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Parallel vs. Isolated System Mastery

June 23, 2017

System mastery is your ability to expertly play the system to achieve your goals in play*.

Now, different systems require different skills as a player, to achieve mastery, just as much as Chess requires different skills than Poker**.   What I want to focus on, is thinking about how games are designed and how skills outside of game might directly help you with system mastery, vs. games where the road to mastery is only through knowing the game itself.

Parallel System Mastery

When skills outside of the game can be well applied in play and help you do better at the game.  Conversely, when the skills that develop system mastery also develop a skill set outside of play as well.

The easiest and most obvious example is the origins of war games – people developed wargames to teach and practice tactics and strategy.  In this case, you want to have it to where whatever strategies work in war, work in the game, and whatever strategies work in the game, should also work in war.

Obviously, tabletop RPGs have moved pretty far from that as a primary motivating factor.  Other parallel skill arenas usually are more popular:

  • Storytelling (pacing, characterization, improvisation, suspense)
  • Social Pressure/Manipulation (Teamwork, deception, alliance making, status-seeking)
  • Genre familiarity (Superheroes, Tolkien lore, etc.)

And of course, you can build games to be even more specific – for example, Riddle of Steel’s combat system is designed to mirror strategies used in historical European martial arts, or Drifter’s Escape focuses highly on the skills of poker bluffing/reading bluffs, or the chat-IRC game Code of Unaris requires your ability to use quick word play and editing to much effect.

Parallel System Mastery design might be completely intentional, like the war game example, or it might be unintentional – like how most “systemless” games usually end up with a mix of storytelling and social pressure***.

Isolated System Mastery

 

When the primary method for system mastery in a game is knowledge of the system itself.****

The easiest example, is probably most forms of D&D combat.  The things that make you good at D&D combat are very far removed from the things that work in the real world, without, say, the DM using lots and lots of modifiers, house rules, and judgment calls.*****

Now mind you, Isolated System Mastery is neither good nor bad as far as game design is concerned – you want to design rules that are fun to play, in whatever fashion you’re looking for fun.  It is certainly more fun in Tenra Bansho Zero for injuries to make my character better at fighting, because it’s cinematically appropriate.  In Primetime Adventures, it’s more fun to sometimes have the cards and raw luck set up other players to narrate the outcome of something you’ve done.

The important thing to do, in this, is make sure people know what actually helps them succeed, and what skills (or way of thinking) doesn’t matter at all.   The more options and complicated links between subsystems, the slower and more difficult it usually is to gain System Mastery in general – when these are counter intuitive or simply without any other parallel in real life, it can be hard to develop this skill, and sometimes quite frustrating to get there.  (A lot of Burning Wheel’s game systems run into this particular hurdle.)

Different Masteries for Different Folks

One of the most useful things to consider in all of this is that this folds under what we used to call “Technical Agenda” – or, what you, as a group, wanted to experience of the game from the technical side.  Often people muddle around in talking about “crunch vs. light”, “game balance”, etc. and don’t have a good set of terms to identify what skills they’re having FUN exercising in a game vs. not having fun in doing so.

I had a vague idea about this years ago when every so often someone would complain that it “wasn’t fair” to have a game that focused on storytelling elements in improvisation because “some players aren’t good at that”… (unlike, presumably, the ability to quickly calculate encumbrance and speed movements and supplies, which I guess everyone can do in their head? Oh wait.)

Anyway, I think this is important for both designers and people committed towards finding more games that fit whatever their particular niche is.  Or avoiding things they dislike.

For example, bluffing games that revolve around a real resource cue (cards, liar’s dice, etc.) are fine by me, games that involve player-to-player social manipulation are games I absolutely despise.  I know this, and that helps me choose what games I’d rather play.  When it comes to tactical type games, I like there to be enough Parallel System Mastery that things that generally work in real life, generally work in the game (or, if not real life, whatever genre it’s emulating).

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(Wow, a fuckton of footnotes today.  Well, I’ve been writing less often, so I guess I’m making up with divergent side thoughts and context.)

*  “Goals” are not synonymous with winning.  For example, there’s a few Narrativist games that focus on tragedy – so maybe having terrible things happen to your character in a way that is dramatically appropriate, is your goal as a player.  Having specific things happen, or happen in a specific way, might be part of it, and your mastery is utilizing the system to make that occur.

** You might realize that if you play a given game with different GMs or different groups, the set of skills that are exercised and necessary to do well in the game might be completely different.  This would be the part that old Forge Theory pointed out that the rules as written were one thing, but the actual game in play, is where you see the System emerge- and that this means even if you’re playing “Vampire” using the same books, you might have completely different Systems in actual play.  Designers should be giving people good tools to match up these things, and because this is historically been shitty, the reason why I wrote out the Same Page Tool.

*** An example I love to come back to, often enough, is a phrase that appeared in Exalted 1E’s introduction: “Rules exist to prevent bitterness between friends.”  There’s so much to unpack there, but in this case, you can tell someone apparently suffered greatly at the hands of unintentional and terrible social pressure design, which honestly, has to be one of the worst things that’s happened to the hobby in so many games.

**** Although I say “isolated”, a) there’s a lot of groups that tend to fall into the same system pattern regardless of what rules they’re playing by, so naturally they have a System Mastery that carries over game to game, b) there’s a lot of games that are functionally built on the same premises and core ideas to other games, and so, again, learning one helps you with those others, and c) of course, there’s baseline skills like your ability to communicate clearly or do basic math, that contribute to your quality of play, but are low-line enough that by themselves do not constitute System Mastery.

***** Underlying at least some of the conflict in “edition wars” is people realizing their carefully cultivated System Mastery under one edition doesn’t hold up under another edition.  To be fair, these differences can be marked enough to scratch entirely different itches and desires, but when you see how many folks brag about what you have to do to be a “real gamer”, you can see a lot of that is about pride in their Isolated System Mastery.

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