Why system matters

So I read in some of the threads your discussions about why systems matters and just wanted to give my humble thoughts on the topic.

I would argue that the system matters, matters a lot wheter you have a good roleplaying experience or not (or if there actually is any roleplay at all). It matters because at the end of the day we still play a game, wheter roleplaying or board or video game, it does not matter.

Every game has mechanics and objectives, those are usually represented by rules. And how those rules work tells us quite a bit about what the designer of the game intended that the game is actually about.

If we take DnD as an example, there are tons of rules about combat, treasure, magic, skills, feats and whatnot. Are there any rules that will help foster roleplay? No. There are literally none. There are no rules that will help the players have the opportunity of expressing their character. If a major belief or characteristic of my character never comes up in play, well tough luck, I cannot (within the rules of the game) enforce that the topic be brought up.

Now good players and GMs can work around that, they can adress the topics and create situations that will create good roleplay. But the game does not help them with that. Furthermore the game does not require any player to actually have any beliefs or character at all. It is more an afterthought to the whole system.

DnD is just about loot and XP, that is what the system is designed for and what the mechanics enforce.

So but you might say: Good players and a good GM can still roleplay!
But to that my answer would be: Yes, but are you still playing DnD? Hell you could even roleplay the shit out of Monopoly! But that doesn’t make Monopoly a good roleplaying system!

Now if we take Burning Wheel as an example. The core mechanic of that game is that every character has three core beliefs that are central to their character at that moment. Eg:

  • All monsters are human.
  • I will protect the sister of my friend no matter what!

Now the GMs responsibility (and this is an explicit rule), is to challenge those beliefs via the game. So just there we have a very different goal than in DnD. It’s not about fighing, XP and loot. It’s about challenging what the characters belief, what they hold dear and breaking them, changing them. So the game is more the medium through which we explore the characters.

Of course we can do the same with DnD, but then again, do we still play DnD (as a system)? Notice that the main difference is just that Burning Wheel has those elements, that are directly aimed at fostering roleplay, explicit in its ruleset (i.e. the system).

Just by making those beliefs explicit and writing them down (1/4th of the character sheet is dedicated to beliefs, instincs and traits), there is a big difference in how you play. Every player and the GM can just look at a character sheet and see what is really important for that character.

It is not just in heads of people, where you are likely to forget about it or never really have an exactly definition. By making those things explicit we have much more to work with.

PS: A very good talk about RPGs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ERc0-mp75oY

Disclaimer: I’m talking about DnD 3.x
I never actually played Burning Wheel, I only read the rulebook. But I can imagine :slight_smile:

I would say that the idea behind the 4th and 3rd Edition of D&D was that putting rules on top of roleplay would only constrict it.
After all, if you get incentive, are you roleplaying or just min-maxing your “role-play” skills?

That being said the latest edition of D&D does have roleplaying rules build in alongside such incentive, explicitly rewarding the players that roleplay negative and detrimental characters traits…

I would argue that constriction is a good thing for creativity. Because we as humans are just overwhelmed if we have all the possibilities in the world! Working within constrains enhances creativity.

Well yes you could min-max, but if the rewards are limited then that is no problem.

I’m not sure when it comes to restrictions regarding roleplaying. You might end up with a character that you don’t really want to play anymore after some ‘role playing encounters’.

In my experience restrictions regarding character behavior often cause side effects. The GM might mean well when he challenges the beliefs of a character to make things ‘more interesting’ but the player might not actually want that to happen. (Certain classes losing their powers when they do not act according to their ‘beliefs’ for example :wink: )

I think it doesn’t necessarily need a system or specific rules for that - except if your game is focused on pure roleplaying.

And I’d say that many systems focus (more) on combat rules probably comes from making sure that nobody can be outgunned in an easy way and everyone has more or less the same chance in a fight.

[quote=“Simon”]
That being said the latest edition of D&D does have roleplaying rules build in alongside such incentive, explicitly rewarding the players that roleplay negative and detrimental characters traits…[/quote]
Do you mean the passion thing? (That I tried to change cause it didn’t fit me in our last game)
I’m not really convinced tbh. I mean we didn’t have enough time to play through what’d happen if you follow /not follow these passions so it’s hard to say but it seemed like there wasn’t any option I’d be looking for in such a character.

Then don’t put down that belief. :slight_smile:

I guess the point of it all is to give you as a player two things: A way to dictate more where the story is going (in terms of topics). A clear way of saying what your character is about.

Saying that you like ice cream doesn’t necessarily mean that you want the GM to challenge you to eat every ice cream cone you can find.

[quote=“Icewind”]
I guess the point of it all is to give you as a player two things: A way to dictate more where the story is going (in terms of topics). A clear way of saying what your character is about.[/quote]
In the end it all comes down to the GM and I get what you mean but often things have to be phrased very precisely for you to not ‘end up’ with Cpt. Ice-A-Lot
And I think it helps when you’re not writing down every trait of your character.

Yes thats why in Burning Wheel you only have three beliefs, so you have to be very careful about what to choose.

If you mean by that: it comes down to the GM to integrate the players into the story.

Then I say: no it does not. If you make the playerintegration an essential part of the mechanics of the game it does not come down to the GM.

One thing I want to add to the whole “system matters” circus is to keep in mind that there is a difference between the system as written in the rulebook and the system actually played at the table. Most (I think it’s safe to say all) groups don’t play strictly according to the rules written down by the game designer.

What happens is that for most games some things just don’t seem to fit, others are lacking bits and pieces. So in order to get the intended fun or play style out of the game people adapt and modify the rules. Usually this is done by the GM who often has a certain concept of how his/her scenario should feel and be run. Sometimes he will cut down on rolls for every minor action to keep the pace of the story up. On other occasions he might ask for rolls for everything when there is need for a more competition oriented style. These are just some very simple examples for relatively subtle changes to the system and most of the times they happen without being noticed and are just accepted implicitly by the players.

But nevertheless they are all part of the system, if not however included in the written system. They all change the feeling and style of the game. They all matter.

Rules structure the game, they tell you what to do in a certain situation. The fact that you have a rule for something tells you that there is some importance to it. You will think and act differently with this particular rule in mind. Even the lack thereof can tell you something and will influence the played game.

Again, the system that is played at the table matters, not the stuff written in some book (although there might be a considerable overlap). Every group (GM) has preferences and will choose and modify their (his) game accordingly. You can take any system and play the kind of game you have in mind. But that will put a higher demand of creativity and effort on the group (GM). If you are capable of keeping the game on (your intended) track regardless of the system, then sure, the written system does not matter. But in doing that you have put some distance between the written system and the system you actually play. And the played system still does matter.

I ran a couple Call of Cthulhu scenarios recently, once with the CoC rules, once with the H Engine. Was there really a significant difference in gameplay?

I like the CoC rules. They’re intuitive, clean, and fit the genre very well. But when we tossed them out the door and replaced them with a coin flip, the game didn’t feel any different.

So maybe the CoC ruleset is nothing more than a coin toss? (I don’t know it)

My opinion is that role-playing can happen out of any system. Old school D&D was more about killing monster and getting as much gold as possible. Still people started to role-play.
On the other hand, a system that corridors role-playing too much will limit the creativity of the players or just have them just tea ale a few gestures to tick the boxes on their character sheets and get their perks without actually thinking about their characters, just what the rule book says they should play.

Role playing emerges from the players, from their engagement to their characters and the story, not from the ruleset.

[quote=“Icewind”]

If you mean by that: it comes down to the GM to integrate the players into the story.

Then I say: no it does not. If you make the playerintegration an essential part of the mechanics of the game it does not come down to the GM.[/quote]
No - what I meant was that it comes down to the GM’s judgement. He can use this limitation casually or in a very strict way.

I think that it should depend on the players. Restricting the options usually makes things predictable. And that’s just not what I would want a character to be.

It’s quite similar to Pendagon.

[quote="-H-"]I ran a couple Call of Cthulhu scenarios recently, once with the CoC rules, once with the H Engine. Was there really a significant difference in gameplay?

I like the CoC rules. They’re intuitive, clean, and fit the genre very well. But when we tossed them out the door and replaced them with a coin flip, the game didn’t feel any different.[/quote]

I’d argue that there was a slight difference in the game when we used the -H- engine or the original CoC rules.

First of all there’s a difference in the skill sets given to each player. In a CoC game I pretty much know what my field of expertise is… It is represented by percentile numbers distributed among a broad field of skills that are fairly detailed. So I, being a newspaper journalist, know in advance if I might know something about West-African tribal rituals. I probably haven’t spent any points in anthropology at character creation, so I won’t be the one providing the group with the necessary knowledge. It’ll probably be the ex-naval lieutenant who was stationed on the Nigerian shore during the early months of WWI (and thus having spent 30% during character creation).

Playing the -H- engine I never felt as confined. You could make stuff up on the fly (like the Nigerian shore thing both as journalist and lieutenant) and if I flutter my eyes at you, -H-, this character trivia will be accepted allowing me to roll which gives me a fair chance of making that roll. In my opinion there is a difference. It might not be big, but it makes me feel less restricted and more encouraged to invent stuff about my character that often adds to the storytelling at the table. In CoC, especially for a one shot without an elaborative character creation and background story, I’m stuck with what numbers I have spread over my skills. I can and will stick to that.

Next point is the whole sanity and stability part of the game. I have the feeling that in your CoC games these elements don’t play such a big role. I remember playing CoC as a much younger me, and we had those stupid sanity checks for each and every mildly weird situation. So by cutting down on the extensive use of those checks you have somehow left the written CoC behind to get to better fit in your idea of a horror game in which the terror shouldn’t originate in a boring mechanic that tells the player via a numerical value that he should be shocked, but by creating that sense of horror in introducing absurd and scary elements in the story. I’m grateful for that, because I think the whole CoC sanity mechanic is stupid. It’s too close to HP and that just doesn’t work for me. Anyhow, by ignoring that you created a “played system” that is much closer to what you would end up doing in the -H- engine because latter doesn’t have rules for that anyway.
Now we’re getting to the core. In my opinion you as a GM have found your true way of running horror scenarios. So regardless of the written system you’ll use, the game will more or less feel the same. This can be accomplished because you tweak or ignore those rules in the written system that doesn’t fit your idea of a scary and weird horror game.
In a way, the -H- engine is exactly that: A house-rule for playing weird Thursday night one shots. Instead of putting a lot of effort into modifying available horror system to allow for fast and uncomplicated gaming, you just chose the -H- engine which does foremost one thing: Not standing between you and the bizarre scenario you are going to unleash on the players.

So to conclude there is a slight difference in the game when using either CoC or the -H- engine, but those are more from a player’s point of view. The storytelling, the GMing and the actual gaming feel very similar because you try to play the same “played system” regardless of the written system.

PS: Yeah, this might be a bit over-interpreted, but we’re talking about rpg theory here. That’s the point of it. :wink:

Absolutely true! But as you pointed out as well, some systems encourage roleplaying more than others.

In the end good and creative players/GMs are most important for a enjoyable game. No arguing about that. But the influence of system shouldn’t be underestimated.

I like discussing strengths and weaknesses of different roleplaying games - more in person than written, as my writing isn’t normally very structured - but I’ll try this time to write my thought bubbles down.

These are the first points that come to my mind of why I enjoy certain RPGs, as well as where I could see strengths as well as weaknesses:

Inspiration
A good system can inspire me to try out things that I wouldn’t normally try, play characters that I normally couldn’t think of easily, try out settings that haven’t peeked my interest yet. Rules can have a big impact on me. If a game inspires my creativity, I enjoy it.

Supports the Setting
A good systems supports the feeling of the setting. If a setting is about conspiracies and worlds in shadows, I want the rules to reflect that in a way.

Simple and Deep
I like rules that are simple to play. Also I like them to have some depth. If a good system manages to balance these to factors, it’s a win for me!

Rewards & Punishment
If I contribute to the feeling and gameplay of the game, I like it that the game rewards me in a way. Be it a cool moment, abilities that reflect my character or just one more reroll I might need in the future. I like being rewarded if I put effort in as a player.
I try to be careful with punishment as a DM, as it can ruin the game for people. People invest time in the game (some more, some less), and I don’t want to play 3-6 hours in a group without having any satisfying results from my actions I put some effort in.
On the other hand I think punishment should be used in a fair and balanced way - victories earned in a fair way taste so much better!

Power level
A good system regulates the power levels between players and DMs.
I should feel like I am able to provide something to the game without other players outshine me constantly because they have a much much munchkin much better build when they created their character.

Removes Arbitrariness
DM having a bad day?
I don’t have any rules to back me up on my actions?

crossed out->Sucks to be me!

I like the rules to be transparent enough so I at least don’t feel like being discriminated by a whim of somebody else.*

Regulates timing
A good system has smooth gameplay when played. It shouldn’t stop the game too much, because I have to look up some rules on every action I want to take.

All these points can be argued about in detail, but I think they are some good guidelines on what you can look for in a system. Also, most of these things can be substituted by a good group (DM included) and a spoon of common sense, as in the end, people are there to have fun, and fun it should be.

[size=85]*if a DM is out there to get you - (s)he will, and there is not much point of playing with him/her[/size]

A question for the more experienced players and DMs:

What do you think of the “Inspiration” Mechanic in D&D 5e? Does it encourage role playing in combination with the character background or is it just more workload on the DM?

[quote] Basic Rules p.35-36
Inspiration is a rule the Dungeon Master can use to reward you for playing your character in a way that’s true to his or her personality traits, ideal, bond, and flaw.

Your DM can choose to give you inspiration for a variety of reasons. Typically, DMs award it when you play out your personality traits, give in to the drawbacks presented by a flaw or bond, and otherwise portray your character in a compelling way. Your DM will tell you how you can earn inspiration in the game.

Additionally, if you have inspiration, you can reward another player for good roleplaying, clever thinking, or simply doing something exciting in the game. When another player character does something that really contributes to the story in a fun and interesting way, you can give up your inspiration to give that character inspiration.[/quote]

I think it is very interesting.

It gives a little bit of an incentive toward RPing.
However, as I said, I believe that RP comes from the players not the rules, anyway…

Still, deciding personalities traits during character creation will make people think about it more than they might have done. And having them written on the character sheet might reminds people to role-play from time to time…

Well, that goes without saying!

This might also be because we’re playing one-shots. Even in published scenarios, you probably won’t go stark raving mad in a single evening. Well, usually.

Funny, I thought most indie guys like the genre-emulating aspect of sanity?

This sounds like a polite way of saying, “No matter what system you give H, it’ll still feel like D&D circa 1983.” Hmm … you may have a point there. :smiley:

[quote=“Captain_Hindsight”]A question for the more experienced players and DMs:

What do you think of the “Inspiration” Mechanic in D&D 5e? Does it encourage role playing in combination with the character background or is it just more workload on the DM?[/quote]
Sounds like: Player empowerment

Is: Rewards for playing the way the DM wants you to

Or am I too cynical? (Hey, you did ask for opinions …)