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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

TwoSix

Unserious gamer
Supporter
I think it's hard to really understand how different a system can be without ever interacting with truly different systems.
This. I had gotten a pretty good theoretical grounding in a lot of the above discussed techniques during the Edition Wars, but it took playing a few sessions of FATE for it to truly make sense. It's really like having a light bulb go off when it finally clicks.
 

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This. I had gotten a pretty good theoretical grounding in a lot of the above discussed techniques during the Edition Wars, but it took playing a few sessions of FATE for it to truly make sense. It's really like having a light bulb go off when it finally clicks.
Yup. I've said it before but I always love a chance to reiterate:

The groking and acceptance/embrace of 4e would have been a different deal if (a) Mouse Guard was released several years before (rather than same year) or Blades/DW had been released before 4e and (b) the D&D cultural collective had played those games and enjoyed them.

At the very least Skill Challenges would have been understood and run proficiently and the uptake of scene-based Dungeons and Dragons wouldn't have been such a hitch.

Dogs would have been fantastic "training wheels", but it was 4 years before 4e and its a different beast than D&D (while MG, DW, BitD are very kindred in multiple ways).
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
Yup. I've said it before but I always love a chance to reiterate:

The groking and acceptance/embrace of 4e would have been a different deal if (a) Mouse Guard was released several years before (rather than same year) or Blades/DW had been released before 4e and (b) the D&D cultural collective had played those games and enjoyed them.

At the very least Skill Challenges would have been understood and run proficiently and the uptake of scene-based Dungeons and Dragons wouldn't have been such a hitch.

Dogs would have been fantastic "training wheels", but it was 4 years before 4e and its a different beast than D&D (while MG, DW, BitD are very kindred in multiple ways).
I'm not so sure if a difference in the release dates of the games you mention would have made as much difference in the reception of 4E as you seem to believe. If they'd existed and been accepted and talked about as "something other than D&D" maybe it would have been clear that sort of game design wouldn't fly with D&D players (as D&D) and 4E would have been different, but that's going down a parallel universe rabbit hole.
 

I'm not so sure if a difference in the release dates of the games you mention would have made as much difference in the reception of 4E as you seem to believe. If they'd existed and been accepted and talked about as "something other than D&D" maybe it would have been clear that sort of game design wouldn't fly with D&D players (as D&D) and 4E would have been different, but that's going down a parallel universe rabbit hole.

See the (b) embedded in the quoted text above :)
 

TwoSix

Unserious gamer
Supporter
Yup. I've said it before but I always love a chance to reiterate:

The groking and acceptance/embrace of 4e would have been a different deal if (a) Mouse Guard was released several years before (rather than same year) or Blades/DW had been released before 4e and (b) the D&D cultural collective had played those games and enjoyed them.

At the very least Skill Challenges would have been understood and run proficiently and the uptake of scene-based Dungeons and Dragons wouldn't have been such a hitch.

Dogs would have been fantastic "training wheels", but it was 4 years before 4e and its a different beast than D&D (while MG, DW, BitD are very kindred in multiple ways).
Alt-universe, I think they could have snuck in the more Story Now and Fortune-in-the-Middle aspects of 4e if they had kept more of the 3e trappings. More warblade-y. I think you can sneak in different techniques to GM-focused play groups with familiar presentation, sort of like introducing vegetables to kids. :)
 


Fair enough. I was thinking there's a difference between enjoying, e.g., Mouse Guard, and thinking D&D should play more like Mouse Guard.

There is for sure.

My thoughts on this are thus:

1) Despite what some people think is “the soul” of D&D, it’s actually had multiple, distinct instantiations over it’s almost 50 years.

* Though very kindred, OD&D and troupe based, pawn stance Wargaming is distinct from Moldvay Basic Dungeon Crawling.

* Moldvay Basic Dungeon Crawling is distinct from Expert (and on) and 1e Hex Crawling and Sandboxing.

* Expert (and on) and 1e Hex Crawling and Sandboxing is distinct from 2e and 3.x Storyteller/Metaplot/AP play.

* 4e Scene Based, Story Now is distinct from 2e and 3.x Storyteller/Metaplot/AP play.

* 5e is back to the 2e and 3.x Storyteller/Metaplot/AP play.

2) Given that the above is true, the assertion that there is a unifying “soul of D&D” (typically under that 2e/3.x/ 5e Storyteller/Metaplot/AP play) is verifiably not true.

3) If that isn’t true, then what is the nature of “soul of D&D”? Is it the genre/milieu? Is it particular mechanical artifacts? Is it the dungeon? Is it the dragon? Is it the strategic play centered around Adventuring Day vs Loadout and controlling that recharge? Is it compelling combat encounters, puzzles, parlreys, and explorations? Is it player orientation toward PC(s)? Is it play priorities and principles? Is it authority distribution?

Depending upon your edition lens, it’s a different. A moving target. If that’s the case (that D&D has dynamically changed much more than its given credit for), who is to say where the fault line of “lost its soul” lies?
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
My thoughts on this are thus:

1) Despite what some people think is “the soul” of D&D, it’s actually had multiple, distinct instantiations over it’s almost 50 years.

* Though very kindred, OD&D and troupe based, pawn stance Wargaming is distinct from Moldvay Basic Dungeon Crawling.

* Moldvay Basic Dungeon Crawling is distinct from Expert (and on) and 1e Hex Crawling and Sandboxing.

* Expert (and on) and 1e Hex Crawling and Sandboxing is distinct from 2e and 3.x Storyteller/Metaplot/AP play.

* 4e Scene Based, Story Now is distinct from 2e and 3.x Storyteller/Metaplot/AP play.

* 5e is back to the 2e and 3.x Storyteller/Metaplot/AP play.

2) Given that the above is true, the assertion that there is a unifying “soul of D&D” (typically under that 2e/3.x/ 5e Storyteller/Metaplot/AP play) is verifiably not true.

3) If that isn’t true, then what is the nature of “soul of D&D”? Is it the genre/milieu? Is it particular mechanical artifacts? Is it the dungeon? Is it the dragon? Is it the strategic play centered around Adventuring Day vs Loadout and controlling that recharge? Is it compelling combat encounters, puzzles, parlreys, and explorations? Is it player orientation toward PC(s)? Is it play priorities and principles? Is it authority distribution?

Depending upon your edition lens, it’s a different. A moving target. If that’s the case (that D&D has dynamically changed much more than its given credit for), who is to say where the fault line of “lost its soul” lies?
1) My experience is mostly in 1E, 3.x (including PF1E) and 5E. The people I played 1E with, played it in a much more story-oriented way, both before and after 2E was out. I found 3.x to have a similar focus, though the APs weren't anything I ever really engaged with (because published adventures don't make sense to me in my brain) and to me it seemed as though it brought the character build in to D&D, which was something I knew from point-based games like Champions (I gather there are elements of this in late 2E, but ... I never played with those). I've found that 5E has less focus on the character build than 3.x (some people will think this is good, some bad) and unlike 3.x intra-party balance is a thing into the higher levels. The versions I've played had more unity of feel than you seem to ascribe to D&D (possibly because you have experience with editions I don't). Even back in the days of 1E, I was never a huge fan of dungeoncrawls or hexcrawls.

2) Leaving aside the fact I have never played 4E, given that I found there to be more unity in my experiences of D&D prior to 4E, it'd probably be unsurprising if I found a game so radically different from my prior experiences of D&D to be "not-D&D."

3) I wouldn't say D&D has "lost its soul," even when talking about editions not to my taste. For me, D&D has always been about the stories that emerge from play--I'm pretty sure I've said elsewhere the stories that emerge from play are the point of play, and I stand by that. The mechanical artifacts--what I think of as "legacy stuff"--are more about the game always using similar language, even if that language evolves over time (this has me thinking about Chaucer and Middle English and Modern English, but even the more-recent loss of the distinction between less and fewer is an evolution, sort of). I think stories can emerge from play, with ... if not every possible authority distribution, then at least most of the likely ones; I think stories can (and should) include whatever the players (and the DM) find to be compelling at the time--I think the fact that a D&D story (campaign) can shift from (among others) object-quest to mystery to location-defense to special-ops raids is a strength of the game, and something that is missing from the more narrowly-focused games that seem to be indie-darlings: Blades in the Dark seems to me to only want to tell one type of story, as does Apocalypse World. I guess if I were going to say what D&D's soul is, I'd say it's this flexibility.

I don't deny that D&D is (or can be) a moving target. Even 5E alone is, because there is so much room for tables to play it differently--my tables almost certainly run differently than anyone else's--but I think that's a strength of the game, not a weakness (though I'll admit it makes it difficult to talk about the game forensically or analytically). That's most of the reason I've stopped (well, mostly stopped :) ) arguing about 5E with people who base their opinions of 5E on the written rules and haven't played it.

I guess D&D is kinda like a shuffle-beat, which ... the line I've heard is that every shuffle-beat is a negotiation between the drummer and the bassist. Every D&D game/table is a negotiation among the people there.
 

Campbell

Legend
@prabe

When I look at D&D I do not see a less focused game than something like Apocalypse World or Blades in the Dark. I get the idea of the hyper focused indie game, but that's not what I see in something like Apocalypse World. A game like Torchbearer is really specific. I think many D&D fans look at something like Blades and see it as narrow because it's different - not because it's more constrained.

I think (the royal) you get accustomed to tropes and process of play of something like D&D and that becomes the prism through which you see stories and gaming. That's not a bad thing. You have an approach to play that works for you. I just do not believe it's inherently more flexible.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
When I look at D&D I do not see a less focused game than something like Apocalypse World or Blades in the Dark. I get the idea of the hyper focused indie game, but that's not what I see in something like Apocalypse World. A game like Torchbearer is really specific. I think many D&D fans look at something like Blades and see it as narrow because it's different - not because it's more constrained.
I look at Blades in the Dark, and I see a game tightly focused on heists, and on crews advancing. I don't see much in the rules to allow for many other types of stories to emerge.

I look at D&D, and I see a game that does clearly make some presumptions, but seems to allow for more kinds of stories to emerge from play.

It's plausible that this is more about how you and I see the games, than about anything inherent to the games.
I think (the royal) you get accustomed to tropes and process of play of something like D&D and that becomes the prism through which you see stories and gaming. That's not a bad thing. You have an approach to play that works for you. I just do not believe it's inherently more flexible.
I do not doubt that comfort level with a game (and with its processes and tropes) can make it seem more flexible than a game one isn't as comfortable with. I kinda envy people whose brains work to allow them to run more than one game at a time; mine doesn't work that way.
 
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pemerton

Legend
I agree with @Campbell about the (non-)flexibility of D&D, though am coming at it through a slightly different set of experiences, including no 5e D&D play.

* One example, which has come up in the Worlds of Design: War thread - D&D does not support PCs as warband leaders.

* Another example from a recent thread: D&D has never had decent rules for mounted combat and jousting (I don't know if the Chainmail jousting rules are any good, but anyway I'm not counting them as D&D rules).

* D&D doesn't have very good rules for courting and wooing. Even 4e carves up its skills, like Bluff and Diplomacy, with an eye towards pragmatic/external action-oriented outcomes rather than the realisation of internal passions and commitments.

* D&D has never made it straightforward to adjudicate a Robin Hood/Errol Flynn/Luke Skywalker swing-to-or-from-enemies-on-a-rope. 4e has a discussion of this on p 42 of the DMG, but it's not a core player move - it's one of those "actions the rules don't cover".

* D&D has never had a rule, beyond GM decides, to determine if an imprisoned PC has a key or dagger or similar smuggled in by a secret admirer on the outside.

I could continue, but the things I've mentioned are all pretty basic tropes in the literature from which D&D claims direct inspiration - pulp and romantic adventure stories.
 
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prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
I agree with @Campbell about the (non-)flexibility of D&D, though am coming at it through a slightly different set of experiences, including no 5e D&D play.
{snipped for space; no disrespect intended; I need to figure out how to do this more gracefully}
I could continue, but the things I've mentioned are all pretty basic tropes in the literature from which D&D claims direct inspiration - pulp and romantic adventure stories.
I want to start by saying I don't disagree with you that 5E doesn't have great rules--in many cases it has no rules at all--for any of the things you mention. I cannot help but think, though, that you are noticing the lack of rules here because some of the stories you'd like to see emerge in play are dependent on those tropes; I, who have little-to-no interest in Arthurian Romance in TRPGs, haven't noticed a lack of flexibility in re-creating it. As with @Campbell I suspect it's mostly about how we're looking at the games.

(Also, some of your examples could plausibly be hacked by a motivated person--I was turning over how I'd approach hacking jousting this morning in the shower--but I suspect that's less relevant to how you mean "flexibility.")
 
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Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
@prabe

When I look at D&D I do not see a less focused game than something like Apocalypse World or Blades in the Dark. I get the idea of the hyper focused indie game, but that's not what I see in something like Apocalypse World. A game like Torchbearer is really specific. I think many D&D fans look at something like Blades and see it as narrow because it's different - not because it's more constrained.

I think (the royal) you get accustomed to tropes and process of play of something like D&D and that becomes the prism through which you see stories and gaming. That's not a bad thing. You have an approach to play that works for you. I just do not believe it's inherently more flexible.
I think that it is true that many players of D&D just don't notice the walls, so to speak, but playing both, I'd definitely say that BitD is the more focused of the two, and it while that difference isn't huge, it's also not very discernable. I'll fully agree that Torchbearer is more focused than either, and I'd say that AW/DW is on par with D&D, in general.
 


Using D&D Beyond may be away around players actually owning the books personally, but it’s not a particularly good argument that D&D doesn‘t encourage owning the rule books.
D&D Basic Rules are available for free as a download; except for the classes and races, and multiclassing, most of the PHB rules content is presend in the PBR.
The DMBR has the encounter balance system, some advice, and the rules secton from the MM, as well as a rather broad subset of the MM entries.

So, no, the core of the game mechanics do NOT require the PHB nor D&D Beyond. Specific races and classes? sure.

In another thread, I stated that the main issue that many people (such as myself) have with the statement "system matters" is as follows:

"System matters" inevitably means that because it matters, some systems are better than others, and let me tell you why these systems are better ....

This, to me, is why the statement "system matters" is incredibly problematic.

Above, we see it in the way that I find worrying.

1. The statement that system matters.
2. The assertion that some system is "better" than other systems.
3. The confusion as to why the "better" system isn't played more.

[snip]

But the assertion that some systems are better (or worse) tends to breed resentment at best. People have very different preferences when it comes to gaming, and it is entirely possible that the success (or failure) of certain games is proof that in practice, people are voting with their dollars. In other words, people might not have the same preference for games, so it is best to continue to hope that people make a diversity of games (and systems), and that people continue to support that diversity.
There are systems that are quantitatively better in that they are easier to understand and not filled with toxic antisocial ideals... (EG: Just about anything is better than FATAL, even the 20+ typos per page of Road Rebels... At least RR isn't encouraging a mindset where raping and sexual vioence are fetured parts of the almost indecipherably bad except for the tables rulesets; FATAL is literally built to be able to provide detailed results of PC's raping and being raped.

A game that is hard to understand, or which is filled with vileness, is objectively not a good game. As is one with rules that don't provide enough to actually grasp the mechanics.
Better in this context obviously is relative to some goal. I've spelled some of that out in my post and implied more.

[snip]

What is quite ironic about this is that those posters, and RPGers, who assert that system matters are the ones who are playing and supporting a diversity of games. (The iterative causation here is obvious: playing multiple diverse systems will quickly reveal that system matters, and the fact that system matters is what generates the desire to play a diversity of systems, to get those different experiences.)

It is those who play only D&D or its immediate derivatives who most prominently deny that system matters, and who most prominently sneer at the diversity of games.

Nothing ironic about it at all...
I'm minded of a bloke who posts over on RPGG a lot. He doesn't understand why RPGs work for other people, and he has hated every RPG ruleset he's used. He also gets hostile when people suggest maybe he needs to find a different hobby...

And yes, better is relative... but certain measures (intelligibility) are objective. FATAL, for example, is not the worst written game I've seen from a technical standpoint, but it makes Kevin Siebieda before the spellchecker look competent. It's objectively mediocre as a ruleset because it is unclear. It's also so toxic even Pundit avoids saying anything nice about it, but that is a subjective measure.
 

MGibster

Legend
And yes, better is relative... but certain measures (intelligibility) are objective. FATAL, for example, is not the worst written game I've seen from a technical standpoint, but it makes Kevin Siebieda before the spellchecker look competent. It's objectively mediocre as a ruleset because it is unclear. It's also so toxic even Pundit avoids saying anything nice about it, but that is a subjective measure.
Are you kidding? F.A.T.A.L. is "the most difficult, detailed, realistic, and historically/mythically accurate role-playing game available." Who said that? It's right there in the book and they couldn't publish that if it weren't true.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Because no such condition exists. Time is a cost in and of itself. Effort is a cost - in time and calories.

How to say this - for a gamer, you aren't being very imaginative. Yes, if you insist on thinking that learning the system is about sitting and spending time reading a book, then there's just a cost.

What if learning the system was an act of play? You wanted to spend time playing, right? So, we aren't paying any costs that you weren't already planning to spend, dong things that you wanted to do. This means that learning the system isn't a cost you have to spend before you get any payback for it.
 

MGibster

Legend
How to say this - for a gamer, you aren't being very imaginative. Yes, if you insist on thinking that learning the system is about sitting and spending time reading a book, then there's just a cost.
Of course it's not about sitting and spending time to read a book. But whether you view it as play time or something else, there's no getting away from the cost involved in sitting and taking the time to read it. I was happy to read the latest version of Deadlands when I downloaded the PDF. I paid the price, time, gladly but it was still a cost.

What if learning the system was an act of play? You wanted to spend time playing, right? So, we aren't paying any costs that you weren't already planning to spend, dong things that you wanted to do. This means that learning the system isn't a cost you have to spend before you get any payback for it.

There's a cost to all hobbies though we don't often think about them. I like to paint miniatures (most of the time). I find it relaxing (except for those times it becomes tedious and frustrating), I'm often inspired to create new NPCs based on the models I'm working on, and having painted miniatures really enhances the experience when playing games like Savage Worlds and D&D. When I'm painting miniatures, I'm doing something I want to do (most of the time) but despite my enjoyment there are still various costs including money, time, and my sanity (why #$%## is my airbrush clogged again). Time and effort is always a cost even when you're happy to pay it.
 

Campbell

Legend
At a microcon a couple weeks a go (everyone was tested and had to quaratine) I played in one shot of the new Deadlands and another one shot of Pasión de las Pasiones. I had never played either. For Deadlands one shot we had several folks who never had played Savage Worlds before. No one at the table besides the GM has played Pasión de las Pasiones. In a 5 person game I was the only player that had previous Powered by the Apocalypse experience. We just sat down and played. For Deadlands we each picked archetypes like cards out of a deck. Setup for Pasión de las Pasiones took about 30 minutes (and was mostly narrative), about the same amount of time Masks takes with people who know the game. Learning new games as a GM definitely takes time, but as player does not have to involve much of a time investment. Especially for lighter games.
.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Of course it's not about sitting and spending time to read a book. But whether you view it as play time or something else, there's no getting away from the cost involved in sitting and taking the time to read it.

So... for the past two campaigns I ran (Deadlands and Ashen Stars) the players didn't own the rulebooks. They didn't sit and read them to learn the rules. But, they got to know the system just fine.

We are talking about the cost that is a barrier to entry to play. I play D&D because I know it, and I avoid playing some other game because I would have to learn it BEFORE I can play it.

If you can get a person into an act of entertaining play without that initial cost the "cost as barrier to entry" no longer applies. You are at the table, playing a RPG, without having spent a major cost learning.
 

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