Seasoning Ashes to Taste

As a GM or player, how important is the system to you?

For the past few weeks, I have been trying quite hard to get into Burning Wheel. I don’t have that much time to go over new game systems at the best of times, and less time to try to run them, but from my first exposure to the game, it caught my interest, despite how busy I have been lately.

I did the usual things one does when approaching a new system: I read the rules, I discussed it, I read other people’s thoughts on learning and running the system, I tried to persuade another member of my gaming group to run it, I thought about running it myself, and so on.

After deciding to run it myself, I began to notice that something about the game bothered me, but could not put my finger on it. Eventually, in a forum thread which intended to work its way through the rules step by step, and which included a good deal of insight into how the game actually plays on a regular basis, I figured out exactly where to put my finger. Perhaps if I were less busy with work and important life-stuff, it would have dawned on me sooner. It is just as likely, I suppose, that I would have just trusted my instincts and dismissed the attempt without bothering to analyze the reaction in detail.

In the end, it was simply a matter of preference.

While that might seem to be a banal revelation at first glance, permit me to elucidate. What I didn’t like isn’t really that relevant to this post, but for the sake of completeness, I will say that it was simply that the game designers chose to emphasize the manipulation of game elements as a central element of the fun, over a design which might have emphasized immersive roleplay. As I prefer to focus on roleplaying when I play a roleplaying game (peanut butter vs chocolate), I decided that with time being the precious commodity that it is for me these days, I did not have enough of it for Burning Wheel. I think I would have loved this game years ago, though.

In my experience, as I have said before, the system sets a tone, and that tone distinctly characterizes and influences play. When I run a game, I prefer to use the system built to present it, rather than use a generic, ‘go-to’, familiar, forum darling, or flavour-of-the-month system. I find it odd to transplant one game’s setting into another game’s system. This is not so much because the mechanical choices of how the system design are all that important to me, but more because the attitude and mood of the game tend to influence design philosophy in subtle ways which have a noticeable effect on the player. There is a hell of a lot more hope in a handful of D10s than there is in a percentile roll. Even with an equal chance of success, a player in the Storyteller system rolls a pile of dice with the possibility of multiple successes ahead of them, whereas a player in Basic Roleplaying (Call of Cthulhu, etc) rolls with success or failure in mind. Add in the feature of exploding 10s and all sorts of mad hopefulness can arise. These sorts of influences carry over into other areas of play and, as I said, set a tone.

This left me in an interesting place, mentally. If I dislike a system on the grounds that its tone or approach modifies the atmosphere of play in a direction which I do not enjoy, or do not enjoy as much as another method, but yet hold to the idea that I am ultimately responsible for how a game works, and should be the only person in the game to be explicitly concerned with rules and meta-game considerations, are these two thoughts not contradictory?

This week, as I pondered Burning Wheel, and systems in general, it occurred to me that as a GM, what I look for in a system is a mechanic to resolve situations best left to chance. Whether to heighten tension or to provide an opportunity for Chance to work its authorial magic, having a set of rules – whatever they might be – to handle this is all I want. Period. I use the system to enable the story to unfold through the actions and reactions of the players to my descriptions. It serves as accompaniment and enhancement to the tale. If it fails to do this, by preventing the players from adopting their roles, or developing their characters, it is my duty to take care of the problem.

I do not look to a system to provide realism, promote balance in play, reinforce habits my group likes while penalizing ones we do not, or protect players from GMs. All of those responsibilities lie with me. It is my duty as the GM to provide appropriate realism through ruling on player action and die rolls thoughtfully, to handle balance issues whatever they might be in a particular genre or game, to ensure the game stays on track, and to run games consistently and fairly. I feel that if I do not do these things, that no matter what controls or fixes might have been attempted by a system designer, no system will change the result.

In a well-developed game like Burning Wheel, which much like the Book of 5 Rings only makes sense and seems simple if you already understand it, these designer biases take the game into a direction where the intent is to focus on the mechanics of the game. Through no fault of its own then, the game makes itself less useful to me, as I do not choose to focus on the gaming aspects of what we do, but the roleplaying aspects.

As a result of my predilections, I guess, I tend not to have the problems that others cite as reasons to find fault with various game systems. As long as I can interpret the results provided by the system in an entertaining fashion, and adjudicate situations fairly, everyone will have fun. This in itself, is not a useful revelation. However, taken a step further it brings us to one element of OSR that really appeals to me; ‘rulings versus rules.’

If I were a novice GM, I believe that the games being produced today would make it much more likely for me to run a decent game for a group of novice players. This is certainly a step in the right direction. Due to my experience, however, and the amount of years I have had to explore different approaches and discover what I do and do not like about games, I have great doubts that the general direction game design seems to be taking would serve me as well. Bias gets in the way – and not just my bias, or player bias should they have developed any, but designer bias.  These biases get encoded into the design, presentation, and intent of each stage of system evolution and set trends and tones in gaming which newer players do not have the perspective to question, and more experienced players can find outright annoying or insulting.

On the other side of the coin, the very reason that game innovation has been ongoing and gone in such specific directions is due to a lack of satisfaction with existing game design approaches, and obviously from bad gaming experiences. From where I sit, one cannot make bad gaming vanish by hurling rules at it, but I do laud folk for trying.

From my perspective, what seems to be happening is that games are being used as much as, or perhaps more as a constraint and/or training tool for players as they are a device for simulation. This divergence of approach is one that can have significant impact on enjoyment, and to me seems more important than things like indie vs mainstream, rules lite vs rules heavy, and old school or new school. While I think we can see crossover among players through many of these divisions, I would be surprised if there were not a clearer division between those that want the system to make them play a certain way, versus those who want the system to model certain things.


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5 Responses to “Seasoning Ashes to Taste”
  1. BF Wolfe says:

    Not bad. You’ve successfully applied the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to RPGs 🙂 Its a linguistic theory that states the language you you use, in particular the cognitive categories of a language, affect the way people think.
    I think I see game systems as a combination of style and mechanics. I’ve never given it thought before, but I guess I’ve always thought of a gaming system as a combination of mechanics and style, with the role of the former to simply not interfere with the latter. Mechanics should allow each player the ability to interact with the world in a unique but ‘equivilant’ way with others, and not get in the way with game style. In fact my favourite game system was ‘Hero’ which completely separated mechanics from style in the rules. Points spent on a range attack were identical whether you were carrying a elven bow a wand of magic missiles or a laser rifle – you justr had to define a stylistic special effect. You could attach any style onto this game, or multiple styles, and be fairly certain of game balance. (Gurps, I think, was another example of this, but I didn’t like it as much for some reason)
    I suppose the bias you could say this introduced was in turning players into point engineers, and characters into precision tools by which they influenced the game world. Maybe.
    A counterpoint that I remember was Feng Shui. very heavy on style, but very restrictive and unbalanced in mechanics. Never really took off.
    hmm. just realized this comment doesn’t really have a point. Oh well. 🙂

    • Runeslinger says:

      Haha – there were several points in the writing of the original post that I felt the same way (What the hell is my point?), but I either found it, or have successfully convinced myself that I found it. I didn’t go so far in my mind as to want to invoke Sapir-Whorf, but thanks for noticing~

      I think the point you raise about GURPS is a significant one. “…I didn’t like it as much, for some reason.” I am trying to get at that reason. What makes one game an enduring favourite for many, but yet raise the hackles on just as many others? I think there is more than just preference being reflected in these choices. Dare I say, as you have done: The Medium is the Message? 😉

      • BF Wolfe says:

        Have you played both fantasy hero and GURPS? Rereading your post, the only difference I can think of in mechanics comes down to chance, or the perception of chance, as you put it. d% for GURPS, and a fistful of D6 for Hero (I may be wrong on GURPS, its been a while).
        I was trying to find a cute, random philosophy quote to end the post, but failed. Lots of sites for random adjectives, but none for philosophy quotes…

        • Runeslinger says:


          The inclusion of generic systems is where the idea starts to lose its cohesion. In those cases, player bias does not seem to be drawn from the approach of the designer to the system so much as the intent of the designer for the system. A generic system, or a one-system-to-rule-them-all approach, is either liked or disliked in part because it is a generic system. Its ability to carry out all necessary functions in multiple genres is an additional concern. It seems to me, though, that evaluation of the way it does so tends to be much more on a works vs. doesn’t work model, than on a reaction to how its nature affects the mood and experience of play.

          Perhaps the idea doesn’t lose cohesion after all…

  2. BF Wolfe says:

    ideas never lose cohesion, just our grasp on them 🙂

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