Wednesday, June 24, 2009

System Matters

Let's get to the meat of the discussion, shall we? I have two words for you - they are words that the large sections of the RPG publishing industry spent the better part of a decade trying to convince you were incorrect. Words that the rest of the industry spent the same amount of time trying to reinforce and remind you of.

These two words?

System Matters

In 2000, Dungeons & Dragons released its third edition. The game was a huge step forward for D&D - it transformed the game, and advanced the system so it was almost caught up to the rest of the industry1. But it did one thing that advanced the entire industry - it opened its system up to third-party publishers, with a few restrictions. This meant that anyone could publish product that used the same system as the best-selling game in the industry. They were even allowed to claim compatiblity. Did I say allowed? I mean "required." Each book said on the front, "Requires the use of the Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook." Sales exploded. For everyone. We saw d20 Superhero games, d20 Pulp Noir Detective games, d20 Cyberpunk games, d20 Horror games ...

For the first few months, all you needed to do in order to sell product to a distributor was slap that d20 logo onto the product.

And everyone that produced d20 product spent time telling you, "System doesn't matter. The flavor of the game comes from the Game Master (GM)." In essence, "The d20 Version of Game is just the same as the non-d20 Version of Game. If you are noticing a difference in your game, it's all your GM's fault." More on this later. And by "later," I mean, "Probably next week."

What these publishers forgot - and hoped you would forget - is that each system brings with it its own set of player expectations. Someone who enjoys GURPS is probably not going to enjoy a system with fewer rules, such as Vampire: The Masquerade, because each game has a completely different reward system. And yes, I know about the train wreck known as GURPS Vampire: The Masquerade. It took the Gothic Punk setting of the one and shoehorned it to the system of the other. The problem was that most GURPS players weren't interested in the setting, and most V:tM players preferred the system they already had. Steve Jackson Games published a few other World of Darkness adaptations

In fact, I suspect that GURPS Vampire: The Masquerade is a large part of why White Wolf and Steve Jackson both approached the d20 system the way they did - White Wolf published a series of settings and adventures that were completely unrelated to their World of Darkness setting (and didn't use the White Wolf name), and Steve Jackson Games waited a few years, and then began mocking d20 with The Munchkin Player's Guide.

Meanwhile, other games quietly started to take advantage of a growing d20 backlash. In 2001, Sorcerer (a game which had existed since the mid-90's) was a success in its print incarnation - not a huge success, but enough that smaller independent publishers started to take note. Discussion of game theory on the Forge took off. A few years later, the Indie Press Revolution took off. While they haven't billed themselves as such, these groups are to role-playing what the Punk movement was to music. But that's another subject for another time.

Is this to say there is no such thing as a functional universal system? No. Not at all. I'm also not saying d20 was a bad game - I thought some a few d20 versions were actually superior to the "original" versions of some games. I'll talk more about both of these later, as well.

I know it seems like I spend more time talking about what I'm going to talk about instead of just talking about it.

Here is why:
Every sentence I type spills fifteen more ideas into my notebook. Just in the last few paragraphs, I've realized that I have six different Cthulhu games (Call of Cthulhu, Trail of Cthulhu, Toon2, Call of Cthulhu d20, GURPS Cthulhupunk, and CthulhuTech), that I have two different universal systems within arms reach (GURPS and FUDGE), and that I haven't played a White Wolf game in nearly a decade.

And, once I start to talk about one of those, they spill even more ideas. For example, it occurs to me that the Cthulhu games are a perfect example of how system matters. Each has their own way of dealing with sanity, and each has a different "feel" to it which is based in large part on the system. I am also aware that d20 tried to be a universal system, and it succeeded to a limited extent, but it still isn't as universal as FUDGE. I should write about universal systems and where they succeed and fail.


So join me next week, when I continue talking about system and how it matters. And, in a few weeks, I'll talk about setting and how it matters and how it interacts with system.

I'll get back to boardgaming, I promise. In fact, next week - despite what I've said here - I'll probably have an entry about Dungeon Twister. Or Ghost Stories: White Moon, which I've now seen the rules to. If, of course, I'm allowed to say anything about it.

It's also worth mentioning that Asmodee Editions and Repos Productions are sharing a booth at GenCon this year. I'm looking forward to meeting the Repos team.

1 Care to see the history of the d20 system? Check out Talislanta sometime. Especially the 3rd edition, written by Jonathan Tweet and published by Wizards of the Coast.

2 The Tooniversal Tour Guide has a section entitled "The Crawl of Catchoolu." It's a parody, but it's a functional parody.

1 comment:

  1. I look forward to more of your musings on these matters. :)