Why Systems Matter
Thoughts on GMing
The theory behind why you should care about the system you use.
The challenge of certain systems for your story and how to overcome them.
Is there a place for empathy in a D&D game? And why does that matter?
How to and how not to use gender and sexuality in game and around your table.
When is a trope good/bad?
But... are they? Are they really?
I've had countless conversations now with players and game masters about how you can use systems to enhance storytelling, because certain systems are just designed better for certain types of game play. Sure, you can use 5E D&D to run your space drama, but wouldn't it be easier to use Starfinder? Sure you can use Savage Worlds to run literally anything, but wouldn't it be better to use Clockwork Dominion to run your steampunk horror campaign? When the system is crafted to support a storytelling genre or style, it makes the whole game more exciting. It's easier on the game master. It's more fun for the players.
When I criticize a system the response is often:
"Well, if your game master is good enough the system doesn't matter."
To which I respond:
"Then why play with a system at all?"
So, yes, why have a system? I love systems. I think systems are amazing. But why? The system is what makes it A GAME. Without the system it's just play. And there is nothing wrong with play. Play is good. Play is fun, and compelling, and it's why I enjoy Nordic style LARP so much. In play there are only the stakes that you choose and the only bad things that happen are things you choose to have happen. That's fun. That's fine. But a system provides a set of rules that a person must navigate and use to their advantage to accomplish goals in the face of built in adversity and chaos. That's what makes it A GAME.
Think about a ball. It's round. It doesn't bounce well. It's huge - like, 10 feet in diameter. Imagine you give a group of kids this ball. It's twice as big as the tallest kid in the group. What will those kids do? Will they just push it aimlessly at each other? Oh, oh no my friends. Those kids are going to organically create a game. The rules will be made up and the points won't matter, but they will make a game. There will be unspoken rules, like you can't just pass it to the person next to you, you have to try and push it to someone far away. Why will they make these unspoken rules? Because that makes it FUN. Just pushing the ball from one person to the other is boring. Trying to push the ball across a circle of kids as quickly as possible and touching it with only your finger tips? Now that's FUN because it's CHALLENGING.
Games are fun because they are hard.
Now, back to my tabletop game conversation. Why did people hate 4th edition D&D? (Disclaimer, I know that not everyone hated 4th edition and there are some redeemable qualities, but for the sake of conversation, let's assume that you grew up playing 1st/2nd/3rd edition and 4th edition was an affront to everything D&D stood for.) People hated 4th edition because it was too complicated without being challenging. I know some groups that still use 1st and 2nd edition D&D. Why do they still use them? It's not just nostalgia. There are some fundamental components of those systems that make the games fun for some people. The way experience points were distributed in 1st edition, for example, is conducive to certain styles of play. Is 1st edition going to be great for your political intrigue fantasy game? NO! Is it awesome for people who love to explore dungeons and kill goblins? Yes. Yes it is. And I am not arguing that 1st edition can't encompass detailed political backgrounds for the narrative - I'm just pointing out that the system itself doesn't support it. So as people started to explore their game worlds, they needed something more conducive to the type of games they wanted to play. I mean, look at old school Shadow Run! That system is intense, even for seasoned players. But the system was made specifically to support a world to play in. And guess what, it works. And after a few decades of updates and revisions, the core of the system is still there because the core of the system still works for that style of game play.
Back to the ball. You can play soccer with a 10 foot tall ball. You can. If your game master is good enough, you can make those goals big enough to fit the ball. You can give goalies giant sticks to push the ball away. You can change the rules to allow players to push the ball with their hands instead of kicking it.
But wouldn't it be easier to play soccer with a soccer ball?
That's why systems matter.
The right system for the right games results in the right play. So, do whatever you want. But when your house rules outnumber the system rules, maybe it's time to branch out. Look at what's out there. The world is wide and there's a web to connect it. Use it!