This is another highly abstract rambling about a highly abstract matter of systems, in no way limited to roleplaying, though still applied to them. You were warned.
My working definition for system is that it must have at least the following qualities:
- A means of input.
- An output.
- A process that uses the input to produce the output.
Trivial (and, hence, boring) systems are a legion. Some notable cases: Systems with fixed output are kind of boring. Systems where the input and output are independent (as in, knowing one tells nothing about the other; that is, they don’t affect each other) are random (or have fixed output).
As one can see, the concept is exceedingly broad. This is intentional.
The good, the bad and the aesthetically interesting
A system is well-designed (towards particular goal) if it produces the outputs that the goal says it should produce. Bad system produces outcomes contradictory with the goal. Elegant systems produce relevant outputs (with regards to the goal) and do so with as minimal a process as is possible.
A game of chess, for example, is a system. It has inputs (moving the playing pieces, social aspects), outputs (victory, defeat, draw, emotional responses of players) and processes (rules, the way humans work). The desired outputs are victory for one player, defeat to the other one, and an intellectually stimulating game for both. Draws are not a desired outcome but rather an annoying side effect of the rules. (Aside: It is also possible to build a strategy in chess such that the starting player will always win or a draw will happen; it is just so complicated nobody has done it yet, to my knowledge, but it is certainly possible.) Chess is not completely elegant: It has a number of rules for specific circumstances. One could argue that Go is as good as chess at its goals and more elegant, which would make Go a better game for someone with the stated goals (intellectual stimulation, determining a winner). Chess is still better for other goals, namely for learning to, say, play chess.
The voting system has the goal of finding out the opinion of people about (say) who should be in power and further giving those people the power. Personally, I’d vote for the Social democratic party and the Green party. I can’t vote for both. Hence, the system can’t take that information into consideration, which weakens it and biases it towards those already in power.
As it applies to roleplaying games
Roleplayers want different things out of their games. There are some things that most players don’t mind: Consistency of the fiction and of the rules and something resembling a story. (I am not saying that people always play for story or for consistency, but rather that they wouldn’t usually mind if the game remained as good in other aspects and had better story or was more consistent; the possibility of this is a different subject entirely.)
An elegant roleplaying game is one that has a set of design goals, is good for the kinds of gaming those include and has little material that is redundant to the design goals. Many Forge-games (as in, indie games coming from the community around or nearby the Forge) are elegant. This means that they are utterly focused. One can see this as a good or a bad point. Compare and contrast to euro games in boardgaming scene.
Clearly inelegant design methodology is the exception-based design one can see in D&D 3rd and MtG; in both, most cards/feats/class powers are exceptions of the general rules. Some like this, some dislike. Generally speaking, one can get a similar experience with a leaner design over a short period of time.
Good roleplaying games, bad roleplaying games
Elegance or inelegance, though loaded words, are not the grounds for saying that a particular system is bad or good (barring extremes). Personally I do prefer elegant systems, but that is my call.
I’d say an rpg is badly-designed in so far as the processes work against some of the goals. For example, if one assumes that the new World of Darkness core book is supposed to be used in investigative horror gaming, the specific combat
feats merits seem to be bad design by encouraging combative characters and focusing attention there. (If one considers how WoD is likely to actually be played, they are not that bad a choice, after all.)