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The Trouble with World-Based Game Systems

As a general rule, Ben and I have tended to stay platform-neutral in our posts. We’re less interested in what rules people use for their campaigns and more interested in how they craft them. I do, however, believe that certain rules systems constrict or expand the options available to players and GMs in ways that subtly influence the choices they make. I especially feel like this happens in game systems where the rules are tightly interwoven with the setting.

The Sapir-Whorf Theory of Game Systems

The Sapir-Whorf theory in linguistics, or at least the way that it has come to be popularly understood, is that language is the framework of thought, and that if a language lacks a word for a concept, it is more difficult for someone who thinks in that language to conceive and manipulate that concept. Similarly, if a language has numerous words with subtle distinctions for a similar idea, then a speaker/thinker of that language will be more adept at using that concept. The common (though unfortunately untrue) adage for this is “eskimos have thirty words for snow.” The implication is that different types of snow matter for them, and that their expanded vocabulary on the topic gives them the ability to speak (and therefore think) very quickly and precisely about complicated snow-related topics.

The flip side of this is the isolated tribe with no word for war. They don’t have the word because they don’t have the concept. This doesn’t mean that they couldn’t invent or come up with the concept. If they have an idea of two people fighting, or 5 people fighting, it is possible to envision five thousand people fighting. They could probably also come up with the idea of strategy, of feints and ambushes and flanking. But because they lack words for these things, they would speak and think about them cumbersomely. This is why people use jargon – it speeds and simplifies the ability to discuss complicated concepts. As their language expands to include new concepts, their ability to use those concepts also expands.

Like language is the framework of thought, game systems are the framework of the play experience; which one a group chooses to use can similarly empower or impede them.

Wizards Can’t Use Swords*

The most common place where we see this limiting effect is in the character generating process. Many game systems, particularly the ones that are tied to a specific setting, start by having the player select a few broad characteristics for their character. In Dungeons & Dragons, this is your character’s race and class. In Vampire, it’s their clan. In Shadowrun, it’s their race and archetype. You get the idea. Then, having selected these things, the character is granted certain strengths and weaknesses, and a pool of skills to choose from.

This is a common practice because it works. For one, it significantly speeds up the character creation process. It also does a good job of balancing the power levels of different players, preventing Scotty McMinmaxer from making a character with a grab bag of the most powerful skills from each class. Lastly, it ensures that the characters will have skills and abilities that are useful in most campaigns in that setting. These archetypes are tried and true, and there are good reasons to lead people towards them.

This sort of approach, however, can be stifling to creativity when it comes to character creation. It leads, perhaps even encourages, players to start their character concept by saying “I want to play a Dwarven Illusionist,” rather than “I want to play a character with a tragic past and a mean streak.” In a dungeon-crawling hack-and-slash campaign, it might be rewarding to play an archaeologist (that happens to know magic or swordplay or whatever) who studies ancient ruins and marvels at the architecture while the other players loot the treasure. But that occupation doesn’t show up on the list of classes, so people are unlikely consider it as an option.

I Don’t Have a Chapter Here for Spaceships

So let’s say that you are a new GM and your game group wants to play a campaign in a fantasy/space opera/cyberpunk/modern day setting. So you go to the store and you buy a system that is customized for such a setting. After a few sessions, you and your players have figured out the rules. After a few sessions, your players have decided what sort of characters they like. And by the end of that campaign, you’ve probably found your style as a GM.

Everyone had a good time, so it’s time to play the next campaign. What are you going to play? Chances are, it will be another campaign in the same milieu as the first. There are are a couple of reasons for this: Firstly, your players were interested in that milieu to begin with, and they had a good time, so it’s not shocking that they might want to do it again. The other reason isn’t quite as positive. For the vast majority of gamers, learning the rules is not the fun part, it’s the thing that you have to do to get to the fun part. So once they’ve learned a particular set of rules, they’re going to be averse to learning another one. If that set of rules is tightly coupled to a particular setting or genre, then that implicitly limits the group to playing that type of game.

When the group gets bored with their current genre and wants to try something new, they then have to learn another set of rules, and it is easy for people to associate the discomfort and disjointed play of learning new rules with the setting. In my opinion, this is why it is so common to hear somebody say “Yeah, I’ve been playing [setting-specific game system X] for years. I tried [other game system Y] once, but I just didn’t like it.”

Roll a d….26?

The other problem with world-based systems is that they tend to be opaque systems.  This is to say that they are optimized for making setting-specific tasks easy and flavorful, and not for letting GMs see how the sausage was made. There might be one set of rules for casting a spell, and a completely different set of rules for picking locks or shooting a gun, for instance.  The problem is that, inevitably, the GM will be faced with a situation that the rules just don’t cover.  In a system with a consistent and transparent set of rules for all/most situations, this isn’t so hard.  You come up with some sort of skill or default and an appropriate penalty, and you move on.  In opaque systems, this is more difficult.  At the core, the process is the same — the GM is deciding some way to handle it that is slightly outside the rules as written.  They are using judgment to decide how hard that thing should be, and they’re making a call as to how to handle it.  The problem is that if it takes too long it breaks the player experience.

Part of the reason that those first few session with a new rules system are so annoying is that the rules get in the way of getting immersed in the play experience.  When both the GM and the players are well-acquainted with the rules, they become natural and secondhand.  They fade into the background and people cease to really think about them.  Whenever the GM has to bust out the rule book and figure out how something works (otherwise known as every time that grappling occurs), the immersion is broken, and people are reminded that they are sitting around a table playing a game.  If the GM can say, “I don’t have anything for that. Uh…Roll skill and skill.” that’s not too disruptive. If, however, he has to pause the action to debate which of several disparate special-case rules to model his spur-of-the-moment house rule on, it’s going to be impossible for the players to stay in the flow.

Opaque systems also make custom character traits more difficult.  If your game system makes characters pay points for skills or abilities, or awards them benefits for taking on disadvantages, it is common for a player to want a skill or attribute that isn’t listed in the book.  Generic systems, because they have to be flexible to handle any sort of situation, usually provide guidelines for how to create new character attributes and cost them in a balanced way.  World-based systems, which are optimized for a particular setting, streamline the process by obfuscating how things are costed.  This makes life slightly more difficult for the GM, and can lead to good ideas being left unused because they’re not in the book.

Generic Systems are Hard

So if world-based systems are so constricting, why do people use them?  Because they’re quick, and they’re easy.  A system of rules that can accommodate combat using any sort of weapon from any time period is going to be more complex than one that only worries about swords and bows.  Creating characters is faster and easier if the book can guide you through the process and give you a small set of options to choose from.  My GMing style lends itself to discrete campaigns with a beginning and ending, and I like to change the setting dramatically from one campaign to the next to keep things fresh.  I also really enjoy non-traditional characters.  I think that it is more rewarding for the player to invent a character that intrigues them in a setting and then figure out how to make it work than it is to hand them a list of occupations to choose from.  So for me, the extra investment of learning a generic system is well worth it.  I wouldn’t judge someone for limiting their options by playing a setting-specific system as long as it is meeting their needs.  As always, the important thing is to make sure that you and your players are having as much fun as possible.


*Except Gandalf.

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  1. September 28, 2010 at 7:17 am

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