
 

TheSword

Legend
Supporter
To me this suggests that you haven't understood my post.

Let's look at just one issue: who gets to leverage offscreen fiction?

I'll provide one example, which is taken from a sidebar in the 3E D&D module Bastion of Broken Souls with the heading "The Second String". I don't have my copy ready to hand, so I can't remember all the names of the characters. But what the sidebar says, roughly, is that if the PCs kill a particular NPC, whose function in the "plot" of the module is to be used by the GM to drive the players towards certain goals and decision-points, then the GM should introduce the "second string" of NPCs - a group of 3 balors - to perform the same function.

That instruction to the GM only makes sense because the 3E system, like the AD&D 2nd ed and 5e systems, takes for granted that the GM has unfettered authority over what is happening offscreen, and when and how it can be brought onscreen.

That assumption is not part of Moldvay Basic D&D and Gygax's AD&D: these assume that, once the dungeon key is written, the GM can only introduce new content during a delve via the wandering monster rules. What happens between delves is a bit more vague - and in fact I think there are contradictions between Gygax's PHB and his DMG in this respect, perhaps reflecting his evolving thinking - but the limit on GM authority during a delve is enough to illustrate the point that the assumption is not universal.

MHRP/Cortex+ Heroic doesn't have anything like a wandering monster or dungeon key process as part of the system, but also imposes constraints on how the GM can access the offscreen and bring it onscreen, and gives players authority to do so also.

These allocations of authority are as much a feature of 5e D&D as other systems that have similar or different such allocations. The fact that they are invisible to you suggests to me that you don't have much experience with varying them. That helps to explain why you tend to doubt that system matters, and also while you seem to frame all RPGing through the lens of the players working through the GM's pre-established story.
I understand Agency. There are degrees of it. Not everyone needs to have it to the extent you personally expect.

Sorry Permerton. You didn’t answer my question. Or certainly not in a clear way. How does your suggested system help increase horror/fear factor?
 
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