RPG Design and Ludonarrative Dissonance

Analog role-playing games distinguish themselves from other games* by their inclusion of a fiction layer: imagined events the players devise, share, and engage with as an integral part of play. Designing the interface between mechanics and fiction is thus the central challenge in creating an RPG, and often acts as the point of divergence between different philosophies of design and play preferences. For example, hardcore character immersionists prefer that wherever possible, the player’s input into the fiction should be limited to the reach and will of a single character in the narrative. Mechanics that allow a player to take on a broader authorial role, editing the environment or dictating the actions of other characters, run counter to HCI play preferences.

When setting out to design an RPG, then, it helps to know what design patterns already exist for navigating the mechanics/fiction interface, and what pitfalls those design patterns sometimes hold for players’ engagement and enjoyment. This post is more of a braindump of things I’ve run into over the years than a comprehensive thesis, but I hope it will provoke some thought!

To start, the RPG chicken/egg question: which comes first, fiction or mechanics?

Mechanics first: A player makes decisions grounded in mechanical systems, and engaging with those systems helps generate fictional content. In Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, I expend my action for the turn and a spell slot of 3rd level, choose a target location, and roll eight six-sided dice. That then translates into a fictional event where an explosion of magical flame bursts forth, scorching enemies and setting scenery on fire!

Fiction first: A player narrates fictional action, the content of which activates mechanical systems. In Dungeon World, I describe my character darting across a stone bridge over which “Pit and the Pendulum” style blades swing. That triggers the “Defy Danger” move, and I must roll two six-sided dice adding my DEX score to see if the character makes the crossing without mishap.

Note that a game will almost inevitably feature both modes, as mechanics and fiction move one another forward in a cycle. But considering where a player’s decision-making process is likely to start, or which of the two directions of flow has greater emphasis, can help inform your game’s core priorities.

If an RPG features constant mechanical engagement, but fictional content is optional, thin, or an afterthought, that produces a problem we might call boardgame regression. The design risks sliding out of RPG territory by neglecting the fiction layer altogether, resembling a board game (albeit perhaps a flavor-rich one, something like Dead of Winter). This is the most common criticism I hear leveled against the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons. It was all too easy to play the game as a series of boardgame skirmishes, with little to no reference to characterization, plot, or even an imagined scene beyond the positions of figurines and their associated fluctuating numbers. To avoid this pitfall, ask yourself: is it possible for players to disengage from the fiction and still play? How does fictional content help drive mechanical decisions?

When an RPG features narrated fiction that only rarely or tenuously grounds itself in mechanical systems, I call this trouble slipperiness. Players are uncertain if their narrative contributions make any difference to the game state, or lack trust that the rules will back them up in the event of dispute or ambiguity. I run into this most frequently with games that give one player authority to secretly edit or override (“fudge”) game mechanics, the “Rule Zero” espoused in texts like Exalted. To guard against slipperiness, consider: how does my game differ from a minimalist collaborative storytelling setup, where players volunteer bits of story to be adopted by consensus? How do mechanical decisions and outcomes generate fiction? Is a situation where players break or drift the rules distinguishable from one where they play by them as written?

Friction in the mechanics/fiction interface needn’t be so pervasive as the above, however! It can occur sporadically in play, within specific rules or procedures. Even an overall functional D&D4 game sometimes hits moments where a mechanical outcome has occurred, but it’s difficult to picture what happened fictionally. “I use Arterial Slice on the skeleton! It’s now bleeding for 5 ongoing damage.” “Wait, what? Skeletons don’t have any arteries to bleed from.” In a Wicked Age features mechanics that only activate for physical conflict, so if a player narrates a character intimidating, bribing, or otherwise attempting to persuade another, the rules cannot help determine if their ploy is successful–a moment of slipperiness in an otherwise grounded game. The general term for these jolts is “ludonarrative dissonance” (hat tip to Kevin Weiser for that!), a place where game and fiction aren’t quite harmonious.

Ludonarrative dissonance can also arise within a game’s reward cycles. Mechanics might encourage an action that doesn’t make fictional sense. In Burning Wheel, given a minor expense a group of player characters would like to pay for, it is often in the group’s mechanical best interest to have the poorest character make the purchase with the help of more wealthy characters, rather than the wealthiest character dispensing with the buy alone. But coming up with a justification for that approach from the characters’ perspective tends to be tortured at best! Or an action that flows naturally from narrative and characterization could prove a terrible choice mechanically. In a recent D&D5 game, a player attempted to win over a villain driven by anger and despair, putting the spell “Beacon of Hope” on him to instill a sense of optimism and possibility. Reasonable, yes? But all that really accomplished, game-wise, was to make said villain more resistant to the heroes’ magic in the ensuing battle scene.

There’s one last rules/fiction pattern I’d like to call attention to, as it’s one I’ve struggled with in recent memory. I’ll call it the justification veto. In a justification veto setup, a player has access to certain mechanical resources–skills, character traits, or what have you–that need to be brought into the fiction in a meaningful way for them to grant bonuses. A classic example is Aspects in FATE, freeform descriptions of a character’s tropes that if I can explain how they help me with the task at hand, grant the ability to spend a Fate point for a reroll or dice result boost. That “if I can explain how” is the rub, though. If I’m a couple points away from succeeding on a roll, the rules urge me to find a way to bring one of my Aspects into the scene. The success or failure of that effort, however, rides on my ability to narrate that Aspect in a convincing manner for the context. If the other players (particularly the “GM” whose word on such matters is final) feel it’s too much of a stretch, the use is vetoed: neither the proposed narration nor the bonus take effect.

Justification vetoes are a very natural pattern to draw upon, helping ensure that mechanical bonuses are grounded in coherent fiction and vice versa. I’ve used them myself, in my game Blazing Rose! But the experience of pausing game flow for a “Mother may I” petition can frustrate players, especially those with different levels of skill in navigating mechanical systems vs. weaving persuasive narrative-grounded arguments. (I would not be at all surprised if neuroscience revealed these skill sets operate in disparate regions of the brain.) If that’s an experience you’d like to avoid in your design, put this pattern in a “use with caution” column.

A few games work around the justification veto’s drawbacks in clever fashion. In Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine, applicability is not a binary “yes, you may” / “no, you may not”; a player may use any skill on their character sheet for literally any purpose. (An example in the book describes using a Cooking skill for the intended action “I blow up the Earth with my mind.”) Rather, the GM’s assessment of how much the action stretches the skill diminishes its effectiveness, making it more costly to get favorable results with. That still encourages matching mechanical elements to appropriate fiction, without the inherent frustration of shutting down a player’s contribution outright!

What pitfalls have you encountered in the interface between rules and fiction? What design patterns or play behaviors help avoid them? What other insights have you gleaned from the matter of clouds and boxes?

* “What’s a game, then?” Well, hypothetical wiseass, I don’t have an essentialist definition for you that would reliably include all games and exclude all non-games. As a usually-useful approximation, though: a game is a rules-structured, temporally bounded activity sustained by one or more behavioral reward cycles.


Pentra: “By Any Other Name” game recap

Last night, I played a game of Pentra, the anthro-animal collaborative storytelling project I’ve been working on. It was possibly the best story I’ve seen it turn out yet! Here I’ll recap the story, and provide some mechanics and playtest commentary in the endnotes.

The scenario, called “By Any Other Name” (written in commemoration of Habitica‘s name change from “HabitRPG”!), starts as follows:

In the region of Habityr, it is customary for a child coming of age to have a “second name day,” where they choose whether to formally join the family of their sire, dam, or midwife. The upcoming second name day of the gifted [Child] is a topic of much speculation and gossip. But when the day arrives, the teen proudly declares for a fourth house no one has ever heard of, and disappears! Will the three snubbed houses be able to put off their recriminations long enough to track down the wayward youth?

We fleshed out the starting characters1 as follows:

The Child: Bella, a female rabbit. Each of the houses wanted her so badly because she was a seer. Never mind that the visions were unreliable, something of a source of torment for her.

The Dam: Ilona, a female elephant, a historian, the community’s keeper of legend and storyteller. Her story-collecting habits made her something of a gossip.

The Sire: St. Oddart, a male lion2. He was a church patriarch, beloved as a pillar of the community despite his self-centeredness.

The Midwife: Arque, a female Nubian goat. Skilled in medicine and possessed of “ninja-like agility.”

The Hero: Kel, a male wolf. His tracking sense made him ideal for finding the Child, but he was a compulsive liar, given to tall tales.

The story began at the moment of Bella’s disappearance, the elders huffing about in indignation and demanding that she be found and brought back. Kel of course stepped up to volunteer, but he and his boasts of having “rescued hundreds of children!” were swept aside as Quarran, the General, came forward3 with his regiment of African wild dog theri to accomplish the task. They set out into the woods, and Kel, piqued at having been upstaged, took off at a different course.

It didn’t take long for the General’s men to find Bella, cornering her up a tree4. She protested that she had seen visions of their deaths in open battle, resulting from her remaining snared in this community. If they let her go, the fate could be averted! Stoic Quarran was undeterred–it is a soldier’s lot in life to die fighting. Dismayed, but trusting in another vision that a dashing hero would save her, Bella consented to be led back.

Indeed, Kel had tracked her by another route, and came upon the scene as the warriors surrounded her and began to march her away. Thinking quickly, he ducked into the brush and fired an arrow toward the group of soldiers, then changed position and fired again, faking an attack by a larger force. The soldiers went into phalanx formation, and Bella nearly slipped away in the shuffle–but tripped and fell headlong, allowing her easy recapture5. One of the soldiers threw her over his shoulder, and Kel, cursing his ill luck, left off pursuit for now.

Bella pleaded with her captor to at least let her walk on her own with some dignity, laying on some charm. It worked, to a degree. Yoquel, the Soldier, found himself uncomfortably attracted to his captive6. Too loyal to his commander to risk another escape attempt, but wanting to accommodate her request, he let her down, clamping an arm around her waist to keep her restrained.

Meanwhile, Quarran studied the arrows of the mysterious attacker from the woods. He recognized their wielder’s scent: he and Kel had been close, once. The wolf had been a member of his company, but deserted. Why was he back now?

They made it back to the town square without further incident. The squabbling between the three houses had died down, and with Bella returned, the elders sent for Therothe Judge, an ancient turtle whose impartiality the community relied upon in times of dispute like this. Before Bella could even make her case, the judge unilaterally declared that she would join St. Oddard’s house, no more dithering! Bella sputtered about the terrible visions she’d seen of what would come of this, but it was done. She went to her sire’s household, head low.

A week later, in an atrium of her father’s house, St. Oddard pressured Bella to use her oracular powers in service to his upcoming campaign against the heathen warriors of the Red Lands. She protested that her visions were not specific enough to tell him of troop movements, and what she had seen foretold disaster for him in any case, but he would not accept any of it. Eventually, in weary exasperation, she told him what he wanted to hear. In that moment she heard a whispering in her mind: “Do you wish to be free of the tyrant?”

Bella begged some time in private “to pray,” and in the quiet replied to the voice: “Yes.”

“Then meet me at the blighted tree under the light of the moon,” the voice replied, and said no more.

The seer attended the appointed place and time, and there encountered Beatricethe Sorceress, a hyena theri of impossibly tall stature. She offered to take Bella away to join the Sisterhood, where the sisters would teach her how to control her powers. It would not be freedom, she cautioned, for Bella and her powers would be at the service of the community. Arque, however, had followed her there, and cautioned her that the Sisters, too, would use her to their own ends. In times past, Arque had attempted to become a Sister, but had been rejected.

“So I am in another tug-of-war,” muttered Bella, and asked for a chance to think before giving Beatrice her decision. She never had the chance; while on the road back to her father’s household, she was set upon by Kel and Yoquel, who dragged her away from the town. Kel revealed that he was in fact a great general of the Red Lands, and if she would accompany him there, she could live as she pleased among those theri. Too exhausted to fight further, and seeing this as the best chance yet for disentangling herself from the politics of her community, she went along.

The three of them were not long on the road when they encountered a raiding party of warriors of the Red Lands, the Cat People, lying in ambush. There was confusion and a scuffle; Yoquel, looking every bit one of Quarran’s warriors, was cut down where he stood7. But for once it turned out that Kel was telling the truth: the Red Landers did recognize him as their general! Unfortunately for Bella, he wasn’t sure about his promise to let her go free; her powers and her value as a hostage would be too useful in the battle to come.

Just before dawn, as the army led by Quarran and St. Oddard prepared to march, a trio of she-elephant theri approached Kel’s camp. These were Cielia, Murra, and Ilsa, the Aunts, blood kin to Bella’s dam. They asked that the child be returned to her family–she had no part in this battle. Kel stood firm: he was not the instigator of this bloodshed. If Oddard called off his crusade, the girl would go free. The Aunts relayed this demand back to Ilona, who as historian was to accompany Oddard to the battlefront. Torn between loyalty to her community (cool though her affections for Oddard were, anymore) and the safety of her daughter, she sided with the latter: she begged Oddard to call off the attack. As usual, though, he would take no other path but his own, and so he marched leaving the historian behind.

Heart softened by the Aunts’ plea, though, Kel changed his plans. The Red Landers would flee their position, evading Quarran’s army, and once they successfully disengaged, he would let Bella go free. Back in Oddard’s camp, Ilona treated with Arque on Bella’s behalf, and the ninja goat crept into the supply train and put Quarran’s supplies to the torch. The General attempted to call off the attack, to fall back and resupply, but St. Oddard still would not be deterred. He put the warriors into a forced march in pursuit of the escaping Red Landers.

Unburdened of their supplies, they were able to close the distance, though their fighting condition suffered from exhaustion and lack of food. The Red Landers would be more than a match despite their fewer numbers and weaker equipment. A bloody battle commenced, theri falling in droves on both sides–and around it all, hyena sorcerer-sisters linked hands, drinking in power from the departing souls.

Quarran and Kel met on the field. Quarran demanded an explanation: why had Kel deserted, so long ago? Why fight his old brother in arms? Kel snarled back: “I left in disgust once you threw in with Oddard, that zealous monster! The least of these Red Land warriors are twice the theri you now are!” They exchanged fatal blows and died together there, locked in a mortal embrace.

Despite her every attempt to avert it, the doom Bella had foreseen was come to pass. She cried out in despair, and a sorcerous power rolled forth from her. Lightning from the heavens raked the battlefield, striking down all survivors save Bella herself: Oddard, Beatrice and her assembled Sisters, everyone. Alone now, Bella walked away to the east, her mind at last free from portents8.

  1. Each scenario comes with a set of characters, typically five of them, interrelated and in varying degrees of conflict with one another. Each has an epithet (like “the Midwife”), a Drive describing their impetus for action, and an Others list describing their thoughts on the other characters. At the beginning of the game, players fill in the characters’ names, genders, species, Qualities and Complications, to make them unique to that group’s game. The process could use a bit of speeding up; there’s a lot of staring at blank spaces on the page, in the first few minutes of play. Moreover, people didn’t use the Others list much. I might drop Others and provide some suggested Qualities and Complications to pick from for each character.
  2. The setting of Pentra is left loosely defined, but there are a few things established as part of the rules of the game. One is that via common hedge-magics, it’s possible for any two consenting adult theri to mate and produce offspring, but the outcomes can be unpredictable. So we’re encouraged to make characters members of whatever species we think fit them, regardless of blood or family relations.
  3. After the story begins, players can add named characters to the mix as needed. This game, my wife Misha wrote up four sheets, one of them representing a triumvirate of three characters. I also added one and Clyde added another, for a total of six blank sheets filled out during game–the most I’ve seen happen to date.
  4. This is one of the little things I like about Pentra‘s collaborative storytelling style, as opposed to traditional RPGs with lots of dice rolls for skill checks and whatnot. If this had been a game of Dungeons & Dragons, no doubt tracking down Bella would have been a protracted affair involving Stealth and Perception and Survival and who knows what else. Here, we get straight to the interesting parts!
  5. Here Misha played a Twist card (I may need a better name for these), “Pratfall,” declaring that a theri’s efforts come to embarrassing failure. Cards overrule pretty much anything else, so by this point Bella was well and truly defeated!
  6. At present, there are five love-related cards in the deck, based on the Five Loves in this post. The distinctions are pretty often cast aside, though, so the frequency with which standard sexual-romantic attractions spring into the narrative may be too much. I suspect I’ll at least trim out “Love in Fertility.”
  7. It’s become traditional that when a character dies, you tear their character page in two. I think that’ll go into the rules!
  8. This was a lovely climactic one-two of twist cards: “Ohz, Strength, Might-in-Adversity” where a character reveals a hidden power, and “Ilan, Freedom, Hope-of-Prisoners” which frees a character from literal or figurative restraints. Perfect. Of the many character pages written up, only five remained untorn: Bella of course, and those who had remained behind when the armies marched (Arque, Ilona, Thero, and the Aunts).


The Mistakes of Hyperoptimization

Adulath II:

This is a follow-up to my System Matters post–a caveat to it, if you will. There are places where the line of thinking in hardcore System Matters, much as I believe in such a thing, can lead you astray, and it’s useful to be mindful of the pitfalls.

The situation I’ll discuss in this post is familiar to many who’ve been involved in role-playing games for any length of time, and I’ll call it “hyperoptimization.” (You might have heard terms like “powergaming” or “munchkin” in reference to these situations. I’m avoiding those terms since they’re derogatory; “optimization” tends to be acceptable to all concerned, with the “hyper” prefix demonstrating that we’re talking about too much of a good thing.) A game presents various options, typically in the skills and equipment available to characters, to customize a player’s approach to the game. Some options, alone or in combination, are more effective at overcoming in-game challenges than others. The better a player understands the game, the better they can find and take advantage of synergies between options, a process called “character optimization” or simply “optimization.” In itself, this poses no problem and is often part and parcel of the game’s fun, but in some cases it becomes hyperoptimization: taking such thorough advantage of game mechanics and options that in-game challenges become trivial, and other players’ and characters’ contributions start to feel inconsequential by comparison.

Such lopsided play can lead to frustration at the table. Outclassed players feel left behind, and players in GM roles responsible for providing adversity and challenge find it difficult to do so in a way that works for both the hyperoptimized characters and the rest of the group. I’m going to leave that much as self-evident; what I’m concerned with is what happens next. If the frustrated players/GM approach a hyperoptimizing player with their frustration, and ask him/her to rein in the optimization, one common response bears all the resonance of a System Matters argument: “The game encourages this kind of play, I’m just doing what I’m supposed to. In fact, folks who don’t optimize could be said to be playing poorly!”

I reject this argument. It’s frequently mistaken, because games can mislead you as to what optimal play looks like, both in degree and in kind. Moreover, it’s a non sequitur rebuttal to what is at heart a social-contract complaint, which sits in a broader, overriding context to that of the game and the play it encourages.

1. Some games mislead you. At times, whether due to poor design or design that’s simply too subtle for its own good, a game looks like it purposefully encourages a particular behavior, but in fact it doesn’t work the way it appears on the surface. The first edition of Exalted was like this: it presented players with a shopping list of magic powers used by characters and their opponents, structured something like the cards in a collectible card game. It even used card-game terminology like “Combos.” This encouraged players toward tactical, winning-combination-seeking play… but the game disintegrates under such an approach. The rules are made for fast-and-loose telling of epic stories, lacking the consistency or rigor needed for tournament-caliber competition. 3:16: Carnage Amongst the Stars is an example of the “too subtle” category: it has lots of optimization-encouraging features, such as a score tally (kills) and Xbox LIVE-like achievements (medals). But the game becomes deadly boring if played to that angle. Instead it comes into its own when players dive into the narrative elements of character flashbacks, exploring how the experience of war shapes the characters. In these situations, hyperoptimization isn’t good play at all. It only pushes the game faster into territory it’s ill-equipped to cover.

2. Sometimes “optimal” does not equal “maximal.” Some games unambiguously and intentionally encourage players to plan and fine-tune their characters for tactical success, but discourage going too far with the practice. Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition is a great example. There’s no question that it’s a very game-oriented RPG, and that the design deliberately pushes players to seek synergies between powers, feats, and class features. However, if you go to the utter limit available in the system, building characters who cannot suffer harm, deal enough damage to kill solo opponents in one round, and/or deny opponents any capacity to act, the game breaks down. You may get the surface-level rewards of loot and XP, but you lose out on the deeper rewards of engagement in play. You lose out on making tactical decisions (because your optimal moves become pre-scripted and independent of circumstance), employing teamwork (because allies are unnecessary), adapting to adverse circumstances (because they simply don’t affect you), etc.

In essence, the player who falls prey to issue #2 has mistaken the means by which a game pursues its goals for being the goals themselves. At heart, most of these games seek to provide fun/enjoyment/entertainment for a group of people, and character effectiveness is only one feature in service of that goal. Hyperoptimization undermines that goal, even if the game legitimately encourages you toward it. It’s like playing a first-person shooter video game on “god mode”: yes, you get the rewards of blood & gore, victory cutscenes, and so forth, but in so doing you’ve disengaged from most of the game’s features. Sometimes, attaining optimal satisfaction in gameplay requires that if you solve the game, you adopt some handicap so it becomes challenging again.

Now, note that I’m not saying this phenomenon indicates good design. Discouraging a behavior by causing it to opt you and your fellow players out of the game itself is pretty messed up. And in the specific example of 4e, the balance point can be hard to find, especially in the upper levels. I mean this only as a counterargument to the assertion that “suboptimal” play = poor play. Some players realize, to their benefit, that maximization can be its own losing strategy in the overall pursuit of fun–even when the game makes it a tempting option.

3. The social contract trumps all. In the same circles of RPG theory that most champion the “system matters” concept, there is a structure called simply the “Big Model” that maps out how different features of a game environment interact. At the broadest level of that Model, encompassing everything underneath it and adding more besides, is the “social contract.” This “contract” contains all the rules and expectations of behavior, often unspoken, for the group of people playing the game. These are things like “Jeff brings the pizza on Tuesdays” or “if we find we don’t like this game, we’ll discuss what’s going on and maybe ditch it.” As you can tell from those examples, the social contract by necessity exists outside the scope of the game itself, and its rules can in many cases supersede those of the game in question.

When a complaint comes up about optimization, it’s rarely a thing that can be addressed below the level of the social contract. The complaint arises because the optimization behavior, on one level or another, is harshing on somebody’s fun. The appeal is not “you’re playing the game wrong,” it’s “we’re here to help each other have a good time, and right now that’s not working out.” So while a response of “I’m only playing the way the game encourages me to” is absolutely legitimate in the sense that it demonstrates any fun-harshing was unintentional, it is not sufficient as an argument that the behavior should be allowed to continue. You have to settle it in terms of players’ attitudes toward the game and the expectations within the social setting. When it comes to social contract, it is totally legit to respond to the hyperoptimizer’s rebuttal with “Yes, the game encourages this. Fuck what the game says. I’m saying that this gets in the way of my fun, as a player and as a person, and I’m asking you, as a player and as a person, to cut back.”

We don’t have to range too far afield to get a good allegory for this. Suppose a young woman is teaching her little sister how to play basketball. The elder sister is an accomplished athlete, practiced and fit; the younger is a novice, still learning the basic techniques of the game. The younger sister asks the older, “Hey, could you go easy on me? I can’t learn how to shoot or even dribble if you snatch the ball away as soon as I get it.” The older sister agrees. If she then goes back to a curbstomp of a keepaway match, Little Sis’s objection won’t be that Big Sis broke the rules of basketball, and it certainly won’t be that Big Sis is bad at the game. It’s that she broke the sisterly agreement they had.

Social contract issues at an RPG table are seldom so clear-cut as that, of course. In order for a productive conversation to take place on the matter, both the optimizer and the player objecting to the optimization need to articulate some principle like “players should be willing to compromise in-game effectiveness to make a better play experience for others,” then discuss whether such a thing is reasonable. And it may well be that the difference is irreconcilable, that the level of compromise that would make for a fun game for the objector would utterly wreck what the optimizer enjoys in play. But let us put aside this notion that “optimization is good play, it’s non-optimization that’s playing wrong” is any kind of conclusive response to the problem, for the reasons here articulated!

Unbalanced, Part 3: System Matters

Next in the series of posts about my wacky extreme opinions: is it true that the particular tabletop RPG you’re playing, its rules and setting–the “system”–doesn’t matter with respect to the fun had at the table? There are some who would say indeed not, it’s all about the players, or specifically the person running or teaching the game. This may not be so gonzo as low-carb or no-copyright, but it does get some folks’ backs up, so it fits.

Adulath Caracai:

The Radical Notion

System always matters. Good players or bad, skilled GM or unskilled, the choice of what rules to use shapes the experience of play and has a major effect on the quality of that experience.

Details, and the Usual Objections

People argue over what constitutes a “game,” but this much is true of games if not definitional: they provide a context for understanding words and actions that differs from ordinary life. A hand wave might normally have practical purpose, to draw attention to yourself or something near you, or social purpose, to greet someone. But in the context of a game, that same wave might indicate a catch completed, a point scored, or a penalty incurred. In ordinary conversation, “essence” means a thing’s intangible basic nature, or perhaps a concentrated extract of something. In Exalted or In Nomine, it refers to a sort of energy or fuel for supernatural powers. Rolling a die or drawing cards is meaningless without a game to say that the random result means a critical hit, a bust, or a flush. The game’s rules and objectives (the system, in other words) encourage players to undertake all manner of actions and say different things that would not ordinarily happen, or would happen with different frequency and meaning, in life outside the game.

Games themselves have purposes, too. A sport is undertaken to entertain a crowd, to make money for a league or franchise, and to promote athleticism, tactics, and teamwork via competition. There are games intended to teach skills, promote good habits, or motivate fitness. Among tabletop RPGs, typical purposes include “fun”–the engagement and satisfaction of the players–and the creation of a story with a particular style, feel, or genre.

Put these two concepts together and it’s clear what’s meant to say that a game is well or poorly designed, and from there that system matters to play experience. A game shapes and redefines behavior via its system; a game has purposes; however the game’s system succeeds in achieving its purpose tells us how well designed it is. Exalted, for instance, tends to fail in that its stated purpose of telling stories of mighty heroes and fast-paced action does not match the rules, which tend to instantly kill characters for brief tactical mistakes, and can take tens or scores of minutes to resolve a single character’s combat maneuvers.

As an aside, it’s also been my experience that focused games tend to succeed at their narrow purposes more often than universal or kitchen-sink games succeed at their broad purposes. GURPS tries to represent all genres, and ends up doing disservice to many of them. Meanwhile, Dogs in the Vineyard is built to the narrow story structure of unraveling social ills and pronouncing judgment on their perpetrators, and does that surpassingly well. It’s not exactly a corollary of the above, nor is it universally true, but does go hand in hand with these discussions. It’s an important part of my beliefs on the topic.

At this juncture, the system-doesn’t-matter advocates might say, “That’s all well and good, but it misses what I’m saying. Of course you can have crappily designed games and well designed ones. But the point is that a great GM or players can make even a crappy game work and be fun, and no awesome game design will ever transform a crappy GM or players into awesome ones.”

I concede the above. It’s not necessary to my position that the game system’s design be the only factor in the quality of a session or campaign of it. Rather, it’s that the design always counts for something; it makes a difference for all players, both good and bad. It’s more work for a strong GM to bash out the kinks in a flawed system to get it to her high standards than it would be to run a well designed game purposed to those standards in the first place. And assuming our “crappy” players at least try to follow the rules of their chosen game, they’ll end up with a less crappy experience if they’re using a solid system than if they’re flailing about with a disorganized mess of a design.

The analogy I favor is that game systems are like athletic equipment: say, ice skates. Anyone can have a fun time doofing around on the ice with old, poorly sharpened, low-budget skates. But if you care at all about your speed, ability to turn, balance, and so forth, higher quality skates will help you. The casual skater will fall less and have a more pleasant experience overall; the pro athlete will be better able to reach the pinnacle of their potential. RPG designs are like that. Folks sometimes chafe at the fact that Dungeon World gives the GM lots of instructions on what to do and say in game: “I already do all that! I don’t need rules for it.” But the way it shakes out, new players learn how to run a good game much easier by having that advice, and experienced players still benefit from the reminders and the ways DW applies old best practices to the smooth operation of its own rules.

How I’m Not Really So Out There As All That

You may not be able to convince me that choice of game system doesn’t matter to enjoyment, but I’m not accusing anyone of “BadWrongFun.” At its absolute harshest (a distance I rarely take this to anymore, given my reluctance to get into heated Internet arguments), it’s a means-ends chide: if you care about good play experience/faithful genre emulation/etc., you’re crimping your own style if you choose a poor match of system to those goals. That’s all.

Furthermore, I acknowledge and can totally understand that good match of system to purpose isn’t always someone’s top priority. The classic “my group is familiar with this system, and it’d be a pain in the ass to learn a new one” is an example. Nostalgia is another motivation for choosing a system that might not, objectively speaking, provide as fun a time as something newer and tighter designed. I myself sometimes like to play games that are an unholy mess design-wise, to enjoy a quirky charm that other games don’t supply. Basically, one can set aside the typical purposes of smooth play, enjoyable tactical choices, and the like, prioritizing “the Werewolf: The Apocalypse experience” or “the energy our group has for learning new things” instead, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Just know what you’re getting into! Saying the system straight-up doesn’t matter might be blinding you to the possibility of a much better time.