Thinking About Systems

At Intwischa, we only play simulationist games

At Intwischa, we only play simulationist games

Reading Charlie’s commentary from last week got me thinking about how mechanics affect role playing.  Most RPGs are fairly complex games.  As such, they can be enjoyed on many levels.  This is where the old Gamist/Narrativeist/Simulationist discussion would come in, but that’s really not the point of this post.  What is the point, however, is that a lot of different games have been invented, each stressing its own niche.

Each game has its fans, and they’ll all claim that you can do some great role playing in their chosen system.  What’s more, they’re probably right.  If that’s true, then, does the system matter at all?

How exactly does a system affect a game?  More specifically, how does the system affect the way a player runs a character?

I’ve role played in a lot of games.  Not all of them were even RPGs!  I can vouch from personal experience that you can play a character in a war game, or add story to a non-RPG computer game.  So what the heck do we need these systems for?

It seems to me that games can have a couple different relationships to the role playing that occurs in them.  They can use rules to promote playing a character well.  Their systems can attempt to stay out of the way of the RP.  Finally, their system can get in the way of role playing.

Promoting RP

The prime examples I can come up with for the first category are the games based on FATE.  The Aspect mechanic does an awesome job of giving the player immediate incentives to play their character.  They increase the chances of succeeding at things that fall within the bounds of the character.  They also allow the GM to get players to play the character even it might not be in their best interests.

I’ll admit here that I haven’t played any White Wolf games yet.  From what what I hear, though, they might be in this group as well.  Maybe some WW fans can chime up in the comments?

I’m specifically not going to count games with a line somewhere instructing the GM to “reward players for good role playing.”  In my experience, that doesn’t really work anyway.  The player is probably not thinking about the XP bonus they might get when they’re deciding what to do, and by the time the reward is handed out, the decisions are long past.

RP Neutral

Some games just try to get out of the way, and let the players do their thing.  Probably since it’s what we’re playing now, the game that occurred to me first for this category was Swords and Wizardry.  Its reward structure is aimed squarely at exploration rather than RP.  However, the simplicity of the system makes it pretty easy to adjudicate improvised actions that fit the character.

In fact, most simpler games not actively rewarding role playing will fit in this category.  They don’t help, but they don’t hurt either.

Impeding RP

It took me a bit to think of what would go in this category.  Finally, though, I thought of the games in which the story would be rumbling along nicely, only to come to a screeching halt when initiative was rolled.  I would put most “crunchy” games here.  Pretty much every edition of D&D after OD&D would be included.  So too would every edition of Shadowrun.  Though I haven’t yet played the latest edition, I’ll go out on a limb and suggest Rifts too.

The more the game is oriented toward tactics or simulation, the more there is to get in the way of the character.  I find it harder to think of the character when I’m focusing on the mechanics, and this is not for lack of trying.  This is exactly what Charlie was talking about last week.

When I say these systems impede RP, I don’t mean it like a bar bouncer blocks drunks.  Instead, I mean it like a happy puppy gets under foot when you’re trying to walk.  They’re so enthusiastic and wrapped up in what they do really well that they can impose that upon your character.

Bottom Line

A while ago, Charlie mentioned one of our campaigns in which we converted from Shadowrun to FATE mid game.  I’m talking about going from a game where they list each gun complete with how many bullets it uses in each firing mode, to one that lists no weapon details at all.  These are systems on completely opposite poles of the Crunchiness Scale.

I don’t know that we played our characters more or better in either game.  However, we did get farther much faster in FATE.  My guess is that this was both because the system was simpler and quicker, and because combat was integrated into the story rather than being a period of dice pool rolling bullet time.

Still, they were both a lot of fun.  I’d definitely play either one again.  I’d play D&D or Rifts again in a heartbeat too.  However, the system affects the way the game unfolds, depending on the actions it makes easy or difficult, and the behaviors it rewards.  The point is that both the campaign and the group need to be matched to the system.  Does your group want a character focused story game?  Go for something like FATE.  Is the campaign a gritty scifi theme complete with monumental combats?  Sounds like Shadowrun.  Do you want to tell a story, but one of your guys will fall asleep at the table if he doesn’t get in some tactical combat?  Maybe go for D&D.

Disagree with me?  Think you can run any style campaign in any game?  Were those fightin’ words about your favorite system?  Let me know in the comments.

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