When Darkness is Light: Rethinking System

When Darkness is Light: Rethinking System

Does an RPG needs stats?

Does it need dice?

Does it need conflict resolution?

Does it need quantitative character progression?

If a game has some or none of these things, can it be called a “true” RPG?

Normally, whether something is a “real” RPG is the most boring conversation I can think of happen.  Debating the reality of a method of creating fiction is banal in the best case scenario, but usually, such conversations are just gatekeeping in a flimsy disguise.  “You don’t play the way I lik, so your way is false.”  The most frequent scenario this conversation brings forth is one defending one’s thoughts and ideas of fun to a bunch off jerks, and rarely brings out interesting debate.

So, I guess I want to start this off by saying that I guess I’m not really trying to design an RPG anymore. The problem is that I come from RPGs as a consumer, player, and designer, and I don’t yet have language to call whatever it is I’m working towards something else. I think that anyone reading my blog is going to clearly see my origins, but may be unclear or even irritated or upset at where I plan to go. I love and respect my origins.  I love many old and modern RPGs still, but I don’t think it’s what I’m going to design anymore.  I am building the type of things that have other names.  I’ll name it later, but I want to talk about the whys of this change a bit. It will be easy for the usual suspects to take offense, but I really look at what I’m doing as a fork of the current model of RPGs, not a replacement.

I’ve spent the last year or so designing and pulling apart the threads of collaborative storytelling as I’ve experienced them.  I’ve found that when things are going right, system is almost un-needed, but when you really need it, system often muddles storytelling.  System –and by system I am talking about the way we convert meta-fictional decisions (what players do) into fictional outcomes by way of abstractions (stats,dice,conflict resolution) — only partially does in practice what in theory it should do all the time. What I’ve seen in myself and others is that we are often bending ourselves towards this system or that, stretching to incorporate new mindsets and rules and procedures for our storytelling to live in. We are always looking for a more elegant box for our imagination to exist inside. I appreciate constraints –it is the starting point from which creativity emerges — but I have wondered if our current model for systems is really providing the right constraints. I’ve seen perfectly good, dramatic moments come to abrupt halts as the table figures out how to quantitatively express the moment, or search for a rule that will capture it.

Here is one thing I believe: Humans are hard-wired for story.  When there is no narrative we create it.  Where there are voids, we create meaning. We are creatures with minds strong enough to not only create math and science, but also myth. Given the roots of the hobby in wargaming, I can see the push for elegant quantitative expression and fiction as emergent from game play, but what does it look like if we take another approach?  I feel that our current approach to system puts the onus on people to learn and master the system before they can tell the story, but I think that’s inverse to the truth of things. If humans are natural storytellers, should we not build systems to support that innate drive and ability? Should we not trust people to imagine and create, and only insert procedures and system when creative fatigue or disagreement settles in?

When I am ranting these days about how the pillars of RPG system design might be hindering our storytelling rather than helping it, I often recieve comments that amount too “how will we find our way to stories and imaginative play in the dark? The system is our light.” What if that light exists as a torch inside darkness?  What if the light simply helps us navigate the cave we are in? System  feels like a mechanism that humans learn to support, but what if we invert that and build systems that support us when stumble, and trust us the rest of the time?

I’m wondering what that looks like, and building towards that in my designs. As always, I reserve the right to fail or make a mess of things, but I reserve the right to try and to talk about it on the blog.

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