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.


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Russ Morrissey

Russ Morrissey

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
The op links to Edwards' blog, he is system matters.
It links to Jon Peterson's blog. Edwards isn't even mentioned in the OP. I think that @pemerton may have quoted him at some point in this thread, but that would be it. I didn't refer to Edwards at all, and you brought that up while quoting me. I must say, this exchange is terribly confusing, mostly because I can't even track where you're coming from.
So you play with not having an idea of the rules and even "to suss out" the rules is bad? Hmm, that's cool, you do you. We do indeed play differently, as I like to have some sort of working knowledge of them; usually for me it is wander around and interact with the environment in game, while having a beer, and a laugh with friends.
Uh, what? Where did you get that. Of course I like to know the rules, but I know them as a player, not a character in the game. At this point, you've moved topics in every response, and I'm still not sure what you're trying to get to. Maybe it's me, in which case, someone please lend a hand? My translator appears to be on the fritz.

EDIT: ah, the blog the OP links to links to Edward's blog. This needs one of those Inception BWAAAAAAs.
 
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dragoner

solisrpg.com
Link to it in the op: The Forge :: System Does Matter and Vincent Baker of Pbta is also part of that scene, I am surprised you didn't know that? You should read it, that probably is why you feel confused, or not.

For translations, try yandex or google, though I also speak Russian, Czech, and German to some degree.
 

TheAlkaizer

Game Designer
The simplest proof that systems matter is the fact that people play with systems at all. If did not matter at all, players would absolutely drift towards the least incovenient and easiest solution which would be no system at all. You can argue that you can play anything with one system and that it does not really make a different to move to a different one is actually arguing against your own argument.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Link to it in the op: The Forge :: System Does Matter and Vincent Baker of Pbta is also part of that scene, I am surprised you didn't know that? You should read it, that probably is why you feel confused, or not.

For translations, try yandex or google, though I also speak Russian, Czech, and German to some degree.
That's not what the OP links to, although the blog the OP does link to has a link to that essay. Intuiting that you mean the second level of linking is what prompted my Inception comment above. I'm also aware of Vincent Baker's roots, not sure what made you jump to the conclusion I wasn't, when what I did say was that I didn't reference Edwards and that the OP doesn't link him, so your comment was a non sequitur. Now I understand that you somehow jumped from my point about PbtA not being a physics engine to Vincent Baker being the author of AW to Vincent being part of the Forge discussions to Ron Edwards having blogged on a similar topic to the OP to now assuming that I know nothing of any of this because I didn't follow this chain of logic which you did not share.

And, no, the translation problem is not the language, but rather the baffling structure of your posts and the way they alternate between odd direction shifts, leaps in topic, and unsubstantiated assumptions about what I think or do. Trust me: I'll tell you, you needn't guess.
 

dragoner

solisrpg.com
It is a simple truth that it does matter, in particular to mechanics of why try to fix things when there is system that does what you want anyways. It is also true in what you learn first can have an effect on how you learn things later, I still see westerners do things, which do not make a lot of sense but then I just think that's what they do and move on.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
The simplest proof that systems matter is the fact that people play with systems at all. If did not matter at all, players would absolutely drift towards the least incovenient and easiest solution which would be no system at all. You can argue that you can play anything with one system and that it does not really make a different to move to a different one is actually arguing against your own argument.
This does seem obvious, but... it's apparently not. Interestingly, the second link to Ron Edwards in Jon Peterson's blog post (which is what's linked in the OP, if confusion remains anywhere) discusses a possible theory as to why this may be. Unfortunately, like a lot of Forge discussions, it's very unflattering to the point of insulting at times, which hides that there's an excellent point in there -- that people are often conditioned as to what RPG means, get locked into that mindset, and then have difficulty, if not hostility, to learning alternative concepts.
 

TheAlkaizer

Game Designer
This does seem obvious, but... it's apparently not. Interestingly, the second link to Ron Edwards in Jon Peterson's blog post (which is what's linked in the OP, if confusion remains anywhere) discusses a possible theory as to why this may be. Unfortunately, like a lot of Forge discussions, it's very unflattering to the point of insulting at times, which hides that there's an excellent point in there -- that people are often conditioned as to what RPG means, get locked into that mindset, and then have difficulty, if not hostility, to learning alternative concepts.

What would the alternative be? If we take any kind of fixed or written rules (no matter the complexity) as a system, the alternative would be an entirely organic, or free form and chaotic form of play? Would power dynamics and a natural order emerge in that free form of play? A different kind of system?
 

dragoner

solisrpg.com
There are freeform rpg sites and forums, a fairly large community. I run an sfrpg group on fb, and we get them joining, and being confused it is not a story telling, writing environment such as that. I also belong to writing groups as well.

edit: Here is one - RP Forums - Index page
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
What would the alternative be? If we take any kind of fixed or written rules (no matter the complexity) as a system, the alternative would be an entirely organic, or free form and chaotic form of play? Would power dynamics and a natural order emerge in that free form of play? A different kind of system?
I think we have a misunderstanding. I agree with you, but, as shown in this thread and elsewhere, many don't. I was discussing some of the reasons that they might not, and it boils down to a conditioned mindset that there's only one approach to RPGs, and all that changes in system do is fiddle with the details. Thus, system doesn't really matter because it's really just a matter of details - the core play is still the same. If you think all games are Monopoly, because you've only ever played versions of Monopoly, then this is an understandable position. In effect, this conditioned approach to RPGs is the default assumption for how all RPGs work, so system is fundamentally the same.

I mean, if you were introduced to RPGs through D&D, and have played D&D primarily, maybe with some dabbling in some other d20 games, then, yeah, these systems are all very similar in approach and the core play loop is pretty much the same. You have to wander further afield and take some risks on other systems to really get to games that don't look at all like D&D.

I also think there's a difference between a game that does have a system and ones that are just ad hoc negotiations. Having a conflict resolution system, even if it's as simple as 'what Bob says goes' does separate out from free-form make believe. It changes things into a game, or, at least, is a necessary step in that direction. Play is not the same as Game. This is, however, a quibble.
 

TheAlkaizer

Game Designer
There are freeform rpg sites and forums, a fairly large community. I run an sfrpg group on fb, and we get them joining, and being confused it is not a story telling, writing environment such as that. I also belong to writing groups as well.

edit: Here is one - RP Forums - Index page
I got experience with RP like that.

Could I compose a roleplay message and, without consulting anyone, describe how your character dies spontaneously?
 

dragoner

solisrpg.com
I got experience with RP like that.

Could I compose a roleplay message and, without consulting anyone, describe how your character dies spontaneously?
That would be weird, never heard of that, such as if you mean someone else's character? I think someone would take it badly, imo.
 

TheAlkaizer

Game Designer
That would be weird, never heard of that, such as if you mean someone else's character? I think someone would take it badly, imo.
I'm asking because every RP I've been part of had rules, or at least implicit rules about what could be or not be done. In the end, it is a system. Just the fact that the support/platform forces you to make separate posts and wait for replies forces a structure and becomes a system.

I think we have a misunderstanding. I agree with you, but, as shown in this thread and elsewhere, many don't. I was discussing some of the reasons that they might not, and it boils down to a conditioned mindset that there's only one approach to RPGs, and all that changes in system do is fiddle with the details. Thus, system doesn't really matter because it's really just a matter of details - the core play is still the same. If you think all games are Monopoly, because you've only ever played versions of Monopoly, then this is an understandable position. In effect, this conditioned approach to RPGs is the default assumption for how all RPGs work, so system is fundamentally the same.

I mean, if you were introduced to RPGs through D&D, and have played D&D primarily, maybe with some dabbling in some other d20 games, then, yeah, these systems are all very similar in approach and the core play loop is pretty much the same. You have to wander further afield and take some risks on other systems to really get to games that don't look at all like D&D.

I also think there's a difference between a game that does have a system and ones that are just ad hoc negotiations. Having a conflict resolution system, even if it's as simple as 'what Bob says goes' does separate out from free-form make believe. It changes things into a game, or, at least, is a necessary step in that direction. Play is not the same as Game. This is, however, a quibble.
I see. I think I get the argument.

So it's not stating that they could play with one system and never switch because systems inherently don't matter and we could do without them, but more like saying that in the end all systems end up to the same place (the same core experience) and that it's only a matter of preference in the details?
 


dragoner

solisrpg.com
I'm asking because every RP I've been part of had rules, or at least implicit rules about what could be or not be done. In the end, it is a system. Just the fact that the support/platform forces you to make separate posts and wait for replies forces a structure and becomes a system.


I see. I think I get the argument.

So it's not stating that they could play with one system and never switch because systems inherently don't matter and we could do without them, but more like saying that in the end all systems end up to the same place (the same core experience) and that it's only a matter of preference in the details?
That is similar to my opinion up thread, that in a final sense, it is about preference. I mean there are details in there, such is hacking a system bad? I don't think so. Also the reason why someone might hack a system is that they might want to run something different, but the players don't want to learn a new system. Some people from my group have run an anime campaign with pathfinder, I didn't play, but it sounded a lot like supers as well. Not my cup of tea, but they had fun. I think that the system matters and gns theory arguments wound up in a bad place and even Edwards and Baker signed off, saying they didn't mean to start something like that.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I'm asking because every RP I've been part of had rules, or at least implicit rules about what could be or not be done. In the end, it is a system. Just the fact that the support/platform forces you to make separate posts and wait for replies forces a structure and becomes a system.


I see. I think I get the argument.

So it's not stating that they could play with one system and never switch because systems inherently don't matter and we could do without them, but more like saying that in the end all systems end up to the same place (the same core experience) and that it's only a matter of preference in the details?
Not quite. It's the belief that all systems are functionally the same and the difference is only in the details. The (poor) boardgame analogy to this is that all games are Monopoly, the only real difference is if you're playing Lord of the Rings Monopoly or Alabama Football Monopoly or some other version of Monopoly. The details change, but the system is still the same.

This is thwarted when you run into games that aren't Monopoly, and don't play like Monopoly, like, say Spades (a trick-taking card game, for those not familiar). When confronted with this, the Monopoly player will usually react with trying to understand Spades as a variant of Monopoly, and importing their understanding of Monopoly play into Spades as much as possible. This is incompatible, so Spades gets labelled as poorly written, a bad game, not a true game just a card game (like Storygame), or just ignored as an option.

Now, obviously, this metaphor is tortured, and bad, but hopefully gets the point across. It's not that all systems are the same -- they are not -- or have the same core play loop -- they do not -- but that you can get into a situation where your experience with system is limited to a set that are similar and have the same core play loop. This gets even more entrenched when most of the popular game titles are similar in this regard. There's little difference in the actual core play of World of Darkness and Dungeons and Dragons -- usually it's a GM led story that the players participate in as much as the GM allows. That's brutal, yes, but not unfun, as it's exactly how I run 5e with this foreknowledge. I'm running Descent into Avernus right now, and that's about as prebaked a story the players participate in as allowed as you can get (other APs aside). But, it's fun! However, when my group gets back to Blades in the Dark, this play doesn't exist -- I can't prewrite a story outline in Blades, the system will eat it up and spit it out in the first five minutes of play. The only way I can do so is to break that system. So, system matters, but it's hard to see if you've never stepped outside of a similar set of games.
 

TheAlkaizer

Game Designer
That is similar to my opinion up thread, that in a final sense, it is about preference. I mean there are details in there, such is hacking a system bad? I don't think so. Also the reason why someone might hack a system is that they might want to run something different, but the players don't want to learn a new system. Some people from my group have run an anime campaign with pathfinder, I didn't play, but it sounded a lot like supers as well. Not my cup of tea, but they had fun. I think that the system matters and gns theory arguments wound up in a bad place and even Edwards and Baker signed off, saying they didn't mean to start something like that.

I understand. It makes sense in a way.

But I disagree. The system is the game mechanics, and it's hard to deny that mechanics create dynamics, which have a huge impact on the experience. Sure, the experience of playing 5E and let's say Pathfinder 2E are, at their core, quite similar. It would be hard for an outsider to tell the difference. But the same argument could be made for board games of similar genres. From an outsider perspective, players playing Risk and Diplomacy would probably look very similar, but the dynamics created by the mechanics make for a very different experience.

I'm not sure. I know I disagree, but I'm not sure that was a good example. Is the fact that some people enjoy crunch and others not a proof that not all playing dynamics leads to the same place? Or maybe they do and the crunch is the travel and not the destination. Maybe I'm arguing myself and proving myself wrong.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I understand. It makes sense in a way.

But I disagree. The system is the game mechanics, and it's hard to deny that mechanics create dynamics, which have a huge impact on the experience. Sure, the experience of playing 5E and let's say Pathfinder 2E are, at their core, quite similar. It would be hard for an outsider to tell the difference. But the same argument could be made for board games of similar genres. From an outsider perspective, players playing Risk and Diplomacy would probably look very similar, but the dynamics created by the mechanics make for a very different experience.
This is valid, but it fails to defeat the argument that Pathfinder is just a hack onto D&D. You could do the same thing with houserules, if you put in the time. I don't agree with this argument, and this your point is valid, even if the difference is slight, but this is not a strong argument in the face of "system doesn't matter."

To help clarify your thinking, the difference between 5e and P2e is really in what play is incentivized in each. I'm not super familiar with P2e, but, from what I've gathered, it does incentivize different things by how it's character build is done, how it instantiated conflict resolution, and in how you earn rewards (xp, loot, etc). This leads to different play, even if, largely, the incentive structures for each are very similar.
I'm not sure. I know I disagree, but I'm not sure that was a good example. Is the fact that some people enjoy crunch and others not a proof that not all playing dynamics leads to the same place? Or maybe they do and the crunch is the travel and not the destination. Maybe I'm arguing myself and proving myself wrong.
The reality, in my experience, is that the difference between the crunch and fluff players of a given game are the relative comfort levels towards ignoring the system. Most tables have places where they just outright ignore the system and do something else, especially in games where the resolution engine is unevenly applied. Like in D&D, where the resolution engine for combat is far more details and play facing than the resolution engine for social encounters (which is pretty much "the GM will tell you what happens"). Don't underestimate just how much ignoring the system and then not recognizing this is what happens muddies this topic. Usually, when system is ignored, it's not noticed that you just ignored the system and applied something ad hoc. This is, largely, something that's indoctrinated into players in most games. 5e even officially embraces it! Although, it's not put this bluntly there.
 

dragoner

solisrpg.com
I understand. It makes sense in a way.

But I disagree. The system is the game mechanics, and it's hard to deny that mechanics create dynamics, which have a huge impact on the experience. Sure, the experience of playing 5E and let's say Pathfinder 2E are, at their core, quite similar. It would be hard for an outsider to tell the difference. But the same argument could be made for board games of similar genres. From an outsider perspective, players playing Risk and Diplomacy would probably look very similar, but the dynamics created by the mechanics make for a very different experience.

I'm not sure. I know I disagree, but I'm not sure that was a good example. Is the fact that some people enjoy crunch and others not a proof that not all playing dynamics leads to the same place? Or maybe they do and the crunch is the travel and not the destination. Maybe I'm arguing myself and proving myself wrong.
If that same place everything is leading to is measured by being happy, or entertained, then preference is key. Different people want different experiences from their gaming, nothing wrong with that. If using the systems matters argument as a dialectic to decide what you like personally, then it is great. If using it to judge other people's game preferences, then it is wrong.

Even then one can be a sinner against what one believes, I also ran a CoC 6e game not too long ago, and with other games I have run like Mythras or M-Space it almost makes me a big BRP GM, though I really don't think of myself as such, it is just that BRP gives me enough of what I like with skills and I deal with what I don't like, because in the balance what I like about it is better to me. We have another GM that runs almost strictly 5e, and while it's not my favorite game, it is fun, and I have thought of running a simple campaign with 5e, but I would not do that without asking him first so as to not steal his thunder.
 

innerdude

Legend
The hardest, hardest, concept / mental block for me in getting deeper into the realm of exploring how and why system matters was the recognition that yes, it really is possible to separate causation or rules as physics from the game without the game completely breaking down.

And I don't quite know how or when it finally clicked for me. It took a lot of banging my head against posts by @pemerton and @Manbearcat and @chaochou to figure out just what in the name of Baker and Edwards they were talking about.

What do you mean, you can just allow a player make a declaration and suddenly it just becomes true in the fiction? How can that possibly be allowed? That breaks all boundaries of "verisimilitude" and "immersion" and "consistency of the world."

I don't know how it finally stuck in my head, but the biggest part of the shift was the realization that the shared fiction was just that---shared. And not only shared, but constructed.

When something is constructed, it necessarily means that the persons doing the constructing are going to be the ones who exert the most influence over how that construction is used. The game fiction doesn't exist in a vacuum.

If the GM's views of how the fiction should be constructed were seen as privileged, it was by assent of the group, not by any inherent position of privilege. If the fiction is constructed---created by the participants---then the real issue is no longer just the rules in and of themselves, but the process around how the group reaches consensus/assent around what is constructed.

For whatever reason this idea was revelatory. It had never occurred to me from 1985 until 2012 that the rules' purpose isn't to be "fair" or "prevent power gaming" (though those are potentially useful metrics on an individual scale), it's to provide an avenue for group assent to what is allowed into the fictional construct.

This had a huge impact on how I viewed RPG systems. Arguing about the minutiae of a particular PC build, or a particular spell effect, or a particular feat/edge were no longer viewed solely on "game balance" and "verisimilitude," but also from the lens of the interplay of control of the construct---what are the participants required to assent to for the mechanic to work as intended, and what constraints on the construct does that assent introduce?

It was as if I had been looking at ground telescope imagery of the galaxy, and suddenly had access to the Hubble telescope. You're looking at the same "stuff," but the view from which you behold it is an entirely different thing. All at once the assumptions behind the long-standing "GM-as-storyteller and enforcer of world consistency" were laid bare.

Suddenly the context of power gaming made significantly more sense---yes, power gaming was often seen as rude, inconsiderate, and generally a "bad faith" form of play, but the real reason it becomes pernicious is because in nearly all cases the group has a priori assented to the idea that propositions to change the fictional construct must necessarily be true if those changes are brought in through application of the written rules. Power gaming is "bad" because it allows the power gamer to exert more control over the content of the shared fiction. It allows them to introduce new factors into the construct, or to revise or revert existing factors. And eventually a value judgment has to be made; either the group has to assent to what has been constructed, or it has to be torn down.

I could see why 25+ years of playing nothing but Dungeons and Dragons had led to the same basic game formula / experience almost every time. And I realized that if I really wanted something different from a "D&D experience," that I was going to have to play something besides D&D.

Mechanics, action resolution, systems of magic, fighting styles, damage models and healing are conceptions of how, why, and when to allow (and disallow) change to the fictional construct. If they happen to bear a resemblance to the physics within the gameworld, it may be intentional on the part of the designer, but ultimately incidental to what's really at stake---control of the fiction.
 

pemerton

Legend
Consider the classic RPG declaration, "Rocks fall, you die." And let's say this declaration is pointed at a particular fictional character, Bob the Fighter.

At this point, what is to be considered about this declaration? What factors determine its "truthiness" or "falsiness"?

If you want to break down the "physics" of that declaration further---how heavy the rock is (as represented/abstracted in the number of d6 of damage it deals when it falls), how far it fell, whether the situation warrants such a declaration as being possible at all without supernatural interposition ("Gee, how'd those rocks get there in the first place?")---are ultimately only possible considerations around determining whether Bob is now dead or still alive. The real question is, where does the final authority lie in determining the "truthiness" of the declaration?

Obviously, Bob's player is fully capable of proposing an alternative declaration---"No, Bob isn't dead."

Once again, any "physics" applied to the evaluating this counter-declaration are only points of reference. Do the "rules as physics" say that situationally, Bob the Fighter can dodge said rock? How effectively is this dodge opportunity measured? How much harm does he avoid if he does dodge it? Is it possible that Bob's opposing strength (represented as the "physics" of oppositional force) means he can simply catch the rock and hurl it away? Can Bob's player declare an equal enforcement of supernatural interposition ("At the last second, the rock inexplicably moves 25 feet to the side and tumbles away harmlessly")?

Physics as rules are only one frame of reference for fiction state negotiation. They do not possess an inherent, naturally derived, superior position to other considerations of what should be true in the fiction.

They are merely markers, or anchors, or suggestions on who has the authority, and when to suggest what is or is not true.
Would you agree that this is all just Vincent Baker 101?
 

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