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Why we Talk About System - a Manifesto

Roger raised an interesting point his response to chapter 2.

I think that systems thinking might be well put to use as a diagnostic aid, to try to solve problems at the table, and perhaps has less utility as a design tool.

This is a very salient point, and one I want to address. First, I totally agree that it's all about what happens at the table. However, I think there's an assumption that rules aren't about what happens at the table. It's easy to see why this should be the case. Most early game systems, like say any early edition of D&D are nearly unplayable as written. Not only do they offer little guidance over how to actually play, they the sometimes contain rules that cannot be used as written. The first edition of Gamma World is an extreme example. The game you buy cannot be played.

The solution to this has been a set of practices and habits that generally get lumped into a big bucket called "good gamemastering" (and a smaller bucket called "good playing"). Here are some things that are missing from D&D:

- how to resolve disputes between players
- how to keep player interest
- how to handle the difficulty level of the adventure (addressed in later editions)
- what to do when the players decide to go off your map
- how much a player can say about what happens when he swings his sword
- how to generate color, narration, dialog
- is thing about story, or smashing monsters, or something else?
- how rich should the characters be?

These are all things that the game system can address, and do so intelligently. Over time, groups invent rules, habits, and practices to address these issues. Eventually, those practices become "part of the system" even if they're not written down.

What I want to understand is how rules effect what happens at the table, even when the rules are unwritten. Systems thinking is all about diagnosing causes that may be unknown, or may be having an effect that is unexpected (as we'll see when we get into more complex diagrams).

So yes, it's about the table, but we're game designers, and we want to design better games. Systems thinking is one way we can come to a deeper understanding of what happens at the table and what the rules have to do with it.

Plus cool diagrams with arrows are fun to draw.

It seems I jumped to some conclusions regarding RogerT's point. This is clarfied in his comment.

What I was trying to say, and obviously didn't do a good job if it, is that system thinking might be a good way to analyze actual play and then use it to influence game design.

That's more or less exactly what I was getting at.


I think you misinterpreted what I was getting at. I was actually worried about that when I wrote it.I was not making the assumption that rules aren't about what happens at the table, I was just saying that from a design perspective sytems thinking might be a good way to approach the interpretation of actual play - for instance in the playtest phase of design. I am talking about systems thinking not "system" in terms of the Lumpley Principle. I was not trying to imply that system doesn't matter or isn't important. That discussion has been done numerous times at the Forge. I agree with it.

What I was trying to say, and obviously didn't do a good job if it, is that system thinking might be a good way to analyze actual play and then use it to influence game design. One of the topics that often gets overlooked is what is done with the results of play-testing. How do designers use the playing of the game to improve the design? I think systems thinking gives us a framework to look at the social and interpersonal dynamic of players and the interactions during actual play, which I agree can then be used to design rules. I think that this is in agreement with what you are trying to get at in this post too (perhaps?). Please correct me if I am way off base.

Woo hoo! We totally agree! OK, well anything that makes me clarify my position is good, even if it's based on a misunderstanding. I'm going to edit my post a bit so it doesn't sound like I'm busting on you.

BTW, though I don't always have time to read it, I'm enjoying your blog. It sounds like your group has some great dynamics that we can all learn from.


Thanks for the edit, although it was unneccessary - I know you well enough to know it was nothing personal and I didn't take it as an attack, although it turned out to be a nice attack (of opportunity). I have a bad habit of not posting as clearly as I would like to. I am often a bit hasty and rushed, but I figure a rushed comment is better than none at all.

thanks for the complement on the blog. It is mainly for the small group of gamers in my two campaigns (plus the few of you that played in my PBEM), and is mostly campaign write ups and rules quibbles. None of the good serious game design discussion we get here at Attacks (sometimes). In particular, the last few days have been great!

I agree that I am blessed with groups that have nice, albeit differing dynamics, and I am hoping to use some of the systems thinking concepts that you have been talking about here to analyze the group dynamics of both of these groups. Thanks again, keep up the good work.

I think an interesting experiment would be to take a game system (like D&D) and play it explicitly. If there isn't a rule for it or a reward for it, then you don't do it, you don't say it.

If someone wants to do or say something they have to back it up with the rules. Now this may seem extreme, but it will quickly highlight what Tony is talking about. For example, the book talks about NPCs, but D&D has no rules for interacting with your own NPC friends and Family except through explicit skill use. Compare this to the circles of Burning Wheel and you see a marked difference. In D&D a 10th lvl PC can have a diplomacy of 35 which means they can sweet talk just about anyone out of their pants. Does that seem right?

Excellent point, Judaicdiablo. It shows the utility of systems thinking, as even as a thought experiment, one can see how systems thinking could be used to analyze the rules for NPC interactions, so instead of just saying "this doesn't work" or "there is a problem with this" these issues can be qualified and then rules developed that will change the blance loop issue or the green slime issue.

I have been thinking of playing a one shot about dysfunctional play which would be similar to what you are talking about. The idea was to play with all the stereoptypical dysfunctional play issues. Why? Mostly to highlight them and for the humour value. I am hoping everyone can then see how well thay actually do play. My group has talked about doing it, but the main thing I am worried about is that the dysfucntional play might hit too close to home and people could get slighted (I also have a concern that it might not be fun, but as a one shot it would probably be alright). It might tie in nicely if we did this using strict by the book D&D3.5 as a system, then we could tie in some dysfucntional system issues too.

For further discussion on this topic, and some examples of the nagative feedback loop, check out treasure tables. I'd link it, but my blog-fu is weak and you can clikc on the link anyway. :)

One complication that I've run into when discussing this with players (and usually those not heavily or at all into theorizing about RPGs) is that they tend to believe that Rule 0 (the GM can do whatever s/he wants) is meant to fill all those holes, and supposedly does so very well.

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