Does System Matter?

SupernovaDragonheadFossils in the Asphalt, Vol. 2
I once got myself in trouble for scoffing someones homebrew. Here it is, if I am remembering it right, it's kind of hard to get wrong: when you face a challenge flip a 1d4. 4 = succeed. 3 = maybe. 2 = try again. 1 = fail.
Yup. That's it. That is all you need to play an RPG. I thought for sure he was joking but he was serious. He was adamant. "But it's a d4," I wrote, "couldn't you at least use a die that's easier to pick up?" I don't recall what his reply was or if there even was one, but I'm betting it wasn't pleasant.
The thing is, he's not wrong.
A few years back I played an online game of Bunnies & Burrows. In preparation for it I bought a pdf of the rules from 1976 and read them over. It's only 36 pages. How hard could it be? B&B turned out to be 36 pages of rules written thicker than fudge in a wargamey style. Things like....
And that's not cherry-picked. That is me picking something at random out of the book. After 36 pages of that, most going in one big bunny ear and out the other, I dreaded going to the game and was absolutely thrilled when we ended up playing a 'variant' where we basically chucked out the rules and just rolled the percentile dice when it felt like we should. There were no stats to beat, no tables to cross-reference, nothing to look up. Roll high and you fail. Roll low and you succeed. Roll somewhere in the middle and we'll think about it. We had character sheets, but mostly our bunnies were just a name. When they died we tossed them aside and got a new one. It turned out to be one of the most entertaining games I have ever played.

(OMG, it's still online. It's only three hours long. I'll wait while you watch. Just kidding.)
Disconcerting stuff for someone whose hobby is designing game systems. And if you're thinking, "come-on, you've created one half-baked D&D knock off!" Realize that I've been doing this since 1991. Dragonhead is just the tip of a very large iceberg which you should be happy you are not steering your boat around.
Still. Why design systems if you know that ultimately they just get in the way? That they cause more problems than they solve? We have no idea how many potential players we have lost over the years to performance anxiety, that dread I felt going to play a complex game I had no idea how to play, so why bother writing books of rules when all you really need is the dice-based equivalent of a Magic 8-Ball?
(No Magic 8-Ball, we settle this now!)
Systems don't matter until they do. With our Bunnies & Burrows game we were putting a lot of trust in the hands of our GM. We were voluntarily giving up any leverage we had. RPGs are supposed to be cooperative games, but when you really want the game to go one way and someone else wants it to go a different way and you are both adamant about it, how can you not end up fighting over the matter? People will say - it's only a game - you shouldn't take it so seriously. Sure and yet Dispute = Disagreement x Interest. It is almost a mathematical certainty. If everyone is interested in the game then disputes will happen. I'd almost go so far as to say that they should happen. When they don't, that's a sign your players don't care enough about what is going on and it's not a good one. The question is: how do we keep this from blowing up in our faces?
Sitting there and squabbling with each other over what should happen puts unwanted stress on the friendships of the people at the table. If we play by an accepted set of rules? Maybe we will concede to what the rules say. Or maybe we won't. That all depends on the quality of the system. Providing you have one.
I think there is a Twilight Zone episode where a gambler dies and believes he's gone to heaven because suddenly he cannot lose any game he plays, but then he realizes he is actually in hell for the exact same reason (it's episode 28, "A Nice Place to Visit"). He drowns in the luxuries of his winnings but none of it matters because he knows that all the games are rigged. By being unable to lose he can never truly win.
The same thing happens in a Monty Haul where every monster is a push-over and the GM showers the players with treasure. It's not just that the GM is pandering to the players by being ridiculously generous. Games where all the monsters are indestructible and the treasure amounts to a few measly copper pieces can be just as disappointing. The problem is that the GM is not being very realistic and sometimes all you want to know is what would actually happen if it all could actually happen.
sometimes all you want to know is what would actually happen if it all could actually happen.
Rules reflect reality, not necessarily our reality but the reality in which our characters exist. When they've been written by someone who is divorced from the happenings at the game table they tend to feel even more real, more like life. When things do not go your character's way? Well. That's life.
In his book XDM, Tracy Hickman gives us what is known as Hickman's Law of Game Design: "the more realistic you try to make your game the more unwieldy and unplayable it becomes." That is true. Try to replicate the whole of real experience and it will drive you insane. But in gaming we're not looking for real reality, just the right reality, the refined reality.
But in gaming we're not looking for real reality, just the right reality, the refined reality.
We're looking for a game to create an experience which is in tune with the fantasy that inspired it as well as the imagination that enjoys it.
If you've ever read Watership Down or seen the movie (and if you haven't, go watch it right now) then you know that Fiver's prophetic trances are a big deal, so if you really want the game to have the epic feel of Watership Down then trance states are something that needs to be there and as game designer there isn't much more you can do to get the hint across than write it into the rules. On the flipside, if your adventure is more along the lines of Beatrix Potter then it doesn't belong, neither does combat or most of what is in Bunnies & Burrows. It is the wrong game to play for that kind of fantasy. A game's rules define the reality and the reality controls the play, ergo rules facilitate play. If you write a rule for something people are going to expect it to be a part of the experience. The size of the rules matters too. You can't say a game isn't about combat and then devote half of the book to combat rules.
(Pictured here is the fastening of a jacket,
not a choke hold.)
The beauty of the RPG is that it gives us games that can go anywhere and do anything, but sometimes you can have a little too much freedom. Aimless games without focus, ones where you can truly go anywhere and do anything and nothing seems any more important than anything else, often have a way of cycling back to the same old things that we always do and that gets dull after a while.
Ultimately, game systems are a bit like vehicles. Each one has its perks and problems. Some are easy to drive, others are going to take time to get used to. I've picked on Bunnies & Burrows a lot, but it's good to remember that it was written in 1976, an age when all games were competitive and people expected them to be written in a certain way that was indisputable, easily indexed and able to be referenced by number. Something that seems as odd to us these days as the idea of starting your car by spinning a hand crank on the front of the engine.
One thing all game systems have in common is that when they are at their best you barely notice they're there.
One thing all game systems have in common is that when they are at their best you barely notice they're there.
The game effortlessly takes you where you want to go and that is the important part of the journey. Maybe this is why so many people like to sound off about systems not mattering. Deep down, we don't want them to matter. We don't want to have to learn something new. We just want to twinkle our noses like Samantha in Bewitched and have the magic whisk us away to the source of our dreams. But that doesn't happen in real life. Even when all you are doing is flipping a d4 - the game equivalent of traveling by pogo stick imho - that is a system.
It wouldn't be there if it didn't matter.

BTW: I have no idea who did the amazing cover art for this piece. It looks like it was made back in 2003. If you know then please let me know!
#d&d #rpg #ttrpg
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