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September 30, 2008 / jadettman

Thinking out loud about system

The system that a RPG uses functions as both a framework for players to work within and constraints placed on their character’s abilities. In other words, if a RPG was a computer game, the system is the physics engine that allows things to happen.

As a framework, the system tells us the types of activities that characters are expected to engage in, and how likely the character is to succeed.

So, everyone knows that D&D is about killing monsters and taking their stuff because that is what your character’s abilities revolve around. The majority of the system is made up of a highly detailed combat engine and a highly complex magic system which are both designed to facilitate killing things and taking their stuff.

As a constraint, the system also defines the types of activities that characters aren’t intended to engage in. Usually the constraints of the system aren’t communicated directly but rather by what isn’t defined by the system.

So, using D&D again as our example, there are no rules for courtly intrigue in D&D. They simply aren’t provided. This is an intended contraint because courtly intrigue isn’t the intended activity of D&D.

Of course, the problem with this is that the RPG system doesn’t provide sufficient contraining power to prevent players from engaging in behavior that isn’t supported by the system. So, yes, it is possible to engage in courtly intrigue while playing D&D but it requires a lot of creativity from all participants because the system doesn’t support that behavior.



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  1. VanHalen / Sep 30 2008 2:34 pm

    This, of course, means a couple of things…
    1) most systems have places in which they breakdown as they take D&D as their example

    2) gamers are trained by the current games they play. If they learn that there isn’t a mechanic for handling a situation, then they stay away from the situation.
    Example: If a player attempts to handle courtly behaviour within the system and finds that there is no mechanism for such, they will be more or less likely to attempt that behaviour again on the basis of…. the experience they have the first time, AKA how the game-master handles this off the cuff concern.
    If the game-master handles is badly and the situation goes against the player, they won’t try it again.
    If they handle it well, or handle it badly but roll over for the player’s goals, then the player will attempt it again.

  2. J.A. Dettman / Oct 1 2008 4:39 pm

    I agree with your first point, that most systems have breaking points where they don’t do something or don’t do it well. I don’t agree that it is because they take D&D as their basis.

    No system can account for every possible action that a player may want to undertake, not without a lot more pages than I want to pay for a gaming book.

    As to your second point, I think many gamers learn ingrained behaviors from the very first game that they play so, barring an epiphany or a perspective changing game experience, they carry those behaviors forward throughout their gaming career.

    I also believe that epiphanies or perspective changing game experiences happen frequently enough that this cannot be true across the spectrum of gamers.

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