System Mastery and Younger Gamers


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knightofround

First Post
This competitive build approach also causes them to become more interested in a particular game and it's intricacies in order to better show off their skill in said game. Now yes, I think some of this is due to the competitive factor in most young boys... but I also think most young boys are naturally competitive in some way with most "games"... even if it is a cooperative one. Most kills, highest damage, best items, etc. are all ways they may measure themselves... and games that require system mastery allow them to do this in a way that keeps them engaged and interested... it's one of the reasons I think CCG's were and still are so popular amongst young gamers.

The thing is, with CCGs its *all* about knowing the rules and min/maxing. The core system is very easy to understand, and it's got a lot of other cool stuff going for it. Mainly the "collectibility" factor, but also because the game is competitive. Competition is fun. Its purely your knowledge of the rules and resources versus your opponent's. Mono a mono.

But D&D is designed to be a cooperative game. And as an imaginative game, knowing all the rules doesn't help you very much. You could have a completely min-maxed character and your DM could accidently slay you on a whim. Or they could find ways to raise other player members up to "your" level so you don't get the spotlight all the time.

In short, you're not in control like you are in CCGs.
 

WheresMyD20

First Post
I'm ok with "system mastery" being rewarded to some degree, but I wouldn't want it to be the focus of the system.

I prefer to have the biggest rewards for in-game strategic thinking. For example:
- Entering a dungeon populated by kobolds and goblins and, instead of fighting them both, forming an alliance with the kobolds to fight the goblins.
- Figuring out the solution to a puzzle that leads the way to a great treasure.
- Coming up with clever uses for spells and magic items that allows the party to bypass traps or difficult dungeon areas.

Somewhat smaller rewards go to tactical, in-combat thinking. This mainly involves finding ways to defeat monsters quickly and efficiently with minimum cost in resources.

System mastery would be near the bottom of the reward ladder. Choosing an optimal character build over a sub-optimal really shouldn't lead to major rewards. For example, using a long sword instead of a mace because it does more damage doesn't really deserve a large reward.

As far as rewards go, coming up with great ideas in-game should definitely trump encyclopedic knowledge of the rules.
 

LostSoul

Adventurer
I like system mastery.

However, I like it to be about playing the game instead of sitting at home poring over the books determining what feat is best.

If you know a Troll burns like a bad case of chlamydia, yeah, rock it out. If you think there might be a secret door over there based on your mapping, cool. Learning that the outlaw leader hates gnolls and enlisting him in the fight against them, very cool.

Not so cool is sitting at home away from the other players working out your 20/30-level build.
 

Okay, first let me state upfront that I don't have any data or proof or anything... and most of this is just thoughts and conjecture from observing my son and nephews play games ( videogames, ccg, roleplaying, board and SW miniatures)... but I'm starting to think system mastery might be something the younger generation enjoys and maybe even craves in games.
The RPG you see them playing was intentionally designed to feature system mastery. Anyone you see playing it and enjoying it in the way it was designed to be played and enjoyed can therefore seem as if this is what they wanted and needed all along. But, you note you don't have proof, so...

I know us experienced gamers have a tendency to decry system mastery as an objectively bad thing in roleplaying games... we tend to believe that we shouldn't have to sacrifice effectiveness in one area for aother or that there shouldn't be hidden traps and "not-so-obvious" choices that are objectively better or worse than others... but in observing my son and nephews I am starting to think this is an aspect of gameplay that they, and many of their peers, find enjoyable. Even though old hats may have grown into a dislike of it... is it really an objectively bad thing in game design.
According to this blog by Monte Cook Ivory Tower Game Design it isn't necessarily always, but it can be. Of course people find it enjoyable when they figure out better ways of doing things. This is the whole point of building in system mastery - to enable that. The problem is that it turns out that is actually a short-sighted view towards game design.

The "definition" of System Mastery (as given by Monte Cook above) is, "players are rewarded for achieving mastery of the rules and making good choices rather than poor ones." It means that bad choices are INTENTIONALLY provided in the game. So you have players whose game experience is intentionally being trapped and subverted so that others can discover the traps and bad choices and then avoid them themselves. But then what happens when players have played for a while? You have a game that has been filled with BAD OPTIONS that the now-educated players do not want, need, or use. From that point on those sub-optimal choices that were necessary to build in "System Mastery" serve only as a source of COMPLAINT and ridicule. Why weren't the players given a selection of additional USEFUL choices instead of between useful and LAME?

Whether you want it there or not, no matter HOW you design your rules, System Mastery is in fact present in EVERY game. Some choices WILL prove to be better than others. There WILL be reward in the game of success and enjoyment to those who discover those optimal choices. But in older editions the sub-optimal choices were not included as INTENTIONAL TRAPS FOR THE INEXPERIENCED AND UNWARY PLAYER. They were there largely just because at some point, some player or DM had thrown those choices into the mix for WHATEVER reason and they then became part of the rules pile.

When you know the selection of 1st level Magic User spells for 1E AD&D of course some are going to be more useful than others. But nobody threw the "Push" spell into the mix just so that the player who chooses "Sleep" or "Magic Missile" can feel superior to the schmuck who chose "Push". It is almost certain that somebody at some time actually had a specific use in mind for "Push". It simply turned out that when stacked up as an option against other spell choices it sucked. Or maybe it was simply UNDER-designed/underpowered from the start. In any case it certainly WASN'T thrown in there because it was indeed an UNDER-powered choice - it was thrown in because it was JUST another choice.

My son and his cousins take pleasure in constructing their decks/Star Wars armies/rpg characters/etc. and showing how "awesome" of an entity (for lack of a better all encompasing word) that they have created. They also enjoy the fact that better choices lead to a recognizably better game entity.
And again, a flaw in System Mastery is that until you DO learn the system and weed the crap out of it you have intentionally had that part of your gaming experience subverted. That subversion may even continue as the player who HASN'T learned the tricks of the game is INTENDED to suck just so that the player who HAS learned the tricks can feel superior. Okay, maybe that's not QUITE what was intended - but that is a common practical reality.

And then later still, the players are going to find that having the awesome character build of the hour STILL doesn't win the game for them - in fact, it might only lead to a frustrated, angry DM who has to beat the PC down in an attempt to continue to provide a fun game experience for EVERYONE at the table, not just the one who has the highest System Mastery.

This competitive build approach also causes them to become more interested in a particular game and it's intricacies in order to better show off their skill in said game. Now yes, I think some of this is due to the competitive factor in most young boys... but I also think most young boys are naturally competitive in some way with most "games"... even if it is a cooperative one. Most kills, highest damage, best items, etc. are all ways they may measure themselves... and games that require system mastery allow them to do this in a way that keeps them engaged and interested... it's one of the reasons I think CCG's were and still are so popular amongst young gamers.
WotC did indeed draw System Mastery and other elements directly from their Pokemon and Magic CCG's. But D&D is not a CCG; it's NOT a game of competition, but of cooperation. In drawing System Mastery from their CCG's they DID start to turn D&D into a game of competition. My build is better than yours, has a flip side - my build SUCKS compared to yours so now I'm frustrated and disappointed just because YOU found a loophole that I didn't.

There's no doubt that there were always elements of competition between players and their PC's, and in fact there's some evidence that some of the elements we came to know as central to the game only derived from players trying to one-up each other. It's a roleplaying game and that means that such conflict is not just possible it's a necessary element. System Mastery, however, attempts to set up the game so that there is then an objective WINNER between players. It also then promotes an antagonistic relationship between the DM and the players. Instead of being the instigator and facilitator of imagination and enjoyment for everyone at the table the DM is THE OPPOSITION to the players. If they're not competing against each other the players are competing AGAINST the DM. That is not what the game was supposed to be.
 
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Doug McCrae

Legend
But then what happens when players have played for a while?
Go on to a new system. Or buy a supplement with new rules for the present one. For a system master, the exploration of system is the fun part of the game. Understanding a new system, finding out what rocks and what sucks.

Everybody wins. The publisher gets what he wants - sell more books. The system master gets what he wants - more system to explore. It's how Magic: the Gathering works, always new cards.
 

Croesus

Adventurer
Not so cool is sitting at home away from the other players working out your 20/30-level build.

The core issue with requiring system mastery (or simply providing significant rewards for it) is that it segregates players based on the amount of time they have and are willing to invest in the game.

In a way, time plays the same role that money plays in CCG's. All things being equal, the player with the most cards will have the best decks. This works fine for competitive games, as most CCG's are. Similarly, the RGP player who invests the most time will have an advantage over players who invest less.

But as another poster has said, RPG's are at their core cooperative. Many players simply haven't the time, or lack the interest in devoting the time required, to master a system. It seems to me that any system which unduly rewards a player for mastery, or alternately, punishes players for lack of mastery, undermines the cooperative aspects of the game.

Of course there are ways to work around such things, but in my experience they are generally restricted to the "rules masters" arbitrarily limiting the impact of their mastery. For example, in Champions the best player may intentionally design sub-optimal characters so as not to outshine the other characters. That can be frustrating for the player who invests so much time, yet has to hold back for the sake of the group.

I think 3E went too far in rewarding and encouraging rules mastery. That said, I probably wouldn't enjoy a system that didn't reward rules mastery to some extent - in the end, the players have to have some control over the game, or what's the point?

BTW - I wonder if, from an economic standpoint, publishers benefit more from a game that encourages high rules mastery. After all, the minority who will invest such time are likely to also invest dollars, which means sales. Of course, if the game is so esoteric that only 12 people know how to play it, there won't be much of a market. But from a sales perspective, rules mastery (up to a point) might be a good thing. Food for thought.
 

Vegepygmy

First Post
The "definition" of System Mastery (as given by Monte Cook above) is, "players are rewarded for achieving mastery of the rules and making good choices rather than poor ones." It means that bad choices are INTENTIONALLY provided in the game.
No, I don't think so. What it means is that some choices are, in certain situations, better or worse than others. Grappling in 3e is an awesome tactic if you're a big, strong creature fighting a small, weak spellcaster. It sucks if you're a gnome fighting a hill giant. That doesn't mean grappling is always a bad choice. Mastering the intricacies of the grappling system allows you to know when you should try grappling and when you shouldn't.

Personally, I like that. (And for the record, I've been playing RPGs for more than three decades.)
 

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