Back in November, Thomas Manuel’s Indie RPG Newsletter opened with an interesting commentary on the concept of rules.
According to Manuel, the fact that we use the same word to describe the mechanical aspects of roleplaying games as we do the oppressive systems imposed upon us by real-world institutions might account for the existence of different sets of attitudes towards RPG mechanics.
As someone with a mind that tends to slide straight off of RPG rules and whose politics skew somewhat anarchistic, I would argue that the reason the same word is used for both classes of entities is that they are in fact describing the same class of thing. The only difference between the rules governing role-playing games and the rules governing bourgeois society is that playing an RPG requires active and deliberate consent while being part of a society requires only that you exist. If you were to show me a well-behaved and well-educated liberal who goes to the gym. I would show you someone who is in the business of optimising their character build using real-world system mastery.
This being said, the idea that really caught my attention comes towards the end of the editorial:
Maybe rules for storygames are more like settings or adventures for the OSR. A good adventure or setting is praised for it makes explicit and specific (and what it doesn’t). They’re praised for their modularity (and hackability). Nobody thinks of adventures as restrictions. It might not be a perfect analogy but there’s something there I think!
Manuel is suggesting that while traditional RPGs make a distinction between ‘rules’, ‘setting’ and ‘adventure’, non-traditional RPGs tend to take ‘rules’, ‘setting’, and ‘adventure’ and combine them all under the rubric ‘system’.
While my experience with non-traditional RPGs is still extremely limited, I must say that this does account for one of my long-term issues with non-traditional play; namely that non-traditional RPGs are often so focused on a particular set of themes and experiences that they wind up feeling a lot more shallow and brittle than their traditional counterparts. Indeed, I would go so far as to argue that when people say that non-traditional RPGs are not RPGs, those feelings may stem from the fact that their focused systems make them feel more like board and card games than traditional RPGs.
I don’t want to re-litigate the issue of whether or not non-traditional RPGs are really RPGs as that has always been a stupid squabble over semantics. However, I do want to dwell a little bit on the way that concepts like ‘system’ can often have quite fuzzy boundaries. For example, while Ten Candles contains a number of different starting prompts and can be played and replayed any number of times with strikingly different outcomes, I would argue that the game only allows for one type of adventure. Namely one in which a group of survivors try to reach safety in the midst of an apocalypse only for their hopes to be dashed. You can’t have a session of Ten Candles devoted purely to shopping or delving into the characters’ backstories. Nor can the person hosting the game pause the apocalypse while the group spends a couple of weeks fucking about in dungeons before returning to the main plot. Ten Candles only allows people to play one type of adventure and that adventure is so baked into the structure of the game that it’s difficult to say where the ‘adventure’ ends and the ‘rules’ start.
As much as I agree with Manuel’s analysis, I don’t think it goes far enough… I think that when we talk about ‘system’ we need to recognise that quite often the term includes not only rules, setting, and adventure, but also extant social dynamics and hierarchies.
The best example of this that springs to mind is the actual play podcast Sneak Attack. Now rarely spoken of, Sneak Attack was one of the first generation of actual play podcasts that got suddenly and unaccountably popular simply by virtue of being there when the market exploded. Unlike a lot of the now-famous actual play podcasts, Sneak Attack featured regular gamers rather than professional performers meaning that the group simply did not think to conceal their natural social dynamics.
While the podcast starts off quite gently, it soon becomes obvious that only one of the players was sufficiently familiar with the rules of D&D5 to maximise their character build. As a result, the action scenes are full of characters doing 3 or 4 points of damage while the dude who actually knows what he’s doing regularly does 15 to 20 and gets to attack multiple times in a single round. Rather than helping the other players to get more out of their characters, the DM chose to deal with the group’s emerging power imbalance by having all the bad things happen to the tricked-out character. To make matters worse, the character kept surviving these consequences and so the player started taking greater and greater risks.
The tension born of this imbalance was then amplified by the fact that there was evidently some off-podcast tension between the guy who knew how to play D&D5 and his wife who was then comparatively inexperienced as a gamer. Tensions arising from the imbalances in the group soon combined with existing emotional tensions to produce a dynamic where everyone at the table seemed to be working towards the death of one character.
The interesting thing about this dynamic is that that nothing that happened in the podcast was explicitly against the rules: There’s nothing in D&D5 preventing one character from being mechanically superior to the others and there’s nothing in the rules of D&D5 about shouting someone down every time he opens his fool mouth. These habits and quirks were as much a part of the group’s game as anything in the D&D5 Player’s Handbook and yet we would not say they were part of the rules.
I would argue that while the quirks in Sneak Attack’s GMing were extreme and emotionally unhealthy, they are not qualitatively different to dozens of quirks affecting the play of your average RPG. Role-playing games are social activities and as such they have the potential to carry forward any quirk, dynamic, and power structure that is present in a given social group before play begins. Gamers only tend to think about the ways in which existing social dynamics affect their games when these dynamics result in outright unfairness and/or favouritism. Thankfully, some recent developments in RPG culture has started to shine a light on the social elements of system:
Firstly, the rise of non-traditional RPGs has been extraordinarily fruitful as the willingness of non-traditional game designers to challenge existing power structures means that non-traditional RPGs will often make changes to group dynamics that serve to short circuit the kinds of patterns that might affect traditional play. For example, if the group with whom you play D&D has a natural pecking order then chances are that the said pecking order will be replicated at the table. By deliberately taking power away from GMs and handing it to players, non-traditional RPGs have historically helped to disrupt in-group power dynamics.
Secondly, a growing awareness of social justice has encouraged players to think not only about the ways in which their games might be helping to replicate oppressive ideologies but also about the ways in which a group’s power differentials might devolve into outright abuse.
While I absolutely welcome both sets of initiatives (and it’s no surprise that marginalised groups concerned about the latter have naturally gravitated towards games concerned with the former) I think it would be helpful not only to think of ‘rules’ and ‘systems’ as separate things but also to think about group dynamics and individual psychology as inherent parts of the systems that govern play. When you sit down to play a new game, you are not only carrying expectations accrued over hundreds of hours playing RPGs, you are also carrying expectations accrued during tens of thousands of hours of human interaction. Our experience and humanity are as much a part of a game’s system as the dice we roll.