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Why System Matters for Roleplaying

Reynard

Legend
The adventurers push open the ancient stone door, revealing a chamber thick with dust and the stench of decay. Pillars in the forms of twisted, grotesque beings hold up a vaulted ceiling glittering with cold light like distant stars. In the floor is a circle ten paces across, blood red metal inlaid in stone. Their breath itself seems to give life, or at least unholy awareness, to the circle. It begins to glow even as the figures of the columns begin to shift and stretch.

That scene could happen in any number of RPGs. My thesis in this thread is that how the players react -- that is, how they role play their characters at this moment -- is as informed by the system of the game in which this occurs as it is their characters' backgrounds or established personality traits. Simply put, system matters for roleplaying.

The most important aspect of this is that the system, as it is understood by the players, determines the natural laws of the game world,especially when talking about threat to life and limb (but not exclusively in relation to combat). In essence, the game rules will determine how "scared" the PCs should be regarding a scene such as the one described above.

In a game like 5E, where at least past initial levels death is an extreme outcome of most combats, the PCs will react one way. Similarly, if this scene occurs in Zweihander, PCs are very likely to respond differently. This is because the systems treat the potential danger of a combat encounter with what appear to be otherworldly foes very differently.

So why am I bringing this up? Why does it matter?

I think we have a tendency to think about roleplaying characters as being independent of system and based more on setting and personal preferences. I think system plays a much larger role than we generally give it credit for.and, therefore, I think if GMs in particular are looking to enforce a mood or atmosphere, they cannot do so simply with setting and descriptive elements. Particularly when it comes to gritty fantasy, dark fantasy, and horror, encouraging PCs to act in ways consistent with the tone of those genres requires systems that push players to roleplay their characters in genre appropriate ways.

Note that I am not talking about meta tools that directly reward in-genre play. I am talking about general rules that create a set of "physics" that reflect the genre.

Thoughts?
 

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kenada

Legend
Supporter
It seems like that should be the case, but I suspect that whatever a group plays regularly will have an influence on how they approach things in other games. I see this with my players, and it’s been a constant pain in my ass as we’ve tried to move on from Pathfinder 1e.
 

zarionofarabel

Adventurer
Personally, I think the system is one of the most important aspects informing play. D&D breeds a very different playstyle than Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. System choice is of utmost importance as the mechanical aspects present allow players to interact with the fictional narrative in certain ways. While it is true that handwaving can allow D&D to be used to run a deeply political campaign, I know of numerous other systems that can do a political campaign much better simply because they actually have rules for such things. IMO there is nothing worse than using a system that lacks support for political scheming and interpersonal conflict to run a campaign that focuses on such things. IME using D&D to try to run anything other than a combat slog is pointless as it offers no support for anything other than combat. In a similar vein using Smallville to run a highly detailed combat game featuring maps and miniatures combat is a struggle as the rules don't support that kind of play.

System definitely matters!
 

Reynard

Legend
I wasn't really speaking to the general "system matters" sentiment, simply because I think it is self evident. I am speaking directly to the idea that system informs roleplay, which I think is less acknowledged overall.
 

In the example you are using, it is not the system that will impact the players RP approach. It is the perceived Lethality of the situation.

And while I think system does play a small part in informing that, I think that is way WAY more influenced by the players experience with/expectations of their DM, than by the system.

Killer DMs gonna kill, regardless of the system. "I'll allow it" DMs are gonna allow it, regardless of system.
 

Reynard

Legend
In the example you are using, it is not the system that will impact the players RP approach. It is the perceived Lethality of the situation.

And while I think system does play a small part in informing that, I think that is way WAY more influenced by the players experience with/expectations of their DM, than by the system.

Killer DMs gonna kill, regardless of the system. "I'll allow it" DMs are gonna allow it, regardless of system.
I disagree. There is a world of difference between that situation in 5E vs 1E vs WHFRP vs DINGEON world based purely on mechanics, regardless of GM and player relationship.

Now, I do think that over time the GM has a big impact on their particular set of players, but I'm not convinced a) that's the way most people play anymore, and b) it matters more than actual game rules in the end.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I think we have a tendency to think about roleplaying characters as being independent of system and based more on setting and personal preferences.

I think it is not a radical point to make that system informs character design - thee type of person you are playing, and their capabilities, and thus their reactions, are strongly influenced by the system you are working with.
 

Aging Bard

Canaith
Being a good GM has always been hard. Speaking only of D&D, the game has moved away from DM to player control. In 1e, a good DM had to balance how many monsters and how much monetary treasure and magic items to make available. 5e has removed the necessity of the last two, and has greatly increased character customization. 1e had more pillars of play viewed as key to the game: outdoor exploration, air/sea travel, magic item creation, hirelings, henchmen, reactions rolls, combat morale, and other simulationist mechanics. By 5e, with an emphasis on attracting more players and ease of entry, heroic combat above all has been emphasized. This last is true even though 5e has plenty of other subsystems, it's just that many players do not find them as satisfactory as combat. So yes, both systems and expectations have changed a lot, but have mostly changed in a way that reflects a substantial body of current players.
 

Reynard

Legend
I think it is not a radical point to make that system informs character design - thee type of person you are playing, and their capabilities, and thus their reactions, are strongly influenced by the system you are working with.
Unless the system explicitly injects itself into backstory -- such as games with life path character generation-- in my experience people tend to do whatever they prefer for their character background and contort the system to make it fit. But once play begins and they know how few hot points they have or how badass they are, the respond to in game situations based on the rules more than inhabiting their character (assuming the rules of play impact the situation; in D&D, for example, people "roleplay" more true to their character conceptions in the social pillar because the rules are much thinner there).
 

Reynard

Legend
Being a good GM has always been hard. Speaking only of D&D, the game has moved away from DM to player control. In 1e, a good DM had to balance how many monsters and how much monetary treasure and magic items to make available. 5e has removed the necessity of the last two, and has greatly increased character customization. 1e had more pillars of play viewed as key to the game: outdoor exploration, air/sea travel, magic item creation, hirelings, henchmen, reactions rolls, combat morale, and other simulationist mechanics. By 5e, with an emphasis on attracting more players and ease of entry, heroic combat above all has been emphasized. This last is true even though 5e has plenty of other subsystems, it's just that many players do not find them as satisfactory as combat. So yes, both systems and expectations have changed a lot, but have mostly changed in a way that reflects a substantial body of current players.
I'm not sure what this has to do with the thesis.
 

Well, one thing that the OP brings to my mind - as players it's (usually) our preference to protect our characters.

Therefore, in a game where characters can be easily removed from play protecting them requires more player caution. A game like DnD 5e or Star Wars allow the player to be much less cautious as there's much less risk of the character being removed from play.
 

CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
The system does matter to an extent, but the players matter more. After all, players are the ones who choose the system in the first place. Those who play, say, GURPS instead of D&D, are choosing to do so for a reason.
 

Yora

Legend
The primary way in which system impacts play is the way rewards and incentives work. XP for winning fights is hugely different from XP for stealing treasure.
Sometimes players just decide to do what feels right in a given situation, but throughout the whole campaign, every decision is affected by what the system incentivizes with mechanical rewards.
 

Li Shenron

Legend
I think system plays a much larger role than we generally give it credit for.

I generally agree that system matters, but hell no I don't think this is not being given enough credit... on the contrary, I think how much it matters is largely overemphasized in all online discussions.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
In general I agree with the OP, but with the caveat that the players really need to understand the stakes implicit there, otherwise their play won't be informed by it (obviously, but also importantly). This same train of thought holds even more true when the GM themselves perhaps doesn't understand the stakes of the system.
 

Reynard

Legend
In general I agree with the OP, but with the caveat that the players really need to understand the stakes implicit there, otherwise their play won't be informed by it (obviously, but also importantly). This same train of thought holds even more true when the GM themselves perhaps doesn't understand the stakes of the system.
It is particularly evident when groups switch to superficially similar games that have stark differences in elements like deadliness of combat or difficulty of task resolution. A 5e GM giving OD&D a try, for example, but using lessons learned from 5E is going to have a tough go of it (and so are the players).
 

The primary way in which system impacts play is the way rewards and incentives work. XP for winning fights is hugely different from XP for stealing treasure.
Sometimes players just decide to do what feels right in a given situation, but throughout the whole campaign, every decision is affected by what the system incentivizes with mechanical rewards.

I both totally agree with this, and also think you're describing a very D&D/OSR situation. I'd argue that once you set those aside, most systems aren't as explicit or granular about player rewards--you just play, and get XP along the way.

There are some exceptions, like the way progression works in a lot of PbtA (or adjacent) games, where you more you progress, the closer you might get to retiring the character. Or in something like Shadowrun for Cyberpunk money can be at least as important as XP. But overall I think what you're talking about, where PCs have a clear sense of carrots being dangled, and penalties for not chasing them, isn't universal.
 

Yora

Legend
I took XP as just one example. But I think pretty much any system has some kind of mechanic in which players get notification that they are getting a reward for having done certain things, and not getting any of that if they do other things.
 

I took XP as just one example. But I think pretty much any system has some kind of mechanic in which players get notification that they are getting a reward for having done certain things, and not getting any of that if they do other things.


Call of Cthulhu doesn't, 2d20 doesn't, GURPS doesn't, Traveller doesn't. I'm not doubting that some systems (other than D&D and OSR stuff) do, but what you're talking about doesn't seem like the default.
 


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