Tuesday, May 23, 2017

System v. Setting (WTF are you talking about?)

Hey Game Fans, I’ve back with another article about gaming (big Surprise, right?) but today i’m going to talk about a couple of key terms that i think that you all should get acquainted with and it will help you grow as consumers of games.  We talk about games a lot and you might hear something to the effect of “I love the setting but the system is absolutely terrible,” or “I love this System is literally dumber than a bag of doorknobs.”  Now if you’re not sure what either of those statements means, don’t feel bad.  I’m going to take a look at both of the terms and see if i can’t help you see the differences between them.  Let’s dig a little deeper and see what we can come up with.  


The rules and processes that are required to determine task resolution (successful or not) during the game play experience.  The nuts and bolts of how we do things.  


The story elements that inform the type of game we’re playing.  This is often a descriptive term, and covers a stylistic genre or type.  

So we’ve got two very easy definitions to work off of going forward, let’s see what we can make of these.  I look at most games in our industry as falling along into a pattern where one end is pure systems, and the other is pure setting.  There are some games that cross this by creating very tight rules specifically for a setting.  Other products are system agnostic, which is a fancy way of saying that they are ideas and options that can be applied to a lot of different game systems.   Let’s take a look at each one of these ideas and see what we can extrapolate from them, and the things that we like about them.  

Points on a Line

System (standalone)

These games are focused around creating the specific rules and sub systems you need to accomplish a variety of tasks.  These games put forth substance over style because they are designed to give you a system to build your setting and stories around.  They’re designed from the idea that once the system is out of the way, the story can take over, and build the systems for you.  This is your GURPS, your Open Legend RPG, your Savage Worlds, your Cortex Prime and the other one that comes to immediate mind is the Tri-Stat system from Big Eyes, Small Mouth.  

Each system has varying degrees of complexity, but are designed to give you access to all of the tools you need to build your adventure, sessions, campaign, etc.  With all the tools at hand, it’s up to you to build the story.  

Setting Specific System

These are systems that were built for specific gaming properties and ideas.  These systems were purpose built for the setting they are tied with and are a fairly functional blend of style and substance, but in this case, substance is there to further the style choices made by the authors.  The system is part of the story that the setting is trying to build for you.  This is a Dungeons and Dragons, a Pathfinder, a Shadowrun, a Deadlands Classic or any of another host of RPG products.

System Specific Setting

This is something that is spawned by the profusion of Systems only RPGs.  Designers will build a specific setting around the mechanics of their chosen system.  The other alternative is that the setting (or the system) has been licensed and the producers are working within the licensing agreement to create setting specific material for the system that’s licensed.  This would a Savage Rifts (Or any of the host of other Savage Worlds Licensees), Any of the Open Licensing Agreement publications for Pathfinder or Dungeons and Dragons, or any of the setting specific supplements for GURPS.  

Setting (Standalone)

This is a setting pure and simple.  There are no specific mechanics listed in this book and if they show up, they often take the form of re purposing existing mechanics from other systems or how to make this setting for any number of role-playing game systems.  The major difference between this is and any of the other options is that this setting doesn’t particularly care how you include it into your game world and is primarily designed as an ideas option.  These are increasingly common for settings that are statted out for multiple systems or you also see it a lot in one page dungeons.  The adventures don’t care how the system plays out, it just wants to tell a story.  

Complexity vs. Simplicity

The other two key terms we’re going to talk about are Complexity and Simplicity.  In game terminology, complex systems have more numeric values and subsystems attached to them.  Simple systems have fewer moving parts of this type, and can be a lot easier to get into than more complex systems.  Complexity doesn’t necessarily mean hard, and Simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy.  These terms have more to do with the task resolution system and how numeric values are determined.  

Simple systems generally are easier to get into because they focus on the characters and give players some room to improvise within the mechanics.  My favorite example of this that I've encountered recently is Fate, which is a wonderful Game system that focuses on easy rules to create complex, intricate stories.  

Complex systems tend to have more numeric values and statistics to keep track of.  A lot of these systems pick up speed with familiarity and practice, but staring at a character sheet for Pathfinder or Rifts for the first time can be mind boggling.  One of my favorite complex RPGs is Mutants and Masterminds, because the system let’s you build virtually any kind of superhero you’d ever want to.   

Like the System vs. Setting dynamic, Complexity and Simplicity fall across different points and represent varying levels of complexity and simplicity.  If you’re wanting to check out the complexity of a system, check out its character creation system.  That’s usually been my first check of how complex a system is going to be.  

Thoughts and ideas

Now every system i’ve ever played has utilized a randomizer to determine success or failure in actions.  Learning the ins and outs of that system is one of the keys to developing system comprehension and eventually mastery.  Each game utilizes a system that’s different in some way (unless it’s using the same system as another game), and developing comprehension for how the system works is the first step towards a greater understanding of the field of role-playing games.  

System comprehension is a wonderful skill for a player of games.  Understanding how the system works and the system’s internal mechanics can help you discover new options in the game, new uses for existing options, and eventually you can work on designing your own options and ideas.  

Developing these competencies take a lot of time, and there are tons of options and ideas for finding new and interesting ways of learning things.  There are dozens upon dozens of great blogs that offer insight and ideas for being a more informed consumer of gaming ideas, and you can pick and choose as you like.  

That’s where we’re going to leave off for today, and we’ll catch up with again.  Game On, Game Fans.  

No comments:

Post a Comment