Play Theory: Does System Matter?
Play is what happens at the table. Often Theory is confined to systems. I've attempted to make some commentary about what priorities a game system has based on its priorities concerning player characters. (See here if interested). But honestly, I think that was a bit garbage.
Here's the thing: systems do not create Play. Players create Play. Any kind of Game Master is included as a Player for our purposes. Let's define Play as the interaction between the Players in the context of a Game. Play, in this definition, does not actually require a set of rules or a system. In fact, the system or set of rules being used is only one thing attributing to the Game Context.
Let's define Game Context as the setting in which Play takes place. This includes what kind of people are playing, where they are physically located for play, the mood, the table texture, basically anything that contributes to the time and place of the Game.
Let's also define Game while we are at it. A Game is any activity where people knowingly assent to engaging in a shared experience for the purpose of pleasure.
Does that mean sex is a Game? Probably.
If we were to narrow things down, the Players would also call what they were doing a Game. That's right, this definition is quite circular but people are paradoxical, strange, and not entirely logical and Play is central to us. We know a Game when we see one. We have been making Games as long as we have had the communicative ability to do so. Games imply structure. We engage in lower-case play all the time. Language is play. Communication is a game. We could expand the definition endlessly, and perhaps this is actually good and important for us to understand.
As many games have noted: a role-playing game is a conversation. We say this because the main apparatus for us to move the game forward is to speak to each other under most circumstances. Of course, the truth is that all Games are conversations. Including board games, sports, bobbing for apples, anything! Games are forms of communication that are inherently only meaningful in a social context.
The rules structures, by definition, can only contribute so much to the Game Context and so only so much to Play. Bobbing for apples only has so many rules. You can't use your hands. You stick your head into the bucket to grab apples with your teeth. You only have so much time. You compare your success to others. This is a minuscule portion of what is happening in the Game. You are getting wet. You are probably surrounded by friends egging you on. You are stifling laughter and trying not to choke. You are probably at a fair somewhere surrounded by the odor of frying meat. The Game Context is vast and multifaceted and produces a completely different experience when changed.
Consider: you are bobbing for apples but now you are in a sterile room with a stranger. You are being recorded to time how fast you can bob by cameras. Say this is some kind of championship you have been training long hours to get good at. Tournament style means the water in the bucket is ice cold and all the apples must be within 5cm of 2inches in diameter.
Is this even the same Game? It certainly isn't the same Play.
Let's take this to role-playing games. Two groups of people are playing 5e D&D.
Group A: Sits at a table at the DM's house. They all mostly know each other. Only two of them have played any form of D&D before. The DM started with 2e and has followed mainline D&D up to now. The other experienced player started with Pathfinder, didn't like it went over to indie games enjoyed Apocalypse World, played many different Pbta games, explored Fiasco, Dread, and is only now once again trying a d20 system. The other players are a mixture of a jock, a pair of drama kids, and a girl from band. They are in high school. The DM's mom has brought them snacks and is baking chocolate chip cookies. Life is good. DM's little brother is watching. Their dad occasionally yells at the football game in the other room.
What kind of Play do you think emerges?
Group B: No table, talking over Discord, rolling dice and using maps and minis with Roll20. All veteran players of many different d20 systems but mostly Pathfiner, 4e, 5e, Starfinder, Dungeon Crawl Classics. The DM is kind of tired of 5e, is in the OSR scene and wants the group to try OSE. The other players have looked around, tried other games, enjoyed a stint with DCC well enough. They are a mix of ages but used to play at this one game store pretty often just going through whatever 5e module came out most recently. Most of them are combat-focused. One is very distracted on their phone. One has seen many iterations of the game since the beginning. One could tell you all the rules without looking. One likes to talk to NPCs.
What kind of Play do you think emerges?
Those two scenarios would be completely different. Play would be totally altered. We aren't even accounting for cultural backgrounds, expectations of the game, how long these people have played together, what kind of houserules they use, do they care much about the rules or are willing to fudge things, did the DM bring premade characters, did they make characters first, ect.
So many different things contribute to Game Context and then Play isn't even determined by this but is radically affected by Player choice.
So when it comes to asking: does the system you are playing with matter? The answer is: technically yes. The reality, however, is that the question is flawed.
The real question is: How much does system matter?
The answer is less clear.
The rules structure does matter to Play. It is part of the Game Context. When you gather together with other people to play the Game, the rules structure is part of that unspoken contract, part of what the players are assenting to.
Of course even at the moment of assent what the "system" is, must already be changed by perspective. Consider, is a long time DM trying to sell some friends who have never played on D&D? What kind of D&D probably doesn't matter to the players who have no knowledge of what that really means.
Are they people who have played many role-playing games and are looking to try the new edition of Wizards of the Coast's Dungeons and Dragons? Once again, the context of the game intrudes on the System's command.
Then we ask: how do people even play? Do they follow all the rules? Is the game system itself contributing to how much they follow the rules or make things up as they go? Are there any rules they are importing into the system either knowingly or unknowingly?
I think when people say: System Doesn't Matter, I think they dislike the arrogance of the designer which would seem to say that their System is what creates Play. Systems do not create Play. Players create Play. Systems do necessarily contribute to the Context out of which Play emerges.
When people say: System Matters, I think they are thinking about all the times they have played different games and think that the system had a markedly different effect on how they played the role-playing game. They can sometimes think that their tinkering is all which contributes to Play and this is hubris.
Your System cannot contain Play. It cannot dictate Play. You can not recreate any specific instance of Play. It is impossible. Play is too complex. Play is too based in individual experience.
In my branch of Christianity, we like to use the saying: "Trying to put God in a box." This means you are trying to contain God, attempting to mark the limits of the inherently limitless. Obviously, this is hubris and sinful.
The proper attitude, then, of the believer is one of submission. They serve God rather than trying to control Him.
I would say that the proper attitude of a System ought to be that of submission and service to Play.
Systems can only contribute so much to the Game Context, only give their meager contribution to the universe of circumstances in which Play occurs. The best thing to do then is to contribute as much material as possible to help give the Players control, useful tools to help them make their own kind of Play, helpful context.
That or just be simple. Give what you came to give and get out of the way. That too can be a kind of service especially to cut down the stuff the Players have to sort through.
Inspiration can be another kind of service. Art, good prose, nice descriptions, good tables, all these things can also be helpful in their own ways.
To conclude: the "Friendly Reminder: System Matters" or the inverse on Twitter is dumb and you should stop posting it. A real discussion could be had about the degree to which Systems Matter in the Context of Play. Someone smarter than me might even be able to figure out a way to measure the degree to which System Matters.
If you like making new Systems and tinkering with them, tinker on. Systems are material to Game Context.
If you don't like playing with a lot of hard and fast rules, then carry on making your own kind of Play. If you discover ways in which your System or lack thereof can be useful to others, consider contributing that to the discussion.
Hopefully, this can act as a way to bridge the gap and create room for a new conversation rather than making for more fruitless head butting.