• NOW LIVE! -- One-Page Adventures for D&D 5th Edition on Kickstarter! A booklet of colourful one-page adventures for D&D 5th Edition ranging from levels 1-9 and designed for a single session of play.
log in or register to remove this ad

 

Jon Peterson: Does System Matter?

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

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


AnE#37-simbalist-system.jpg
 

log in or register to remove this ad

Russ Morrissey

Russ Morrissey

MGibster

Legend
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.
It's always nice to meet someone else who enjoys running Deadlands. So from one marshal to another, here's hoping you never find a burr under your saddle and the posse doesn't murder your finely crafted abomination on the first turn before it can act.
 

log in or register to remove this ad

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.
Enjoyment is a benefit; it is not without cost. As a man with too many hobbies, all of them are subject to cost/benefit analysis.

No, I'm not an economist, but one of my closest friends is.
 

I think it means "both" and "it depends."

Obviously, to someone who wants a specific type of story to emerge from play, and wants to play a game made to generate that type of story, system matters a lot. They want to use BitD to tell Leverage-esque heist stories, and Dread to tell looming inevitable doom horror stories (as I understand Dread, anyway), and OSR or actual old D&D to do dungeoncrawls.

To someone who wants the type of story (as well as the story itself) to emerge from play, it probably doesn't matter anything like as much. They pick a game they know well, and they run that for whatever types of story come up.

Now, there might still be reasons for either someone to pick one system over another. Maybe one wants a more-lethal combat system; maybe one doesn't care much for character classes; maybe one prefers dice pools or role-under or some sort of averaging dice or whatever. One can obviously go with mechanics one finds amenable, regardless of whether one is looking for a game tightly focused on one type of story or not.
I've seen people try to play Traveller using AD&D character mechanics. And then seen them use that to justify saying "Traveller Sucks!"

And I've seen both Star Trek and Star Wars done in Traveller (classic and mega) with only trivial modifications t the character rules, and adjusting the ship travel mechanics. (The NCC-1701 is about 17 kTd, with 6x50 Td
Or if it's a longstanding group you try new systems on like clothes. Something fits, or it doesn't.

(A different approach, I think both are plausibly correct.)
Or you offer a game, and see who's interested.
From my perspective the difference between roleplaying games, at least one that are not as similar as say D&D, Pathfinder, Shadow of the Demon Lord and Warhammer is not like the difference between different types of automobiles where one is a comparable replacement. It's more like Risk and Monopoly or Poker and Spades. Playing different games provides an experience that you will never reliably experience in somebody's D&D game without altering the process of play.

Modern D&D is not some middle point. It's a specific game experience that is finely tuned to deliver compelling play to people that want that experience. That's a lot of people in modern D&D's case.
Actually, it's very much a middle ground - that's the natural and expected result of a process of design whch puts up every decision for public vote.
Progression towards the mean is inherent in democratized processes.
I'm going to only disagree on a technicality here. I'd call 5e intentionally pretty loosely tuned. It's intended to be a game that's driftable and intended to be a game that's never a bad one for anything you'd want to do something you'd use D&D for. The goal is breadth rather than focus.
QFT. But note that it also was intended to be good enough for as many as possible, and written in a clear and easily read style. It's less precise than Moldvay, but 6th, 7th, and 8th graders can read and run it. Without having adult help. I've had a number of middle school kids (7 or 8) show up at AL tables, noting they have yet to actually play, but have read the rules, and the only things I had to coach them on were what AL allowed, as they'd not read the AL season rules.

Especially if you went with your free coupons from reading lots of books.
That really started after I graduated in my home school district. My daughters got a number, tho'.
It is not possible to run a gritty futuristic sci-fi horror game with 5e, though. To do so, you have to make changes to the system or outright ignore the system adhoc. 5e cannot do gritty futuristic sci-fi horror. Some other system you've modified from 5e might do it, to varying degrees of success.
If that futuristic horror doesn't require spaceships, there are zap guns and fear rules in the 5E DMG.
Fear on DMG 266. Laser Pistol, Laser Rifle, and Antimatter Rifle, DMG 268.
If you're going to claim a game can't do X, at least be smart enough to check all the core books.
Saying this without evidence is just handwaving.

Show me, using the PHB, how I would run a computer hacking against a pervasive, mind altering AI consciousness in VR.

Show me, using the PHB, how I would run a multi-ship space battle between multiple factions, including being boarded by eldritch horrors from beyond the rim of the galaxy.

Show me, using the PHB, what the time to travel to the next core system over is.

These are things that are pretty common in a gritty futuristic sci-fi horror game, and yet you cannot do this in 5e without iterating whole sets of mechanics or just ignoring the system and winging it.
Or just treating cyberspace as equivalent to the astral plane, and using the magic item rules to access it. The rules need not change mechanics, only the labels and descriptions. Go read DMG chapter 9, which said, the DMG is part of the core rules, and exculding it from consideration is, bluntly, violation of common decency in discussion. It's like asking for the Starship Combat Rules in Classic Traveller Book 1: Characters and Combat ... they're in Book 2: Starships.
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.
A good distinction, but, in the case of 5E Core Rules
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).

Sharing the spotlight is the more conventional term... and it's something few games mechanically address. (The few I've seen are Houses of the Blooded, Blood and Honor, and Burning Empires. HotB and B&H, because they resolve narrative authority, not success, and thus the management of who is in the spotlight naturally by the narration control mechanism. Burning Empires has scene budgets, with each player getting a set number of scenes of specific types each session. A few attempt to do so via rigid turn structures - Sentinel Comics, FFG Star Wars, Modiphius' Dune: Adventures in the Imperium, Marvel Heroc Roleplaying and dozen others, where the design is equal numbers of turns, not equal spotlight time, nor equal story involvement.

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.
But does it really have a large momentum? Or is it just highly visible?

Personally, I suspect a small amount of momentum across a very loud, proud, and prolific, but fairly small, and highly over-represented online, minority. If they really had been a majority, they'd have dominated the 5E development feedback. The vote totals don't support that contention.

Me. ToE's rules do Equestria as in FIM. Ponyfinder does something... darker. It also doesn't use a system I find worth my time to run. (Not saying PF is bad; I am saying, quite emphatically, I don't like it.)

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.
The thing is, Storygames tend to be sold from their developer's website, and/or on Indie Press Revolution.
BullyPulpitgames.com has Shab Al-Hiri Roach, Fiasco, Grey Ranks, and The Warren available.
Fiasco is to the Storygames movement as Mentzer D&D is to the D&D family... it's the common point of entry, not the first, but definitely very well known, widely played, and very well respected.
Sorcerer is still in print, too. My FLGS sold one a couple months ago as a special order.

Cool, that was about my guess as well but nice to have it confirmed from someone who knows this stuff. :)

And that's my point: I'd prefer a game be written to that Grade 12/1st-year college level as it'll then at least give me a first impression of not having been dumbed down.

I guess I've just never seen D&D as a kids game, though it seems many here started playing quite young.
AD&D suffered because of it. Gygaxian spew obfuscated rules, and made the game harder to learn; it lead to a whole lot of misunderstood, ignored, and/or misused rules. Gygax very likely held back D&D as much as helping it. I know that 2E was much easier for me to use, and for new players. Like Moldvay, it was written at a 9th grade reading level. (For reference, most newspapers tended to write to a 7th or 8th grade reading level in the US, until the 21st C, when they lost their younger readership to the Net.)
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
If that futuristic horror doesn't require spaceships, there are zap guns and fear rules in the 5E DMG.
Fear on DMG 266. Laser Pistol, Laser Rifle, and Antimatter Rifle, DMG 268.
If you're going to claim a game can't do X, at least be smart enough to check all the core books.
Is this serious? Neither of thise is necessary nor sufficient to get to gfsfh. Alien didn't have zap guns, and the fear mechanic in the dmg does not evoke horror just by it's inclusion.

This also ignores that it's not real gfsfh whe Bob uses his zap gun and Page casts Banishment.

By the by, I was well aware of those optional rules, and was anticipating they'd be brought up.
Or just treating cyberspace as equivalent to the astral plane, and using the magic item rules to access it. The rules need not change mechanics, only the labels and descriptions. Go read DMG chapter 9, which said, the DMG is part of the core rules, and exculding it from consideration is, bluntly, violation of common decency in discussion. It's like asking for the Starship Combat Rules in Classic Traveller Book 1: Characters and Combat ... they're in Book 2: Starships.
Putting aside "use a different plane" doesn't really cover how a cyberscape interacts with the real or that there are no "magic item rules" that cover this, you're actually making my point here: you have to either rewrite the system or ignore it to acheive the outcome. And, at either end, you're not playing 5e anymore, but rather some other system. Related, sure, but not 5e.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Enjoyment is a benefit; it is not without cost.

The point is that you reduce, or completely eliminate the extra cost of picking up a new system.

Why are you fixated on the point that a cost exists, in general, when I am talking about reducing the extra cost one option has?
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Or you offer a game, and see who's interested.
Which is how our club does it, we also switch out members between groups, so that a broader general interest can be generated.

In general to the op:
IMO, the thing about rules such as Book 2: Starships type rules for games, are that #1 they have to exist, nobody can play rules that don't exist, so that system has to matter there. #2 is about how good are those rules? It's like Ken Kesey talking about bad art having no place in a free society; it is the great filter at work.
 

Aldarc

Legend
This video essay is actually not about D&D, but, rather, about World of Warcraft entitled "Why you CANNOT kill World of Warcraft." In many respects, this video speaks to a variety of different things that have been brought up in this thread (and in @Snarf Zagyg's off-shoot Cheesecake Factory one) about D&D, system matters, sunk cost fallacy (somewhat), and WoW as a game with its own culture or a brand with a story. One of the points brought up in this video is that even if someone came out with an "objectively better designed game" than WoW - in so far as one can claim such a thing - there is so much cultural and capital momentum behind WoW that the "better game" can mostly hope to be a successful niche game with a healthy population rather than a "WoW Killer."* This is not to say that WoW is a badly designed game or that it's not a good game, but that it had a number of system, historical, and cultural factors that not only made it a hit but also kept it as one.

* Incidentally, I think that some of the best MMORPGs out there today are the ones that didn't aim to be "WoW Killers," market themselves as such, or what have you, but had a clear and unique vision for its game.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
This video essay is actually not about D&D, but, rather, about World of Warcraft entitled "Why you CANNOT kill World of Warcraft." In many respects, this video speaks to a variety of different things that have been brought up in this thread (and in @Snarf Zagyg's off-shoot Cheesecake Factory one) about D&D, system matters, sunk cost fallacy (somewhat), and WoW as a game with its own culture or a brand with a story. One of the points brought up in this video is that even if someone came out with an "objectively better designed game" than WoW - in so far as one can claim such a thing - there is so much cultural and capital momentum behind WoW that the "better game" can mostly hope to be a successful niche game with a healthy population rather than a "WoW Killer."* This is not to say that WoW is a badly designed game or that it's not a good game, but that it had a number of system, historical, and cultural factors that not only made it a hit but also kept it as one.

* Incidentally, I think that some of the best MMORPGs out there today are the ones that didn't aim to be "WoW Killers," market themselves as such, or what have you, but had a clear and unique vision for its game.

There are two separate, but interrelated, issues:

The first is path dependency. For those not familiar with it, the easiest way to explain it is, for example, the internal combustion engine and automobiles. If you were designing a transportation system, from scratch, today, you could probably think of a lot of better ways to do it than to use cars (that require pavement, highways, parking, etc., that all require maintenance) and gas-powered ICE (that comes with its own issues). However, once you start down that path, it becomes harder and harder to switch; the transaction costs to switching to something "better" are so high, that it is very very difficult to do so, even though it might not have been the optimal choice if starting from scratch. It's not enough for something to be better- it has to be really, really, really better. If that example doesn't work for you, think about why we aren't all using the DVORAK keyboard. :)

The second is that people often misunderstand what really matters when it comes to design. There are innumerable examples of "better" products losing out in the market place because the designers (engineers, artists, product managers) didn't take into account what matters to the consumers. The classic example is the VHS/Betamax battle; Betamax (by Sony) was first to the market, and superior in technology. But it lost the format war. Why? Three reasons (more or less). VHS concentrated on length- so it could show a full movie before the early Betamax movies could. JVC sought out the rental market, while Sony did not (and people wanted to rent movies). And finally, JVC licensed its technology to other makers before Sony would. So while Sony concentrated on the aspects of design that they were sure would matter (picture and sound quality) they were destroyed in the marketplace because consumers had different interests; in short, they weren't engineers.

Not to echo that phrase ("system matters") but what matters to people can be very idiosyncratic. It is interesting that 5e is widely considered successful- maybe the most successful D&D edition launch - and that 5e went through extensive player testing and feedback (and because it's D&D, it was able to get a larger group for that than any other RPG can dream of). In other words, instead of insisting on what type of rules and lore the consumers would love because it was the right one, they took the safer approach of tailoring the game to what consumers revealed as their actual preferences.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
To use a chess term: "what is the endgame?" Personal preference is real, and largely outside the system matters debate. Such as for fantasy, I prefer Mythras over 5e, except I have played more 5e, and spent more on 5e. The reasons why I like Mythras are largely irrelevant, as it goes back to personal preference, and the reasons I play and have bought a bunch of 5e stuff isn't about the system at all; so still irrelevant to system matters. The endgame here appears to be that system matters when choosing a genre, such as sci-fi or fantasy, and then some details within that choice, afterwards it is personal preference.
 

pemerton

Legend
To use a chess term: "what is the endgame?" Personal preference is real, and largely outside the system matters debate.

<snip>

The endgame here appears to be that system matters when choosing a genre, such as sci-fi or fantasy, and then some details within that choice, afterwards it is personal preference.
For me, the slogan system matters is an injunction to think seriously about the processes of play, and how they interact with the mechanics, in order to do a good job as a GM. Conversely, if there are aspects of play that seem like they could be improved, system matters tells me how to think about diagnosing problems and fixing them.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
For me, the slogan system matters is an injunction to think seriously about the processes of play, and how they interact with the mechanics, in order to do a good job as a GM. Conversely, if there are aspects of play that seem like they could be improved, system matters tells me how to think about diagnosing problems and fixing them.
Though we both know that a good GM can make a bad system great. GM'ing is a lot like an art, and I am saying that as a GM who is fully recognizing some cringe moments of my own GM'ing. It is a large part of why I read these threads is to try to improve. Some systems may have better advice, except if unheeded or misunderstood, the effect is the same.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Though we both know that a good GM can make a bad system great. GM'ing is a lot like an art, and I am saying that as a GM who is fully recognizing some cringe moments of my own GM'ing. It is a large part of why I read these threads is to try to improve. Some systems may have better advice, except if unheeded or misunderstood, the effect is the same.
I don't know this. I know that a GM can ignore or change a bad system and make a game that some (many?) player will enjoy anyway, but this is just subbing in a different system and argues system matters. GM says is a system, too. But a bad system leads to poor outcomes, if used..
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
I don't know this. I know that a GM can ignore or change a bad system and make a game that some (many?) player will enjoy anyway, but this is just subbing in a different system and argues system matters. GM says is a system, too. But a bad system leads to poor outcomes, if used..
It also simultaneously argues that system doesn't matter. It is the falsifiability that is lacking in the system preference mode. Good players count too, and it is also about what people are looking for out of the game as a group, a whole synthetic relationship. More concrete examples would be better.
 

pemerton

Legend
Though we both know that a good GM can make a bad system great. GM'ing is a lot like an art, and I am saying that as a GM who is fully recognizing some cringe moments of my own GM'ing. It is a large part of why I read these threads is to try to improve. Some systems may have better advice, except if unheeded or misunderstood, the effect is the same.
I think we're a bit at cross-purposes here. I'm not referring to system advice. I'm meaning - to use a metaphor - knowing the moving parts of the system. And understanding how they affect the play experience.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
I think we're a bit at cross-purposes here. I'm not referring to system advice. I'm meaning - to use a metaphor - knowing the moving parts of the system. And understanding how they affect the play experience.
That sounds like that is on the GM, unless you are arguing for rules light systems?
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
It also simultaneously argues that system doesn't matter. It is the falsifiability that is lacking in the system preference mode. Good players count too, and it is also about what people are looking for out of the game as a group, a whole synthetic relationship. More concrete examples would be better.
How does it argue that? The GM doing things by fiat is absolutely a system. One I'm not at all fond of, but tastes vary and that's fine.

Curiously, have you played a game outside if one that's seats the GM as arbiter of all rules and source of all serting?
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
How does it argue that? The GM doing things by fiat is absolutely a system. One I'm not at all fond of, but tastes vary and that's fine.

Curiously, have you played a game outside if one that's seats the GM as arbiter of all rules and source of all serting?
Is it a system? I think it is more like a number line, some systems require it more than others. I have played in GM-less games, though I found that they were a lot like GM'd games, except where one player was more the leader. Which are great games, except we usually do more traditional rpg's for multiple sessions.
 

pemerton

Legend
That sounds like that is on the GM, unless you are arguing for rules light systems?
I'm not 100% sure what you mean by that's on the GM - maybe I agree, because upthread I talked about doing a good job as GM.

But to try to explain what I mean, I'll point to the earlier discussion in this thread about running a gritty futuristic sci-fi horror scenario. Part of any system that is likely to be used for this is the possibility of players "expanding" or "breaking out of" the GM's framed scene by having their PCs use communicators to speak to other characters (be those PCs not yet in the scene, or NPCs). So part of being a good GM in this case is thinking about how to respond to that player capability.

Whereas that's not something I have to think about when GMing Prince Valiant or 4e D&D.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
I'm not 100% sure what you mean by that's on the GM - maybe I agree, because upthread I talked about doing a good job as GM.

But to try to explain what I mean, I'll point to the earlier discussion in this thread about running a gritty futuristic sci-fi horror scenario. Part of any system that is likely to be used for this is the possibility of players "expanding" or "breaking out of" the GM's framed scene by having their PCs use communicators to speak to other characters (be those PCs not yet in the scene, or NPCs). So part of being a good GM in this case is thinking about how to respond to that player capability.

Whereas that's not something I have to think about when GMing Prince Valiant or 4e D&D.
Which I agree with 100%, except that is what I think of more as a genre choice. Would you say that having some sort of system mastery is part of being a good GM?
 

Campbell

Legend
System as defined in the System Matters essay is talking about the actual process of play. It includes the division of roles between the players (authorities and responsibilities). It includes how scenarios are designed, the sort of character players are supposed play, what the goals of play are, etc. It's a lot more than just genre. It's also more than advice. It's process/instructions.

The central conceit of the essay is that the process of play should be designed - that play should be done with intent rather than on an ad hoc basis. That changing the process of play is an act of game design and should be treated with the weight of a design decision. Basically treating RPGs the same we would any other game. You do not have to play the game as designed, but you should know when you are breaking that and changes to the game as designed should be somewhat transparent to all participants. People should know what they are agreeing to play.
 

Visit Our Sponsor

Latest threads

An Advertisement

Advertisement4

Top