What Is A Tabletop RPG System?

I’m flailing around with trying to understand what the word “system” means in a role-playing game and the implications of it for game design.

Also, I’ve been flailing around for something to write about this week and here is what my demons decided. This is a bunch of incomplete thoughts that I’m trying to give shape to. Here we go.

Here is the definition of a system, according to Wikipedia

system is a group of interacting or interrelated elements that act according to a set of rules to form a unified whole.[1] A system, surrounded and influenced by its environment, is described by its boundaries, structure and purpose and expressed in its functioning.


Role-playing gamers often use the term “system” to describe mechanical framework of the games we play. The problem is that the results of play are dependent on much more than whether you use a d20 for attack rolls or a d100.

What does an RPG “system” consist of?

Is it just the rules? The dice mechanics? Procedures?

Is game master adjudication part of the “the system?”

Is the setting part of “the system?”

Are the aesthetic, themes, and motifs of the setting part of the system?

For a long time I believed that an RPG “system” was only the rules, dice mechanics, and procedures written in the game text. That was incorrect.

Go back and look at the definition from wikipedia; “…a group of interacting or interrelated elements that act according to a set of rules to form a unified whole.”

A role-playing system is the rules, the procedures, the dice mechanics, the setting, the designers assumptions about how you are going to play, the interaction of the players and game master with each other, the stuff players bring to the table in their head, emergent properties of those interactions and probably other elements I’ve not recognized.

Setting is part of the system.

RPGs are about characters. Characters exist somewhere, somewhen, and somehow; even undead ones.

The where, when, and how of an role-playing game is part of “the system.”

Magic and technology is the most obvious way we can see this. Magic isn’t only a mechanical matter of how many D6 the fireball does in damage, it affects the setting. If there are wizards who can change the shape of a battle by a single spell, rulers are going to be looking to bring wizards into their service or control them at the very least.

How much of “the system” is dependent on the world the game is placed in even if the designer hasn’t created a mechanism to model it?

Culture Of the Participants is part of “The System.”

Original D&D was mostly inspired by and influenced by sword-and-sorcery fiction. Sword-and-sorcery fiction all but died in the 80’s. Anybody born after 1990 didn’t grow up seeing Lancer paperbacks on spinning racks at the drug store checkout the way I did. If they read fantasy growing up, it probably wasn’t Conan. It was likely something that came out of the Young Adult section that was influenced by decades of epic fantasy like Shannara and Wheel of Time.

The book business changed a lot after publishers figured out they could sell three books instead of one by signing authors up for a trilogy. The only way to sustain a trilogy is to create a crisis so big that it takes three books (or more) for the protagonists to overcome it. Compare the conflicts that Conan deals with in a 8,000 word short story to the problems of the characters in a 300,000 word epic. Big difference.

Players who’ve only consumed epic fiction or epic movies are not going to find “save the village from bugbears” to be as engaging as someone who grew up with stories of Fahfrd and the Mouser tricking a gangster that extorts money from holy men.

Players and game masters bring the images and ideas from their favorite stories and films into the games they play. This is part of the “system.”

System is bigger than you think.

This problem is a big one. I haven’t got my brain wrapped around it.

The reason this is a problem is the output of a system is dependent on everything that has an effect on it. Game designers/masters often make some of the key elements of the game an afterthought.

What all this comes down to is a realization that every part of a game has an effect on every other part of the game. That includes the participants and what they bring to the table in terms of culture, beliefs, expectations, preferences and assumptions.

I don’t that I’ve made the problem any clearer but I hope that I’ve given you something to think about.

5 thoughts on “What Is A Tabletop RPG System?

  1. smileymiler

    It’s a very interesting concept to ponder while one sups at ones favourite tipple. I think that seeking clarity and/or consistency on the concept of a TTRPG “System” is probably an exercise in futility, but here’s my three pen’th:
    Some TTRPGs the system is implicit in the game as being the Rules AND the setting; I am thinking Indianna Jones RPG, Dune and the like. Perhaps Runequest (Glorantha). Even Ghostbusters is set on Earth if not New York all the time…
    But I think you’re referring to the games where the setting isn’t implicit, such as D&D, OSE, Traveller (probably) and such. It occurs to me here that the “System” is that part of the game that is portable between groups, perhaps. When I first went to University back in 1986 I was able to play in a D&D group immediately as we used the same core rules. Plus the DM played a pretty vanilla game and we never really discussed the World setting beyond “Here’s a city, here’s the inn, here’s the temple, here’s the Magic Guild etc.” Which is, I think, where you started.
    So does it include the setting? My instinct is no, but then the setting will include house rules and class limitations and lots of peronal interpretation of the rules. So that would support your second suggestion; that the “system” is the combination of rules, supplements, dice and setting. Fair enough.
    Now, I am a Scientist and Engineer by training and work as a Physics Teacher. “System” in that environment is a, erm, thing that has no energy transfers into or out of it; that contains a finite and fixed amount of energy. This, of course, is of no relevence and doesn’t move the discussion anywhere. I need another pint.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Guest Post on RPG Systems from Rob Kuntz – Grumpy Wizard

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