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Some reasons why people may reject the notion that "System/Rules matter"

So the "systems matters' discourse has reappeared, like perennial flower, or like a rash that won't go away, depending on your point of view. Given that some people have a hard time even imagining why others reject the importance of system, I'm sharing a list of reasons why people might feel that way, from a blog post I wrote when TTRPG designers were getting quite annoyed that some players were saying that "rules don't matter" I thought there might all sorts of sensible reasons why people might feel that way: or say something like that:

• Rules lawyers make my table worse, and rules arguments and systems/edition wars make my online experience worse, therefore I hate rules.
• I don’t even know the term “freeform play” exists, yet it is what I actually value about the roleplaying.
• Setting, theme and/or strong adventure plots drive my purchase and play decisions, not rules.
• People who say “I loved playing Ars Magica for a decade, but it is a lousy game” are not being nearly as clever in arguing for the importance of rules as they think they are.
• My “generic” system (Fate, GURPS, D&D, Empire of the Petal Throne, Bunnies and Burrows, whatever) is good enough for my purposes, your bespoke system isn’t worth the cents of electricity it would take for me to read it.
• I reject the claimed continuity between explicit rules, “rules” of style, and “shared understanding at the table”
• Rules provide a minor oracular compliment to my agenda as a player; therefore, I want them light.
• I hate the way the rules I’ve encountered limit my descriptive freedom to accomplish my goals.
• Ummm, many RPG designers keep talking about how you aren’t raking in the Benjamins, and lots of us players keep telling you that rules aren’t the most important thing, yet you focus on….rules.
• if I want a structured experience that applies rules to achieve an aesthetic end, I will play a video game, thank you very much.
• Watching actors and improvisers stream playing D&D is much better than playing myself.

Obviously many of the these reasons might seem to be besides the point to designer or enthusiast steeped in the sputtering remnants of Forge culture. But, given the number of indie design enthusiasts compared to the number of people who are likely using DnD to do "weird stuff", a design focus might not be a less than sensibile default for thinking about such things. And it might be worth bearing in mind that systems matter to people in different ways and to different degrees.
 

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Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
And it might be worth bearing in mind that systems matter to people in different ways and to different degrees.

Interesting post. I am sure it will be uncontroversial. :)

Speaking for myself, when I hear variations of the "Systems/Rules Matter" mantra, I tend to get worried. I think that there are two ways to view that statement:

1. Weak statement. To me, the idea that the rules matter is, in a certain way, both trivially true and banal. It is unexceptional, in my mind to make "weak assertion" arguments that differences in the rules can impact gameplay.

2. Strong statement. This is where I get worried, because (to an extent), I feel similar to when an athlete says, "It's not about the money." When I see people making strong "system" arguments, I try to hold on to my wallet, because I feel that they are usually trying to sell me on something- a theory or a game. Which is fine, for them, but I don't need to be theory-splained as to why the game I enjoy doesn't work in theory, while whatever they are selling is the only real way to have fun. "System matters" inevitably means that because it matters, some systems are better than others, and let me tell you why these systems are better ....

Put another way- some people care deeply about systems. Which is wonderful. But the elevation of systems and theory over practice doesn't work for everyone. Some people place their priorities in other places, which is fine as well.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
...• Ummm, many RPG designers keep talking about how you aren’t raking in the Benjamins, and lots of us players keep telling you that rules aren’t the most important thing, yet you focus on….rules.....
Wrong they are raking in Jacksons or Hamiltons!
 

Aldarc

Legend
As for myself, I think that rules clearly matter, and that this can easily be demonstrated by trying to play an rules set that that badly suits the genre of story or the creative agenda of the players at the table.

That being said, I believe the trend in the RPG creation community is imbalanced in valuing game mechanics over narrative design. Story, adventure, setting, and art direction are more than equal partners in creating meaning. Luckily, we can all make the games we want, and it is easier than ever to make them available to people.
@Mark Sabalauskas, is there a reason why you leave the concluding part of your original blog post out of your post here? And doesn't this undermine your overarching point?

Also what is the basis of your assertion that you make (my emphasis in bold) in the final paragraph? Do you have evidence from the TTRPG industry in this regard that you would be willing to share for discussion?
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
...• Ummm, many RPG designers keep talking about how you aren’t raking in the Benjamins, and lots of us players keep telling you that rules aren’t the most important thing, yet you focus on….rules.....
Wrong they are raking in Jacksons or Hamiltons!

If they are TTRPG designers, they will be lucky to be raking in the Franklin Delano Roosevelts.

I tell ya, they are thankful to see a dime for their work.
 



pogre

Legend
• Watching actors and improvisers stream playing D&D is much better than playing myself
Can you elaborate on this a little bit? Are you saying if system mattered to these folks they would not enjoy watching streams more than playing? Not criticizing, just trying to understand how this fits in.
 

there a reason why you leave the concluding part of your original blog post out of your post here?

My focus, today, was to mention a variety of lens through which "system doesn't matter" is reasonable way viewing the world.

That I, personally, often find that rules matter to me, reinforces a broader point about a variety of tastes and purposes for gaming, which is the work the observation is trying to do in the blog post.

It is less relevant when I'm merely trying to point out that people might have their own coherent reasons to dislike a focus on rules and systems, or to feel that systems aren't very meaningful to their goals or fun.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
As someone who has been around for a bit (I am surprised AARP doesn't have RPG stuff) - your game should probably involve polyhedral dice, since you can now by them anywhere, I even bought some at Walmart in little velveteen bags.
 

Can you elaborate on this a little bit? Are you saying if system mattered to these folks they would not enjoy watching streams more than playing? Not criticizing, just trying to understand how this fits in.

Just noting that the "hobby" of "DnD" for some people, doesn't involve playing the game at all, and they might be just as happy watching their favorite voice actors telling a story in any arbitrary system---as a viewer, they aren't engaging with the rules, so the rules don't matter to them, even if other viewers might get added meaning out watching because they understand the rules. Or are watching because they want to learn the rules.

Even if you reject the notion that "non-players" are part of the hobby (which I don't), there would still be cases where "real" (ugh) gamers are watching APs of rules they don't play, or potentially dislike. And perhaps there might be games that someone might dislike as a player at a table (Fate, Call of Cthulhu, Quest, whatever) that they feel are better rules for people to use in streaming actual plays, than other games that they like playing at a table. Maybe I like RuneQuest to play, but don't want to watch other people struggling with strike ranks when playing--so system could "matter" in a different ways.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
So the "systems matters' discourse has reappeared, like perennial flower, or like a rash that won't go away, depending on your point of view. Given that some people have a hard time even imagining why others reject the importance of system, I'm sharing a list of reasons why people might feel that way, from a blog post I wrote when TTRPG designers were getting quite annoyed that some players were saying that "rules don't matter" I thought there might all sorts of sensible reasons why people might feel that way: or say something like that:

• Rules lawyers make my table worse, and rules arguments and systems/edition wars make my online experience worse, therefore I hate rules.
• I don’t even know the term “freeform play” exists, yet it is what I actually value about the roleplaying.
• Setting, theme and/or strong adventure plots drive my purchase and play decisions, not rules.
• People who say “I loved playing Ars Magica for a decade, but it is a lousy game” are not being nearly as clever in arguing for the importance of rules as they think they are.
• My “generic” system (Fate, GURPS, D&D, Empire of the Petal Throne, Bunnies and Burrows, whatever) is good enough for my purposes, your bespoke system isn’t worth the cents of electricity it would take for me to read it.
• I reject the claimed continuity between explicit rules, “rules” of style, and “shared understanding at the table”
• Rules provide a minor oracular compliment to my agenda as a player; therefore, I want them light.
• I hate the way the rules I’ve encountered limit my descriptive freedom to accomplish my goals.
• Ummm, many RPG designers keep talking about how you aren’t raking in the Benjamins, and lots of us players keep telling you that rules aren’t the most important thing, yet you focus on….rules.
• if I want a structured experience that applies rules to achieve an aesthetic end, I will play a video game, thank you very much.
• Watching actors and improvisers stream playing D&D is much better than playing myself.

Obviously many of the these reasons might seem to be besides the point to designer or enthusiast steeped in the sputtering remnants of Forge culture. But, given the number of indie design enthusiasts compared to the number of people who are likely using DnD to do "weird stuff", a design focus might not be a less than sensibile default for thinking about such things. And it might be worth bearing in mind that systems matter to people in different ways and to different degrees.
It's really odd. I think "system matters" is such a glaring truism that there's literally no point arguing whether it's true. Like arguing the sun is hot or the sky is blue. It's literally pointless.

That said, several of the reasons you post in your list are reasons why I think system does matter. Rules lawyers wreck my fun, too. So system matters because certain systems draw rules lawyers, munchkins, min-maxers, power gamers, and other similar types of fun vampires like flies. So system matters because if I play certain systems I will have no fun because that system attracts the kind of players I'd rather avoid. Likewise, many lighter systems (especially those focused on story) draw the kinds of players that I really enjoy playing with, so again, system matters.

I also hate the way complicated rules limit my choices and ability to describe things in game. If I make a descriptive flourish in rules heavy game X then the system will require I make some superfluous roll, whereas if I make the same descriptive flourish in rules light game Y the system will not require I make that superfluous roll. Therefore system matters.

As an aside, I think most designers focus on the rules because that's the easier way to make more books and more money. A rule heavy system is going to require a lot of design work and therefore a lot of books, and hopefully, for the money-focused designer, more Benjamins. If they focused on rules light systems they'd have to churn out more settings or more new systems and that's harder to do. Making one complicated game system and milking the rules for a dozen or more supplements is far easier than creating a dozen different games or a dozen different settings.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
As an aside, I think most designers focus on the rules because that's the easier way to make more books and more money. A rule heavy system is going to require a lot of design work and therefore a lot of books, and hopefully, for the money-focused designer, more Benjamins. If they focused on rules light systems they'd have to churn out more settings or more new systems and that's harder to do. Making one complicated game system and milking the rules for a dozen or more supplements is far easier than creating a dozen different games or a dozen different settings.

Not to belabor the point that was already made upthread, but if designers were focused on making more money, then they wouldn't be making more rules-heavy systems.

They would be improving their resumes so they wouldn't be working in the TTRPG field.

It's one of the few professions where the workers can look at struggling actors and say, "Man, those guys are lucky!"
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Not to belabor the point that was already made upthread, but if designers were focused on making more money, then they wouldn't be making more rules-heavy systems.

They would be improving their resumes so they wouldn't be working in the TTRPG field.

It's one of the few professions where the workers can look at struggling actors and say, "Man, those guys are lucky!"
Note I said easier, not easy. It’s easier to do rules heavy games with a dozen books than a dozen new games. I never said game design was an easy way to make money. I have no illusions that RPG designers are rich. I’ve freelanced for game companies so I know just how little people get paid.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Note I said easier, not easy. It’s easier to do rules heavy games with a dozen books than a dozen new games.

I have no illusions that RPG designers are rich. I’ve freelanced for game companies so I know just how little people get paid.

Maybe. I'm not so certain about that. I think it depends on the person.

The more rules-heavy the game is, the more difficult it is to make expansions for it, especially those that don't break the rules that came before. It gets exponentially harder to make more and more rules that fit together and/or modify each other; eventually, it all comes crashing down. Especially when there is math involved.

The advantage of rules-lite systems is that if you want to create new material that expands it in terms of tone, worlds, campaign settings, adventures, etc., it is is fairly simple to do without worrying about the intricacies of the rules.

I don't think it's easier, so much as it is more likely that a rules-heavy system is more likely to be able to say that additional books are necessary given that people are more likely to find value in additional rules than additional fluff.
 

Lord Mhoram

Adventurer
• My “generic” system (Fate, GURPS, D&D, Empire of the Petal Throne, Bunnies and Burrows, whatever) is good enough for my purposes, your bespoke system isn’t worth the cents of electricity it would take for me to read it.
That is the reason on tend to go for universal systems - but I tend to have multiple universal systems. I play both HERO and Cypher because they create really different playstyles for me. But then I learn a system inside out and play it for decades. The is the other reason I tend not to play games written for a specific genre/setting/game.

Overall some really interesting points.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
That is the reason on tend to go for universal systems - but I tend to have multiple universal systems.

So what you need ... is a meta-universal system!

Three Rules for the players who like their games with some sci-fi,
Seven for the D&D players who only play things that are known,
Nine for casual gamers who just like to come by,
One for the Dark Lord Mhoram on his dark throne
In the Land of Meta Rules where the Systems lie.
One Game to rule them all, One Game to find them,
One Game to bring them all, and in its system bind them,
In the Land of Meta Rules where the Systems lie.
 

smcc360

Explorer
Please put me down for Reason Number Five: 'My generic system...', with a side order of '...and I think focusing on a deeper understanding of its rules will allow me and my players to get more enjoyment from it than we could from your bespoke system.'
 

MGibster

Legend
• Rules lawyers make my table worse, and rules arguments and systems/edition wars make my online experience worse, therefore I hate rules.
Okay, but you're playing a game and games have rules. Which rules do you hate the least?

• I don’t even know the term “freeform play” exists, yet it is what I actually value about the roleplaying.
How is this an argument against rules matter?
• Setting, theme and/or strong adventure plots drive my purchase and play decisions, not rules.
This is not mutually exclusive from rules mattering. I absolutely love the setting, theme, and adventures of Shadowrun which drove my decision to purchase it. The rules drove my decision not to run it.
• People who say “I loved playing Ars Magica for a decade, but it is a lousy game” are not being nearly as clever in arguing for the importance of rules as they think they are.
This doesn't strike me as an argument against setting matters.
• My “generic” system (Fate, GURPS, D&D, Empire of the Petal Throne, Bunnies and Burrows, whatever) is good enough for my purposes, your bespoke system isn’t worth the cents of electricity it would take for me to read it.
Quite clearly this is an admission that system matters.
• I reject the claimed continuity between explicit rules, “rules” of style, and “shared understanding at the table”
What does this even mean? How is that an argument against system matters?
• Rules provide a minor oracular compliment to my agenda as a player; therefore, I want them light.
This is an admission that system matters.
• I hate the way the rules I’ve encountered limit my descriptive freedom to accomplish my goals.
Another admission that system matters.
• Ummm, many RPG designers keep talking about how you aren’t raking in the Benjamins, and lots of us players keep telling you that rules aren’t the most important thing, yet you focus on….rules.
That's because we're playing a game. Games have rules. And even if someone doesn't think rules are most important thing that isn't an argument against system matters.
• if I want a structured experience that applies rules to achieve an aesthetic end, I will play a video game, thank you very much.
If you don't want a structured experience you wouldn't be playing a game. Games have rules which I think we could all agree provide for a structured experience.
• Watching actors and improvisers stream playing D&D is much better than playing myself.
Okay. I'm not sure that's much of an argument against system matters though.
 


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