Saturday, July 11, 2009

System: Player Expectations and Style of Play

Since I'm going to be talking about system and how it impacts games for a bit, I think that it would be good to start by defining system.

For role-playing, I define a system as follows:
System: A set of rules used to determine the success or failure of characters within a role-playing game.
There are other elements which nearly every system has, but they are all designed to support the core success/failure mechanism of the system. For example, most games have a character generation system of some sort.

The most common core mechanisms involve dice, and can be summed up in a single sentence - "Roll one die, add appropriate modifiers and compare to a target number." "Roll a number of dice. Count the number of those dice which equal or exceed a certain number."

Systems also provide reward systems. Most of the time, this takes the form of experience points which allow characters to change and grow.

Each system brings with it certain expectations, which can drastically color how players react to it.

Where do the expectations come from? A variety of sources.

The most important and influential piece of the player expectation puzzle is the game's reward system. In Dungeons & Dragons, defeating monsters1 and disarming traps give you experience points which are added to your total. At certain threshholds, you gain more abilities which make you more effective at defeating monsters and disarming traps. The system doesn't spell out rewards for outwitting NPC's or avoiding combat. This leads to a specific style of play.

In the Tribe 8 (and other Silhouette-system games), you gain experience for being involved with the game, for advancing the story, for staying in character, and for working as a team. Yes, you can get experience for defeating enemies, but you can potentially obtain more experience for a dramatic act of self-sacrifice than for that defeat.

In other games, survival is its own reward. Call of Cthulhu is probably the most infamous game in this respect.

Other games provide additional rewards - King Arthur Pendragon, with its Winter Phase allows players to build dynasties, not just characters.

While it's the major contributor, a game's reward system is not the only element which impacts a game's style of play. So what else influences player expectations?

Rules focus. In Ars Magica, for example, devotes more than two-thirds of the rules to the magic system. Not surprisingly, the game focuses on magic. In fact, the combat system is almost underdeveloped by comparison.

Skill Lists. Tales From The Floating Vagabond had a skill list which included, "Swing Nasty Pointy Thing with Panache." With a list like that players knew from the outset that the game didn't take itself too seriously. It's worth noting that the game (and a number of its supplements) are now available at Drive Thru RPG.

Interior Art. CthulhuTech is illustrated throughout, and there are a number of images that make me think, "I wanna be that guy."

Game Fiction. I'm not talking about the Dragonlance novels, here. Nearly every game includes one or more bits of introductory fiction. These are frequently incomplete and end with a cliffhanger of sorts before introducing the rules elements demonstrated by that fiction. More importantly, they give you an idea what the setting is.

So what about Universal Systems? That is: systems which don't tie to a specific setting or genre. Universal systems generally lack a specific rules focus, they have very diverse skill lists, and the interior art and game fiction are all over the map in terms of quality and flavor. GURPS, FUDGE, Silhouette, and d20 have all tried to be completely universal systems - how well do they succeed? I'll talk about universal systems next week.

1 Until fairly recently, "Defeating" always meant "killing." Now, if you can force them to retreat or flee, you get credit for defeating them.

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