Sunday, February 7, 2021

Does System Matter?


Dungeons & Dragons started out as a game with such an adaptable and open-ended set of rules that early adopters questioned whether any further published RPG systems were even necessary: DMs could make D&D into anything they wanted it to be, after all. But once the Blacow model took hold, and people began to understand system design through its lens, more attention was paid to how different designs could potentially yield results for players aligned to Blacow's "forms" (wargaming, role-playing, power-gaming, and storytelling). These would become the earliest arguments that system does matter, understood in frameworks like Donald W. Miller's typology of RPGs and wargames shown above.

By 1977, the first crop of self-identified role-playing games had reached gamers, and many players began running campaigns with systems like Traveller and Chivalry & Sorcery instead of D&D. But almost immediately, people started to question the impact that other systems would have on the nascent role-playing hobby. In The Wild Hunt, Jim Thomas spoke to the chances that Chivalry & Sorcery would move the needle with considerable skepticism:

This ultimately led Thomas to conclude, "I don't think new games/rules are going to make much of a difference in the long run." Arguments along these lines were understandably frustrating to budding RPG designers -- and perhaps none were so frustrated by it as Ed Simbalist, co-designer of Chivalry & Sorcery. Simbalist viewed the open-endedness of D&D as a pernicious myth that perpetuated the game's dominance.

Simbalist believed that "because D&D was the first set of popular role-playing rules, it became the game to which most players were exposed," and that "most players' concepts of role-playing have been conditioned by this popular set of rules." This was unfortunate because, to him, the D&D system was geared primarily toward dungeon adventuring, and if a particular D&D game had any greater depth, it was the players who "created the systems necessary to give that world some semblance of realism and consistency" and "probably with little or no help from the rules" as published.

Simbalist's contention that the first RPG system you played would "condition" how you approached other systems in the future would become a longstanding principle of RPG theory, but it wasn't until the Blacow model that it would truly come into its own. Donald W. Miller's 1981 essay "Theory on FRP", published in his "Journal of Aesthetical Simulation" (as distributed in A&E #74), advanced the theory that a given player's "style of play may be permanently prejudiced by their first introduction to FRP."

Miller, as shown in his graph above, charted system designs across four "constructs," on a continuum between abstraction to reality on the x axis, and then simplicity to complexity on the y axis. He incorporated the Blacow forms to "help the reader understand what the dynamics of the constructs will tend to produce," how, for example, "complex and realistic games will motivate players to wargame." (His model does not contain a category for Blacow's "storytelling" form because Miller was focusing on player outcomes, and considered storytelling a function of the DM.)

Miller's connection between design choices and the Blacow forms marked a point of maturity in the evolution of RPG theory. Like the Blacow forms themselves, this theory would be iterated upon ceaselessly, by Miller himself and many others. The tagline "system does matter" would later become the subject of an influential essay by Ron Edwards, and his notion that exposure to a seminal system could "condition" players would itself trigger a famous controversy. Edwards saw these design choices through the lens of the GNS model, but probably any such model would lead designers and players to the conclusion that, as Simbalist put it, a "game's underlying philosophy affects everything that the game's systems do or fail to do."


  1. Once again, Peterson puts up a densely researched and yet forward thinking post. In my younger days I would not have not have to drink an espresso to reply but age comes with disadvantages.

    Rather than dealing with the entire article, I would like to hone in on how Simbalist enters in two the picture. His idea that the first role-playing game one encountered would condition expectations was a deep topic with many variants, in no small part because the role-playing game which he co-designed, Chivalry and Sorcery (called simply C&S by its adherents) was the wargaming RPG of its day: and it focused on making the character as realistic a unit as possible, with all of the downsides that being a unit entails (e.g. death) and the relevant level of distance that Avalon Hill's pseudo-role-playing games also used. (E.g. Wizard’s Quest etc.) the character as unit engaged in a different level of abstraction than did the player-character of D&D and other RPGs.

    In Mitgaard (MIT) this distinction lead to at least 3 different groups: the war gamers/C&S, The Wild Hunt, and the Tangent Group - each with its own obsessions. In the war gamers’ worldview the system had to reflect the answers which came out of it, and therefore there was constant tinkering with the basic rules in an engineer's viewpoint: the role had to be written off in the same form as was found in the game itself. Thus, rules were made to do things like communication so that the Allied player would not strip the best units from defending France and place them so that they would be available to stop the axis offense. Result is not allied victory in France, but more units than the Axis could spare for their invasion of Russia. In C&S they needed a specific set of weapons and arrows to defeat the main threat which was known to the party. The gamesmaster was not to take liberties with the monster because that would be “unfair.” Then the simulation was invoked to provide a specific test of the general question.

  2. The units were used and their placement was down to inches so that the players could see exactly what was the problem that they were going to solve whether it is with Third Reich or C&S. That is exact placement could be seen by the players. This means that the highly detailed it location was part of the attraction: a unit had to know where it had been struck.

    This is very clear in its line of dissent from Chainmail and the ethos of role-playing as miniatures. The logical conclusion was that the specific game had to yield results which were within the game system specific world. (E.g. Elric) this was antithetical to how D&D was played in other groups, even if at the same Inst. of technology. C&S was too complicated and complex (differing words because they have different meanings) for the majority to spend time working through all of the complexities which the rules entailed. And there was a divergence between campaign specific rules and universal rules: between a GM and a multiple GM campaign.

    Whereas the war gamers wanted a solution to the given problem other players wanted a different kind of fun: the immersion with their character often the same character in different campaigns based on personal preference and often it was run in the theater of the mind, because they were not trying to duplicate a particular battle or campaign but a book, movie, or comic book. (One could get a Ph.D. in the complexities of the character as symbolizing the psychological and sexual state of the player.)

    But what this also meant is there were divisions between players who wanted to play the rules as written, and then make up alternatives to deal with the cases which did not work, and others who trusted the GM to make decisions, often on the fly. Both of these groups would have meta-sessions to explore the ways that the rules system could be improved for their particular game. Sometimes the results were suboptimal for the particular player. (I am sure that other people had the same problem but each gaming group brought its own style to the discussion.) For example there were often discussions about whether players had a preference for the means of storytelling: one side thought that players were only interested in outcomes, where as others bought that the character arc was important to the player who manufactured the character to fulfill it. Often times this was because the campaign arc was different from the character arc.

    I am sorry that no new essay could be developed here. That is to say there is an essay at the bottom of all of this but it is after a long consideration of all of the details and running them through the meta-filter of the larger RPG universe.

  3. Jon great post as always and Stirling your comments were very interesting.

  4. As interesting as Edwards and Simbalist thoughts were, has any of it been backed by actual observation of how players and referee play?

    Reflecting back when I was growing up and I see a lot of what happened a result of founder's effect. The bias and interests of key individuals shaped groups and how they played.

    By the time roleplaying hit my rural NW PA town we had a fair amount choices available. And thanks to Dragon and other RPG Magazines we were aware of most of them.

    My observations of what I and my friends can boiled down to two broad category. Either we did what was easy for us to do. Even with the time we had back than for a hobby it was still limited and most wanted just to have fun.

    Or we picked out what was interesting and went with that. The biggest issues with that was living in a rural town. I know about 4 dozen kids who played RPG regularly. And most of them were not interested in trying just any old system. Because it was not as easy as Dungeons & Dragons or whatever was their favorite.

    As for myself, I was attracted to the worldbuilding, I did it with AD&D first because it was easy to get players to play a campaign. And because for a high schooler before widespread use of word processor it was easier to use the D&D projects of TSR and Judges Guild to fill in the gaps of one's worldbuilding.

    What I did with the worldbuilding it let players trash my setting. They could become kings or magnates. I played enough wargames before roleplaying that I knew how to make it a fair challenge.

    That not the AD&D rules themselves which ultimately shaped how I approached RPGs for the next four decades to the present.

    I know about C&S and Runequest. To my high school self they were interesting RPGs but too heavily tied to their respective settings (medieval Europe and Glorantha) to be much use to me. It wasn't until the mid 80s when the generics started hitting their stride that I finally jumped ship from AD&D 1e and started using Fantasy Hero and later GURPS.

    The reason being it because to my then college age self they had better mechanics for worldbuilding by allowing you to tweak character just so to fit the setting.

    It wasn't until decades later with Finch's Old School Primer and your work the final pieces of the puzzle assembled to make realize that I could do what I do with any set of rules. The only question was how much work it would take to do.

    But as to what Edwards and Simbalists said, if my friend thought beyond what was easy for them to run, I would say they were shaped by everything. If the system conformed to their expectation than they liked the system. If it didn't they soon switched to another.

    But for most D&D was good enough for what they wanted out of their hobby. In my opinion it not so much they were shaped by D&D. They didn't care enough to look beyond something that working fine. It was just a hobby.

    For those of us who did look beyond, well that why RPGs developed an industry.

  5. Two points:

    1. Yes - there are adventure report sheets from a variety of groups. E.g. Hard data. I don't not know if they are related to theorist outlines.

    2. The chart is listed from a roleplayer's perspective: abstract/reality and simple/complex are only for a campaign with only 1 GM, multiple GMs is a third access. It should be noted there is a static line indicating a preference to a high degree, so one should in fact see a particular bias.

    I say it is a roleplayer's viewpoint because what is missing is as important as what is shown: Kingmaker, Kriegspiel, and even Monopoly. These were actually important for the statics of dice rolling pursued by RPG players. (Short version: like casinos, the RPG-player found wide variations from "fair")

  6. The existence of, and playing of, rule sets other than TSR's D&D and AD&D were immaterial to most of us (at least in the circles in which I gamed). We still called any fantasy game "D&D" even if the rules were actually C&S or some homebrew system or a hodgepodge made up of bits and pieces from various games (especially popular when Claw Law fist came out from ICE and those fantastic fumble tables became near-ubiquitous in just about any fantasy game).

  7. Off Topic: I will be teaching a class for eSplash at MIT which will us parts of Play at the World and Elusive Shift show how the are meta-issues in D&D the (as well as running a game.)

  8. I find this argument to be interesting and very compelling from my own experience. Though my first full theater-of-mind RPG was Rifts from Palladium Books, my real intro to RPGs was (as with many people of my generation) Hero Quest. And I can say with 100% certainty that Hero Quest colored my preferences and expectations ever after.

    That's not to say that I want every game to be Hero Quest; that's definitely not the case. Hero Quest, however, did set my earliest expectations and every style of play I've tried since has been, in a sense, a question of adjusting those expectations bit by bit. To us as kids, going from a board to theater-of-mind felt like a major increase in sophistication, but the kinds of stories we wanted to get out of it didn't actually change much. Whether guns and robots were involved (as in Rifts) or not (as in Palladium Fantasy and Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play, our next, and ultimately most played, games), we were basically doing grim, brutal fantasy.

    When my friends and I were getting into RPGs, almost nobody in our school played them even though we were in a suburb of Pittsburgh with multiple gaming stores around. What's more, I hadn't even heard of D&D until several years after we started playing RPGs, and we were very resistant to D&D for a while because the systems (it was AD&D 2e revised by that point) fought against the kinds of games we were running. It wasn't until I discovered older editions as an adult that I realized that D&D had originally been doing more or less what my friends and I had done first with Hero Quest and subsequently with Palladium Fantasy.

    These days, I run a number of systems (WFRP, T&T, OD&D, Palladium, Vampire: The Masquerade...) with different expectations for each one. Yes, I could choose any one system and hack it, patchwork it, and homebrew subsystems for it to make it do anything, but why should I when each one does a particular type of game so well already, and when rebuilding a different system to take any other's place is more work? Systems don't fully determine the mood and feel of any given campaign, but they do either facilitate or fight against moods and feels and gameplay styles. As such, my friends and I — as kids and as adults — never fell into the habit of generalizing every fantasy game as "D&D" or anything like that because they all feel so distinct. Perhaps that's a function of how many systems we had access to growing up, compared to the relatively few people may have seen around in the '70s and '80s, but it's definitely how we experienced it.

    For fear of making this comment WAY too long, I also wanted to briefly note that these considerations are part of why I introduce new players to RPGs by way of T&T, OD&D, or other non-standard or uncommon systems: I really dislike the assumptions at the heart of 5e and find that people who start with 5e have a very hard time stepping into nearly any other fantasy RPG without expecting it to be just another 5e with different terminology.

  9. As a player who started with basic d&d and who only recently came back to the hobby, I am finding myself very aware of how the current iteration lends itself to a different kind of experience than what I remember. I enjoy it, but it's not what I was looking for when I decided to pick gaming up again. I had to go find a different system that more easily lent itself to the kind of game I wanted to play (Low Fantasy Gaming, for what it's worth).

  10. Does System Matter?

    The answer is yes. There is a caveat however, and that caveat is what do you want the players to accomplish, ...while they are playing the game?

    When we first started roleplaying, we were wargaming. We literally took on the roles of the most famous commanders and generals in history, just to see if we could do better. The idea was to play against another player who was at the very least aware of the strategy and tactics employed by the famous generals and commanders of history to see if we would fare better when faced with the knowledge and choices that these battle commanders had faced.

    This is also why we enjoyed new wargames featuring obscure battles from history as often we didn’t know what the actual battle objectives or the victory conditions were. We could play against an opponent and then later look up the history of the battle to learn what had really happened. As a wargamer I studied battles and played simulations in order to learn how to be a better combat commander in real life.

    I’ll provide a couple examples of some really excellent wargames which hit that sweet spot and would actually improve a players knowledge of strategy and implementation of tactics, then I’ll switch to roleplaying and briefly discuss system with that.

    The first is an old SPI game, Panzergruppe Guderian. The battle was the summer 1941 battle of Smolensk during WWII. In the actual battle in 1941 Heinz Guderian smashed through the Russian lines and encircled a very large Russian army forcing them to surrender. The Germans encircled the Russian 16th, 19th, and 20th armies and cut off their supplies, and 350,000 Russian soldiers surrendered.

    At the beginning of this battle the Russians actually outnumbered the Germans by a 3:2, were at an advantage because they were on the defense and the Russians had more heavy tanks and armored vehicles than the Germans did, but the Germans still managed to pull off a big win against all the odds.

    In the game, SPI recreates this very well by using the "Untried unit" rule: Soviet units are initially picked randomly and deployed face down; their type (e.g. infantry, armor) and movement values are shown, but not their strengths. Neither player knows the unit's combat strength until it first engages in combat, when it is flipped over, revealing its offensive and defensive capabilities.

    During setup the Germans stack the counters of their units, so neither player actually knows the location of the elite combat units of their foe until after the units are actually engaged in combat. This simulates the fog of war the original commanders faced very well, not knowing where the next threat is coming from, but having to devise an attack strategy to defeat your foe.

    The other game that lets players actually improve their strategy & tactics skills, as well as excersing logistics awareness is Strategy I, another SPI game. With this game, each player (Up to 6 can play simultaneously with the counters provided) picks a country, and then buys economic and manufacturing resources, and also chooses the military they have by purchasing units which are placed onto the battlemap at the beginning of the game. The game consists of turns where wealth is gathered from the resources, then spent on manufacturing to build more manufacturing capabilities or combat units which can be deployed into the areas of the battlemap that the players already control.
    The players can experiment and find out the best combinations of combat units to use to fight their...

  11. foes, and of course, the goal is to defeat your enemies, or force their surrender, or to other terms that are beneficial for your continued success as the leader of an independent country. This game has rules for the deployment and use of nuclear weapons, by the way, and can simulate just about any battle from just about any period in history.

    A couple other wargames that are really good to improve tactical awareness and skills on the battlefield include Avalon Hill’s Squad Leader, and Panzer Leader, Panzerblitz, and the Arab-Israeli War.

    With Roleplaying games, even very early on, we latched onto the Wilderness aspects, and a big part of our early games was Kingdom Building and Fantasy World Building. Unlike today where one player is the GM, We would round robin as Gamemasters and each of us would take a turn as players exploring new worlds that were created by the other players. We would explore playing all the different character classes, and even new character classes that we made up and added to our home games.

    We took our favorite things from fantasy authors and included them in our early D&D game worlds, as well as adding in anything we thought appropriate from history, as well as ideas from our own imagination. This hodgepodge was then presented where other players would roll up characters and explore these “New and Unknown” (to them) fantasy worlds.

    I do remember when we started seeing other RPG games released as well. Chivalry & Sorcery was a really big hit with our gaming group because the combat rules realistically recreated medieval combat in a way that pleased many of the older wargamers who had some disdain for the abstract combat system of original D&D. Tunnels & Trolls was popular because even though it was very abstract, it had a quickplay combat and magic system, and could be played in segments of half an hour or hour which fit with our school schedules very well. Arduin and Runequest was very popular as well in our gaming group. Runequest used a D100 combat system, and featured an open ended system that was very easy to add new weapons, magic, and monsters to, And Arduin was our goto for over the top death-metal style combat matches set in a grim and dark fantasy world. You could call Arduin the Heavy Metal RPG game.

    So yes, ...system matters. It matters for what you and your group of players hope to accomplish during the game. You (with your gaming group) get to choose what to play, and what the goals and objectives of the game is, before you play.