Game Systems That Get Out Of The Way

By | March 14, 2015

Hello and welcome!

This week I’m going to talk about how I was wrong about something.

I used to be a big fan of “game systems that are there when I need them, but get out of the way when I don’t.”  I espoused their value on this very blog.  I used to think that such game systems were handy and convenient for adjudicating complex situations, but were designed to otherwise not interfere with a GM’s storytelling capacity.  I think the vast majority of people who use that phrasing mean it the same way.  But ultimately, here’s what that says:  “I want a version of D&D that doesn’t have weird rules I don’t like.”

D&D evolved out of wargaming.  Its roots still clearly show in its design; up until recently, there were no core rules in it which helped identify how a character would behave in the fiction.  This has led to a strong contingent of voices saying that story and roleplay should remain independent of the ruleset proper, left to the good sense of the players of the game.  I would say that’s a legitimate philosophy, though it is no longer one that I share.

The problem comes in when players want to use a squad-wargame-simulator to tell the wrong kind of story.  D&D was designed for stories to form around the results of tactical combat; social mechanics are explicitly downplayed because of the philosophy that it should be left to roleplaying and thus not present within the rules.  The types of stories that emerge from this are ones in which characters begin their careers as barely competent, loot and raid to build their strengths, and those that survive might go on to bigger and better things.

What squad-wargame-simulators are not strong at doing is telling the kind of story where characters are expected to survive to see it through to the end, or characters begin competent and only grow moreso, or where interpersonal drama is equally or even more important than what happens on the battlefield.  Certainly there have been efforts to hack such games into that condition (start at a higher level, extra functionality tacked onto Charisma skills, etc), but that still doesn’t play to these games’ strengths.

In essence, rather than playing the game as it was designed, players are attempting to use the game for adjudication without understanding the purpose of the game’s existing rules.  This comes from a place of we can do this with what we already know rather than a place of is there perhaps something out there that does what we want better.  And out of that is born frustration with existing rules, because they don’t always do what we want and we just want them to get out of the way so we can do what we really want to.

The problem with that is, of course, why continue to use the base system?  Usually, because it has adjudication mechanics that the players are already familiar and comfortable with.  But the problem is, if you’re only using a game’s system for adjudication purposes, then what you’re saying is system doesn’t matter.  You might as well be using rock-paper-scissors for your resolution mechanic, because the story that is forming in your game is doing so independently of the mechanics of the game you’re playing.  And rock-paper-scissors is a hell of a lot simpler than most of those game mechanics in squad-wargame-simulators.

If you’re looking for a game system that gets out of the way when you want it to, you’re looking for the wrong kind of game.  You’re looking for D&D without the specific fiddly bits you don’t like.  But I have a different proposition:  look for a game system that doesn’t get out of the way when you want it to.  Look for a game system that, instead, reinforces what you’re trying to do.

A game’s mechanics shouldn’t encourage the GM to fudge the results so the story can keep going.  A game’s mechanics should instead provide only interesting results that can shift the momentum of a story.  If you want those momentum shifts to be predictable, look for something that provides more predictable results (dice pools, for instance, or additive bonuses to success).  If you want those momentum shifts to be less predictable, look for something that provides less predictable results (d20s, a deck of cards).

Whatever you look for, though, look for a game that matters for what you’re trying to do.  Because if you want a game that gets out of your way, then you’re not looking for a game – you’re looking for a way to avoid arguments.  And all that requires is everyone at a table agreeing ahead of time on a method for resolving disputes.  That group of players that will only play Pathfinder?  That’s the way they want to resolve conflict – it’s an implicit social contract.

But it really is a waste to try and find a system that mimics something else but is subtractive (that is, “gets out of the way”).  There’s no point in such a thing, because its very existence speaks to its irrelevance.

Rock, paper, scissors.  It’s the only game system you need if you want one that gets out of your way.

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