Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Does System Matter?: Play on Target Podcast Ep. 19

This week out of some masochistic drive Play on Target addresses the often-occurring rpg question: Does System Matter? I'm not sure we answer that- those we have some answers. We try to reshape the question a little bit to one perhaps more useful: what kind of impact does a system have? My gut instinct says that different systems shape results differently, but my GM sense says that I could run anything and make it entertaining. Hubris or Arrogance? I should note also that this is the first week we were down a host, with Andrew G. out sick for this recording. At least that's what he told us- perhaps he actually wanted to avoid this minefield...

Play on Target Episode Roundup

  1. If system doesn’t matter then how can we look into the eyes of those who fought in the edition wars?
  2. If we wanted to tumble down the rabbit hole we could expand the question: if system doesn’t matter then how do we define a role-playing game? Some people feel strongly about question of what constitutes an rpg or even a game. Some would leave Microscope, Fiasco, and Kingdom out of that definition. They're toys or 'entertainments.' Others have trouble with games which blur lines like Descent, Cadwallon, or Battletech. I avoid those discussions because I don’t think there’s anything to be gained from that debate. I’m willing to take a loose approach since I don’t think it harms anyone or reduces utility.
  3. Some games feel easier to grasp than others. When I read through a relatively lighter game I'm relatively confident I’ve got the essential elements of play. I can see how Fiasco, Fate Accelerated or even 13th Age work. A game like Hollowpoint offers depth within those light rules, but the core concepts and play come across easily- in part because of the excellence of presentation. But I have a hard time wrapping my head around other games. D&D 3.5, for example, throws me based on the volume and granularity of the rules. But even some light systems don’t click.  I have a hard time figuring out Cortex for some reason despite having read through Leverage, Serenity, Smallville, and Supernatural. I played in a demo of the Marvel game and enjoyed it. But I bought the book and for some reason I can’t resolve those two. I literally have no idea how to run it and I’m not sure if that’s a question of the system or some block on my part.
  4. I mention this in the podcast, but I often fear the version of a game I’ve constructed at the table isn’t really the game. Or at least it isn’t the game other people end up with. That’s part of the reason I’m nervous about running thicker established systems online or at conventions. I like demo games because they give me an excuse for streamlining. But years ago I had weird experience with GURPS and Rolemaster. In both cases I clearly hadn’t been playing the same system as they did. And it wasn’t just a question of houserules, but of basic interpretations of elements. Luckily that seemed to be a general issue- with some of the other players coming from a foreign nation of system. Interestingly, I’ve never had that problem with Champions.
  5. System doesn’t matter because people achieve vastly different outcomes based on the same systems. A few weeks ago I talked about several games I no longer played. I’d enjoyed them, but they weren’t what I wanted anymore. I made some global statements in those posts and in the podcast about those systems. In particular I said I thought Champions had slow combat Champions. At a guess I’ve probably played 200 hours and run 700 hours of Champions with many different groups and players (five dozen +). The across those we had common consensus about  the relative slowness of full Champions combat. But I had one commenter, smart and experienced, disagreed with that. he found equally absurd my suggestion that Rolemaster combat could be quick. Intelligent people with wide-ranging play experiences come to completely different assessments of a system.
  6. Some mechanical fundamentals create vastly different reactions based on assessment of probability and risk/reward. I suspect there’s a mental difference between a game in which you roll 1d6 to resolve an action and a game where you throw a fistful of d10’s- even though the end result may be quite close. There’s also a difference between a game where a single roll resolves everything (like to hit and effect combined into one) and another which has several staged steps (any of which you might crap out on). Then you have games with pure narration, alternate randomizers, or wagering involved. Those temporal (length of process), tactile, and assessment differences make for different games.
  7. But system doesn’t matter because if you have a shitty GM, you’ll still have a shitty game. There’s an argument for the reverse that the right GM and right group can have fun with any game. I guess the question becomes how much that system helps or hinders that process. So I'm kind of repeating my assessment in the introduction. I have a theory that different systems are like pets. I'm not a dog person. Dogs are dogs. But to dog people there's all kinds of different dogs, with distinct requirements, individual quirks, and important physical challenges. I don't know what that has to do with anything...I just like the analogy. Some games are written badly so you can't even really get to the system. 
  8. I have a group of players who have fairly strong reactions to game elements. They’ll try out new mechanics, but they’re pretty open and honest with what they don’t like. FATE Dice, Gumshoe standard actions, and tag-lines in Dying Earth all elicited negative responses from different players. That’s striking because they’re open to experimentation and don’t dismiss things out of hand.
  9. A fixation on system can get in the way of a game. I say this from experience. I’ve spent more wasted hours on this than any other gaming element. By wasted I mean material that didn’t make it to the table, had little impact in play, or ended up discarded quickly. Some of that came from a lack of vision and simply a drive to do something different. My experience with GURPS led me to create a weird BRP/GURPS hybrid I ran for a couple of years. It was incomplete, messy, and only survived because the players enjoyed the story. I lost hours on system building that could have been spent making other fun things. On the other hand we play a homebrew these days that comes out of that tinkering. One lesson I’ve learned is to focus on small changes. Not necessarily in the impact they have (like the changes to damage I made) but in terms of work required. If a new element needs more than a few pages to explain, then I’m probably doing too much work.
  10. “Does System Matter” Matter? I’m not sure. I’d say it does as long as it pops up as a boogeyman in questions about game recommendations. As Sam points out in the podcast, we see System Doesn’t Matter comments used to derail discussions or counter advocacy in threads. Ideally I’d like a world where we take as a baseline assumption that different games run by different groups may have different outcomes. With that as a given, we might more fruitfully talk about how a game handles things (points vs. levels, granularity, resolution simplicity) and what it encourages or discourages at the table.

If you like RPG Gaming podcasts, I hope you'll check it out. We take a focused approach- tackling a single topic each episode. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the podcast's page at


  1. Looking forward to listening. The point you touch on in #5 is related to one of my fascinations with gaming, the phenomenon of the piledriver--the unintentional house rule, if you will. A buddy and I just started up our own podcast and we discuss piledrivers in our latest episode:

    I totally get what you mean, though. The crunchier the system, the more pressure there is for me to run it "right." And it's my understanding that the fact that everyone played OD&D quite differently from each other was a big source (besides anti-Arneson legalities) of Gygax's motivation for writing AD&D.

  2. Lowell, I was wondering if I might send you or the Play on Target crew as a whole a direct email.

    Mine is barkingalienATGmailDOTCom.