How does system matter? (part 1: designer intent, and mechanical procedures)

There seems to be a mini-rash of “system matters” discussion happening at the moment. I’ve often found these discussions get lost in differing definitions – you can’t agree whether system matters if you don’t agree what system is. More importantly, different aspects of system matter in entirely different ways. So rather than debate whether it matters, I’m going to break down different aspects of “system” and consider what’s important about them. This will be a multi-part series.

Here’s a list of things I’m planning to talk about in this context. Possibly more will come up later.

  • Designer intent
  • Formal written procedures of play (“the rules”)
  • House rules, mods and hacks
  • Written principles and implicit directions
  • Unspoken rules at the table
  • Play culture

Let’s start with designer intent. You might think this is not part of system (and I pretty much agree) but it obviously shapes many of the other items on the list above, specifically the formal procedures, written principles and implicit directions.

A designer can have a greater or lesser focus on specific themes, a specific type of experience they want you to have, or particular styles of play that they favour. The important thing to say here is that designer intent only matters to the extent it’s communicated to actual or potential players. This can be done through the rules, through the background material, through guidance, through the game art, even through marketing or interventions on social media.

But let’s face it: in most cases, people will only have take in what’s in the game book. Anything else, no matter how important, is likely going to be missed by most of your target audience.

Regardless of how it’s communicated, it doesn’t matter what you meant when you designed your game, only what the players understand. This isn’t a philosophical point about the nature of meaning, but a practical point about the nature of game design. Of course different audiences will take different meanings from what you say, and with the variety of game culture that’s out there it is very likely that someone, somewhere is going to misunderstand what you intended.

In fact it’s even worse than that, because (in my experience) many people don’t properly read the rules at all. They skim, they grab the printouts and run, they make assumptions or ignore rules they don’t understand. This is one of the things that makes playtesting important, because you don’t know how people outside your circles will read (or not) your words.

Game design is communication. Communication is messy and imperfect. No amount of playtesting can eliminate misunderstandings. You aren’t designing a car, where the systems interlock and perform in exactly the way you imagined; you’re designing practices for humans, and humans never perform the same way twice.

Anyway, that’s a long and rambly way of saying that design intent is hella important, but ultimately once you put the game out there in the world, no longer matters.

So what does matter? Well, let’s get our teeth into what most people probably think of when they hear the word “system”: the rules.

Here I like to talk about procedures. A procedure is a structured way of doing something. It takes an input, and turns it into an output, according to a fixed, mechanistic formula. Or in the case of roleplaying, it more typically takes many and complex fictional inputs, turns them into fewer and simpler mechanical components, futzes around with them (in a structured, mechanical way) to generate mechanical outputs, which in turn are translated back into fictional outputs.

Still: the distinction I’m making when I talk about procedures is that they’re mechanical. No matter how complex your rules, the procedural parts of them can be boiled down into simple if-then statements. That’s not all there is to rules – we’ll get to principles and directions, later on – but it’s an important aspect of “rules” that dominates many people’s thinking, perhaps because everyone is familiar with rules from other contexts like board games and wargames.

But it is worth pausing to note that in a roleplaying game, you cannot activate a mechanical procedure without first making a fictional interpretation. Even something simple like an attack roll requires you first to recognise that someone has attacked someone else in the game’s fiction. You have to interpret the fiction to do that. “I hit him with my sword”, cool, make an attack roll. “Did I mention my sword is made out of marshmallow”, oh, uh… I guess not then. So, as I’ll discuss in a moment, clearly rules are important, they matter, but they only function as filtered through the human and fictional medium: your brain and the brains of the other people at the table and the stuff they’re trying to imagine together. (Maybe we’ll get back to that later.)

The key thing about procedures is that they are fixed. Once you’ve decided that it’s time to make an attack roll, you must roll a d20, and if it equals or exceeds the target’s AC, you must roll damage and subtract it from the target’s hit points. If the target’s hit points reach zero, they die.

Seems pretty hard-edged, and with examples like that we can all clearly see that the rules are going to matter. If the rules say that short swords do d6 damage, and a normal human has d8 hit points, we can see that humans will typically last a lot longer than if short swords do 2d6 damage and a normal human has d4 hit points, or if we skip damage rolls altogether and just say that a successful hit roll kills the target.

All this is deciding is how quickly we go from “roll initiative” to “everyone is dead”, but it will make a huge impact on the play experience. Would you want to start a fight if one successful hit roll will kill you? That will feel a lot differently than if you and your buddies each get 50 HP while your opponents get about 10. And that’s without even getting into whether the game includes rules for fighting in the first place.

So one way in which the rules matter is that they compel you to change the fiction, and they compel you to do it in particular ways. If your game rules say that one successful hit roll = death, you’re compelled to play a game where fighting is really dangerous, and so we either won’t have very much of it, or we’ll have a lot of people dying. If your game rules say that player characters have tons of hit points but NPCs don’t, we’re compelled to play a game where fighting is pretty safe for PCs, which is very different.

Compelled? Well, yes. If you use the rules as written. We’ll be coming back to house rules, play culture and all sorts of ways in which you can ignore the rules. But enough to say here: obviously if you ignore the rules then they don’t matter. Rules only compel you if you let them. Still, something isn’t really a rule at all if you don’t obey it, right? As long as you’re following the procedures to the letter, they really fucking matter.

One other way in which the procedures of play matter is that they generally cover only specific types of thing, not everything you could possibly do. D&D Basic*, the ancient and revered forefather of the biggest fish in the roleplaying sea, didn’t have any skill system. If you wanted to, I dunno, deceive a guard, there weren’t any rules for that. You could houserule it, you could make something up on the fly (and we’ll get to the ways in which a game can actively encourage you to do that, or not). But it wasn’t in the book, and that meant that deception was only a part of play if the group decided to make it part of play. Unlike stabbing things with swords, which was explicitly and formally coded into the game.

Now obviously many people put deception into their D&D Basic game. This may have been an inevitable consequence of the narrowness of the rules in that game, the massive gaps it left, and the incentives of play: obviously someone was going to want to lie to a guard at some point. Obviously someone would need to come up with a way to do that. And so a thousand house rules were spawned, and eventually D&D 5e. But meanwhile, there wasn’t any fixed way to handle deception, and very probably many games didn’t have it in at all. And practically nobody ran D&D without fighting in it. Because, amongst other reasons, that’s what the rules were focused on: fighting, not lying.

So that’s two ways in which the procedures of play matter: they fix certain ways of doing things by making them mechanical; and they channel you towards doing certain things rather than other things. Those are pretty big impacts!

Next up, we’ll think about some things that modify the procedures of play, and some things that aren’t procedures (as I’ve defined them) at all. The next article in this series is here.

This article is supported through the Black Armada Patreon

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*Ok, it wasn’t called D&D Basic** back then, and many people don’t call it that now. Probably it wasn’t even the first, because once it was chainmail or whatever. The point stands.
** I’m told I should head of pedants by saying I’m referring to the original edition of the game, circa 1974. Honestly, I’m not even sure. If that version didn’t have skills mechanics, great, it’s an example of what I’m talking about.

A couple of blog bits

Hey everyone

We’re cruising towards a new Kickstarter campaign, for Last Fleet, in January. That means I’ve been very busy finalising the game text, working with artists to get some samples ready, sorting out media, and all the other nonsense you have to do to prepare for a campaign.

Despite this, I seem to have somehow found a bit of spare time for other design stuff and blogging. I’ve been in the #threeforged game jam[*], which has produced some pretty weird and interesting games. I’ll no doubt share them here once I’ve had the chance to look at all the versions properly.

Anyway! I wanted to share a couple of things that have gone up recently on the Black Armada blog.

The first is a copy of the Mental Health and Lovecraft essay that is found in Lovecraftesque. If you haven’t read it, I do recommend it: we bust some myths about Lovecraft, analyse how “madness” comes into the genre, and provide tips for keeping your cosmic horror games away from stereotypes around “insanity”.

https://blackarmada.com/mental-health-and-lovecraft/

The second is some thoughts about the so-called “system matters” debate. I think most people are pretty tired of this issue and it seems to go around in circles. I’ve tried to make it a bit more practical and hopefully more insightful by analysing what we mean by system, and how different aspects of system matter. It’s the first part of what will be a series getting into this in more depth.

https://blackarmada.com/how-does-system-matter/

Hope you all have a wonderful festive season, and I look forward to sharing more games and articles with you in 2020.

Cheers

Josh

[*] For those not familiar, threeforged sees designers produce a very short game, pass it on blind to another designer, who then develops it into a slightly longer game, and then passed on blind again to a third designer who finishes it off. Thus there are three versions of each game, which might be radically different from each other.

Join the UK Indie RPG League!

Are you interested in selling games at UK conventions, but want to avoid the cost and loneliness of doing it by yourself? Then you’re going to be interested in this.

The UK Indie League is recruiting. We’re a group of friends who go to conventions together to sell our tabletop roleplaying games. We share convention costs, and we staff the stall together, so we have friendly company and can take breaks without abandoning the stall. It’s a chance to meet fans of our games and sell stuff to people who might otherwise not see it. Plus you get free entry to the conventions, which is nice.

We’re looking for new members. You’d join us at conventions, bring your stuff, and help us to sell our stuff and yours. You keep your share of the profits, and you pay a fair share of the stall costs based on how much space your products take up and how much you sell. You’d also need to cover your own transport and accommodation costs. It’s on a trial basis initially, because we need to know we like each other before we commit to something more long-term.

The next convention we’ve got coming up is UK Games Expo. It runs from Friday 29 to Sunday 31 May 2020 at the Birmingham NEC. If you’re not interested in UKGE, it’s still worth getting in touch, and we’ll consider you for future events, but right now we’re prioritising getting people who can help with that.

If that sounds good, we’d love to hear from you. We have to limit numbers to keep things manageable, so we can’t guarantee we’ll say yes, but we’ll look seriously at every application. Please fill in this Google Form to register your interest. We’re happy to talk about what’s involved in more detail, just drop us a line at indieleague(at)vapourspace[dot]net.

New games: Sleigh w/Me and HEXED

[Sleigh w/Me was the patreon game for December 2019. It will soon be made available on our itch store.

HEXED was a freebie for patrons and is already available on itch.]

Hey everyone!

It has been a super-busy month with Last Fleet playtesting, creating the basic design framework for my dark fantasy investigation game, Bite Marks fulfilment, a bunch of design work on smaller projects for both this patreon and itch game jams, and of course Dragonmeet.

Because of this feverish activity I have TWO games to share with you this month.

The first is Sleight w/Me, a light-hearted and quick-paced game about getting stuck on Santa’s sleigh and trying to land it. You can be kids (or elves!) trying to save Christmas, or thieves trying to steal Christmas. I playtested it with my children, who absolutely loved it, and I think it would be a lot of fun for adults too if in the mood for some silliness.

The second is a game I wrote for #DuetJam with J.K. Wish of Stone River Games. It’s a much darker affair, a game of generational horror about cursed families in a small town. Your young characters try to end the curse while their elders interfere and the curse itself grows in power. I’m sharing it with you with permission from my co-designer. The game is really excellent, in my opinion, though it has not yet been playtested.

Hope you enjoy these games, and have a wonderful festive season!

Cheers

Josh