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.

Definition

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.)

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The purpose of rules

24 November, 2007 at 12:00 pm (game design, rpg theory) (, , , , )

I have dabbled in freeform. It works. This begs the question; why use rules at all?

There have, naturally, been several good answers to the question. One famous comes from the Forge and is called Lumpley principle: “System (including but not limited to ‘the rules‘) is defined as the means by which the group agrees to imagined events during play.” In essence: System, including the rules, tells who can say what and when (“what” regarding the fiction). So, what are the implications? First, all games with one GM and number of players who only decide things about the behaviour of their characters are fundamentally the same. Second, there are alternatives to that model. Third, there is always a system; rules just make it explicit.

Another, more recently surfaced, theory says that rules share spotlight (originally from Ben Robbins, further elaborated by Fang Langford here, here and here). The implications include that rules which create separate subgames (hacking in Cyberpunk) not accessible to all players are bad. In turn-based environment, such as many combat systems, rules that give extra actions should be considered carefully. Critical hits and fumbles are actually meaningful rules; they give random bursts of spotlight to players. The purpose of rules is to regulate spotlight away from those who would have it in freeform gaming.

Rules also create shared expectations with regards to the fiction and player behaviour generally, which is probably more important. The Mountain Witch (Vuoren velho in Finnish) has rules for betrayal and every player knows that every other player has a dark secret. This creates the atmosphere where betrayal is assumed to happen, at some point, and hence reduces the potential for damage that may happen with unexpected interparty conflict (see also: this RPGsite thread). Game art and such also contribute in similar manner. Under this point of view rules make the gameplay smoother; less need for negotiation, fewer mistakes that need fixing.

“The rules are the physics of the game world.” is often heard. I am going to extend it a bit: Rules define setting. The effect is not necessarily straightforward, but it is there. D&D dwarves are harder to hit by giants. There might be several reasons for this, or none at all, but it will be reflected in the setting somehow. What does this imply? Well, first, the more rules, the more defined the setting will be. This may be a perk or a flaw. Second; setting andrules interact. Choosing one will or should affect the other. Third, if you want a setting that does make sense internally, take a good look at the rules and how to translate them into in-game (diegetic) information.

Rules create tactical and strategic sub-games. Some are very explicit about this, some far less so, but at least the combat or generic conflict resolution systems tend to be minigames. Implications: Make them meaningful and fun, given that they are there.

In summary, there are several ways of looking at the purpose of rules. When selecting a ruleset, or designing one, it is useful to look at it from several perspectives.

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