Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Riddle of Systems

I played in a Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game once, and it was awful.  To this day I know not the name of a single NPC.  Every fight scene was an endless, and often malicious, deluge of relatively useless monsters, and the final "climactic" scene was so tedious that one of the players literally shouted "Get on with it!" at one point and everyone else at the table, but the GM, agreed with him.  When I asked him about it later, he agreed it was a terrible game. "The system was just shit." He explained.

"Yeah, that was the problem" I thought to myself, but smiled and nodded.

Another story, if you'll permit me: I've seen Fate Core discussions make the rounds, from complaints from GURPS fans that Fate Core doesn't do enough, to complaints from  minimalists that it does too much, that you need nothing but Aspects and Fate Points, that the game is driven by the Fate Economy.  I'm currently in a Fate Core game, and what struck me about that discussion is how little the GM uses fate points and aspects.  In fact, I'm the only one who does things like create scene aspects, spend my fate points, etc, and when people try to do the same, they look at me, rather than the GM for a discussion about how to actually deal with the mechanics.  When it comes to that specific GM, he runs the game the way he runs every game: He puts the book on the table, so we know what game it is we're playing, and then he tells his story and we respond and sometimes, once or twice a session, we'll roll some dice to add some uncertainty, and then go back to telling the story.

Sometimes, the game will go well.  "It's a good system," he'll say.  Sometimes, the game will go poorly.  "It's a bad system," he'll say.

I often see arguments over system.  Rifts, for example, "has a great setting but a terrible system."  The Old World of Darkness is some people's favorite system of all time, and they bristle if I point out that it's very broken.  D&D 4e is "too much like an MMO" and so on.  The general thrust that I hear in these discussions is if so and so could finally find the perfect system, then his games would finally work.  Everyone is on the look for the next supplement that will finally make their game work.  And if you show them something different, something new, they'll recoil.  "That doesn't work for me," they'll say.

Conan the Barbarian has an interesting concept called the Riddle of Steel. Let me pose to you the Riddle of Systems, and then answer it for you: Flesh is stronger than system.  What problem with your games isn't the system.  The problem with your game is you.


What are systems good for, anyway?

That's not to say that I don't think systems are useless or pointless (My most popular post on this blog is The Three Thigns an RPG System Do For You), it's just that I think people ascribe too much power to them and, at the same time, that I think they fail to utilize them in the right way.

An RPG system does not make a game. It does not entertain your friends.  It will not tell a story for you.  You have to do all those things yourself.  But an RPG system offers you the tools to make that easier.

If I can use a metaphor: A car will not build itself.  A person builds a car.  But it's far easier to build a car with mechanical tools than it is with a heavy rock and a sharp stick.  It's easier to turn a bolt with a proper wrench, because it lets you apply your force with greater precision.  It's easier to lift a car with a car jack than with a gang of guys.  It's easier to take a pre-assembled tire and just use it to replace a flat tire than it is to find a way to repair that tire on the go.

A good system acts like a good toolset.  It provides the inspiration necessary to crystalize your ideas around a campaign concept, or for your players to crystalize their ideas around a character concept.  It offers pre-built enemies and pre-built NPCs and pre-built settings that you can assemble together for the beginnings of a campaign. It offers you a basic gameplay structure, so that even if you don't know what you're doing, the game might turn on some very interesting choices. It leverages your existing skills to create greater impact.  

But in the end you have to do the work.  Your ruleset might have inspired you, but you need to put that inspiration to paper.  It might have offered you a pre-built NPC, but you have to bring her to life in front of your players, and you have to find where she belongs in the campaign.  The game might create an interesting tactical framework, but you have to build the actual encounter.  The ruleset can help you, but it does it by magnifying your effort, not by doing the work for you.

In this sense, a system can be broken.  If it fails to magnify your effort, if you find that you're fighting the system more than you're using it, it might be broken.  Are the choices offered by the tactical framework interesting, or are they ultimately false and there's a few really good strategies that overwhelm everything else?  Does the game involve a lot of busywork that ultimately results in nothing interesting?  Do you put a ton of work into the game and get nothing really useful in return, or end up feeling like you're rewriting everything?  Then  you might have a broken system.  Stop using it.

The Hunt for the Perfect System

Learn the form, but seek the formless. Hear the soundless. Learn it all, then forget it all. Learn The Way, then find your own way. - The Silent Monk, Forbidden Kingdom


Alright, so I've just established that systems are good and important, that you need to have a good one, and why, and that broken systems are bad and you should avoid them, none of which should surprise you.  This is why you're looking for "the Perfect System" anyway, right?  Even if you accept what I've said, then some system must magnify what you're doing to the point where you can twitch one way or another, and splendid story will spill forth and your players will frolick through your endless encounters of rapture and joy.  Surely there must be something out there like that?

There isn't.  There never will be.  No matter how great your tools get, they're only as good as you are.  You need to strengthen the man more than you need to worry about "the Perfect System." And that means getting more out of your system.

The Sin of the Cargo Cult

The first way you do that is to understand how the system works.  Those who fail to do this commit The Sin of the Cargo Cult.  They refuse to learn the form while seeking the formless: They just go through the rituals required of them by the rules, without understanding why.

If I may return to the car analogy, there are some people who open a manual, and use it to fix their car.  They go through the motions of changing their tire or changing their oil, and they do this when the manual says they should, and it's fine.  The car works, more or less.  But you couldn't call them a mechanic.  A mechanic understands how cars work.  He knows how that wheel was bolted onto the axle, and why they chose to do it that way.  He knows what the oil is for, why this oil works for this car, and what other kinds of oil is out there.  He knows how an engine works.  He understands the rules, which means he can throw the rules away.  If the car breaks down an a weird and unexpected way, he'll be able to fix it while the manual-clinging guy cannot.  If he needs oil, but his preferred oil is unavailable, he'll know how best to make a temporary fix, or what oil he can substitute effectively.

As a GM (or a player!), you can do the same.  If you try to understand the game design principles behind the design choices your system uses, you can go from being a guy who uses the manual to a game mechanic.  Rather than run a game, you can engineer your game.  When you run into weird situations, your mastery of the underlying principles means you always know what to do.

Do you know why D&D uses dragons and elves? Why not hufflepuffs and assholes? Among other reasons, it's because certain things have mythic resonance.  Dragons represent a great and terrifyingly inhuman enemy, a sort of obstacle that man has been "fighting" since the dawn of time.  And non-humans become short-hand for other cultures, and the "tall, thin vs short, stout" are themes that come up again and again, which mythic archetypes that humans tend to want to see in their stories (There was an article on this, but alas, I cannot find it).  Why does D&D focus on combat and not on, say, cooking contests?  Why does it use HP and the d20 and fixate on local fights?  Why do they use spell slots rather than magic points?  D&D is creating a series of interesting choices that focus around resource management, local tactical combat and the trade-offs inherent between killing monsters and taking their stuff.

If we fail to understand these things and we try to shoot off in our own direction, we will inevitably create a heartbreaker.  We know that D&D needs elves, but we don't know why, so we have elf-like beings called Ganders.  We know that D&D needs magic, but we want to replace them with magic points because we've seen some other games do that and we like those other games, even though we don't really understand the context of those choices.  We know that D&D has combat, but we find some of the combat unrealistic ("damage should be much more dangerous!"), and the end result, unexpectedly, is that mages become super-heroes, nobody likes Ganders, and fighters are useless and extremely fiddly.

If we do understand these, we can play with the concepts while building our own gameplay.  If we understand the mythical implications of dragons and elves, we can borrow from other mythology, including old-world mythology ("D&D with a Japanese spin!") or a modern mythology ("D&D with a Saturday Morning Cartoons spin!").  If we understand the principles of gameplay, game balance and encounter design, we can begin to replace existing elements ("Magic becomes psionic powers"), expand elements ("Here's how fighters can study martial arts"), or add entirely new elements ("What if we made a game called D&D High, where characters had to balance their dungeon excursions with getting their homework done on time, and their social relationships?  Will our hero, the dwarven quarterback finish the dungeon and get the ring that he needs to ask the Homecoming Elf Queen to Prom in time for homeroom, or will the dreaded Hall Monitor catch him and send him to Detention?) in a way that makes sense.

This was the sin of the Lord of the Rings GM.  He did what the book said, but he's not a very good GM.  Thus it failed, and he blamed the tools.  If he better understood what makes a game work, and why the rules were set up the way they were, he'd have had a better game.

The Sin of the Comfort Zone

Where the magic happens
The second way you do this is gaining a new perspective on gaming. Those who fail to do this commit the Sin of the Comfort Zone.  This is my great frustration with those who won't try new things or, when they do, note that this new thing is new and not like the old thing at all, and thus crap.

We've used a mechanic as a metaphor.  You need the right tools to build a car.  Can you build a car with carpenter tools?  With a computer?  With office management skills?  No, of course not.  You can't turn a screw with a Kanban manual, and a keyboard won't support the car's weight if you try to use it to jack the car up.

And yet... A skilled computer scientist will clear his throat and say "Automation." A computer itself can be a tool for designing your car.  A computer can program a robot, and the robot can build your car.  And if a robot can build one car, it can build a million.  The office manager would quickly point out the same, that process builds cars, and specific people or tools are irrelevant.  You can switch out one tool for another, one person for another, as long as you have the proper tool-procurement procedures and training procedures and car-building procedures, you can use management techniques to build cars.  Even the carpenter will smile and point out that you can, in fact, build a car out of wood.  In any case, though, what's your ultimate goal?  To get somewhere?  You can get somewhere in a boat, and you can build a boat with carpentry skills too.

Mechanics might bristle and say "That's not what I meant." But what we have here is a paradigm-shift.  Different tools facilitate different ways of looking at the problem.  If the mechanic pauses for a second, he might realize that computers and management procedures can allow him to expand his skillset to serve millions, and that understanding of carpentry might expand what he can do with cars, or even push his skillset so he can conquer entirely new domains.  He goes beyond "fixing cars" and into "building infrastructure for transportation."  Even if he doesn't, even if he just wants to build his hobby car at home, understanding how managers, programmers and carpenters approach their problems can broaden how he views his issues.

Different RPG sets do the same.  We've discussed D&D, and if you want to go into a dungeon, kill monsters and take their stuff, D&D is pretty good at that and Nobilis isn't.  But if you want to talk about the meaning behind killing monsters and taking their stuff, if you want to examine why people might want to do it, why the presence of dungeons and killing monsters and taking their stuff is important, then suddenly Nobilis is great for killing monsters and taking their stuff.  Fate isn't very good at killing monsters and taking their stuff either, unless by that you mean worrying about the narrative structure around that, looking at the drama of a hero being pushing to the brink of defeat, and then using recent events, his environment and his own hopes and fears to come back from that defeat and create a dramatic, and dramatically appropriate, victory.  Then it's great! Even if we don't want to play those games, but D&D, understanding how these different games see the gaming world can impact how we envision our own game.  We can borrow some concepts from Gumshoe to improve our puzzles and mysteries, some of Nobilis' paradigm to add flavor to our gods and cosmos, and use Fate to grasp the rise and fall, the pulse, of narrative flow in our game.

If we fixate our search on finding "better tools for what we already do", then we can miss the possibility of new ways of doing things. If the way you've been working doesn't work, then changing how you work might be the ticket to getting a better game.  A new system might give you a new game, or it might give you a new way of doing an old game.  That freshness of perspective, either way, is going to put some pep into your game's step.

This is the sin of my Fate GM.  He cut his teeth on World of Darkness and tries to run all games as World of Darkness. He likes the idea of trying new games, but once he does, he judges the game by the old paradigm.  Does it give him the World of Darkness mechanical feel that he wants?  If not, then it's "not a good system." But he's dissatisfied with that old World of Darkness feel.  If he ran the games as they were intended, despite his discomfort, he might start to find something new, something that's closer to what he's looking for.

Lo, the Perfect System

So here it is, the perfect system uncovered!  It's all about improving yourself as a GM and a player.  The riddle of systems is that it's the hand that interacts with the system that matters most.  It is the intent and the knowledge that we carry with us that matters.  We use systems, and those systems need to be good, of course!  But we need to understand the system, and we need to have a story worth telling, and a game worth playing before the system can begin to work.

The art of running a game is the art of self-improvement, and believe me, you can definitely improve how you run a game (I don't care if you're a tween who stole his brother's copy of D&D or you're Kenneth Freaking Hite, you can improve your game).  And you'll do it thus:

1. Read up on game design theory: You need to understand how RPGs work.  Read the GM section of your preferred game, and read the design notes behind it.  Go deeper, though.  If you want to know more about game design, read David Sirlin's blog on game design, or read Raph Koster's "A Theory of Fun." If you want to know more about the narrative-part of RPGs, look up books like Hamlet's Hitpoints, or any number of websites or books on how to write a book, or how to critique a movie. Follow a literature course!  Then read up on people who put both of these together: general RPG design concepts (like on this very blog!) or in the aforementioned GM sections, because the best games usually have designers well-versed in RPG design principles.

2. Try a different game: A really different game.  Don't go from D&D to Pathfinder, or from GURPS to Heroes.  Go try something new. And then really try it.  Run it exactly as intended.  Don't complain!  Stop whining about how the game is totally different from what you usually do.  Of course it is, that's why you tried it!  Try to figure out what it's doing, why it does it, talk to people about it, about what they get out of it.  Tell people what your problems are with it.  Make it work.  Get a success.  Get at least one person to go "Wow, this system is awesome!" Then you'll start to understand it.

3. Synthesize: You've learned new concepts and tried new games.  Apply them to your given style.  Look at how the new game compares and contrasts with your favorite old system.  Look at the design principle you've uncovered.  See if you can figure out how it's already been applied to your system.  See if you can ferret out some of the reasoning behind things.  Try to blend these new concepts together into something unique and whole.

4. Apply: Run a freaking game.  We like to theory-craft on these blogs (I certainly do), but nothing matters until rubber touches the road.  Then suddenly half of your new-fangled theories will be exposed as the tissues of lies that they are.  You'll learn what works and what doesn't, and you'll get bumps and bruises, but what will be left will be stronger, tougher and better.

Remember the riddle of systems: The perfect system isn't found out there.  It's built, piece by piece, through education, exploration and experience.

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