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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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pemerton

Legend
I understand Agency. There are degrees of it. Not everyone needs to have it to the extent you personally expect.
On this I agree with @Fenris-77.

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?
Here are some reposts that answer that question:

Another thing about splitting up the party in Classic Traveller: most of the PCs are carrying communicators, which means that the players can talk to one another not only at the table but in character, which means that when one PC is running screaming the other PCs know what is happening and so there can be a sort-of party play even though the party is separated.

This also supports the way in which the narrative experience of a RPG differs from that of a film: when a player's PC runs screaming, and then we at the table establish that the screams will carry over the PC's communicator, the other players don't just have their personal real world reaction of wondering what's going to happen to the running PC; they can also have their playing their PC reaction, of declaring an action in response for their PC.

This interplay of the equipment list, the ingame capacities of the PCs, and how these support the players at the table feeding their reactions back into their game play <snip the rest>

* Classic Traveller is quite non-Star Wars in its fiction - the main weapons are firearms, the most common armour is ballistic cloth, etc, ships can travel FTL but can't cross the galaxy in hours or days, and not even in a single longer voyage. This means that the system, played in accordance with the spirit and genre that it presents, won't generate action declarations from the players that are radically out-of-context for Alien.​
* Classic Traveller easily generates PCs whose main field of expertise is not fighting, and indeed who are not very impressive physically at all. And this isn't just about "fluff" descriptions - it feeds into the resolution framework. It is not hard to generate a Traveller PC who will fall down unconscious or even dead if shot; who is no match for a leopard in hand-to-hand fighting; etc. This is important for Alien because it means that there are some PCs whose players will recognise that they are no match, in combat, for the Alien. So they will have to run or call for help or something similar.​
* Classic Traveller gives the referee a lot of authority to establish the initial fiction. In the context of this particular scenario, it is easy for me as referee to decide that the abandoned ship the PCs are investigating has Aliens on board. It's also easy for me to introduce elements of the framing that give clues and establish the "feel" of the possibility of some sort of "unexpected" threat.​
* Classic Traveller has pretty good rules for determining encounter surprise and encounter range which mean that, once I decide that the PCs encounter an alien on the ship, things move out of the realm of GM fiat and into the realm of mechanics. This allows PC expertise to factor in (eg one player had his PC spend money to train in Tactics, which gives her a benefit to avoid surprise), and generally reduces the sense of GM-choosing-to-hose-the-players.​
* Classic Traveller has player-side morale rules, which would help establish some feel, but on this occasion I forgot to use them! It didn't matter because we had fleeing PCs due to rational player choice without the need for any help from the dice!​

Here's one thing which I think is crucial to Alien but doesn't really have a system element in Classic Traveller to support it: the PCs split up.

<snip>

Given the lack of mechanical support for this, in a group that was far more determined to "never split the party" I think there may not have been so much of an Alien feel to the scenario. Though maybe under those hypothetical circumstances I would have remembered to use the morale rules which might have forced a party split at some key moments.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
What an odd comment. More than a little condescending. Is that your intention?
Not at all, I said I wasn't convinced, not that you dont. Nothing in your posts really suggests it, but I'm not going to assume based on that. Pemerton made a bunch of excellent points about agency and system that you just ignored, but that were actually a pretty key part of rhe discussion.

The division and constraint of agency by different systems is important enough that I'd like to hear your thoughts on it.
 

TheSword

Legend
Supporter
On this I agree with @Fenris-77.


Here are some reposts that answer that question:
Thank you for the posts, particularly copying them out again for ease of reference.

I think you have identified great elements that would add to the horror of a game.

I would think that the following elements were system agnostic nay?
  • Communicators
  • Low power weapons and Armour
  • Setting the scene
  • PCs abilities to avoid surprise
I’ve yet to see a game that doesn’t have some form of alertness ability for instance. Again equipment is fairly system agnostic.

Physically weak PCs and the morale system I agree fully. Many systems including 5e are not good at portraying physically or emotionally weak characters. I think there is a reason for this. Probably that players as a general rule don’t really enjoy playing weak characters that die easily or run away. To be honest I don’t really see that as a problem as we very rarely see protagonists in fiction, even action horror fiction run away screaming for help. That is usually left for NPCs. I would distinguish between being weak and running for help as different to tactically trying to avoid a more powerful enemy or achieve a different objective to fighting.

My greatest surprise is that the fiction first element that you have praised so highly isn’t really mentioned at all.
 

Campbell

Legend
I think without direct experience of playing (or especially running) a game like Apocalypse World, Burning Wheel, Dogs in the Vineyard, Hillfolk, Moldvay B/X, Quietus or Sorcerer in the way you are instructed to by those games its almost impossible to fathom just how different play feels from modern D&D. I know really did not understand it. It's like playing poker when you have only ever played card games where you take tricks. It's like playing Diplomacy when all you have ever played are games where you roll dice to move around a board. It's like playing Among Us when you have only ever played first person shooters.

Take Sorcerer for example. Sorcerer completely does away with the concept of GM prepared story, cooperative play groups, and world building as we think of it. In Sorcerer you start with the characters who have just undergone a dramatic change in their lives and build a cluster of NPCs around each of them. Play revolves around a set of bangs for each character - situations that force a character to act without any regard for how things should resolve themselves. For each session the GM is supposed to prepare a bandoleer of bangs, but keep them in reserve, only pulling them out when needed to keep play interesting. The story of the game is the story of these individual characters striving to cope with dramatic change in their lives. Usually their stories will intersect in some way, but it's not required. Some Sorcerer games will complete with the characters never even meeting.

Once a character's dramatic life change (called a kicker) is resolved either we develop a new kicker together, they create a new character, or play is done. No prepared story arcs. No plot hooks. No adventures. Just some dynamic characters going through some stuff while summoning demons and stuff.
 

I would think that the following elements were system agnostic nay?
  • Communicators
  • Setting the scene

Absolutely not.

How is a scene set in The Pool? By who? How about Shab al hiri Roach? How about Apocalypse World? In a Wicked Age? Sorceror?

Communicators assume the ability to communicate over distance? Can a player introduce new elements into the game at the point they use a communicator, or can they only talk to GM established things?

As for the 'Alertness' ability - cite me the rules for that in Trollbabe. The Mountain Witch. How is surprise handled in Apocalypse World?
 
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TheSword

Legend
Supporter
Absolutely not.

How is a scene set in The Pool? By who? How about Shab al hiri Roach? How about Apocalypse World? In a Wicked Age? Sorceror?

Communicators assume the ability to communicate over distance? Can a player introduce new elements into the game at the point they use a communicator, or can they only talk to GM established things?

As for the 'Alertness' ability - cite me the rules for that in Trollbabe. The Mountain Witch. How is surprise handled in Apocalypse World?
I’m not engaging in discussion regarding games are aren’t even available to buy or in print. If you have to go so avant garde it isn’t even on DTRPG or Amazon marketplace then it’s probably not a good example. I wasn’t willing to pay £75 for the last copy of Sorcerer to find out.
 

I’m not engaging in discussion regarding games are aren’t even available to buy or in print. If you have to go so avant garde it isn’t even on DTRPG or Amazon marketplace then it’s probably not a good example. I wasn’t willing to pay £75 for the last copy of Sorcerer to find out.

So you're willing to make claims about things which are 'system agnostic' and then when proven wrong to shift the goalposts to 'RPG systems readily and conveniently available to you'.

Except even that's an attempt to mislead - The Pool is a free download, top result on Google. Apocalypse World is available. Sorcerer is available from the publisher. But you didn't even look, just barfed out the easiest way you could think of to reject the clear evidence that you don't know what you're talking about.

In other words, you've been exposed as making false (and ignorant) claims and you're now sticking your fingers in your ears going 'nah, nah nah, not listening.'
 

TheSword

Legend
Supporter
So you're willing to make claims about things which are 'system agnostic' and then when proven wrong to shift the goalposts to 'RPG systems readily and conveniently available to you'.

Except even that's an attempt to mislead - The Pool is a free download, top result on Google. Apocalypse World is available. Sorcerer is available from the publisher. But you didn't even look, just barfed out the easiest way you could think of to reject the clear evidence that you don't know what you're talking about.

In other words, you've been exposed as making false (and ignorant) claims and you're now sticking your fingers in your ears going 'nah, nah nah, not listening.'
No problem. Thanks for sharing. If it’s winding you up, I’ll happily bow out. I don’t believe you’re discussing in good faith. I’ve had more than my two pence on the subject and the goal posts move too fast in this thread.
 
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pemerton

Legend
Thank you for the posts, particularly copying them out again for ease of reference.

I think you have identified great elements that would add to the horror of a game.

I would think that the following elements were system agnostic nay?
  • Communicators
  • Low power weapons and Armour
  • Setting the scene
  • PCs abilities to avoid surprise
I’ve yet to see a game that doesn’t have some form of alertness ability for instance. Again equipment is fairly system agnostic.

Physically weak PCs and the morale system I agree fully. Many systems including 5e are not good at portraying physically or emotionally weak characters. I think there is a reason for this. Probably that players as a general rule don’t really enjoy playing weak characters that die easily or run away. To be honest I don’t really see that as a problem as we very rarely see protagonists in fiction, even action horror fiction run away screaming for help. That is usually left for NPCs. I would distinguish between being weak and running for help as different to tactically trying to avoid a more powerful enemy or achieve a different objective to fighting.

My greatest surprise is that the fiction first element that you have praised so highly isn’t really mentioned at all.
Absolutely not.

How is a scene set in The Pool? By who? How about Shab al hiri Roach? How about Apocalypse World? In a Wicked Age? Sorceror?

Communicators assume the ability to communicate over distance? Can a player introduce new elements into the game at the point they use a communicator, or can they only talk to GM established things?

As for the 'Alertness' ability - cite me the rules for that in Trollbabe. The Mountain Witch. How is surprise handled in Apocalypse World?
To add to some of chaochou's points, plus a few of my own:

* I already posted in a bit of detail the significance of communicators. Talking about equipment as system agnostic seems to be confusing the fiction - where a communicator is an easily portable device enabling long-distance talking with people - with the system, where a communicator on a PC sheet empowers that player to (depending how it works in system terms) expand the scope of the scene, or activate off-screen assets, etc. In terms of the play it means that the horror of (eg) a PC running screaming from an Alien isn't just something that the other players experience at the table, but is something they can respond to via their action declarations for their own PCs (who hear what is happening over the communicators). That's a difference from a typical splitting of the party in a FRPG.

* To respond to @chaochou's questions, in our Traveller game the PCs can definitely talk to other PCs (including the various quasi-PCs/quasi-NPCs in the PCs' entourage). The can also talk to established NPCs (eg if I describe a starship or satellite, they might declare that they send a communication to it). They can establish new possible targets of communication via appropriate checks (eg Streetwise). And they can do that via consensus - eg in one of our sessions, the PCs were being bombarded from orbit while outside the main inhabited dome, and - one of them being a retired colonel - they called in the planetary airforce to defend them. My memory is that no check was required to establish that the PC knew who to call; I think it's likely that, as normal when the PCs interact with a "new" NPC, a reaction check was called for. In terms of "permissiveness" of the players using the communicators to activate off-screen resources I'd say (on balance) that it's less permissive than MHRP/Cortex+ Heroic, but probably moreso than a D&D-derived sci-fi game would be.

* Low power weapons and armour seems like another case of confusing discussion of the fiction with discussion of the system. The real point here - which overlaps with the point about physically vulnerable PCs - is that some of the players don't have a strong ability to deal with the Alien via physical/hostile moves. That's a system phenomenon. And as I said it's one that D&D isn't generally known for. Part of what makes this feasible in Classic Traveller is that the system supports action resolution (other than GM decides) in a number of fields of endeavour besides fighting (eg dealing with officialdom, and other sorts of social interaction; buying and selling trade goods; piloting space vessels and driving vehicles; operating and repairing technology; etc). It wasn't until our 3rd session of Traveller that we had any combat, but that doesn't mean there was no action or action resolution.

* As for we very rarely see protagonists in fiction, even action horror fiction run away screaming for help. That is usually left for NPCs. I would distinguish between being weak and running for help as different to tactically trying to avoid a more powerful enemy or achieve a different objective to fighting, there are some complexities. First, the Alien movies really have only one protagonist, Sigourney Weaver. But a RPG has more than one. Are they all Sigourney? Or are some of them the hangers-on? Second, I'm not really sure that this the claim is true. Sigourney Weaver sometimes runs in the Alien films, and I'm not sure that these are all best analysed as tactical withdrawals. In our Alien session, when the PC Vincenzo ran away from the Alien and escaped via the lift, knowing that his handgun was pretty useless against the creature, it didn't feel inapt or out of place. It felt like the PC was in a panic - which he was - and which seems appropriate for a gritty futuristic sci-fi horror scenario.

* Scene-framing and surprise rules are closely connected, because the latter constrain the GM's authority in respect of the former. As @chaochou has posted, there are plenty of systems that don't use surprise rules. And there are systems that handle surprise very differently from how Traveller does - eg in MHRP/Cortex+ Heroic the GM has to spend a die from the Doom Pool which has to beat any surprise-blocking ability (eg Reflexes or Senses). Classic Traveller, at least as my group plays it which is based on my reading of the rulebooks, allows the referee to decide that an encounter is occurring, and then stipulates that a surprise check is to be made which is modified by Tactics and Leader skill. As I said, I think this worked well in our Alien scenario because it allows the GM to force the players into a confrontation with an Alien, but moderates the extent of unilateral hosing of the players by GM decision-making.

* Classic Traveller is not a fully fiction-first system: consider eg the surprise rules just described. There are similar rules for encounter distance. But the fiction is important to resolution. For instance, my Aliens cause a die of damage on contact with their acidic blood; this is adjudicated by reference to the fiction. The fleeing PC decided to grab a fire extinguisher to use it to neutralise the acid: we resolved him finding an extinguisher on the vessel via a simple check, and then used another check to answer the chemistry question does the fire-retardant foam neutralise the Alien acid? (In Apocalypse World or similar these would be answers to a Read a Situation-type check.) I think fiction-first resolution supports gritty horror, because it increases the immediacy. I'm a big fan of 4e D&D, but I wouldn't use it for this sort of horror because once it hits combat - eg an attack by an Alien - it's not fully fiction-first. I don't think MHRP/Cortex+ Heroic would be ideal either, for similar reasons.
 

Aldarc

Legend
No problem. Thanks for sharing. If it’s winding you up, I’ll happily bow out. I don’t believe you’re discussing in good faith. I’ve had more than my two pence on the subject and the goal posts move too fast in this thread.
If you are curious about games that "aren’t even available to buy," then I can gladly direct you about where to buy some of them.

In a Wicked Age is $5 online.

Apocalypse World 2e is $15 online, though most of the resources are free to download, but you can also download the first edition for free here. Apocalypse World is also on DriveThruRPG, but it's $20 there, so I thought I would at least save you $5.

The Pool is free on DriveThruRPG.

Edit: I am not necessarily recommending that you buy them or even suggesting here that you must buy them to engage in the conversation, but they are available and quite affordable.

I personally don't think that re-hashing the "agency debate" is the best way to go about this discussion. I think what would perhaps be more illustrative is how two similar enough systems with enough difference can produce different game experiences. For example, I would potentially consider comparing 5e D&D with the Cypher System, as the latter uses a d20 for its resolution system and is still a fairly mainstream game, but the GM doesn't roll, which shifts a number of key aspects of play in regards to the two systems.
 
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pemerton

Legend
I’m not engaging in discussion regarding games are aren’t even available to buy or in print. If you have to go so avant garde it isn’t even on DTRPG or Amazon marketplace then it’s probably not a good example.
Others have already posted opportunities to acquire a number of these games. To add to the list: you can download the core rules for BW for free here. This will show you what a system looks like that doesn't locate all authority over consequences with the GM.

More generally: if you're not interested in engaging in discussion about RPGs beyond the narrow range you're familiar with, that's your prerogative. But equally, if that's your approach then I don't see how you're going to make serious contributions to a discussion of the ways in which RPG systems are able to deliver different sorts of RPG experiences.
 


TheSword

Legend
Supporter
Thanks but no thanks. Game time is precious and I have to be picky with what it play. I tend to give weight to recommendations based on the spirit in which they’re given. I’m sure they’re very good though.

I did say I was bowing out, but thank you for continuing to try to engage.
 

pemerton

Legend
Thanks but no thanks. Game time is precious and I have to be picky with what it play. I tend to give weight to recommendations based on the spirit in which they’re given. I’m sure they’re very good though.
Obviously if there's only one system you're intending to play - 5e D&D or some other RPG with very similar processes of play - then the ways in which system matters won't matter to you.
 

Aldarc

Legend
Thanks but no thanks. Game time is precious and I have to be picky with what it play. I tend to give weight to recommendations based on the spirit in which they’re given. I’m sure they’re very good though.
I understand your preferences for a certain mode of curated play, which is entirely valid. This is why I would recommend playing Dungeon World at least once, if only so you can see how the system produces a difference in play from what you are used to playing. If not Dungeon World, then possibly Torchbearer, which influenced the creation of Darkest Dungeon. There is also Fate (and Fate Accelerated and Fate Condensed), which is absolutely free on DriveThruRPG. I would also recommend picking up The Book of Hanz, a series of free essays from Fate's Google+ community, which discuss Fate and some of the differences in its game assumptions. Fate is particularly amenable to running one-shots and short campaigns, particularly if your time is precious.

None of these games may not be to your preference, and I expect that it likely won't be, but there is an invaluable experience in learning through play how different systems have different expectations of play and deliver on that. Personally part of the joy of trying out these different games is that I learn something new about my own game preferences nearly every time I play a new game. Sometimes a mechanic that I disliked in one game becomes highly enjoyable in another.
 


fearsomepirate

Adventurer
I think it's hard to really understand how different a system can be without ever interacting with truly different systems.

B/X vs 5e vs 3.5 vs AD&D vs Pathfinder is like arguing over which full-sized pickup truck with which options package is the best, or which fast-food place has the best burgers. You can convert a module from any one of those systems to any of the others, season it with a few house rules, and end up with an experience that plays reasonably similarly.

McDonald's and Jack-in-the-Box are different, really, honest to God. But they're not different from each other the way they're different from that taco truck parked outside the gas station, or the way they're different from a sushi place, or the way they're different from a fancy Italian place with handmade pasta.

I say this as somebody who plays D&D and its clones almost exclusively. I've not got the mental scratch space or the bookshelf space to get invested in something else.
 


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