2008-04-14 : Interchangeable?

I say below that some rulesets are interchangeable. Is it true? I have this thing going on in my head when I say it, and it may be a poorly thought out thing, so here it is for examination:

They're functionally interchangeable. They may be aesthetically non-interchangeable.

I suspect that, in fact, I'm drawing a line there where none exists. That, come to examine them closely, every real aesthetic difference between rulesets is in fact a functional difference. That after all, underneath, nobody chooses one ruleset over another except for functional reasons.

Levi, I think this is related to your rules-as-toy thing.

Any thoughts?

1. On 2008-04-14, Judd said:

Is this particularly true for folks who play every game pretty much the same way with the same techniques only with different words for strength and intelligence?

It feels like, and I'm fine with being wrong, that some people play every game in a similar fashion and when a game bucks their well worn wheel-marks in the road, it just doesn't work.


2. On 2008-04-14, Vincent said:

Ah, right. Where any differences between rulesets are moot, because the group doesn't adopt them in play anyway.


3. On 2008-04-14, Lisa Padol said:

I'm not sure I have an answer, but...

So, years ago, a friend of mine, Naomi, decided to start a game, basically urban fantasy, set at a Midwest USA college campus (and why do I think "set on a college campus", but "set at a Midwest college campus", I wonder?), and the system we used was Over the Edge.

This is still my favorite system as a system that one can use for various settings, as opposed to a system I look at and say, "Yes, this system is designed for this specific game."

So, I created a weird college kid, Justin. And, months later, looking over the character sheet and old write ups, I realized that, while I could translate Justin into, say, GURPS, I could never have created that character in GURPS. It had to be OTE.


4. On 2008-04-14, Brand Robins said:

I like Lisa's answer.

Also, V, in the design and creation of fiction (in games where such is part of the desired throughput, obviously) isn't aesthetics part of function?


5. On 2008-04-14, Z-Dog said:

what the heck are aesthetic rulesets?

one says strength the other says might?


6. On 2008-04-14, Vincent said:

A big part of the trouble is that all the rulesets I'm thinking of as functionally interchangeable, a) I don't like, and worse b) I don't know. So THAT's not a good sign.


7. On 2008-04-14, Vincent said:

Z-dog: Here's the kind of thing I think of as an aesthetic, not functional, difference.

When there's a fight in Pendragon, we both roll our d20s and whoever rolls higher-but-not-over-skill hits the other. I roll a 11, you roll a 6, so I roll damage against you.

When there's a fight in Ars Magica, we roll initiative. On my turn I roll d10+attack against your d10+defense, and if I win I roll damage against you. Then on your turn, you roll d10+attack against my d10+defense, and if you win you roll damage against me.

From the point of view of how rules coordinate people's interactions to create fiction, Pendragon's and Ars Magica's fighting rules are interchangeable. They operate upon fully identical assumptions about play, take extremely similar inputs and produce outputs across exactly the same range of possibilities. I like the Pendragon approach better for purely aesthetic reasons, taste, not because there's any principled difference between them. Millenium's End's fighting rules, similarly: wildy different aesthetically, but pop one out and pop another in, they fit in the exact same rpg design space.


8. On 2008-04-14, Brand Robins said:


Storyteller does a similar thing—roll to hit vs defense, if successful roll damage vs soak. Especially in combination with the "initiative order attacks."

Pendragon has a slightly different thing where you're not quite doing it so task based—you both roll against each other, and whoever wins wins and goes to damage. There is no "my turn/your turn." Though, in some ways, this gets replicated by the One Roll Engine.

So there is a slight functional difference there—but I have a feeling that it is a functional difference than operates on a smaller time scale than what you're looking at. Like, you're looking at "functional differences for producing fiction over time" where as most of this kind of "screwdriver" game design looks at "specific differences in producing results in the short range."

Which to you, may feel aesthetic, but may not always be. Like, between Old World of Darkness and New World of Darkness, I find a lot of the technical aspects of the system to be more aesthetic than technical—but there is, none the less, a change in the kind of fiction that gets produced if you actually follow the rules. (Mostly around combat. You no longer have fights so much as you have beatings.)


9. On 2008-04-14, Vincent said:

That's my concern, I think: I can say that this game's one subsystem and this other game's are interchangeable. What I probably can't legitimately say, though, is that this game's ruleset at large and this other game's are interchangeable.

Like, Ars Magica's, Pendragon's, Millenium's End's fighting subsystems, sure. And Ars Magica's, Pendragon's, Millenium's End's core resolution systems, even. But not all of their subsystems are interchangeable - notably, character creation and character development - and since what matters is how the subsystems interact...


10. On 2008-04-14, Marshall said:

It's all about the aesthetics, if you ask me.  The function IS to reliably produce the desired aesthetic qualities.

I've been thinking a lot about the "modeling" issue in game rules.  I used to be a system-monkey and I loved that shit.  Just figuring out "how do I model phenomenon X?" was fun for me.  But lately I'm thinking that no system, ever, has REALLY "modeled" a reality in the sense that I was thinking.  I think we all know that the "realism" thing falls on its face under enough pressure and scrutiny.

I'm not giving up on the concept of modeling in general, though; in fact, I think that all game systems do model something:  the conventions of the fiction they are intended to produce.  It's all about the aesthetics.  Aesthetics at the beginning, aesthetics at the end, with other agendas sandwiched in there somewhere.


11. On 2008-04-14, valamir said:

I think what your seeing is basically just an application of where the game's focus is.

If a person's focus is on thing B, but the game's focus is on thing A, then all games which focus on thing A are going to appear to be pretty interchangeable from the perspective of thing B.

Because the things that distinguish the way one game addresses thing A vs how another game addresses thing A are not going to look very different from each other relative to the difference between any of those approaches to A vs. thing B.

All of which is to say, that yes, I view a great many of the games on my books shelves to be pretty interchangeable with each other...namely all of those whose primary differences amount to:

1) the way initiative is determined (because the fact that initiative is important at all is a much bigger thing then the differences between how its determined).

2) the way who says what when is determined (because all games that operate from a "say anything anytime, but the GM acts as traffic cop and vets everything before its officially accepted" paradigm are pretty interchangeable in this regard)

3) tactical combat options like weapon and armor matchups, range and cover modifiers, rate of fire and ammo tracking and the like.  Because while many games do the details differently, the fact that they care about such details at all makes them far more similar than any game which doesn't care about such things.


12. On 2008-04-15, Brand Robins said:

Yea, what Ralph said.

(Seriously, I came back thinking about what I'd said earlier, read his post and was like 'oh yea, that's it.')


13. On 2008-04-15, Piers said:

I've been thinking about this for a while in terms of literary terminology, and particularly the difference between "genre" and "form."  This may not be particularly helpful to you if you aren't familiar with literary theory, but if you are, I think it is useful.  (

Crudely, think, genre: mystery, science fiction, romance; form: novel, poem, newspaper article.  In theory, you can write any genre in any form.  For Vincent's argument, read: formal for functional, generic for aesthetic.

The point being: for a long time roleplayers have been accustomed to changing rules systems in order to switch genre: are we playing fantasy, SF; horror, vampires; chivalry, sorcery.  That seems normal and natural.

By contrast, roleplaying has been seen as a single form, like the novel.  Roleplaying is only roleplaying—no matter which genre your game is set in, no matter what rules, you are still "roleplaying."

Indie games, however, propose different formal or structural arrangements: different distributions of authority; different forms for story; different sorts of narration.  Now, whether they are a new form, per se, or only radically different versions of a current form (say, the difference between a realist and a modernist novel), can be argued.  But they threaten to overset the apple-cart.

Moreover, the line between "genre" and "form" is not as clear as I have been making it out to be: genres possess formal elements—conventional structures which are not easily separable from the genre (think, the plot arc of the romance).

Which leaves us in a bind: either the differences between some systems are unimportant, are essentially interchangeable, or, as Vincent suggests, this functional / aesthetic divide is part of a longer continuum.  (I lean towards the later end of the spectrum.)


14. On 2008-04-15, GB Steve said:

It also depends where you draw the line on function. Is D&D combat functionally equivalent to GURPS combat?

The result is that you determine how much damage is taken but one uses one roll to hit and the other has dodging and parrying. Are they functionally the same?

What are the functions of systems? To determine whether an action is a success or not, how much resource it cost, whether a clue is found etc or are you speaking about a much lower level of differences?


15. On 2008-04-15, Marco said:

When I said this I was told "But System Does TOO Matter."



16. On 2008-04-15, Vincent said:

I think it was Malcolm Sheppard posted a really interesting thing on his livejournal last year sometime, from which I'm drawing, about functional interchangeability and "system does TOO matter." I wonder if I could find it.

Personally, this is why I fall on the side of tautology: "system (per the looly pooly) matters" + "ruleset may or may not inform system (per the looly pooly)," not "ruleset automatically matters." Or, in other words, how you play matters to your play, and no I don't expect that to startle ANYbody.


17. On 2008-04-15, wrshamilton said:

I think it's hard to say with any objectivity. It's more likely that one will take two combat subsystems and call them functionally equivalent when they are defining only the variations in output that they are interested in as "function".

So I don't think it's a crime to do it, just that one's might want to be a little clearer as to what one considers the output of the function.


18. On 2008-04-15, Marshall said:

Vincent wrote:
"system (per the looly pooly) matters" + "ruleset may or may not inform system (per the looly pooly)," not "ruleset automatically matters."

I agree with that, but I think it's only true due to historical shortcomings in game design.  I wish it wasn't true.  I dream of a day when ruleset automatically matters because rulesets are written such that if you follow these rules as written, the intended fun will happen.

I mean, if you don't follow the rules of Game X, ignoring some or adding some or whatever, you aren't playing Game X anymore; you're playing Game Y or Game X Prime or something.  But it's a necessity if Game X is broken.  For my money, good RPG design means that Game X is functional and fun all by itself and all you have to do is have a good Social Contract and follow the rules as-written (like checkers, or poker, or just about any other non-RPG).  Tall order, though.


19. On 2008-04-16, Lisa Padol said:

My take on systems mattering:

System matters.
Other things matter more.


20. On 2008-04-16, Georgios said:

system matters but
other things matter much more
if you want them to



21. On 2008-04-22, shreyas said:

Hey, Vincent, is this a sane way of expressing what you're saying?:

"Aesthetic differences in text can induce functional differences in system (per the loopy poopy)."


22. On 2008-04-23, Vincent said:

Can, yes, absolutely.

Also, apparently functional differences in procedure can turn out to be inconsequential in practice, considering their effect on both player participation and fiction.


23. On 2008-04-23, Vincent said:

...And, that's what I'm saying, but whether it's true? I don't know.


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