The RPG Experience, and Why System Matters

First off, let’s just clarify that when I say RPG experience, I don’t mean the kind that ends in a very bad day for your Black Hawk helicopter. In this case, much like in the blog I wrote a few weeks ago, RPG stands for “Role-Playing Game”, and might be further clarified as not involving sex at all, either.

Ahh, fuck it. Let’s face it, if you’re not some sort of gaming nerd already you’re most likely not going to care about the rest of this post. Get out of my basement. Leave the Cheetos.

For the rest of you, let’s talk about the basic idea of the Role-Playing Game. When we were kids, we all engaged in varying degrees of “Let’s pretend” with our friends. A simple declaration of “I’m a cowboy/space ranger/princess!” was enough for starters (and given the wonderfully crazy brains we have as kids, “cowboy space ranger princess” might not even have been considered mutually exclusive). Sometimes it was more specific and media-savvy: “I’m Han Solo!” (which inevitably led to argument as at least one other friend also had imagined themselves to be portraying Han Solo that day). In any case, it was a fairly simple process. You declared yourself Spider-Man, your friend was Wonder Woman, and you ran around doing horribly risky things in the name of fun. If you were hardcore, you did so while wearing your awesome Spider-Man and Wonder Woman Underoos.

Hell yeah! Evildoers beware!

The rules, such as they were, tended to be improvised; a childhood phenomenon where Bill Watterson’s Calvinball provides one of the most well-known examples, but one just as easily observed in any park or playground: “You’re dead! I shot you!” “Nuh uh! I got a force field!”

Ad infinitum. In some cases, early examples of good cooperative storytelling occurred where everyone got a chance to be cool, but also recognized that defeat or failure of their alter ego didn’t mean the game wasn’t fun. On the 0ther hand, you’d also run into a lot of cases of Superman being presented with kryptonite, and instead of saying “Argh! Kryptonite!” he’d just tell you he’s immune to kryptonite today and punch you in the arm. Fun for him, perhaps, but not necessarily for everyone else.

Role-playing games, at their core, are nothing more than a glorified version of Let’s Pretend… but to prevent Tommy from being that poophead who always ignores the kryptonite when he’s Superman, role-playing games concocted codified lists of rules and systems. It was a necessary evil intended to prevent grown men and women from repeating the force field argument above (although not always with success).

In fact, childhood nostalgia aside, I contest the notion of RPG rules systems being an evil. Perhaps I’ve just seen one too many games out there that tried to operate on the idea of a “gentleman’s agreement” and failed miserably. Tommy is always out there, ready to laugh at any idea of fair play and punch you in the arm. But a good rules system goes beyond simply settling disputes… a truly superlative rules system offers an enhancement to Let’s Pretend.

Here’s where I’ll finally get to my goddamn point. As kids and adults both, the height of Let’s Pretend is to be as much like Han Solo as possible, because Han Solo is awesome, and has cool space opera adventures. Bear with me, here, I know not everyone wants to be Han Solo. Maybe you want to be Spaceman Spiff, instead. The point here is that this is the most sacred trust of an RPG system: if it advertises to you that it enables cool space opera adventures, then it damn well better provide cool space opera adventures. If you crack that book and are instantly bombarded with page after page of technical minutiae detailing the inner workings of the Millenium Falcon, it is a sign that something has gone horribly wrong.

I touched on this in my D&D 4.0 essay. D&D, purportedly a game that would allow us to portray heroes of heroic fantasy in the mold of Aragorn, Lancelot, Conan, etc., was crippled from its inception by a system chock full of impersonal number crunching and bizarre, complicated rules. This can be partly understood by knowing that the D&D ruleset originally evolved from a full-on tabletop wargame known as Chainmail; in general, you really don’t have much attachment to your little wargaming guys, they’re just means to an end… as evidenced by the fact Chainmail had wargaming conceits such as one halfling miniature representing several halflings.

Also, D&D was the first, and pioneers can always earn some forgiveness as they grasp for the best ways to achieve their ends. That said, it still took D&D an awfully long time to figure out their system was stifling a heroic fantasy experience rather than enhancing it. To use an Underoos analogy (because I’ve always wanted to do that), you could say it’s the Let’s Pretend difference between wearing the Underoos that looked like Batman’s costume, and wearing ones that just had a picture of Batman on it. In the latter case, you’re a kid wearing a Batman shirt. In the former, you’re the goddamned Batman. Okay, maybe not the goddamned Batman. I don’t think anyone besides Frank Miller wants to enhance the goddamned Batman experience.

You could also pretend to be Batman without any Underoos at all, but if someone’s going to market them to you, wouldn’t you prefer the ones that better helped you connect to the awesomeness of being Batman?

Next week I’m going to talk about some of the RPG systems throughout the decades that I feel are the best examples of enhancing the experience they advertise. Maybe mention one or two of the worst, as well. Some of my choices might be surprising, but remember the main principle here: does the system not only preserve, but help in recreating the spirit of what people love about the source material? When all is said and done, the closer a game can come to that ideal, the better the game will be.

About Clint

Clint Wolf is an opinionated nerd, who writes a comic (Zombie Ranch) about cowboys who wrangle zombies. We didn't claim he made sense. http://cwolf.zxq.net/
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15 Responses to The RPG Experience, and Why System Matters

  1. Chrysoula says:

    At one point I was near a pool full of kids, maybe 10-14 years old. I listened to them as, for over an hour, they splashed around and discussed rules for the rousing game of Sharks vs. Mermaids they were going to play. It was clear just planning the rules was the main entertainment.

  2. bluedrew says:

    Palladium. Who needs a movement system to go with a speed stat anyway?

    • Clint says:

      The only thing that saves Palladium from getting a terrible RPG system rant is that I hated it so much I barely played, and (I think) never owned any of their books.

      All I remember is that even in the low standards of my teenage years I couldn’t stand Palladium. I can see that having no movement rules in what’s supposed to be a universal RPG system would be a slight problem, though.

      • The content of RIFTS is some of the most gonzo, over-the-top, no-holds-barred nuttiness in any system, including all the post-Apocalyptic ones. It is excellent and does not try to hide its B-grade science fiction and Munchkin leanings, it rather indulges them. It gives these players what they want, instead of punishing min-maxing it makes every imaginable min-maxing simple as Hell.

        The system, however, is garbage. It’s a poorly hacked, poorly-written, poorly-edited AD&D knockoff whose author basically refuses to learn, innovate or do anything but copy-paste from one book to the next.

  3. Clint says:

    I’d wager the main entertainment was probably splashing around in the pool, but they’d certainly be getting to the age where they’d want some more structure in their play. In fact I believe I first started playing D&D right around that age range, even though at first we still just made up all the rules, books be damned.

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  6. I realize the post is a tad old but there are a few things to note.

    Not everyone is playing or wants to play the same game (more on this below.) From a personal point of view I agree on the bulkiness of D&D 4th Ed. If I were to review the system, however, I’d paint it as one of the most successful ones in terms of its close connection between what it wants to do and what it actually does.

    Not everyone wants to be Batman, or Han Solo or whatever. The Let’s Pretend example is a bit problematic because it doesn’t address the huge masses of players that don’t play roleplaying games to “be” Batman.

    There’s always a system. A system, in its most abstract form, is an agreed upon protocol by which players interact and define what happens in the game fiction. You can’t have a “no system” game. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have a game without dice, character sheets or a rulebook.

    You might want to read some of these:
    * http://www.indie-rpgs.com/_articles/system_does_matter.html
    * http://www.darkshire.net/~jhkim/rpg/theory/threefold/

    The threefold model is considered a bit outdated by some but it will get you in the right frame of mind.

  7. Clint says:

    I had read Ron Edwards’ article before, and while I see where he’s coming from, I don’t really buy into the threefold model as an absolute. To be fair, I don’t think he did, either… it’s one of those structures where it’s presented with the caveat that people generally aren’t able to be pigeonholed entirely into this or that category. That said, I do believe that certain systems skew themselves toward certain tendencies, for instance Amber Diceless can be a poor fit to someone who views gaming first and foremost as a competition… but then again, to me anyone who really approaches gaming as competition above all else seems like a poor fit to the tabletop RPG set-up, whereas they might find better fulfillment in a more zero sum gaming environment. I suppose that could be a “simulationist” or “narrativist” bias speaking, but for me it goes straight back to my dad half-jokingly asking me “Who won?” when I’d get home from RP sessions. Even if on the surface you defeated the evil wizard and his minions, that isn’t the same as defeating the GM… in the question of “Who won?” an RPG, the answer should ideally always be “Everyone”, in the sense that win or lose, everyone had an enjoyable time. If your main object is to somehow beat the GM and/or other players, then I’ll come right out and say it: you’ve got the wrong hobby.

    Paranoia RPG excepted, of course.

    I also actually held up AD&D 4.0 as the example where the designers finally got the system right for the genre, with my derogatory statements there being applied to 3.5 and before. I can see how it might be a bit unclear if this article was all you read, I should probably put a linkback for anyone who was curious since I know the navigation here isn’t the most efficient.

    Finally, I don’t think we’re actually in any disagreement that most people aren’t playing to be Batman. However, as you mention in your most recent site post, we do sure like our Archetypes, and that’s mainly what I mean when I speak of Batman, Han Solo, and Spaceman Spiff… I’m just shortcutting the shortcuts. The Let’s Pretend example isn’t problematic to me at all because even if you don’t want to be Han Solo, we do get it in our heads that we want to be cocky Space Cowboys a la Han Solo’s archetype. That’s why so many RPGs have been published with “Template” examples, or even completely template-based character creation, after all.

    When we go straight to Han Solo or Batman (or Conan or Legolas or Buffy or…), we’re shortcutting by naming an Archetype of the Archetype. I suppose it could be criticized as “movie pitch speak”, a la “This is The Matrix meets Shreck”, but creating your dark avenger gadget superhero is really just a long way around of coming to the same destination. No, not everyone plays RPGs to be Batman, but we do play RPGs to be other than ourselves (even if it’s just an idealized version of ourselves such as in Timelords), and those others work best when the system enables a matching of expectations. It doesn’t matter if there’s dice or not, so long as that choice is a conscious design decision that works for the subject matter at hand.

    • Player v. Player is built into Dungeons & Dragons, even if most people don’t do it. I don’t mind it. It’s just a fucking game, and people who get butthurt b/c jerry killed their paladin are not welcome at my table anyway.

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  12. I actually never played unstructured ‘let’s pretend’. I started with role-playing games at about five years old, and really got into them around seven. Never considered getting into a playground argument about whether Joe hit me with his cowboy revolver, since I could easily deduce his THAC0 and find out in an impartial way.

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