This one is actually a forum post, which is why it references a conversation that this blog isn’t actually having. Other than the weird segue at the beginning, it’s a pretty self-contained post.
And without exception, those rely on campaign settings too. They just cheat by using other people’s campaign settings. D&D relies heavily on its various campaign settings, of course, but Champions and FATE rely on letting you play in someone’s copyrighted campaign setting without saying it out loud. When people want to play X-Men or Justice League, they usually use Champions or Mutants and Masterminds, and FATE is specifically there to allow you to model any high-adventure story about a small team of competent heroes. Granted, it accomplishes this by only being about 3/4s of a system and providing helpful advice for putting in all genre-specific systems yourself, but it’s still true that the way it sells itself is by allowing you to run any of X-Files, X-Men, Forgotten Realms, or Kingdom Hearts, all using the same engine.
It’s no secret that the differences between a great system and a terrible one are lost on most people, because when you sit down with a bunch of friends at a table it turns out the thing that really makes the experience is the entire group sharing a creative spirit. Whether that spirit is very simple and juvenile like indulging in a beer and pretzels “kill orcs and get bitches” power fantasy or the kind of complex and emotionally resonant improv that Vampire players wish they could have, the most important thing to creating that spirit is the fluff, not the crunch. That’s why people can go around recommending Unknown Armies with a straight face. That’s why World of Darkness is popular despite being an objectively worse dicepool system to Shadowrun in almost every measurable way, and why New World of Darkness collapsed despite being significantly less bad.
A good system makes a game faster by having quick and easily referenced or memorized rules to resolve conflicts. It can make the game more conducive to longterm play by giving GMs the tools they need to structure a consistent world faster and easier, which in turn will allow players to create and pursue longterm setting-wide goals without having to rely on the GM being in the right mood at the right time, or understanding how logistics works, or whatever. It can make the game more fun by codifying the power advancement of your standard hero’s journey into a character advancement system, which gives you the fun of saving up for something and then purchasing it, and it can stop arguments about character redundancy before they even begin by protecting class niches and keeping things balanced.
But what a good system can’t do is make people want to tell a story. A setting people want to inhabit or change, characters people want to meet, villains they want to destroy – those can make people want to tell a story. It doesn’t matter how good your rules are, it’s your campaign setting that gets people to the table and using those rules in the first place.
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