Thomas Robertson has an interesting piece on his blog where he takes up the System Matters angle once again
to argue that "what your game is about" can be directly inferred from what's in the rules. He makes an analogy with tennis, which lacks any rules saying how high to throw the ball when you're serving; therefore, tennis isn't about how high you throw the ball.
I'm pretty sure I disagree (even though I've always believed that systems matter
), but I don't want to get into a full-blown counter-reply. In outline, my argument includes the following points:
1) RPGs aren't tennis; we use the same general word for both activities ("game") but in many ways they are merely analogous. A tennis example may illustrate an RPG point but it isn't a proof.
1a) Nothing is essentially
about any other thing. E.g., tennis is about hitting a ball over a net. It's also about exercise. It's also about mating. It's also about money.
2) RPG rules generally contain freeform procedures and the textual guidelines often focus on the freeform aspects. The texts do not prejudice the relative importance of freeform vs. mechanical procedures.
3) RPG texts aren't roleplaying. Actual play gives the lie to the notion that the texts, and particularly the mechanical procedures embedded in the texts, tell us what a game is about.
4) In conclusion, rules texts matter, but they're not all that matters, and in fact their importance can expand or contract depending on context and application.
I'd like to look at the tennis example a bit more closely. Although I don't know the exact rules of tournament-level tennis, I have a basic grasp of the game. Now, as do all games to some degree, tennis requires a psycho-social context, a willingness to obey the rules and ascribe importance to them. If we play tennis and I refuse to hand the ball over (we're poor, we only have one ball) after hitting it into the net, does the game go on? What if on my serve, I stand there for an hour while I wait for you to let your guard down? What if we play for an hour and then I declare that you've forfeited because I called a fault under my breath on your first serve, yet you played on without re-serving?
Obviously these examples all seem ridiculous, like something out of a Monty Python sketch. We know
how to play tennis, and anyone who does those things simply isn't playing the game. Well, if that's the case, then for all intents and purposes, we could posit a form of "strict tennis" to force jerks like me to play the game properly. Just put a bunch of killer robots around the court, and if I do something idiotic like not handing the ball over, they'll come and take the ball from me. A somewhat more real-life example would be to stop playing tennis and play a video game instead: all the rules and procedures of the game are physically embedded in the software and hardware; as long as the players agree not to jump "out of context" by, say, reaching over and tickling their opponent, the "point" of the game will reliably be manifested in actual play.
Except for one thing, and this applies to both "strict tennis" and any video game: it is not sufficient to go through the procedures. The players must also buy into the fiction of the game: i.e., they must understand what "winning" and "losing" are. "Winning" is what you want to do, what you're supposed to try to do; "Losing" is what you want to avoid doing. For some games, such as Candyland and Chutes and Ladders, "trying" is irrelevant to the play of the game, but "winning and losing" are still key to enjoying the game. Without that fiction, they're just rather boring stochastic processes--watching Conway's Game of Life would probably be a more intellectually and aesthetically fulfilling activity. (A similar comparison could be made between playing Pachinko and watching a kinetic sculpture.) In most games, though, the fiction of the game not only provides ultimate value but it also motivates the activity within the game.
At this point, the problem with determining what an RPG is "about" based purely on the rules structures should be manifest. Some RPGs, such as My Life with Master
tell you explicitly what the outcomes of their procedures "mean" (to some extent through conflict resolution, and very clearly through Endgame). Many or most rules texts do not. Their mechanical procedures circumscribe certain activities (like jumping over a fence) and even in some cases provide small-m meaning (like the development of traits in Dogs in the Vineyard
), but the ultimate Meaning of the game is not embedded in the mechanical structure. Instead, it's found in some interaction between the rules, color text, guidelines, and the social context of the game.
In short, the trope about many RPGs being like life and the rules being the physics of the world is true. The mechanical procedures of the game don't tell you why you're playing the game or how to play it; they only tell you, in limited ways, how to get what you want.
So, system (parsed here as "rules text") doesn't matter? No--see point 4 above, and compare the varying degrees of success of historical efforts at social and political engineering.