Monday, November 18, 2019


TTRPG Twitter has "waves" of discussion based on the "idea of the week", so to speak.

The lastest is "Does system matter?"

The problem with Twitter, and I think many people kind of know it, is that to get attention you need to say things that are extreme and exaggerated.

So for example, someone will say "system doesn't matter at all", because they want to get people to stop treating system as if it mattered the most.

I think this is a challenging rhetorical strategy, because it leads to people pointing out that system matters in some ways, so this can't be true. And then lots of angry Tweets. Twitter is too rough a tool for a nuanced discussion, so I've decided to say something here.

Does System Matter?
System matters in a few ways:
1. Different systems produce different general outcomes (e.g. a 2d6 skill mechanic will produce different results than a "roll over ability score with d20" mechanic)
2. Different systems produce different experiences (e.g. a system with criticals and feats will involve the player in different ways)
3. Different systems codify different types of play (e.g. a game with extensive mechanics for social interaction will lead to more structured social interaction than one that has fewer rules)

These are pretty obvious. They have some nuances though.

For 1., this can be significant, for example, I use WvrsAC modifiers and weapon speeds with individual initiative in my game, combat progresses very differently in this sort of game than in one with group initiative and fewer modifiers.
Another example is stat creep, in games that use cumulative bonuses, the number you use and their frequency can make for the difference between a game where the players rarely succeed to one where they rarely fail.

For 2., system mechanics make a huge difference, one of the things that leads to player boredom in combat is that a paucity of mechanics for combat in some games means that your players, in a 6 person game, are each sitting through 5 other players doing their thing before they get to go again. 

That impacts the at the table played experience of the game.

For 3., "what to codify" is an important question, as codified actions will be played differently (with pauses to roll for results, and different strategies than uncodified play) at the table. For example, D&D has largely uncodified social interactions, play a game with codified social interactions and you will see how differently they feel.

However, system isn't all that matters, nor even the most important thing, for a few reasons.

A. You can swap *some* mechanics out and the game can feel similar - e.g. for those rolls the DM does in private, e.g. success of Hide in Shadows, if you substituted a 2d6 skill check mechanic for a %based roll your players wouldn't know
B. You can drop some mechanics entirely and the game can feel similar - e.g. you could just narrate whether or not player attacks hit without rolling, and the game can feel exactly the same.
C. You make up rulings on the spot for things that aren't covered by the rules, and these arbitrary, non-playtested and not thought through ideas often work perfectly well, so the mechanics aren't THAT important
D. In TTRPGs, due to their open ended nature, you spend a lot of time "playing" the game when there are no explicit rules governing what you do. For some commentators this means you "aren't really playing the game" as a result. I don't agree with this, I think TTRPGs are examples of games where a non-trivial amount of play is not covered in the rules. In 1e AD&D this is made explicit as a design feature, it is expected that the gaming process will exceed the rules.
E. People have been home brewing TTRPG since their beginning, and all of them have had at least some successful gaming, if "system mattered" so much then the systems wouldn't be so tolerant to tinkering.

To me, these features mean that system is important, but not the most important thing about the game.

And this doesn't mean that "system doesn't matter", or that "system matters the most", I think it suggests that "system matters more or less depending on the style of play you favor".

System and Game Design
Now some thoughts about how all this plugs into game design.

I have seen a lot of takes on this subject recently, the most coherent and interesting so far has been this:

yak-hak has blogged on the idea that we have replaced "the DM is god" with "the Dsigner is god", and as such we are forgetting that "the Table is god", as in, system doesn't matter so much, it's how the game gets played at the table by the unique combination of players and game referee that determines the play experience

The concern here seems to be that game designers don't take into account that the game will not play "as written", so they design it with the assumption that it will be played as written, or worse that it HAS to be played as written.

I can't speak for 5e, or for Vampire, but I can speak for AD&D, and the game designers of AD&D (and earlier editions) knew that the game wouldn't survive engagement with the players unscathed or as written, and they built this into their design of the game.

I would go so far to suggest that the OSR is an example of players focusing on just these table centric aspects of old school gaming.

In short, "table centric" design is not new. To address this I will go through the points yak-hak brings up that 'table centric" design uses and see how they map on to the early editions of the game. I will focus on 1e only because that is the edition I am most familiar with.

Leave Spaces
e.g. don't "overdefine" or "map it all out"

It is stated explicitly in 1e and advised often in the OSR that you start small (e.g. a village and the woods first, then create the world as the players explore) rather than creating everything at once.
It is also the case that 1e was explicitly designed with the "rulings over rules" philosophy, that was absorbed in the OSR as well. Gygax himself treated rules very loosely, and made up stuff on the spot when he liked. The main thrust to "standardize" the rules was imposed from the outside to make it possible to run convention games in a coherent and fair way. It was not an intended design feature.

Enabling Fiction
A RPG should "providing fictional material - game text, character/NPC creation procedures, cool and dynamic equipments or ways of navigating space, and tools for creating scenarios and adventures." All OSR early edition games I have played have these features.

Now, you might say that early edition D&D didn't "undermine cliche's", because it is now the cliche, it has been around for long enough that it's tropes are the cliche for everyone. But this is a narrow, unhistorical view. D&D was a pastiche from the beginning, so for example, there are some Tolkien elements in D&D, but the non-Tolkien elements FAR outweigh them.

D&D is a pulp fantasy mash-up, it encompassed a wide range of horror, Western, sci-fi and fantasy tropes and mashed them all together, much like comic books. So from the beginning D&D was challenging cliche's, players in the Blackmoor campaign were dealing with alien frogs, that is not a fantasy cliche.

Enable Homebrew Rulings
yak-hack recommends using intuitive descriptors and a way to develop expertise. That's fine, but there are other ways to do this that work as well. 1e for example encourages rules over rulings, so when you have a need to do something that isn't covered in the rules you are expected to make something up. 

It's actually quite odd to suggest that "enabling homebrew rulings" is somehow a new idea. EVERONE HOUSE RULES TTRPGs, they have to, as the game systems can't cover every possibility, so clearly they have been enabled by the design. If the design didn't enable it, you'd think that there would be more people who play with no house rules. 

If the idea is to provide a small set of generic mechanics and let the players decide how to apply them I can see that working, for example, Stars Without Numbers does this with their 2d6 mechanic, d20 to hit rolls and starship combat rules, they define a few mechanics for you then explicitly say that you can model new ones on the existing mechanic.

Giving lists of existing skills doesn't have to lead to us, "... presenting the world as a set of mechanical tasks" instead of as a "real, dynamic place", it can prime the players for ideas, and creates some structure for those players who aren't interested in that kind of freedom. There are multiple kinds of players in TTRPGs, a design philosophy that gives some mechanical rules and encourages improvisation and kit-bashing, is just as functional and open to creative play as one that leaves most of this to the players. 

Note I'm not suggesting that a game that handled this spontanously and cooperatively is a bad idea, it could work and work well, I'm objecting to the idea that existing games didn't address these concerns in different ways.

The example given here, using a specific mechanic in different ways, is another feature of 1e and OSR games that already exists, in the list given 1,2 and 4 are explicit in 1e, 3 may be as well but I can't remember. There is also the example of the "to hit" tables and THACO, using thieving percentages for alternate applications (not recommened in the rules, but recommended in the OSR and explicit in retroclones) and used in various in game mechanics like hitting AC 8 to disarm or sufficiently high natural to hit rolls producing stunning effects for monks

Be the Spice
If 1e is anything, it's descriptively rich and flavourful. I think OSR games have tons of spice in their aesthetics and framing.

Be the Border
I agree with all of this, you spend a lot of time playing RPGs in the "spaces in between" the game mechanics. Every OSR game I have played or heard of is like this, every game I've played is like this too, so clearly this is not a new feature of game design, it is an explicit part of old edition game design. The books state this explicitly, that you will find the rules don't cover everything, nor are they intended to. 

Creating Tools
"Create a diverse set of tools or templates that help the table make sense of and resolve things" - this again is exactly what 1e does, it provides a wide variety of tools for play and players use SOME of them. Many rules in older edition games are presented as optional for this reason. Optional psionics rules, optional unarmed combat rules, optional rules for artifacts and relics, optional rules for HP damage reporting, etc.

Whence the OSR?
So why do we need a new term and new focus for game design? All I can figure is that 5e is different than old-school editions, or that there is a vocal minority of current game designers suggesting that we can ignore how the table operates and design our games with the expectation of rigid adherence to the rules. If so, that's too bad.

I'm all for these design principles, I think they are mature and smart and address the weird interstitial space that emerges in TTRPGs at the table. There really is something interesting and unique to emergent TTRPG play, and these principles are a big part of that. 

I'm happy to call this set of ideas "table centric" game design, and I would argue that it was a feature of early edition games as well, and is part of the basic principles of the OSR.

Actually, I would go further and suggest that it's fundamental to the OSR, and that should be pretty obvious. Old edition D&D is one of the most hackable, kit-bashable games in existence. The existence of over 100 retroclones of D&D suggests that old school games were DESIGNED to be hacked and changed based on each group that played them. 

I would also add that many groups use a rough consensus process to enable new rules in the game beyond what is written in the books. In my game any new rule is used for a while and if the players don't like it we ditch it. I may be the one to most often propose new rules, but they are evaluated by all of us. I'm fairly sure that we are not the only gaming group that works this way.

I think this design adaptability has been proven over the years by the extensiveness of house ruling, something that EGG talks about in the 1e DMG written in the 1970's, Gygax knew that the rules barely contained play, that's why he spends so much time talking about how the players will test the rules in your game. 

You may not approve of his advice, which was to play the game in an adversarial way and challenge the players, not their characters, but he was clearly aware that the game was not going to be played exactly as written, and he encouraged creative responses to this fact. Beyond the rule books this can be seen in the modules he wrote, he repeatedly says that DM's are to tailor the modules to their campaign settings, and uses an economy of presentation, early modules were very short, that suggests a lot of DM input into the game. 

In short, system has always mattered, but it has never been the most important thing, and if you are keen on "table centric" design, you should check out the OSR.

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