GMing Mistakes 8 – Underestimating the Importance of the System

You’ve been playing a while and you’ve been always using CoC and its worked out pretty well. Sure, you have to invoke the Golden Rule every now and then, but at the same time, you know the system, so why not use it for the fantasy campaign you’re trying to sell your players on.

Please don’t. I know many people think CoC is the greatest thing ever, but at the same time, that group of people haven’t usually played anything more sophisticated. They still like to think that the solutions of their youth are still valid solutions today. Would you still use the same computer you used back in the 80s? Probably not. These things have moved on. Why shouldn’t RPG systems? After all, they are of pretty comparable age.

I touched upon this here last week, but I felt this would require a bit more indepth explanation.

The major problem here is that a certain generation of GMs don’t understand the different approach modern games bring, so they just hug their equivalent of a rotary phone tight and won’t let go. They’ve ran these games forever and know the systems inside and out. Its a safety blanket. They don’t want the hear the truth that despite being forward-thinking and open to new ideas back in the day, they are now troglodytes who are very detrimental to the hobby itself. Certain systems can’t move on, because they have a fanbase of people with disposable income, who keep insisting on just slight variations on the themes.

The difference between those old games and those of the new generation is that they approach the whole thing quite differently. Whereas the first games just tried to bring you tactical options, and the next tried to be realistic, the new generation tries to use the systems to encourage certain genre-specific behavior. Whereas the older systems simply assumed people would be able to tell stories with their systems, the new systems encourage everyone involved to push the story by simply using the mechanics.

Take for example fail-forward mechanics. In games like Apocalypse World and its ilk or Blades in the Dark failing will always lead to something. It will always push things forward. Sure, you can bring this to other systems as well, but its going to be hard. Especially in combat. Two opponents just hitting each other and missing isn’t in any way exciting, but with a fail-forward mechanic, those misses will always lead to something. Maybe you knock something over or expose yourself to an attack, but its important that everything moves on. These new systems guide you through it.

Of course, the new systems are also leaner. Back in the day realism was the thing and systems would just add more and more rules to take everything into account in a more realistic way, but that is a never-ending swamp of new corner-cases that need to be considered. The new systems have simple rules that are used to cover all the situations. It might not be realistic, but that’s hardly what players want anyway. They want to have cool and exciting adventures or meaningful experiences, not a load of charts or flipping through a rulebook trying to find that one line where it says you don’t get that +1 in this particular situation. So, leaner is better.

If you are one of those people, who can’t move on from what they used to play 20+ years ago, please just give these things a chance. I know you that won’t even matter in most cases, because you need your blankie, but maybe, just maybe some of you will get over your fear of change and come out with a positive experience you can share with other people in your social circle. I mean, if you can play better games, why wouldn’t you?

9 thoughts on “GMing Mistakes 8 – Underestimating the Importance of the System

  1. You are assuming that everyone wants a set of rules to encourage genre-specific behaviour, rather than acting as a framework in which the players solve problems (or fail to do so) and face challenges. This is not always a true assumption.

    • I don’t see a situation where a genre doesn’t come into play. It might not be an obvious genre, like fantasy or horror, but there is still going to be an underlying thing you want to do. If solving problems and facing challenges is the thing, well, you are apparently going for more puzzle-centric genre and you still should choose a system that encourages just that type of gaming. Then you de-emphasize social interactions (unless the problems are social in nature) and find ways to encourage the use of the 10-foot-pole, or whatever you want your characters to use.

      • You can play a problem-solving game so that players solve the problems (as their characters), or in such a way that there is complete transparency, players and GM discuss the problems and their solutions freely, GM hides no information and players usually know how the problems can be solved, while the characters are still trying to solve the problems frantically.
        This is more common in character-driven drama games where players can play so that they know the secrets of other characters, or so that they do not.

        The created fiction might look the same and might be of the same genre, even though the player experience is very different.

        Assuming you accept that genre does not determine what players do and focus on…

        In my experience, Apocalypse world is kind of a poor fit for games where players solve problems from the perspective of their characters, with the information an resources their characters have. One point of friction is that AW has rules fro reading situations and people, which allow for example figuring out who or what is the biggest threat here. Typically, in a game of creative problem-solving (from character perspective), making such deductions is a job for the players and an important aspect of play.
        Another example is seizing something by force. The traditional method calls for the player to come up with some cover for their character when attacking a fortified position, lest they be shot. Did they prepare adequately to bring something with them? Can they jerry-rig some ancient jeeps to function as mobile cover? Maybe they can dig a tunnel, or know that a sandstorm is coming, or whatever. In AW, you can roll to seize the position by force and (on sufficient success) declare you take one less harm. The fictional situation does have an effect, but manipulating it is less important in AW than it is in traditional play. Manipulating the fictional situation is where the creative problem solving usually happens.

        —-

        The overall point is: Your post frames the new games as superior to older (or traditional) ones. In the process, you insult people who would rather use an older set of rules.

        The hidden assumption you make is certain play style.

        “Whereas the first games just tried to bring you tactical options, and the next tried to be realistic, the new generation tries to use the systems to encourage certain genre-specific behavior.”
        Here, you assume that encouraging a certain genre-specific behaviour is something that people would want their rules to do. You also assume this is more important than realism or tactical options.

        “Whereas the older systems simply assumed people would be able to tell stories with their systems, the new systems encourage everyone involved to push the story by simply using the mechanics.”
        Here, you assume that people want to tell stories with their play (rather than stories being a nice byproduct of play, not the purpose or main point) and you assume people want to regularly engage with the rules mechanics.

        These assumptions you make are not true of all players and play groups.

        Currently, the argument your article makes is: Those old games are bad and you should use these new ones, which are superior. Otherwise I will mock you and also you are bad for the hobby.

        If you want your article the be accurate, your conclusion should be: If you want to run a game with goals supported by these new games, and if their rules don’t bother you, then you should play these new games.
        This, of course, means the only people you can call troglodytes are the people who have not played these games, but who would like them better than the games they are currently playing. This does not include nearly everyone who plays older games.

        I have a fair bit of experience with Burning wheel, and some with Apocalypse world and Solar system / World of Near, and a little bit with Dungeon world. I’d still rather use Call of Cthulhu if I wanted to run a game of creative problem solving (which I often do), irrespective of the genre. And I have only a little experience with Call of Cthulhu.

        I do agree with the leanness point, most of the time. I can also tell you why failing forward is not that big a deal, if one is running a sandbox game, especially with a problem-solving priority, if you are interested.

        • Kind of a lot to cover here, so I might miss some of your ponits, but I guess you can live with it.

          Assuming you accept that genre does not determine what players do and focus on…

          Not exactly. Genre should be a message to the players on how they should behave and what should they be doing. Hopefully you are not confusing genre and setting.

          Currently, the argument your article makes is: Those old games are bad and you should use these new ones, which are superior. Otherwise I will mock you and also you are bad for the hobby.

          Exactly. And I’m not in any way shy about it, either.

          • I do believe you missed most of my points, and I also (perhaps mistakenly) believe I understand where you are coming from. I can continue the discussion, if and only if you think it is useful to either of us. But this might be faster to discuss live.

    • I’ve talked about this before in some article, but I can’t seem to find it right now. The main idea problem is economic. I’ll use this quote I used recently:

      The electric light did not come from continuous improvement of candles.

      Now, suppose everyone was still just buying candles. What would happen then? If a certain group of roleplayers, with plenty of disposable income as they are generally older and have careers, still support outdated systems and ideas, trying to bring new innovations into the marketplace is more difficult than it should be.

        • Yes, and quite critically actually.

          Its easy (and maybe even necessary for many people) to think games are just one more hobby among others, but based on what’s going on in the world, were not talking about crocheting here, we’re talking about something revolutionary.

          Games are on the precipice of changing everything in the world. They are our chance to make the world a better place (well, I’m trying other routes as well, but I think games are the most potent). Games can teach all that tacit knowledge we need to function in a world that’s going to change rapidly in the coming decades. Its not a coincidence that games have risen into a real artform in the last few decades. Its because for the first time, we need them that much.

          So, holding back games should be something to be frowned upon. Not only that, its harmful and reactionary in ways people should avoid being.

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