Your System Isn't the Game, It's Just Another Player


Same old same old; still having a horribly difficult time getting through life, (physical illness, mental illness, just have to snag the elusive spiritual illness and I'll have a full set) but I figured I might as well put stuff on the blog again. For a while, the stress of feeling like I needed to produce complete content lead me to decide the blog was more trouble than it was worth and so I started putting more stuff on twitter, but in the end all that taught me was that twitter is terrible and I should just let myself post less complete polished stuff on here. So here we go; a rather short and scrappy thing that I've been thinking about with regards to system:

Your System Isn't the Game

Now this isn't anything original; in fact, one of the reasons I still consider myself OSR adjacent at all is that the OSR scene has this idea as one of its central underpinnings, so I won't waste too much time talking about it here. Essentially though, the concept boils down to the understanding that the game is what occurs at the table or wherever, between your friends, as you actually play it, rather than being the thing that lives in the book, which is the system. In my head I liken it to fire; the game, like fire, is a process, which uses the system as fuel to perpetuate itself.  

This idea runs counter to another pretty popular one: "System Matters." I really don't care about the discourse surrounding this phrase (there's a reason I decided to start posting here again instead of twitter), but because of the topic it seems inevitable that it will be brought up. The idea of "System Matters" in its purest form is essentially the opposite of what I'm arguing; it's the claim that the system determines the experience at the table, and that because of this, the choice of system is the most important decision one can make about running or playing a ttrpg. In less strict forms, it serves merely as a reminder that whatever system you choose will inform the sort of game that you play. There's a few things that bug me about "System Matters," and more than a few things that bug me about its hardcore adherents, but for the purposes of this little treatise or whatever the fuck this is, let me just say that I also accept a lot of the basic ideas that this rather loaded phrase brings to the table. 

Your system will influence your game. There's no question; it will influence it in one way or another, whether that way is meaningful or not. However, it's still not the game;  no game is 100% true to its system. Changes are made to the rules on the fly, as people forget stuff and decide it's too much of a pain to look it up, or someone misunderstands a rule, or the GM adjusts something that doesn't sit right, or makes a ruling to cover a gap in the rules, or tweaks something to better fit in line with the narrative: no matter why you play ttrpgs, no matter what you enjoy about them and no matter how wrong I think you are or you think I am, it's impossible that your system will determine every outcome and eventuality in your game. You and your friends are the ultimate source of the "game" process; without you, the system is inert and lifeless. 

Now, some designers understand this, others, not so much; the fact that "rulings over rules" is the OSR mantra speaks to why I tend to prefer the designers (well, some of the designers) working in this space. 

So far, so obvious. The stuff above, as I said, is nothing revolutionary; a lot of people already know this, whether intuitively or intellectually, and pretty much everyone I play games with on a regular basis is on this same page. There's endless blog posts and reddit posts and twitter threads dealing with that subject. What I think there's less of though, is advice about what to do with this information, how to adjust your thinking in some tangible way that lets you make full use of this understanding that you have. Because I don't know how it works for you, but for me, it matters 0% if I know something if I can't find a way to fold that information into some shape that I feel comfortable handling. Here's what I've come up with: 

Your System is Another Player

Imagine your system is another player. Not like, literally, unless you desperately need to anthropomorphize Troika as a sick airbrushed van wizard (and like, who doesn't need that). But by this I mean, get used to thinking about your system like another player: an active participant in the game for sure, but one who, ultimately, doesn't get to run things on their own. Your system should offer input, a few good ideas, maybe some surprises, and then shut up and pass the spotlight to another player. 

You don't let one player hog all the attention, you don't let one player dictate how everything in the game goes. If players do that, you call them out, talk to them, and if they don't stop, you don't play with them any more. If you don't take that shit from your players, why take it from your system? 

"But Jones, the system determines what the game is about! The genre! The themes! We gotta listen to it!" 

To an extent, sure. But take a moment and think about how nobody, and I mean nobody, has ever run a 100% true to genre game. Like I run modern horror games, and I think I run pretty good ones. I also run melancholic fantasy games, and psychedelic sci fi games, and in each of those games, things deviate! Players don't wanna do the same thing all the time, I don't wanna do the same thing all the time, people crack jokes, make references, etc. None of that is bad; it doesn't ruin your horror game if people laugh, and the sooner you realize that, the more fun you're going to have. The main reason this isn't a bad thing is because not everyone wants the same thing and they don't all want it at the same time.

Some players love being able to indulge in goofy, gory, cinematic violence, others want to work through some shit from their home lives, others want to find a dog and name it something funny, and all of those things should be possible in any game you run because just like the person who wants to find a dog should know to shut up about finding a dog while everyone else is having fun indulging in B movie violence, the system shouldn't be allowed to dominate the discussion of what the game is about either. 

Now, any system can be treated this way, more or less, but I think a good question to ask yourself when picking up a new system or, hopefully, designing your own, is this: "is this system going to be an obstinate blowhard attention hog who has to be wrangled and talked down by the rest of the table and, if yes, why???” 

To be clear, sometimes there are good reasons why. Sometimes a system just does one or two things perfectly, and if everyone wants to do those things, you'll have a great time. Personally, I find those games are best suited for one shots or 3-4 session micro-campaigns, but your mileage, as always, may vary. 

There's a bunch of different ways to approach this same concept; for example, just focusing on economy of design in your systems will land you in a similar boat, but for some reason the idea of the system being a player - not the most important player, but a player nonetheless - has stuck with me and helped me approach my own design and game-mastering.

 Because if I come up with, say, a neat panic mechanic for a horror system, I can imagine that as a good suggestion from a helpful player about how to handle a specific circumstance. But then, if reading through what I've written I realize that like... the system has already suggested like 4 other things about similar circumstances, it might be time for the system to shut up and trust that the rest of the players get the idea, and they can work it out from there. 

This has another benefit, which is just as a good idea from a player will inspire other good ideas from other players (GM included), a good idea from your system is going to inspire your players as well. A really well constructed mechanic can get everyone on the same page, excited about what's happening, and eager to offer their own two cents, and that's the game process at work. 

Comments

  1. I like your formulation of this! It reminds me of something I was wondering about a while back: https://sheepandsorcery.blogspot.com/2020/10/play-theory-does-system-matter.html

    The position of System/Rule Set as a player at the table, perhaps akin to the special role of the Game Master, would definitely change our stance towards the game in a nice way. We are courteous towards the system, but the system needs to share the stage and yield to the GM's rulings like the other players.

    It might be a good way of describing how much the system matters. Although, if you ask me, the system as battle-map or any other optional tool during play is a more apt metaphor. You don't necessarily need a battle-map or miniatures or a GM screen but sometimes those things might come in handy and the GM might need to engage with these things or might use them to enhance the player's experience. But the moment it becomes a hassle (battle gets too dynamic for a map, they enter a tavern or other rp heavy area where there is no need to precisely track movement and position) we put the battle-map away and shove the minis to the side.

    Very good and thought provoking post!

    I also pray that you will be healed of what is afflicting you and that the waters of life will calm for you.

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  2. Too bad that "System" in "System matters", specifically in the essay that originated that phrase, actually refers to the game procedures at the table (what you are calling "game" here), and not to the game text (whether this is commonly understood by your average twitter user is another problem entirely).

    This is the same problem as in the Sheep & Sorcery article linked by Micheal.

    So, yeah, the rest of your article makes somewhat sense, but I really don't understand the reasoning behind wanting to disprove the "system matters" philosophy. And I'm a bit worried about the constant dilution of this phrase that I see around the internet, which in my opinion is one of the most important concepts in the hobby.

    Most of what you're saying seems like validation that system (as in, the actual procedures used at the table between people) matters, not a rebuttal.

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    1. If one person redefines (mis-define?) the terms used in their argument and then other readers get it "wrong" 999 times, those 999 people aren't wrong. It's the 1. Language is, for better or worse, democratic. If you asked people to pick a word for "all the game procedures at the table, including the ruleset, traditions, habits and general agreements" I don't think "system" is the one they would choose. System implies consistency and pre-thought organisation. "What system are you running?" and "what ruleset are you running?" are equivalent. "What system are you running?" and "how do you run your games?" aren't.

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    2. But then whats a good word to represent the idea of all the social stuff, play procedures, techniques, etc. *in addition* to the rules text and it's interpretation?

      Sure it's not the best word, but it's the one that was selected for the essay, and its pretty clearly defined there.

      So while it can be frustration because it does require highly specific jargon and a lot of context, you can't really refute a a statement by disagreeing with the definition of a word used and then ignoring the intent behind it.

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    3. The word 'system' is fine, and it's clearly defined in the essay in question, so anyone who doesn't understand what's being discussed is reading in bad faith. No different than denying a suspect's invocation of counsel because they said 'lawyer dog'.

      If a _speaker_ cannot determine what their words mean then communication becomes impossible. Relying on common understanding is a useful convenience, but often too ambiguous for nuanced discussions. That's why we have 'jargon'. That's why legal documents define the words used within. That's why common interpretations are recorded in dictionaries. That's why so many RPG rulebooks 'redefine' commonly used terms in the hobby.

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    4. I agree with all the others. This post goes out of it's way to be clear about it's meaning and also that they are not trying to adhere specifically to the obnoxious and pedantic "discourse".

      "Unknown", either you genuinely lack basic reasoning skills in which case you're out of your element, or you're arguing in bad faith.

      Either way, and especially when the post goes out of its way to discuss wanting to move away from that kind of crap and dealing with anxiety about blogging, how about go fuck off? You're bad, and you should feel bad.

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    5. Hey Spwack, sorry if my first post sounded pedantic. I'm also not sure why blogspot keeps showing me as "Unknown" when using my google account.

      I wasn't arguing that the terms were mis-defined. I'm perfectly happy with the article's definition of "system" in this context, it's clear enough. I also don't have any particular attachment to early-Forge jargon, and would agree it's rather unintuitive.

      However, when criticizing the "system matters" concept, one should be aware that "system" in this context refers to "the means by which the group agrees to imagined events during play", i.e. the actual procedures of play at the table, and not to the game text.

      Which looks to me as to what Jones is referring to with "game" in this article. It looks to me as what he's saying is actually rather compatible with the "system matters" philosophy.

      I would actually agree with the general concept that the game text is just instructions for what is supposed to happen at the table and should not be treated as a holy book.

      P.S. I'm aware there is an amount of people that misuses "system matters" online, especially in the twittersphere. But, as with all things, taking the version of a concept that is talked about on Twitter is a quick road to not saying anything useful or productive at all.

      P.P.S. I was only able to answer this later, because Blogspot was malfunctioning. To the other two answerers, Justin & Adderlan, see the answer above: I wasn't trying to argue semantics, quite the contrary.

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    6. @maxcan7, I clarified what I meant above. If your only contribution is still to insult and call names I'll likely completely ignore you.

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    7. "Too bad that "System" in "System matters", specifically in the essay that originated that phrase, actually refers to..."

      This is your idea of not arguing semantics? Are you sure you know what semantics means?

      "P.S. I'm aware there is an amount of people that misuses "system matters" online, especially in the twittersphere. But, as with all things, taking the version of a concept that is talked about on Twitter is a quick road to not saying anything useful or productive at all."

      Hmm sure looks like you're arguing semantics. Anyway, you are correct about the quick road to saying nothing at all. Although actually, you are saying nothing rather slowly...

      "I would actually agree with the general concept that the game text is just instructions for what is supposed to happen at the table and should not be treated as a holy book."

      Then what are you even trying to say? Because it sure sounds like a slow road to nothing...

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    8. The disagreement is that the author isn't disagreeing with the article that popularized the statement "system matters", although it says that it does.

      @Unknown I wasn't disagreeing with you, I was attempting to respond to @Spywak

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    9. @Justin: ah, understood. Yes, re-reading it now it makes more sense.

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    10. "The disagreement is that the author isn't disagreeing with the article that popularized the statement "system matters", although it says that it does"

      What a pointless, pedantic thing to even say. Even, let's pretend that's true, what are you contributing here? It adds nothing to the conversation, to this really interesting and well thought out post. It's just gearing the conversation towards a topic the author explicitly says he has no interest in talking about, even if he acknowledges that assholes will inevitably crawl out of the woodwork and force the point on the rest of us...

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    11. @maxcan7 I am sorry you are such a miserable person, and that this stuff is going so far above your head that you have to resort to calling people "assholes" and "bad" while contributing exactly 0 to the conversation.

      If I was feeling more charitable I'd explain it to you, but I don't want to waste my energy with such a petty, bitter person.

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    12. Max and Spwack are entirely right to put you, "Unknown" in your place. It's Claudio, right? You are not engaging meaningfully with the article. You are saying: "Why did you even write about this topic without all the knowledge I think you need to write about it?" It is a really discouraging thing to say to someone and after how Jones talks about going through a rough time IN THE POST you still write without empathy and without understanding the hurt your words can cause. You did the same on my post and it was hurtful to me too. You could simply add your input and offer up your take and information with gentleness and an eagerness to engage. You obviously write to discourage anyone from writing about this topic without doing it your way. If this wasn't your intent, then understand that it has been the result. Please do not do this moving forward as it is hurtful to real people.

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    13. I genuinely don't understand where the harm in my language is, so apologies if my comments have affected you. Again, the intention here is to engage and not to disparage.

      However, I can't help but feel that this framing of my comments as overly pedantic and aggressive, or even meaning harm to other people (!) or being unemphathetic (!!!), is uncharitable when most people that have argued against me in this comment section have used much more aggressive and outright disparaging language to refer to me than I have ever done in engaging this topic.

      I'll try to be more considerate with how I write, but please try to do the same. I'm sure that the text form and the relative pseudonimity of the internet is not helping this type of communication?

      I'm also not a big fan of overly-positive comments, I think there is value in (constructive) criticism and growing from it. If what you're looking for is positive and feel-good comments, maybe we're just unaligned on what we're looking for in discussion on the internet.

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    14. "I genuinely don't understand where the harm in my language is, so apologies if my comments have affected you. Again, the intention here is to engage and not to disparage."

      Yes we already established that you're out of your element.

      "...when most people that have argued against me in this comment section have used much more aggressive and outright disparaging language to refer to me than I have ever done in engaging this topic."

      We are telling you to fuck off because you're making a pedantic bad faith argument over a topic the author explicitly said they don't want to talk about while also saying how they've felt anxiety about getting back into blogging. Our aggressiveness towards you is an effect of your argument, not a reason to dismiss the disparagement. Or can you not handle criticism? Would it make a difference if I was nicer to you?

      "I'll try to be more considerate with how I write, but please try to do the same."

      No. Is there another way I can tell you to fuck off that you'll understand? You're not wanted here dude.

      "I'm sure that the text form and the relative pseudonimity of the internet is not helping this type of communication?"

      Says the only anonymous one among us.

      "maybe we're just unaligned on what we're looking for in discussion on the internet."

      You don't say...


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    15. If it really is the case, Claudio, that you are unaware of how you come off, then I'd consider taking that as a lesson well learned. The next time you come to a post discussing this subject matter, you might present your argument like this:

      "Hello! I tend to think there is a difference between "system" and "rule set." I think the degree to which Systems Matter depends on which of these understanding of the word System you mean..."

      There was another person on my post who basically did this exact thing, presenting me with information with which I was unaware without calling into question whether or not I should have written the argument in the first place. Doing it like this is constructive criticism while questioning why someone would ever even write the post in the first place is destructive criticism.

      Do you understand? I'm not asking you to be super positive. I'm just asking you to be cordial and understanding of others.

      You might even think, after you have made your point about the definition of "System" that you might engage with the author's definition and then the point of what they are talking about. How do you treat rule-sets when you run games? Do you follow them exactly? How do you envision their role? That was what this post was about.

      This would not be overly positive, just constructive rather than destructive. You don't even have to agree. I expressed my own take in my comment that was a little different than Jones' but I did so in a kind way! We can have constructive conversations without being super positive or even agreeing.

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    16. Hey Micheal, all agreed, thanks for the constructive criticism.

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    17. You are most welcome! I'm glad we can come to understand each other better!

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    18. FWIW, I didn't find Unknown's first reply here neither discouraging nor disparaging.

      As for the validity of the comment, consider the following example:

      A: I read an article where X says they really like football. Well I for one disagree. Football isn't any good. Soccer, on the other hand - what a sport!
      B: Y'know, X actually meant soccer, because they are European and most Europeans call it football. So you're not disagreeing with them.

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  3. I'd say further to your point (which unlike SOME OTHER commenters in this thread I both comprehend and agree with lmao) that system is a player at the table who is incapable of either having fun or not having fun, and hence is a player who takes a backseat to the real people doing the actual play and generative of the actual game at the table. The rules text, if you must anthropomorphize it and give it desires, maybe is best described as having the desire to support the fun of others, whose fun comes directly from others having fun and no other source. It's in that sense which you can safely bend, break, ignore, etc the rules: in service of the fun of everyone present!

    Don't let the cruel little misapprehending pedants get you down, you've got a good point and one I quite agree with. The people around the table are generative of the play and the game and the fun, the text is only as relevant as you need or want it to be and is generative of ideas that are more flexible than most systems/rules texts out of which they spring! Systems really don't matter, except as a funnel to shape how people enact things or interact with things or narrativize things or characterize things or what have you, how people relate to themes/moods/tones/feelings/goals/etc/etc, and once people have been shaped by that funnel 9 times out of 10 you can fully remove it and people will continue to play in that manner only with less constraint and more freedom that is generative of a better game than strictly keeping to Rules As Written. Some players might require that funnel at all times, unable to learn the lessons that funnel bestows on them even after decades of play but that's a wall within that player (and one I very rarely come across in play around the table, I seem to encounter people with that wall more often in online games).

    Good post! Hope things in your life look more up for you soon and your connection to joy and ease and comfort and calm becomes stronger.

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  4. There's a surprising amount of discourse about a pedantic detail, and so little about the actual content of the article! A travesty!

    I think the comparison of the game system to a player at the table is an apt one, though I'd go as far as to say that the system is like a referee in terms of effect on the game. (This is coming from someone who heavily devalues the significance of the referee in my own games)

    On the other hand, even considering the System to be "all procedures followed by the table", it's STILL handy to consider it just another player--no player dynamic should be set in stone!

    I'll keep this in mind next time I run a non-FKR game.

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  5. I think that what I perceive as the core point of this analogy, that system can influence things, but the extent of its influence should be no more so than that afforded any other player, makes perfect sense.

    However, one key difference is that players can be theoretically reasoned with, and can provide new ideas and change. The system can't. I mean, you can hack it, but that's bringing your own ideas; otherwise, it'll only ever have the ideas it came with. There can be expanded content, new editions, etc., but then we're working on a different time scale (and also stretching the analogy :p).

    But ya, tongue in cheek aside, I don't know how far I'd actually want to take this analogy, but to the extent that I am correct in my understanding of your core point, it is an interesting and potentially useful way of thinking about the role of a system.

    I tend to think of system more like a programming language or a codebase, but maybe that's because I'm a software engineer so that's just where my head goes. Depending on how it's designed, it lends itself to certain patterns or processes over others, and the programmer has to understand what they're working with and what they're trying to do, but if that is the case, it is generally much more flexible than one might assume on-face.

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  6. Great post! This is a very helpful way of thinking about things.

    I'm also curious to follow the tangent of genre divergence you've mentioned. I don't think I've played a game of any genre that didn't end up punctuated with comedy... i don't think rpgs would be half as fun without friends goofing around and cracking jokes together.

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    1. Yeah my fave group of role players I ever gamed with, who were very dramatic and invested in their characters and inhabiting them as complex, nuanced people still put in their dues cracking wise in-character, to say nothing of laughing out of character at all kinds of things (including character misfortunes and failures). Probably the most severe group I ever played with was a bunch of trad goths in a Vampire the Masquerade game and while they never really joked in-character, they still traded sarcastic barbs and cracked jokes at each other's expense around the table out of character.

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    2. Haha, sweet. Yeah i never really got into vtm, even though i did at one point own a fedora and my music playlist is still like 75% sisters/mission/danse-society.

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