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Game Systems Always Have Impact

Something clicked in my head a few weeks ago regarding the impacts game systems have that we might not necessarily feel. I was talking with a friend about a popular game system[1], and his experiences with it. He said that he had fun playing a session of it, but (paraphrasing) “Only because the GM was good. The system didn’t really have an impact.”

Admittedly, as someone whose day job and craft involve making games, “system matters” is a given and “system doesn’t matter” is bunk. But this phrasing of “didn’t have an impact” lit an articulate fire in my mind. I said this to him, and am saying it to you:

If a GM is able to make a game’s system so transparent that you rarely feel it, and your experience with that session was positive, does that not speak to the GM’s comfort level with the system and ability to handle aspects of it internally?

If it does, the system had an impact on your experience, just one you didn’t directly feel. An impact doesn’t need to be felt to have an effect. To keep with the analogy, look at microearthquakes that damage underground pipes and wiring—not directly felt by the people, but has an effect nonetheless.

I’ve also heard: We spent the whole session roleplaying, never touching the dice. That one takes a bit more unpacking.

Let’s assume that this session wasn’t the first session of the campaign. Then the system had impact, because of the platform the system created over the course of earlier play. Earlier successes and failures that influenced the story, the expectations of how different rules subsystems are triggered and will resolve, and so on. So when you hit a lengthy period where you didn’t directly engage the system, you still were impacted by prior engagement. And unless you made a conscious decision that session to not at all touch the rules, you continued to (perhaps subconsciously) touch the system long enough to decide if it needed deeper engagement. Understanding where a ruleset doesn’t try to fit or puts only minor effort into handling aids in understanding a ruleset’s strengths, expectations, and priorities, but that doesn’t change impact that a void in rules has in pushing you to think outside of them.

Even if it is the first session, what about character creation? Every system prioritizes ways of thinking about the protagonists, secondary characters, and other setting elements. The very act of guided creation and writing things down shapes what is to come. Even if the situation is as simple as “yeah, you have a 14 Strength, so of course you’re able to shove that door open,” the system had an impact by making that Strength score important to consider and determine.

Of course, impacts aren’t always positive—punches and meteor strikes are impacts too, after all. It gets tricky when we talk about a game session floundering or failing. If a system doesn’t gel for a group or an individual, you certainly feel the system’s impact in a negative way. I’d even say that you feel the impact of the system if the GM isn’t confident in presenting it. The impact might be uneven or turbulent, but it’s there at times. Even in a failure state, there’s some direct or indirect impact that you could probably point to if you look for it. (Okay, yes, there are some failure states that are entirely social, but those are wildcards when it comes to talking about gaming theory in general.)

But, and this is key: Just because a system always has an impact doesn’t mean that the system always has the largest impact on a given session. The social dynamic also always impacts the system, whether it’s a long-standing group of friends or a bunch of people thrown together at a convention game. The micro-contributions each human being brings (mood, desire, energy level, disposition, etc.) impacts the game. Prior history will have impact. “System matters,” to use the old Forge phrasing, doesn’t mean “only the system matters.” It means, at least to me, to be about not dismissing the unseen impacts of a system on a given session just because you can’t see them or directly trace their effects.

That said, I have a newfound understanding of those who would respond with “the system didn’t have an impact.” I used to buy into that, and then I dismissed it out of hand, but today I view that as someone speaking without a greater understanding of the craft. And that’s totally cool! It’s like someone enjoying a movie but not being a deconstructionist about it. It’s like someone being able to enjoy a novel without subconsciously editing it. So when I see such claims on the Internet, I’m going to give a respectful nod and move on, because I’ll read that as “I had an experience, but don’t need to deconstruct it.” Or as “Talking about the system isn’t important to me right now.” Or similar. And that’s cool, since it’s not on everyone to be theory wonks about their hobbies, even when the Internet sometimes forces people to engage with those who are theory wonks.

– Ryan

You know, the “tl;dr” that’s become the (or a) rage for bloggers is sort of a weird mix between a conclusion and an abstract. So I guess this tl;dr is: The system always has an impact, even if indirect, but that doesn’t mean it’s the most impactful thing about a given session or worth Internet discourse.

Photo: Impact crater on Mars/NASA. Because why not.

[1] Which goes unnamed because I don’t want this post or conversation to be about a specific system.

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7 Responses to Game Systems Always Have Impact

  1. Pedro says:

    I’m the kind of guy who deconstructs novels, movies and rule sets. The article has been very enlightening because I did not realize that, for other people, the analysis may not worth the trouble.

    So thank you, Ryan.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Awesome! You’re totally welcome.

      Yeah, I try to remember that of the people who don’t deconstruct things they like, there are three camps:
      * Those that would be interested in deconstruction (which in games leads to an interest in game design)
      * Those who deliberately don’t want to
      * Those who aren’t even really aware of deconstruction

      I try to (not with 100% success) assume one of the latter two, until I see the desire to dive deeper demonstrated. It is sad when folks in other camps crap on those who would want to dive deep, so I try not to spread Internet misery by craping on those who don’t want to.

      A far cry from my attitudes in, say, 2011 when I was far more a rabble rouser.

      – Ryan

  2. Another way to discuss this idea, is the concept of “emergent properties” from systems. It’s a bit more inside baseball for designers but as a concept it helps to communicate that a system causes change just by being the way it is.

    More often I find games lean play towards the content the rules are written for, that is to say that if the game has reams of combat rules the game just naturally picks fights between characters. Why talk your way out of this situation if every part of your character screams “blow it up”.

    Also, a lot of times I find certain games invoke certain feelings in the players. Dread puts everyone on edge even if you’re not actively pulling a brick, the system leads to this. Mythender made Wil Wheaton feel like shit after killing Santa Claus, the system did this behind the scenes subtly.

    Another interesting way of talking about the transparency of system is with systems that don’t use dice. Amber has a solid framework of rules but dice never hit the table.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      That’s also a good point, one that I have in mind when designing stuff but didn’t when writing this up: a game’s unfelt effects could be intentional in design.

      Though, I wouldn’t say that Wil only felt like shit in Santaender; he was also fascinated by the realization. Mythender’s a morality tale to those who pay attention, but it’s also just a fun over-the-top stompfest for those who don’t or don’t care.

      – Ryan

  3. Zooroos says:

    That’s a gold nugget of gaming wisdom, Ryan. Thanks for sharing your insights!

  4. Ed Gibbs says:

    Great blog! I think the idea of not deconstructing a game, and being comfortable enough with what it is to roll with what it isn’t, is why the “OSR” movement exists, as well as the continuing love for older RPGs like the Palladium system. It’s not always about how well the rules cover a situation; it can often be about what the rules DON’T cover, and gives your group carte blanche to figure it out however you’d like. That’s not an excuse for lazy game design; rather, it’s a conscious design by the designers over what their game is going to be about.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Thanks!

      Hmm. I wouldn’t necessarily pin a single vibe like this to any whole group or movement. This thing I’ve described is a feeling that people who play all sorts of games share, including Fate or even Fiasco. Back when I played GURPS, half of the messageboards were filled with gearheads deconstructing rules, and the others with people who just wanted to talk about the latest setting book or do some play-by-post. Shoot, even with a single given person, this could ebb and flow—some days, I just want to fight filthy humans and blow off steam without deconstructing stuff. Other days, the joy is in the deconstruction itself.

      A tangent: To me, blank spaces aren’t indicative to lazy design, and I get annoyed when people say that they are. If there’s any lazy design, you’ll see it in what the rules ask you to do, not so much as in what they don’t. That said, I’m a former programmer, so “lazy” isn’t a toxic word. There’s plenty of design we might consider “lazy” that’s perfectly effective at producing a desired play experience. (I do loathe lazy game writing, though, which is quite a different beast.)

      – Ryan