The first article in this blog was going to be called “How to Talk About Game Design,” and lacked a subtitle. As it turned out, this was pure hubris. I had thought it might be an effective strategy to lay out my core assumptions about the process in a quick, pithy article, and get on to more specialized topics. Getting into the writing process, I quickly realized my error—this is a topic with too many specialized elements, tie-ins, tangents, and other complications to do any sort of justice with that approach.
As such, I’ve revised my planned article into an idea for a recurring series. Each sub-topic gets its own article, and when the most important topics have been dealt with to my satisfaction, I’ll settle back for an occasional installment in the midst of the other stuff. For your first taste of what this approach will be like, my inaugural post will contain not one, but two articles—this little introduction, and the first article in my core series. With further ado, I give you…
How to Talk About Game Design: The System and the Game
There is an assumption I often find cropping up in disagreements about any number of RPG systems that can be the source of very serious misunderstandings. This assumption regards some root-level thought processes about how such games work, and can lead to some dangerous assertions and conclusions. While the exact source of the misunderstandings often varies, the basic problem can often be summed up as follows: “People who play by the same system are playing the same game.” In my experience, this is a tremendous oversimplification of matters that overlooks a very key element of any game—namely, the players!
At every table (or virtual environment, or park bench, or dorm room desk—there are a lot of places where you can game!), you can find a unique assortment of variables in how a system is going to play out in the real-life environment of a gaming session. Some of these are going to be obvious, and entirely separate from the system. If your table seats that one guy who has a Monty Python quote for every occasion, that does not mean you are likely to assume much of anything about the games you played with him—that is a distinct issue from the gameplay. But if your GM is fond of certain genre tropes that a system isn’t built to support, it can be easy to view a system as weak or “unfun” because the person managing it insists on fitting square pegs into round holes. The same sort of thing can occur if core elements of the gameplay are not being used to their fullest extent1.
As much of a pain as this can be (“Hey! System X sucks because no one ever has fun!”), this is not the only problem of its sort. A lot of times, people will disagree about how a system works or ought to work simply because of their own gaming style. To draw on personal experience, I have a friend who loves the Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 edition. This isn’t unusual, as there are an enormous amount of gamers who feel or have felt this way. It remains something of a common language for gamers in general, and was only more so at the time of our discsussion. But he seemed to think that the system had no real flaws that could impact play2. (And to get something out of the way before I go further, I don’t believe such a system exists. Perfection is a goal to strive towards, not one I’ve ever seen reached. This doesn’t mean there aren’t some damn fine systems out there, of course!)
We spent a long time arguing over his belief, to the point where the recurring debate lasted for over a year. I can’t put any more precise a length of time to it, but the scope was considerable. After a while, I eventually realized that he wasn’t arguing that there were no flaws in the game, but rather that he thought the flaws didn’t matter, because he regularly played it with people who fudged a lot of system elements. Because we were each arguing from unquestioned assumptions, we ended up talking past each other for months and months. In a way, we weren’t even talking about the same game, even though we were both talking about games that used the same rulebooks and system. The essence of our disagreement was in the application.
Now, it’s all well and good to present this sort of headscratcher, but pointing out a problem does very little good if you can’t suggest a solution. So, here is my little nugget of wisdom for this situation, presented in handy proverb format: “The system is not the game. System issues arise from design, while game issues arise from play.” (I was originally going to summarize as “Different strokes for different folks”, but it lacked the gaming focus I was looking for).
In essence, the designer of a game can produce a system with a certain focus and level of quality, and can err or excel in any number of different ways, but the true end result of any gaming experiences is ultimately founded in the people having it. I’ve had some of the best experiences of my gaming career with systems I’m not fond of, and been in games I was eager to see end using systems I love. So, like so much else in life, having fun comes down to finding the right people, and communicating successfully requires a well-defined common ground.
1: Some examples of gameplay being underutilized include a weak FATE point economy in games of that system (such as the Dresden Files RPG), or limited use of similar metagame currencies, such as Hero Points in Mutants and Masterminds. Another possible sort of problem might result from being stingy with funds or equipment in games that depend on it for character competency, such as Shadowrun or D&D.
2: The core of our argument revolved around D&D’s assumption of a magic item economy, where you are expected to regularly trade in all your equipment for better versions, and spend what amounts to roughly a small nation’s treasury every few levels as you do so. As it turned out, he rarely used the “wealth by level” guidelines in any way, despite their close integration with the assumptions of the Challenge Rating system which he did use. I felt that it was a troublesome game to GM properly because I didn’t enjoy the minutiae of level-appropriate treasure, and he had no problem GMing it because he never bothered with such things.