Friday, July 24, 2009

System Structure

This is my first blog post, and as I swore repeatedly that I would never have a blog, it's pretty humiliating. Whatever. This blog isn't about me, it's about games.

Systems have akways fascinated me. I came into RPGs from wargames in 1978, where kit-bashing and rolling your own were common activities. I carried that over into roleplaying. I have little use for innovation in gaming. Innovation, in my opinion, should only be used when tried and true methods are not working properly. That said, it's due to innovation that there are any tried and true methods.I admit that. My position generally is let someone else do the innovating. Innovation generally invokes failure. Messy, catastrophic failure. I like to avoid that if possible.

Now innovation does not equate to creativity. I have lots of use for creativity! Applying tried and true methods creatively is what I strive for. To me, designing RPGs is not an art, but a craft - first of all is usefulness. Anything else is secondary. I'm trying to build a nice chest of drawers here, not sculpt a stunning piece of art. Unfortunately, like Herodotus, I tend to digress. Let's get back on track.

A game system is an assembly of rules and supporting structures which enable a game to be played. I know of four structural models for creating systems:

Accretive - This is the way the first RPGs were created. Rules are added ad hoc to the existing rules as problems are encountered. Each problem has a separate but equal solution, and exceptions are handled via judgement calls. Rules inter-relate in strange and unpredictable ways. There is a lot of flavor inherent to this model - quirky, messy, and interesting.

Disappearing - This model emphasizes one central mechanic which is applied throughout. Problems encountered are resolved by application of this mechanic, with exceptions resolved by non-mechanical means via a combination of consensus and judgement calls. This model yields games which are simple to learn and easy to internalize, so that the rules tend to become background noise.

Thematic - This model emphasises a set of related co-dependent mechanics which are generally applied by the players directly rather than through the medium of the characters. Problems encountered are resolved by applying these mechanics to change the nature of the problem on a metagame level until the problem essentially resolves itself, reducing or eliminating the need for exception handling. This model works best when applied to sharply circumscribed initial value sets, due to less effort being needed to shape the problems encountered so as to fit the ruleset.

Framework - This model is a set of abstract interfaces, to which modular sub-systems can be attached if they have matching interfaces. Sub-systems return a value which can be handled by the framework. Problems are resolved by application of a sub-system, with exceptions handled by other sub-systems added as needed. This model necessitates a high degree of abstraction, due to the need to standardize interfaces, but is extremely flexible - both in application and in design.

All these structural models have advantages and disadvantages which are inherent to the nature of their structures. None are inherently bad or good, as their value is entirely in their application. Structures may be appropriate or inappropriate depending on what the designer wants to do. Structure strongly influences game flavor, and appreciation of game flavor is extremely subjective.

More later!



  1. Congratulations on your first blog post. You chose a fitting topic, as the person who taught me that system matters.

    As a rule, I don't give much thought to the theory of game mechanics. I just create system tools, put them through their paces, and adjust them accordingly. I don't think there is a flawless set of system rules out there. Conversely, I think 80 per cent of the existing system rules are perfectly usable (despite their "flaws.)

    In the early days of gaming (for me, it was 1979/1980) we adapted and we overcame. I think that continues to day among mainstream gamers. While a lot of moaning and groaning occurs on internet fora, I don't think those doing the moaning and groaning are representative on the mainstream gamer. Quite the opposite. In many ways, I think the mainstream gamer has evolved far beyond the hardcore hobbyist that frequents internet fora. The mainstream gamer continues to adapt and overcome; the hardcore hobbyist has forgotten how to do so and would much rather complain instead.

    Still, as an independent game publisher it is the hardcore hobbyist that I have easist access to, and so it is the hardcore hobbyist that I have to satisfy.

    This brings me back to the fact that "system matters." It matters because I have to satisfy a group with very select tastes. It matters because this same group is my customer base. The same holds true for many small press publishers, I think. And, if there is innovation, it is coming from these same small press publishers. As a result, it is the "system matters" crowd that is calling the shots in terms of present-day game design.

    This presents a problem to me, because when I really decide that something is of utter umportance, I tend towards perfection. And, as I stated very early on in this preamble, every system has its flaws and therefore cannot be perfect. And so, I revisit the mechanic again and again while neglecting the thing that always attracted me to gaming in the first place, setting (which includes the application of the genre of the game).

    This necessary focus on system, has slowed my production rate to a crawl. Not that I mind. The game does get finished, just much more slowly.

    - Rich

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  3. Ah! I can post now! Marvelous! :D

    You bring up an excellent point, Rich - that in order to sell games, we small press publishers must market them to the only group of roleplayers who are actually listening. This is the web-aware group.

    When I started publishing, I looked around the web, having never looked here for roleplaying stuff, and was amazed at how much *stuff* there was here. This from a guy who had been on the web since the only browser was Mosaic - a unix guy. It just never occurred to look.

    This - I think - may be the situation with many roleplayers. They are used to getting their news from other sources - the FLGS and word of mouth from friends - and never think of looking on the web for roleplaying stuff. The web is for other things.

    Anyway, glad to see you here! ;d


  4. Clash,
    Good to see you're blog. I've always enjoyed your perspective on forums and now look forward to hearing more here.


  5. Hi Mike! Glad to have you dropping by! :D


  6. Ah, Clash, as a "System does not matter at least in that way" kind of guy you know my stance on the whole "System must model the setting". That said, i think I may have used all your models at one time or another although, I would probably say nowadays I am mostly a Framework with a dash of Disappearing and maybe just a bit of Accretion.

    As to system mattering, well, i think the elements of a system matter. They matter subjectively and to the user of the system, but there is no empiracal measure of how a system must model a setting. Support it, sure, but you and I both know that is not the same as modelling it. ;)

    I look forward to more entries oh wise master.

  7. I agree with HinterWelt a system should be a part of the setting where ever possible and mold into its background.
    A lot of this depends on the system being used I guess a simple Disappearing style of low mechainics will merge easier than one using a lot of intergrated options (Framework).
    In its main d20 was a workable Disapperaing system but got lost in the hoard of splat that followed IMO D6 in its StarWars form was an invisible as Ive found since.


  8. Thanks for dropping by Bill and Roger! :D

    As you implied in your comments, I'm not saying these three models are unitary - i.e. you can mix and match models within a game system. Each model has its own pluses and minuses, and by mixing models, you can alter the overall feel. What that mix is is entirely up to the designer. My Myers-Briggs profile pegs me as analytical and non-judgmental, so I do not think any one model is superior to any other. just different, and that means for a particular applications, one may be better than another. It's all to taste anyway. :D


  9. Mostly I prefer a minimal system that after a few runs becomes second nature to all using it but have enjoyed systems that are pure crunch, in the end its the gaming and not the game Im after.
    As a long time Traveller gearhead I do love making ships etc that have very detailed and complex systems behind them but in the end when using them in the game that part just becomes fluff.

  10. @ Rog

    My preferences go all over the map. I have seen all of these models work well in a game, and seen elements of all three in the same game, and it's all good.

    @ Levi

    Examples? Ok. I think the following are good examples:

    Accretive - AD&D

    Disappearing - BRP

    Thematic - Dogs In The Vineyard

    Framework - Coyote Trail