Wednesday, September 13, 2006

What is 'System' ?


In previous articles I have touched on Situation and Setting. Today I’m going to tackle another key component of RPGs: System. First off, you should know that I do subscribe to the “lumpley principle.” So if you have serious issues with that, then I’m afraid that this article won’t help you very much.

But anyway, the lumpley principle states: “System (including but not limited to 'the rules') is defined as the means by which the group agrees to imagined events during play.” The first time I read that I went, “Huh?!?!?” Then, through the years, I read a lot of explanations to it and the definition finally clicked.

Basically, System is big. Real big. In fact, we should really write it in all caps like this: SYSTEM instead of just capitalizing the first letter. Writing it like that, I think, might clear up a lot of confusion, because when someone (especially if they are new to RPG theory or design) sees “System”, they might think of something like the D20 System and say, “Well the whole system is just the SRD, right?” Well, not exactly.

To really help me understand what SYSTEM (the lumpley principle) meant, I had to brake it up into two parts: Rules and Procedures. For my purposes, Rules are the games text. They are the printed words on the page, unmodified in any way by the participants. Rules are the author’s expression of the game objectively observed in black and white on the page. Everything in the book, from cover to cover, is Rules. Anything that is not in the book that affects play is Procedures.

EXAMPLE OF A RULE (A): “Roll three d6 seven times to generate the seven stats for your character. Arrange them any way you like on your character sheet.”

EXAMPLE OF A RULE (B): “Choose one of eight races included in this book for your character. This will be his/her heritage and background.

Procedures can include modified Rules (often called “House Rules”), dialogue between participants, deciding who the “leader” of the party will be, who gets to roll dice first, narration of events/actions by characters, negotiating conflicts between players and/or characters in a fashion not provided for in the Rules, and so on. Procedures are essentially the talking around the table and the actions/agreements made by the participants that are unique to the group. It’s anything the participants agree to do or establish that affects the in-game events. Sometimes Procedures are based off Rules; sometimes they are not.

EXAMPLE OF A PROCEDURE (A): “Hey guys, instead of rolling 3d6 for your character’s stats, roll 4d6 instead and drop the lowest one. Arrange them in any order you like.”

EXAMPLE OF A PROCEDURE (B): “Guys, there are no elves left alive in this world we’re going to play in. So when you choose a race, you can’t choose to be an elf.”

So if you look at it like that, you can see that SYSTEM really is big. It includes everything that goes on at the table no matter how closely or loosely it adheres to the written rules of the game. It even includes stuff that people term as “meta-game.” Anything that affects the in-game events is part of SYSTEM.

So what does that mean for a designer? A designer must be aware that the SYSTEM of his game will, no matter what, include two parts: The Rules and The Procedures. It’s been said that the only part of SYSTEM a designer really has control over is The Rules- the words he writes in his game. But this isn’t entirely true. A designer can encourage players to develop Procedures for the game. In fact, many games are enhanced by players making up the bulk of SYSTEM and only referring to the Rules when there is a dispute. A designer must signal to the players (using the text) when it’s probably okay to use a Procedure to handle something and when it is advisable to use a Rule instead. You have to decide, will your game be Rules Strict (i.e. encouraging players to play as closely to the rules as much as possible) or Rules Relaxed (i.e. encouraging players to improvise and customize the rules as much as needed)?

This is quite important. No group will ever play the game strictly by the Rules as written. Human communication and understanding is far too limited to allow for that as a possibility. However, no group will ever completely toss out the Rules either. People sit down to play a game because the game text inspires and intrigues them. Therefore it is vital that the Rules give the participants guidance, explicit and thorough guidance. A designer must ask himself these two questions constantly as he writes his game:

“When do I want them to use my Rules as written to help advance play?”

“When is it okay for them to take ownership of the game and use Procedures of their own?”




VBWyrde said...

Hi Troy,
Thank you for the thoughts. Interesting. In my rules I have included a couple of paragraphs on the question of How to extend the Rules, and in so doing created a Rule-Procedure for creating New Rule-Procedures. It shows what kind of thought processes the GM should have to keep new Rules-Procedures in alignment with the rest of the game System, and provides a advisory suggestion that rules extentions be discussed with the players prior to the game. I think this should work to provide some assistance with the issue you raise, which I agree is an important one.

Victor Gijsbers said...

One thing I still do not understand is this. According to (your version of) the Lumpley Principle, System is the means by which the group agrees to imagined events during play.

Why the restriction to imagined events?

Suppose I decide to play a 'drinking game' version of Bacchanal: every time you roll Wine high, you must drink a glass of wine. This rule is not a means by which we agree to the imagined events during play; but surely it is part of the system?

Troy_Costisick said...

WARNING: Muddled theory crapola strait ahead. Feel free to skip past and ignore.


Why the restriction to imagined events?

First, and foremost, Vincent is a way better person to ask than me. He's got a "Ask a Frequent Question" thread on his blog, so if you want a good answer, try there. But for now, you'll have to settle for what I give you (ew).

Okay. You're drinking w/ Bacchanal every time someone rolls wine. How does the fact that players are drinking wine actually affect the in-game events? Aside from the players get ever increasingly tipsy as the night progresses. How does the act of players drinking a beverage, any beverage, affect the SIS?

The SIS (shared imagine space)is the key to this, I believe. The SYSTEM engages the SIS. Anything that does not affect the events in the SIS is not part of SYSTEM.

What the players in your example are, in fact, doing is playing two games simultaniously. A role playing game and a drinking game. The two are unrelated in your example, as far as I can tell.

Make sense? Again, ask Vincent for a better explanation. But I do not see how drinking alcohol affects the characters, setting, or situation of the game (SIS).



Victor Gijsbers said...

Hi Troy,

From previous discussions on his blog, I didn't get the idea that Vincent would appreciate me raising this issue. Anyway, just because it is named after him doesn't mean he's the authority, you know? - and I'm quite interested in knowing why you think that the rules and procedures that govern the SIS should have such a prestigeous name, whereas the rules and procedures that do not should not.

My question may make more sense with context, so I'll take the liberty to refer to a very short blog post of mine on 'The Spectacle'; and another, also quite short, on the potential of RPGs as art.

I would be much happier with a definition of system as the means by which we create and manipulate the social situation while playing. Rules that govern how we build an SIS are an important subset of this, but they are not the only ones in there.

Does that make sense?

In my opinion, this definition of system would make it clearer what the RPG-designer actually has to design. More than you might think! :)

Frank said...

I would be much happier with a definition of system as the means by which we create and manipulate the social situation while playing.
Hmm, isn't that more or less the definition of social contract?

I Troy's definition of system. For one thing, when I really thought about it, that enabled me to clearly identify just what the core of role playing is. It lets me differentiate an RPG from chess It also happens to let me see how if you add an SIS to chess, and a mechanism for agreeing how contributions are made to that SIS, that you have just created "chess the RPG".

So even if you want something bigger that includes all the non-SIS social stuff, I still think the rules and procedures that govern the SIS is something worthy of being called out.

When I first read this post, I was going to say "what about the procedures that decide who brings cookies next week?" And then I realized, no, that's a separate issue, because it doesn't directly affect the SIS.

Heck, if you're not carefull in expanding the boundaries of "system," things like what kind of government do you have become part of "system" (since that does have an effect on your game...).


Troy_Costisick said...


Frank, your remark is right on target. I agree with everything you said.

Victor, I think I may see where we might have a disconnect. WARNING: more theory crap. Skip if you don't care about it.

If you look at Ron Edward's Big Model, you will see that Social Contract is the biggest square. The lumpley principle and the SIS are contained within it. Lumpley = System. The SYSTEM, therefore, can only affect things that are within its own square and all the concentric sqares that are placed within it. Since social interaction is something that is outside the SIS/Lumpley sqaure, SYSTEM is not concerned with it.

That's not to say an author can't direct people to engage each other in some kind of social activity, but that activity is wholly and completely separate from the game if that activity does not affect the SIS or other concentric squares.

So if you don't buy into the Big Model and the lumpley principle as they are written, then there's not much hope for us finding common ground.

Read Frank's reply. He is amazingly on target. Broadening the meaning of SYSTEM to include social interaction (besides game rules and procedures such as rolling dice etc.) stretches its meaning so far that it ceases to have any value at all as a term. If it doesn't affect the SIS, it's not part of SYSTEM. It's something else.



Stefan / 1of3 said...

I totally agree with Victor. And what Victor said about authority applies to Ron as well.

So why should System refer to fictional content only?

Apart from that, I have finally stopped using the word "system" for discussing RPGs, since everybody I met had somewhat different associations for this term. My life was simplified immensely.

This is a recommendation for "those who are just starting out".