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Disentangling "system" as it relates to design and play 
11th-Apr-2008 12:19 pm
chiang 2
This is prompted by a current thread at theRPGsite, where I took Levi to task for bringing up "Lumpley Principle"-esque definitions.

Anyway, I'm going to make my own set of definitions, not as a bid to impose them on the rest of the world, nor as an attempt to "interpret" the essential meanings of terms as used in Forge/Story-Games circles. These definitions may be influenced by earlier ones but they're completely de novo. Also, they're just a stepping stone to talking about the underlying concepts as they relate to design and play, in less jargonistic fashion.

Here goes.

System: the formal rules governing the distribution of authority in an RPG, and the transformation of participant declarations into game-world "facts". Systems are concerned with explicit rights and procedures.

Paradigm or ethos: a collection of common or mutually-complementary understandings regarding the responsibilities of the participants and the purpose of play.

Even these definitions aren't so important in their particulars as they allow us to talk about these things separately in design and play. In design, they're fully distinguishable. A rule that says, "The GM may not declare a conflict without the agreement of the players" is formally the same as "the players may veto any conflict proposed by the GM". Both are part of the system. A "rule" that says "The GM should avoid killing player-characters unless they do something stupid" isn't a part of the system, because it doesn't formally address rights or procedures: it doesn't alter the fact that, presumably, the GM has ultimate say over life & death, or at least the right to over-rule the results of other procedures in the system. But it is an attempt to impart or explain a paradigm or ethos.

As a bit of an aside, an explicit paradigm or ethos may or may not be necessary. As I've argued in the past, many games do have a paradigm that guides play even though we tend not to be aware of it. Namely: winning and losing, concepts that are seemingly meaningless outside the "game-space", but which we allow ourselves to care about. The only exceptions to this are activities such as gambling and professional sports, which do have extrinsic outputs that clearly intrude on "real life". But most of the games we play are not of this nature.

Still other games operate on sub-cultural paradigms that barely need explaining to the initiated--and, in any case, can't be fully explained any more than other cultural activities, whose "purposes" and "language" are diverse, and constantly being transformed through use. For example, "going to a club to see a show" has so many possible functions, each understood in varying degrees by different subsets of the club attendees, that one ought to resort to a meta-paradigm of sociality, the idea of a "scene", if one wants to capture the "aboutness" of the activity. (I've never played a LARP, but I'm pretty sure this idea will ring a bell to those who have.) I think it's undeniable that tabletop can have the same quality. In fact most interactions between humans have this quality, but RPGs are one of those activities that can thrive on it. Furthermore there's a wide range between "using an RPG as a general excuse to hang out with friends" and "using an RPG as the focus for a particular mode of socializing". Even if one did seek a method to group the varies "modes" into categories, that would not in itself allow us to directly impart a specific mode.

Finally, some people wish to assert that certain paradigms are "natural" and don't need to be taught. Personally I think this is more likely to be true of "playing pretend" than various varieties of "telling a story", but that's neither here or there: I'm just including this possibility for the sake of completeness. If you can believe that dogs instinctively communicate with barks, growls, and whines--even if they've been separated from "dog culture" since weaning--then maybe it's possible that significant portions of human culture, or its "substrate", are innate and do not need to be taught.

Let's return from the digression. As I said, the distinction between system and paradigm as I define them is absolutely clear when it comes to the designer's job and the rules text itself. A system may be incomplete--for example, it may describe how to resolve combat, without instructing you how to tell if combat occurs: can anyone declare that it's started, or only the GM, or is there some set of objective conditions which automatically triggers combat? But that doesn't stop it from being a system. Implicitly the holes will have to be filled by a paradigm, such as "the group decides collectively based on common sense".

However, once we move to actual play, the system may or may not survive, but the paradigm goes through a complete transformation. It is no longer text, but action, and the difficulties I alluded to with regard to transmission of paradigms now applies much more widely (to virtually all RPGs, if not to all games), regardless of whether the designer made an effort in the "rules text" to impart a paradigm.

The importance of this observation can be seen by briefly returning to the concept of "System" that I've previously dubbed "LP maximalism". Under this concept, it's commonly been noted (usually as an epiphany) that "systemless" or "freeform" RPGs have infinitely complex "Systems" (LP sense) rather than simple ones. But the nature of paradigms in actual play reveals that this is a completely banal assertion: all RPGs work by means of, through, and indeed upon the paradigm, the web of social interactions and understandings, that guide play. A "systemless" game is only "complex" if it requires a drastic shift on the part of the observer: otherwise it's easy as pie.

Conversely, no matter how much or how little system (my sense) a game has, there are very few ways to avoid the complexity of social interaction. One is to sew up as much as possible under formal procedure, or to fall back on very well-worn paradigms like "win/lose". Either way, you impinge on the quality that distinguishes an RPG from a board game. (The effect varies from group to group: if you strongly buy into the notion that "you aren't really playing the game if you never roll the dice", to the point that you're always trying to hammer on the mechanics, then you're more likely to fall into this trap than if you take a light system as an invitation to apply it only when necessary, on top of your largely-freeform style of play. Viz.) Finally, you can pretend the complexity isn't there, either by appealing to naturalism (see "Brain Damage") or by culture-formation and identification.

See also Jim Henley's recent post about the different perspectives on rules, with a dash of polemic from Malcolm Sheppard (eyebeams) in the comments.

Ah, almost forgot: the next step should be to take all this and translate it back into English.
12th-Apr-2008 12:12 pm (UTC)
More like I'm talking to people who're still taking the Forge use of "System" (F) seriously, to show that it's absolutely not required to do so in order to focus on the paradigm/ethos of play. And furthermore that taking "System" (F) seriously is actively harmful to understanding.

Were there no Forge and no redefinition of "System" (F), we should be arguing "how do game systems matter?" or rather we should be critiquing any given system and examining the aesthetic impact of the system, certainly not dismissing the importance of system, which is a sterile position leaving us nothing to discuss from the designer's and user's standpoint. But inevitably this entails looking at different paradigms/ethoi, and we have to admit that these are also a proper object of attention by the designer and the game critic, by which I mean not just a reviewer but someone who's trying to figure out how to appreciate and apply a given game--often a GM.

Designers may choose to make their games robust across a variety of paradigms or they can try to impart a paradigm through various means, whether it be designer's notes or canned scenarios, etc. The last part of what I wrote above, though, about the limits of paradigm transmission, may seem like stating the obvious, but I think it would still be necessary had there never been a Forge. Evidence: much of Usenet RPG discussion in the '90's.

In short: paradigms do matter, so we can't sweep them under the rug, but at the same time we can't tame and control them the way we can formal systems. And the nature of RPGs is that the operation of their formal systems is rather inextricably tied to the paradigms they work under.
13th-Apr-2008 03:02 pm (UTC)
K, since I still take the Forge use of "System" seriously, you're talking to me: great.

So. I'm not seeing any real net gain here yet. I think I see a potential small gross gain. Tell me if you see it too. In comment 16 on lumpley's post on "Rules versus Creative Agreement," Marshall appears to engage in a not-unfamiliar sleight-of-hand, perhaps unconsciously. The paradigmatic free-formers I discuss in my initial LJ post must have some kind of "System" in LP terms. I agree! Marshall's maneuver is to conflate it with formal, explicated mechanics. Some Forgers folks do this a lot, in my experience. The Lumpley Principle really says, "IF you're gaming at all, you have a System [F]." Marshall appears to imply that it instead says, "If you're gaming at all, you need a System [EW]." In actual BM theory, "System [EW]" is mechanics, formal rules. The stuff you sell to gamers. The conflation-under-advocacy above can be confused or disingenuous or just lazy, but you can argue that it's enabled by the capacious definition of "System" in the LP.

MAYBE adopting your terminology would make that particular sleight-of-hand harder, and that might be a gain. It seems to me the stuff you're talking about in the comment is a leap I can make by continuing to hold the LP to my heart as I have lo these many years now, and simply add "formal" and "informal" and maybe "ad hoc" to the S-word when I want to distinguish among levels and ways of System [F]. I tend to use "mechanics" or "rules as written" in place of "formal system" anyhow.

On the cost side, your proposal means adopting a word that immediately conjures visions of "buzzword bingo" - paradigm - into frequent use. And then, you have to engage in what's basically a Forge move yourself, which is give it a non-intuitive specific definition and try to make it stick. But you could solve that by dropping "paradigm" in favor of a better word. :)
15th-Apr-2008 01:13 am (UTC)
Jim, the cost that you point to is nonexistent. As I wrote in my main post, I'm explicitly not proposing new jargon. The term paradigm here is so that I can get my point across in relatively few words. Personally if I wanted to jargonize I'd prefer ethos but I don't know how it would go over. (There's a section in wikipedia though, which suggests that paradigm as used in Kuhn-inspired history of science would be a fairly good import, even though Kuhn himself began using the term "disciplinary matrix" instead of paradigm to mean, a set of concepts, values, techniques, and methodologies.)

The only real cost is severing your intellectual, and possibly social ties to a crufty theoretical edifice. As you yourself show, the reception-history of the Lumpley Principle has been one of confusion at very least. Furthermore it encourages papering over divergent approaches to rules in RPGs--as I believe settembrini discusses below, and as I've observed, there seems to be a gulf in understanding/application of RPG mechanics, between thinking of them as formal algorithms about which we can say they are objectively followed or not, and seeing them as suggestions on a par with "GMing guidelines". (For that matter, the approach may vary from rule to rule: I daresay that some AD&D1e rules aren't so much ignored as observed in spirit rather than letter, even while other portions are rigidly applied.) This just leads to a continuation of debates--roll vs. role, "real roleplaying", etc., under cover of semantic wrangling.

The real point, again, isn't to propose new language but to dispose of old and show what you get thereby. To begin with, you are still able to talk about the importance of social factors and non-formal understandings. And furthermore as I've shown in my post, this explicit separation provides a clarity, perhaps even revelation, about the difference between text and actual play in terms of how formal rules and informal guidelines/ethos/paradigms are transmitted.

By the way, I think you understand this, but I feel I should emphasize for other readers that I'm using "formal" in a manner (as suggested by "algorithmic" above) akin to its use in mathematics and computer science. In simple terms, referring to rules, it means that they're presented in a manner that ensures that anyone "judging" the game or "enforcing" the rules will do so exactly the same way--just as there's no wiggle room in Chess or a roulette table.
19th-Apr-2008 04:42 pm (UTC)
Well, if the vocabulary change helps you do your own work, however you define it, it's worth it to you. In general gamer audiences I tend to stick to ordinary-language terms anyway. I'll be interested, as always, to see where you take your ideas.
19th-Apr-2008 11:13 pm (UTC)
I think the disconnect here is that you probably haven't seen the discussion that prompted this, where Levi suggested (or seemed to suggest) that there was some sort of inherent benefit of using the Forge-lingo. And regardless of what Levi meant, I've seen that claimed again and again: that the Forge-lingo has been refined to the point that there's no need to reinvent the wheel. I disagree. There's a very high cost to using the lingo, in terms of being understood by outsiders, even being understood by insiders (because many of the terms really aren't understood the same way by people who claim to "agree" on their use), and in terms of one's own conceptual clarity--as, for example, the fact that distinguishing "formal mechanics" and "ethos" leads to conclusions about game design (in the writing/publishing sense) and play that tend to be obscured by the catch-all "System" (LP).

Aside from smoothing over participation in the Forge(-diaspora) theory community, the benefit side of "System" (LP), is--what? I should say, if it does help you, by all means, but there's a hegemonic tendency in RPG theory discourse, which I think is particularly pronounced in Forge theory (and a product of the environment under which it was produced). I reject that, and I'm trying here to highlight the intellectual costs, for anyone who's in doubt.
20th-Apr-2008 04:05 am (UTC)
I tend to pick and choose Forge lingo. For instance, "Exploration" strikes me as a horrible term, deeply confused and confusing. Ephemera in BMese does me no good. And I tend to fall back on ordinary language in "mixed company." (Said ordinary language would never include the term "paradigm," by the way, if it was me talking about games.) If I wanted to talk about LP-System on RPG.net or in conversation at a game session, I would probably say "the total system" and immediately gloss it with "all the means, written or unwritten, by which we agree that in-game events occur."

But maybe if you point me to this thread it would help me understand your concerns better.
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