On Our Imperfect Fun

I’ve had a lot of fun playing Dungeon World, even when the hit point system and action economy seems to jar against what the Apocalypse World engine does. I’ve had a lot of fun playing Unknown Armies, my favorite roleplaying game, even with the whiff factor endemic to percentile systems. My group enjoyed playing Burning Empires, even when the rules were confusing and we ended up playing incorrectly. And I’ve had many sessions of Fate and various Cortex+ hacks where the fun we had seemed to be in spite of the system rather than flow from it.

See, roleplaying games live in a world of imperfect fun. They consist of engines that, by the nature of the medium, don’t always work. Understanding this is crucial to both enjoying and making RPGs. For a game to not have flaws, it by necessity needs to be a constrained, closed system—which no RPG can be. Games like Chess and Go are about as closed of systems as you’ll get—the decisions you put in are restricted, and outside stimuli or emotion will only affect the decisions in the game, not reform the games contents.

A roleplaying game needs to be an open system to work, because it’s our emotions and inspirations that make a game come to life. This inherently leads to imperfection, because these games need to give space for outside input. That doesn’t excuse poor game design that leads to consistently boring or frustrating play experiences—but there’s an uneven line between “this system is broken” and “this system jarred against some unforeseeable external input.” (And neither of those are the same as “I don’t like this system.”)

This is part of why you absolutely can’t test an RPG system by just thinking about it. Your mind alone is effectively a closed system compared to a normal session with multiple participants. And to test the math or mechanics of a system without playing with the open nature of the medium is to play at a closed, perfect system rather than an open, imperfect one.

This also means that the first time a game fails for you, which it’s easy to blame the game, the problem might lie elsewhere: the emotions feeding into the system, jarring or unexpected creative contributions, questions that arise with meaning in an open system that wouldn’t in a closed one, a misunderstanding of the rules that isn’t self-evident because of the open nature of these games, and so on. An open system requires a little forgiveness to work.

This hobby is one of imperfect fun, and we would all do well to remember that—as players, GMs, and creators.

– Ryan


6 Responses to On Our Imperfect Fun

  1. Charles says:

    I’m always frustrated when some in-world action forced a fallback to Rule Zero. It always feels like the system has failed.

    In systems like Pathfinder or GURPS, this would happen to us a lot. The rules provide specific frameworks, and if you want to try something outside of those frameworks (or if the rules you need are in a splatbook you haven’t got), you’re in trouble.

    On the other hand, I’ve been really impressed with Fate. We’ve been playing it weekly for a year. We’ve done a lot of reading about the fate fractal, and aspect-based narration, and the nuance behind compels. Rule Zero comes up rarely, and in each case we go back and figure out how we COULD have done it, using the core rules as written, had we just come at it from the right angle.

    At this point I’m not convinced that there’s anything Fate can’t handle out of the box. A few of us are even compiling a resource to share with other players, wherein we document how to easily handle weapons, animal companions, spellcasting, shapeshifting, resource scarcity, gadgets, and other things that Fate supposedly can’t handle without hacks… without hacks.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Thank you! I’m happy you’re having a blast with Fate.

      I’ll be the first to say that there’s a lot Fate isn’t meant to handle and doesn’t handle well, but the aspect/advantage system is more or less meant to help facilitate unexpected contributions. For people who revel in creative solutions over tactical/skirmish play, it’s very much on that wavelength. It’s imperfect, like all RPGs, but the places where it strives for perfection align with the sort of play you’re talking about. It just has the expense of not supporting other styles.

      Which is totally fair, because no one game can do everything for all people all the time. All of the Fate designers routinely play non-Fate stuff—not just to be better game designers, but because other games deliver different fun.

      At this point, I’m probably super-stretching what I mean when I say “imperfect fun.” :)

      – Ryan

  2. Callan S. says:

    I think you can’t test an RPG by not thinking about it because the RPG hasn’t had its missing parts built by you yet.

    But the fact is really, really open systems get judged by thought alone because they are really much of a muchness – the more open they are, the less distinguishing factors they have to any other open RPG. They become more nothing. That’s why people judge them by thought alone – because there wont be any difference in the end.

    a misunderstanding of the rules that isn’t self-evident because of the open nature of these games

    Only in a more closed system would a missunderstanding of the rules actually matter. Only when a ruleset actually interelates to itself (not because the GM made it interelate – it actually was made that way by its author) would a missunderstanding matter. Otherwise there is no significance to understanding any rule correctly – you’re going to be inventing so much game in a really open game, why would it matter if you tried to somehow adhere to a random rule?

    I think it’s actually possible to have a closed game AND allow input from users. For example, in traditional RPG’s a DM often decides the difficulty of skill rolls by figuring a number. Okay, in a closed system the system goes through a number of steps from the start of play and at some point the steps instruct the GM to choose a number between 5 and 20, no higher or lower. Now the system is closed – the DM is not inventing system at this point. But he is giving input into it.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      That isn’t what a “closed system” describes. If the system asks of you a question, as all RPGs do, that’s the system’s openness needing an input it wasn’t intended to fill on its own. It isn’t structuring your play; it’s asking for your guidance.

      But this comment gets dangerously close to “system doesn’t matter.” If that’s the case, I wholeheartedly call bunk on that.

      – Ryan

  3. Callan S. says:


    My ‘number from 5 to 20’ example isn’t describing a closed system?

    But the example RPG is structuring play – it’s told you when to decide that difficulty. You don’t get to choose that difficulty any time you want. You’re working inside the procedure when you get to that choice – the choice is inside a closed system.

    It’s entirely possible to structure someones behaviour AND give them a choice within how you structure them. It’s like telling someone they have to put on a hat, but it can be a green one or a red one. You’ve just structured their behaviour, but the nuances of the behaviour (with the nuance range being between two choices only) you’ve left to them.

    But this comment gets dangerously close to “system doesn’t matter.” If that’s the case, I wholeheartedly call bunk on that.

    Your comment or mine?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I think you’re missing the point of what I’m trying to say, what other people are taking away from the post, by getting hung up on what you consider a “closed system.”

      – Ryan