How does system matter?

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.

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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.

Author: Josh Fox

Rabalias grew up wanting to be a pirate. But a band of evil bureaucrats kidnapped him and forced him to work for The Man. Even so, Rabalias was patient and cunning. He escaped by gnawing his way through the walls of his prison and concealing the hole behind a picture of cthulhu. He fled to the coast, and stowed away on the Black Armada, where he worked his way up to the rank of Admiral.

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