Today I want to talk about how I view different categories of tabletop roleplaying game mechanics. The intention is to give you some insight on my game design philosophy. I’m making this disclaimer up front, because I’m not saying that one of these is better than the other. It’s all about what problem you’re solving for. The semantics on my distinctions are admittedly a little fuzzy, but in the absence of concise, established language I’ve wrangled rules, systems, and guidelines to mean what I need them to mean for the purposes of this article.
My frustration point with tabletop roleplaying back in the day was the lack of rules for creating new stuff. Want to create a new character class? Wing it! Have an idea for a new spell? Use an existing spell as a template, maybe. Do you have a cool concept for a magic item? Good luck with that! Rules for creating your own elements were kind of sketchy, not always helpful, and felt like an afterthought. That’s understandable, because game publishers have always had more books full of those things that you can buy. Gotta make that coin somehow.
I refer to these as “rules” games. You may select from these options, period (i.e., select one of these character classes). Each option leads you a separate list of other options (pick from these class abilities). Your choices are limited to the things that have been provided you. I understand why it was that way. When Gary Gygax created Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, he was trying to codify a consistent set of rules for tournament play. Get rid of the squishy bits, make things clear, and have official lists of elements that may be used. A lot of people still that that as The Way Things Must Be Done, and follow suit to this day.
A later generation of games shifted from the pick list to the point-buy system. Here’s a more generic list of things and how they work. Each has a cost. There is no barrier to entry, other than the number of points you can spend. You get to mix and match them to your heart’s desire. These games supplied a bunch of building blocks, basically. It was less restrictive than saying you can have one thing from this list and three from that, and none from those lists because reasons.
I called these “guidelines” games because they provided templates. While it was easier to create your own stuff, you were still required to use their blocks. So, ultimately, you weren’t creating anything, just remixing the officially provided elements in new combinations. You were still sort of steered toward the examples of what was appropriate for the setting and genre of the game.
The most recent generation of tabletop roleplaying systems, including the Lighthouse System, eschews the massive lists of pre-generated stuff and cuts straight to how it works. You’re shown how to model things within the system. There aren’t pages and pages of skills, spells, or superpowers. There’s a page explaining how to create those things, and you’re left to your own devices to custom-build whatever you want.
I called these “system” games because a system is just a methodology for doing something. They speak to my original frustration point of not having the means to add my own elements. It’s almost all DIY. I’ve read some critiques of systems that feel that they shift the workload onto the player. For some of us that’s not a bug, it’s a feature. If I want the specifics found in other games, I can recreate them. But I can also make my own original stuff, and know that it will be consistent and compatible with not only the officially published material, but anything that anyone else in the world makes as long as they’re also following the system.
Using the Distinctions
Looking at these distinctions two of my favorite games, Dungeons & Dragons (various editions) and Pathfinder (we can argue the distinction another time), fall under the “rules” category. The problem they were solving for was to handle one specific type of fantasy. These games are great for new players because of the structure. The consistency they provide also allows them to build a mass audience, who share a common vocabulary and similar experiences.
I’d put two more of my favorite games, James Bond 007 and DC Heroes, under the “guidelines” category. They both center on a genre, but it’s more loosely defined. The Bond mechanics are something I’ve used for a variety of nominally “real world” settings, from Highlander to The X-Files to The West Wing. DC Heroes, because it’s meant to support a superhero universe, has allowed me to run some zany and over-the-top things. A campaign based on mythological gods, for example, as well as a mashup of several cartoon shows.
Three more of my favorite games, Fate, Primetime Adventures, and Risus, fall under “system” games. I can literally run any genre, setting, or mood with these. With Fate, I ran a game about soldier in Iraq battling a Cthulhu cult. In Primetime Adventures I ran not one, but two series based on Hell’s Kitchen (yes, the cooking show with all the swearing). I ran an entire D&D campaign using Risus, just because my all-newbee group wanted to play but were terrified of huge rulebooks.
While I clearly have a preference, I have had fun with all three types of mechanics. As I said at the top, there’s no right or wrong. It’s a matter of preference and fit. I do think, however, that you can turn a “systems” game into one of the other types by adding to it. That’s a lot easier than trying to strip down a “rules” game into a version of itself that would be classified as “guidelines” or “systems”.