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

Aldarc

Legend
I'll never know, because I don't even bother with D&D or anything else on the d20 "chassis" any more.

Just the other night I wandered down to my game shelf and pulled my copies of Fantasy Craft and Arcana Evolved off the shelf. The thought that immediately followed: "I am literally never going to play these games, ever, nor do I have any desire to even bother attempting to re-learn the intricacies of the d20 system."
I will never run d20 Arcana Evolved again either, but I will miss AE. It was one of my favs back in my early d20-only days. I loved how it designed classes around playstyles (e.g., Gish, Heavy Armor Warrior, Light Armor Warrior, Skill Monkey, etc.) and the magic system (when compared to the contemporary 3.X). And I loved how it drew from non-Tolkienesque fantasy, namely Donald Stephenson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant and Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea: e.g., truenames, rites and rituals, ceremonies, the power of oaths, runes, the Green and the Dark, etc. Heavy doses of nostalgia was one reason why I backed the Arcana Evolved for Cypher System Kickstarter, though I doubt it will capture the same charm as the original.

At this point they're merely relics of a distant gaming past that doesn't need revisiting. If I want "traditional" style gaming, Savage Worlds does it better for me than any version of D&D, new, retroclone, or otherwise.

But I'm veering pretty hard into simpler / narrative style systems at the moment, regardless.
I have tried a number of times to like Savage Worlds. It has a toolkit approach that reminds me of another d20 era game that I also LOVED: True20. But much like 3e and True20, I find that Savage Worlds still seems heavily rooted in a '90s and '00s style game. I would probably love something more like a streamlined, simplified Savage Worlds rules system that was less interested in equipment porn or rules crunch for every situation.*

* Hyperbolically: What sometimes feels to me while reading the rules as "rules and modifiers for what to do when making a called-shot with Mega-Super-Automatic Laser Assault Rifle 168-Xc (8.11 mm caliber) against someone who is being grappled behind half-cover on a cloudy Sunday afternoon around tea time."

On the whole, SW feels like a far crunchier game than it needs to be for its incredibly "fast furious fun" slogan. Obviously personal tastes will vary.
 

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Emerikol

Adventurer
I don't. I think you are questing for familiarity. And familiarity is the reason you favour a lot of what you do despite it being against what you claim your preferences are.

D&D was explicitly a hacked tabletop wargame, founded round "pawn play" where you play from the top down rather than in character. If I want a good game for in character viewpoint play D&D is very low down on my list of where to look. Apocalypse World and its better hacks are right at the top.

If I'm looking to avoid metagame/dissociative mechanics I ignore any game with
(a) consequence free hit points
(b) hardcoded classes
(c) character levels

All these are, to me, pure metagame mechanics and have been known to disassociate me. And all of them are integral to every version D&D.
I get it. You have different concepts around metagame mechanics. I've gotten it. I didn't want for this conversation to degenerate into another debate on these topics because I know we fundamentally disagree to our cores and neither of us is going to change. The point though is system matters. That has been established.

Again what you are saying you dislike is part of the raw essence of D&D. Any game in which an unarmoured fighter can take max damage from an orc swinging with an axe and the worst they will need is a few days in bed is one that is deliberately set up to ensure that bad things don't happen to PCs.
You live in a different world from me. I just don't see things as you do. Plenty of bad things happened to PCs during the time when D&D was essentially in the OSR era. If it didn't for you then your experience is different from mine and many others. The game is a super heroic fantasy though so a 20th level fighter getting killed by a 1st level orc doesn't happen.

The two games I started with were WFRP and GURPS. Both games in which injuries in ordinary fights matter because you might actually take a serious injury and where, rather than having the occasional piece of weirdness like a rust monster or spectre showing up and being an awkward fit with the overall theme of D&D every fight has the risk of suffering a genuinely serious injury. The notion of D&D as "combat as war" is about as pretentious to me as a group of paintball players talking about how paintball is war. And the idea that D&D has ever been a system where bad things happen to PCs is, to me, ludicrous.
So when I hear you say what you want and look at what you do I find a stark disconnect.
Of course there is a stark disconnect and from your tone a triggering one at that. You can rail at the stars but the facts are a lot of us feel differently and experience D&D differently. I very much played D&D in the early days and it satisfied those things I was looking for in a game. My criticism of the game in those days would mostly be about things I'd expect an OSR game to fix. Things like rolling high and positive armor class and no THAC0.

I don't mind choices either so a bit of 3e would be fine but simultaneous to adding choices they also made the game far less in other areas I like. It's why I think ACKS will likely satisfy me for now. I like C&C but it's just a bit simple even for me. They have some great ideas though so I'm not bashing C&C. It's a good game and I'd play it.

Also realize that we are talking high fantasy. If I were playing a space opera game, my desire for the high part of high fantasy would be far less. I like N.E.W. a lot and would play it for a space game. It's far closer to GURPS than D&D though I think the system is better than GURPS.
 

innerdude

Legend
@Aldarc -- There's so many things Savage Worlds does right. And you're not wrong, it's definitely a relic of its era. The first edition came out around 2002, and Deadlands maybe 4 or 5 years before that.

And it's still a very, very traditional system. It's discrete action/task resolution. Bennies/wounds/soak rolls are basically the same as healing surge / hit dice, only the metamechanics are applied immediately rather than as "Fortune in the Middle."

The thing that finally got me looking at other systems after 8 years was how hard it is to balance encounters where the players aren't just sitting around waiting for the dice to explode. The range of "fun yet challenging" encounter balance is very, very narrow.

What ends up happening is outside that very narrow band, encounters end up being total pushovers for the party, or they end up "sloggy."

And in my case, where I tend to keep encounters more grounded at the human level, it was starting to get boring. Boring to run the same ho-hum encounters ("Oh look . . . More spearmen. More archers. More swordsmen. Yay"), boring for the players, who after 8 years know every possible build trick, and aren't challenged anymore without ramping up the degree of difficulty so high that the flow of combat grinds to a stutter.

And truthfully, I don't know how much I really loved the upgrade from SW Deluxe to SWADE. Some of the speed/elegance got lost with the addition of the new condition effects, the changes to reduce the "whiffiness" of being shaken, the action economy changes. A year+ after I got my SWADE hardcover from the kickstarter, I still couldn't give you a clear explanation of how the "Frenzy" edge works now.

*Edit: the net result is that it's now nearly as tactically heavy as D&D 3, but with the added overhead of not just having to track hit point loss, but needing to track conditions, while worrying that the "whiff" factor is too high and the players tune out between turns. There's now too much mental overhead on the GM, with not enough tactically interesting choices for the players to make the GM overhead worth it. SWADE is probably the more mechanically sound system than Deluxe, but there's a subtle but palpable shift in mindset behind SWADE that loses some of the magic for me.

To top it off, going remote in the pandemic sapped the energy away as well. Savage Worlds relies heavily on the physical/visceral experience of the initiative draw of the card deck, the physically tossing of the bennies back and forth, the physical sound and sensation of the dice hitting the battle mat.

My last Ironsworn session was more enjoyable than any 5 SW sessions put together since the pandemic hit.

*Edit 2: And it really, really pains me to write this post, because I want to unabashedly love Savage Worlds, but I can't recommend it anymore without throwing out a huge list of provisos. And the thing of it is, when you hit the sweet spot, it's beautiful. D&D 3 never came within a country mile of the best experiences I had with Savage Worlds at its best. It's just become too hard to find that sweet spot anymore.
 
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Emerikol

Adventurer
@Aldarc -- There's so many things Savage Worlds does right. And you're not wrong, it's definitely a relic of its era. The first edition came out around 2002, and Deadlands maybe 4 or 5 years before that.

And it's still a very, very traditional system. It's discrete action/task resolution. Bennies/wounds/soak rolls are basically the same as healing surge / hit dice, only the metamechanics are applied immediately rather than as "Fortune in the Middle."

The thing that finally got me looking at other systems after 8 years was how hard it is to balance encounters where the players aren't just sitting around waiting for the dice to explode. The range of "fun yet challenging" encounter balance is very, very narrow.

...snip...
A lot of systems suffer from being sloggy. It's a really difficult challenge. I experienced it some in 3e and a lot in 4e of D&D. It's why I think fewer hit points in general is a good idea.

I am wondering about soak rolls myself. I like the idea of a soak rule for armor. It makes more sense than a static DR. Still you don't want to the to go on forever without any damage. Still when it comes to a creature like a dragon, they should be far easier to hit than they are in D&D but they also should be nigh near invulnerable due to their armor.

I don't like Bennies at all. I don't like Hero points or Fate points either.

As far as "system matters", I think system matters and it depends on the type of game as well. So systems aren't necessarily bad, though some are, but they also may only suit a particular style of play. I'm sure some of those who endlessly love to debate me about mechanics have games that far suit them more for their tastes. For me suiting them would likely mean they didn't suit me. So system matters to individuals and not just in general.
 

Aldarc

Legend
@Aldarc -- There's so many things Savage Worlds does right. And you're not wrong, it's definitely a relic of its era. The first edition came out around 2002, and Deadlands maybe 4 or 5 years before that.
There are a lot of things that I do like about SW. But I'll admit that I don't have the same level of patience as I did 15 years ago when it comes to reading through pages of "3era" rules, particularly after seeing how elegant other systems can be with presenting their rules and generalized resolution systems.

My last Ironsworn session was more enjoyable than any 5 SW sessions put together since the pandemic hit.
Intriguing. I have it, but haven't had a chance to run it.

*Edit 2: And it really, really pains me to write this post, because I want to unabashedly love Savage Worlds, but I can't recommend it anymore without throwing out a huge list of provisos. And the thing of it is, when you hit the sweet spot, it's beautiful. D&D 3 never came within a country mile of the best experiences I had with Savage Worlds at its best. It's just become too hard to find that sweet spot anymore.
I get that. I have a similar issue now with the Cypher System. And before that? True20. Similar to SW, True20 is a product of its age and likewise struck in the d20 system, but I haven't found another system that has quite hit that "sweet spot" that I had with True20 when it came to designing, kit-bashing, and running games. There are games that tease me with that feeling (e.g., SotDL; Cypher System, AGE, Savage Worlds, Stars/Worlds Without Number), but none have quite hit that sweet spot.
 

innerdude

Legend
Was thinking about it a bit more. I think the main issue in Savage Worlds is that there's a limited number of ways to challenge the players without "spiking" the numbers so high that they're left flailing about just hoping to explode the dice on an attack roll, since the "fighting" skill directly correlates to parry.

Then you throw in the possibility that damage rolls can ultimately have zero effect ("whiff") if they don't meet the toughness threshold.

One of the house rules I've considered implementing is that on any attack that succeeds with a raise but damage fails to cause a shaken or wounded condition, the victim is considered vulnerable until their next action, regardless of the result of the damage die. The idea being trying to model putting someone off their guard, even if the immediate attack doesn't cause physical stress / injury.

But that just adds yet another conditional modifier to the mix --- and yet more overhead.
 

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