Abstract nonsense: Systems

26 March, 2008 at 4:39 pm (definition, roleplaying-games, rpg theory) (, , , , )

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.)



  1. Linnaeus said,

    Nice stuff, Tommi. I agree pretty much 100% with everything you’ve written here.

  2. siamois71 said,

    “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…”

    That doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone reading this article. Because should you prefer “inelegant systems”, you certainly wouldn’t call them that. You’re right that they are loaded words and in this case, totally inappropriate.

    Your reasoning is totally unsubstantiated here. What makes D&D 3 “clearly inelegant”? How did you determine that? I respect your dislike for exception-based design but to call it inelegant is bullcrap.

    This seems like an article mainly devoted to reinforcing your own beliefs regarding “most Forge games” versus mainstream stuff like D&D and WoD, without ever providing a shred of justification. A very regrettable position.

    As someone who enjoys The Shadow of Yesterday and The Mountain Witch as much as I enjoy D&D and other “inelegant” games, and who has friends in several communities that are at odds with each others because they perpetuate lame myths, let me say I am tired.

    I’m so tired of this petty bullshit.

    And since you seem to like to employ loaded words and not substantiate your claims, let me give you a painful taste of your own medicine:

    “Most forge games” means absolutely nothing as a sentence. It’s too hectic a group to be put together. But what I can say with certainty after trying a LOT of them is that they do share one thing in common with other RPGs: most of them suck.

    Yeah, I subscribe to the old theory that 90% of everything sucks and that certainly includes a lot of ridiculously focused and totally un-fun and irrelevant “Forge games”.

    And Jonathan Tweet, designer of such gems as Everway, Ars Magica, Over the Edge and the “inelegant” D&D 3rd edition knows a great deal more about designing fun, addictive and totally functional games than most of the community at the Forge put together will ever be able to forget.

    So there you have my loaded and unsubstantiated position.

    I’m disappointed. There are few fellow roleplaying blogs on wordpress and I was hoping I’d find allies that promote gaming at large instead of divisive crap.

    I do hope you have fun with Forge games. I’ll have fun with games, period.

    PS: Would be curious to know what you think of more and detailed and robust “Forge Games”. I guess crapping outside your pointlessly insular community required less courage.

  3. Tommi said,

    Greetings, siamois.

    When calling D&D inelegant, I am not judging it. Honestly. Burning Wheel, of which I am a (rabid) fan, is inelegant by my definitions, an many parts of it are superfluous to the design goals. (They are also optional, which is besides the point.)

    I am calling D&D 3rd inelegant due to it being exception-based design. One can make tactically interesting fantasy game that is far leaner and that provides mostly the same play experience. The simplest way of doing this is taking away some options and hence exceptions; the game being exception-based, this is possible to do without destroying the entire game. D&D will remain much the same without, say, skill focus feat or profession skills, but it will be more elegant. Hence, I call every exception-based game inelegant. Again, this is not a judgement.

    I, too, am tired of the artificial divide between story games and traditional games. When I say “most Forge games”, I mean exactly what I say: More than half of the games that have been significantly shaped by the Forge. Mountain Witch is a fine example: It does one thing quite well and has very few rules that don’t directly support the creation of samurai melodrama. The horoscopes are the least integral element I can think of right now (disclaimer: I have played tMW, but never read it).
    As you say, the downside of focused design (elegant design is almost always focused, but the other way does not hold quite as certainly) is that it is, well, focused. I can’t see myself buying tMW, for example, even though it is good at what it does. I wouldn’t get much use out of it.

    My thoughts about more detailed and robust Forge games are not well-defined; I enjoy Burning Wheel, as mentioned. I have also played Universalis but disliked it. I’d play tSoY if given the chance to do so without buying it (but I am stingy). TRoS likewise.

    I am not exactly a Forge insider. I have less than 100 posts there, at a guess, but it has been years since the previous one, so I don’t really remember the exact number. I just registered at Story games (due to being linked there). I was a Forge/GNS zealot for a year, maybe, before noticing what I was doing and stopping.

    So, here’s what I am asking: Assume, for a moment, that I am being honest when I say that I don’t judge elegant games or Forge games as inherently superior (I said as much in the post). Assume that the meanings I assign to the words are those I say I do.

    Given that, is it somehow controversial to say that D&D 3rd is not very streamlined? Is it controversial to say that Forge games tend to focus on one thing and disregard rules elements that don’t help in achieving that one thing?

    My intention was to not divide up the gamerdom or crap on any games. Siamois, you can take my word for this or hold that I am lying.
    I do grant that the words I picked were not the best. People have a tendency to read words as they have seen those used, not as they are locally defined. All the abstract nonsense at the start was there for a reason.

    I hope you do find the good rpg blogs you are looking for. I recommend looking at my blogroll; some of the blogs are dead, but they have valuable archives. Others are still alive and active.

    -Tommi Brander

  4. Karl Higley said,

    I don’t know that I like in/elegant either, but I have a sense of where it comes from. Reading your post and the comments made me think of this:


    It seems like elegance is a separate issue from complexity. The most elegant and beautiful solution to some problems is quite complex — simply because the problem demands that complexity. From the point of view that takes into account the complexity of the goal, I’m not sure I would call “most Forge games” elegant, and D&D inelegant, even by the local definitions. If we make an equation of “problem” and “goals,” D&D may be the most elegant solution to a complicated problem, and some Forge games may be inelegant solutions to simple problems. I’m not qualified to make a judgment there, but I think the possibility exists.

    With that addition, I like what you’re saying here. Good food for thought.

  5. Tommi said,

    Karl, I would assume that my sense of elegancy is somehow shaped by mathematics. Most of my thought is, up to a point.

    Elegancy is always related to goal. In other words, a system is elegant with regards to a particular set of desired outputs. Every system is trivially elegant with regards to doing what it actually does. This is not particularly interesting, IMO.

    Assuming a nontrivial desired output for D&D: Almost surely the feat toughness is not relevant to the outputs. It is a suboptimal choice in almost all conditions that come up in play

    On Forge games; maybe I’ll talk about many Forge games to make a weaker and less controversial statement; many of them are very focused. They may be good or they may suck, but extra weight is fairly rare, from what I have seen.

    The possibility for complicated and elegant system certainly exists. Likewise for simple and inelegant one. This is because the I cheat with the definitions of “elegant” and “inelegant”; they are actually comparative terms and the set of all systems is not well-ordered.

    Thanks for the comments.

  6. siamois71 said,

    Hello Tommi,

    I appreciate the response. Maybe it’s a language barrier or semantics but I still think “inelegant” implies a bug instead of a feature. To me, details and rules of exception are features unless they are ill conceived.

    I will readily admit that 3e is not without certain questionable choices but I think under the circumstances (an intricate, crunchy system), they did better than most. It’s too detailed for what I need, which is why I’m retooling the system right now.

    As far as taking your word that you did not imply something negative, I do. I absolutely don’t think you are lying. It still seems like a negative word, though :)

    To get back to gaming: Give TSoY a chance. Clinton made the whole game available for free online and it is a gem. The Mountain Witch is more focused than I’d like, so I didn’t buy it. Only playd twice with a friend who introduced me. But I lifted the duel mechanics for use in western.

    Take care,


  7. Linnaeus said,


    I imagine Tommi took the use of the term inelegant from my series of articles, which he links to above.

    I don’t disagree that there is a faint whiff of disapproval in the term, but the problem is that there isn’t to the best of my knowledge an antonym for elegant that isn’t vaguely insulting, not quite on point, or a crime against the English language. Consider:

    exceptions-based design

    As I describe (in the context of boardgames) in my articles, there are very real disadvantages to elegant designs, as well, and I don’t think anyone here is saying that elegance (in an absolute sense) is always the best path. Relative elegance is better, I would argue, but in every case you can only streamline things so much before you break the game.

  8. Tommi said,

    Hi Martin.

    Inelegant definitely implies something less than perfection. I am biased and admit it, so everyone can compensate for my bias as they will and hopefully get something out as a result. I feel totally comfortable criticising something for being inelegant and have done so in the past.

    I agree about D&D 3rd; not a bad game. I have played and GM’d it and enjoyed doing it.

    I have read the TSoY rules (Eero Tuovinen or the brothers of his have translated it to Finnish and even that version is available for free online). It is on my list of games to play, but so are a lot of other things.

    Aside: You seem like a reasonable guy. Publicly changing one’s opinions on the internet is fairly rare and requires significant integrity. I know I am bad enough at it. All this to say: You have my respect. Got a blog, website, or favourite forums?


    I think the common criticism of narrow story games speaks for itself as to the pitfalls of elegant design.

    I also think that there exists at least the possibility of inelegant design that is not exception-based (I’m not certain you implied otherwise). Unnecessarily complicated dice mechanics, for example, could be used to build one. As an example, if I want to create a rough bell curve between 1 and 10, I can always roll 10d10, sum them and divide the result by 10. Or I could use a dice pool where each die produces a success with probability 1/2. Or use a look-up table like the ones in Rolemaster.

  9. siamois71 said,

    Gerald: I see what you mean. I’ll check out your blog. I’m very interested in comments pertaining to board games as I feel there is much to learn from them and I have a fairly limited exposure to them.

    Tommi: Funny that you mention Eero. I found his blog earlier today totally by coincidence. A lot of great stuff related to my current project. Like him, I’m trying to break down D&D and rebuild from the ground up. I had not made the connection that Eero was the translator of TSoY! One of the better indie design. I think I may even have used keys suggested by Eero on the TSoY forum over at the Forge!

    I’m extremely happy to find interesting gaming blogs on wordpress.

    You will find my own blog there: http://consonantdude.wordpress.com/

    I just started it and have little experience with websites and blogs. There are few entries yet and most of it fairly traditional elements being discussed. But I do believe that in the next three weeks or so, I’ll begin to explore other elements that have been influenced in part by new schools of thought.

    It is my first public design and also my first design in English, which is a challenge for me. I will probably bug you for some feedback when I get to Feats. I plan for Feats to be… totally inelegant. In that I want to try and avoid the old “get a +X” D20 standard. Instead, I want to make feats explode a little bit. Which will make them very much exceptions. Here’s where I find our discussion interesting: I’m highlighting exceptions in the hope that the final game is more elegant in prep and in handling time. Thus your blog makes me question this and wonder if I may not fall in a trap.

    These hard questions need to be asked so reading your blog was appreciated.

    Take care,


  10. Design and bricolage « Cogito, ergo ludo. said,

    […] Elegance. Right. I’ll claim that usually an engineered game is more elegant than one constructed via heavy bricolage. A game engineered for specifically this purpose will not have too many irrelevant bits (assuming a good design; adding irrelevant bits is not good design; this is my bias speaking, but I think this is also fairly uncontroversial). The purpose may be very broad; a D&D-like experience with less book-keeping and prep time, for instance, is a totally valid design goal. Heavy bricolage, OTOH, always carries on the assumptions of the original game or games due to retaining their fundamental structure. Often some parts of this fundamental structure are irrelevant to the current game at hand, and hence a source of inelegancy. […]

  11. Game design =/= rpg design « Cogito, ergo ludo. said,

    […] design is building a (semi-formal) system where players can make mechanical choices that have mechanical consequences. Good game design makes […]

  12. Fluxx and Uno; system and memory « Cogito, ergo ludo. said,

    […] any system where participants have turns, take some action during a turn, then wait for the next one […]

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