System Does Matter: implications for publishing

One of the central tenets of Forge-influence thought about roleplaying is the idea that System Does Matter. The phrase can be considered to be derived from Ron Edwards’ excellent essay of the same title: System Does Matter. The idea of System Does Matter arose as a counter to the idea that ‘System doesn’t matter because our group has fun no matter what game we’re playing.’

Interestingly, when examined in light of the most commonly accepted Forge definition of ‘system’ (the Lumpley Principle), this is pretty much a tautological statement. If system is ‘how actual players actually resolve things at the table’ then of course it matters. How could it not?

The real force of the idea that System Does Matter comes from the ambiguous use of the term ‘system’ in play, design, and publishing discussions.  It’s not just that System (what the actual players actually do) matters, but also that they should be doing what the designer tells them.  This shifts everything from the tautology that ‘what people do at the table matters to what they do at the table’ to the more interesting (and more contentious) ‘what the designer has written will (rather than might) matter to what the players do at the table’.

The assumption that players will play the rules as-written is heavily influenced by other forms of gaming, and in all honesty is not a bad assumption in and of itself, though it does raise a couple of questions.  (I’m going to talk about the problems with moving this assumption from other forms of gaming to roleplaying tomorrow.)  Really, I don’t have any problem with the assumption as an assumption, but I do have problems with what the assumption has done to the field of publishing independent RPGs.

Specifically the idea of System Does Matter, combined with the belief that players should play the rules as-written, is something I consider to be strongly involved in driving the indie RPG publishing scene to publish nothing but games.  That’s an odd statement, let me explain: They could also be publishing books of techniques, the things that fall below the level of mechanics, such as Robin Laws’ Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering.  They could also be publishing quick and light rules modifications to existing systems like what I imagined Jonathan Walton’s Lions on the Precipice (a modification of Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard) would end up being when I first saw the idea.

Now, I’m not going to claim that the System Does Matter ideology is the only force driving the idea that full, original games are the highest thing a game designer can aspire to, there’s a lot of cultural stuff involved too, but I do think that it’s a major contributor.  Which is unfortunate because it means that we basically only publish one kind of product when a couple of others could be great for the community.

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2 Responses to “System Does Matter: implications for publishing”

  1. Matt Snyder says:

    A quibble: I don’t know whether the concept is a tautology. Smarter people than me can figure that out.

    But, I’ve never had a problem with the phrase because it was written in a deliberate context: Amid the devastatingly widespread notion (still widely held, I believe) that “System doesn’t matter … because [Insert my awesome group and/or GM here]”

    It was written as a reaction against that notion. Now, frequently, it’s getting criticized itself (which is more than a little weird) and without that context.

    Carry on!

  2. Thomas Robertson says:

    Matt,

    Fair enough. Context is an important thing. However, I don’t think this answers my main complaint which I (quite probably) failed to make entirely clear: ‘System does matter’ means one thing when we say it to prove it true and another thing when it informs our designs.

    When we want to prove that it’s true, we look to the Lumpley Principle. ‘Actually, your awesome group and/or GM are an integral part of your system, so of course system matters.’

    When we use it to inform our design, we think of our games as holistic. There’s a strong expectation that because system does matter, people won’t hack our games up and use them for immoral purposes. The design paradigm we work under means that we don’t design games with the intention of having people use only part of them. We have an all or nothing mentality.

    There’s nothing wrong with it, really. It makes for some cool games. I just don’t think that it’s a necessary consequence of the system does matter realization.

    Thomas

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