Systems that work

January 30, 2016

Supported Design

A system that supports your goals in play does three things:

  1. Makes it easy to generate moment to moment situations and events of interest
  2. Creates interesting choices for players to make
  3. Creates appropriate, but also sometimes surprising, outcomes

You’ll notice all three of these are highly dependent on what you’re looking for in a game, and the specific game itself.

In Action

For example, a classic dungeon crawl works like this:

  • Moment to moment situations are created between the hazards, the monsters and the logistics of navigating the dungeon
  • Strategic and logistical choices about how you face threats and overcome obstacles creates choices
  • Outcomes include: surprise encounters, traps, utilizing resources or found objects in novel ways, etc.

Whereas, say, Primetime Adventures works like this:

  • Moment to moment situations are created by players taking turns setting scenes
  • Choices are around how you approach the situation and express your character, as the tension/issues build, secondarily, how/when you choose to spend resources
  • The classic succeed/fail outcomes are further adjusted by narration trading – different people get to narrate the outcome and define what happens in ways that creates unexpected results.


When the system fails on one of these three fronts, you have some common problems.

If you fail to have moment to moment situations being created, there’s either a lot of dragging along of play, as no real interest is being produced, or that the situations all have to be pregenerated, shoehorned in, and much of the work is spent trying to keep these together and not have them fall apart or be “used up too fast”.

When the choices are not interesting in and of themselves, people just go into automatic mode and disengage.  This could be because there’s no real choice (railroading and Illusionism) or because the choices are bunk choices anyway (“Time to do the one attack my character is built to do.  Again.”).

Alternatively, the system supports choices that don’t fit what you’re trying to do, in which case, you either have to slog through a lot of mechanics and procedure that is a waste of time, or else you simply excise/skip it.

And finally, when the outcomes aren’t appropriate… well, this is where people really love to talk about how bad systems are and freeform is the one true way.  GMs can either spend a lot of time fudging or creating new rules or just fiating everything to try to keep things within reason.

Work for Play

You might notice a lot of what I pointed out above sounds like a great amount of play for a lot of games.

That’s because a lot of games are built on incomplete design – they’ll give you rules to make a character, to make skill rolls, have combat, get some more powers… but all the stuff around what creates good situations, pacing, how to drive points of play that highlight choices, or create outcomes that feed back into that?  Too many are absent it.

When people have to create their own solutions, you quickly find that game groups that are “playing the same rules” actually have very, very different games involved altogether.  This can also be made worse if the game itself gives contradictory or actually non-functional advice/procedures for play.

High Hurdle, Low Return

All of this extra work to make the game work… is a high tax for play.  It’s one of the reasons lots of tabletop RPGs get poached by boardgames, card games and videogames – you don’t have to work to make the game work.

A few years back, I thought that a key part of the problem was the creative load that was part of what TTRPGs stay with small groups, however, between all the amazing creativity you see pretty much everyone doing online for so many things, I’m more likely to just chalk it up to this hurdle of work to make the game work (plus the usual issues of high expected time investment and toxic gamer culture).

At Your Table

If you have a system you love, it’s worth considering how it does these three things and why they work for you – it will help you understand what other games do differently, or similarly.

If you’re struggling or not entirely satisfied with a system, it’s worth considering where it’s dropping the ball, and if other games don’t have this problem, and why.

If you’re designing a system, well… it’s worth asking yourself how these things work for the game you’re about to make.

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