Guest Post on RPG Systems from Rob Kuntz

Last week I stated that a game system is more than its mechanisms.

My confrère, Brian of Deathtrap Games wrote a thoughtful response to the essay.

Rob Kuntz’ writing about systems has shaped my thinking about the subject. I emailed him a link to our posts to see if he was willing to give some direction to our thinking. He has responded and generously asked me to post that response on my blog. I am grateful to Rob for taking the time to share his thoughts. You can find his work at Three Lines Studios. His books, adventures, the El Raja Key Archive (maps and campaign materials from the mid 1970s) and other writings are available for sale at TLB Games.

D&D’s “system” is its players and DM who through input and output sequences define what is happening in an Imaginary Realm, with imaginary players and events that produce imaginary results/circumstances. It doesn’t really matter if we ascribe exactly WHAT these ouput sequences are the result(s) from, and in fact the more you strip away the D&D specific applicable situations, which we understand collectively as “Game-World” results/information, and instead look upon these as “general definitions of the system”, this is where we can not only determine the system’s elasticity (if that exists)  and, on the other side of the coin, its limitations, but we also isolate through such ranges what TYPE of system it is.

Most of what our imaginary PCs do in this Imaginary realm is not at all related to the rules.  This is the immersive (and assumptive), “I walk down the street and talk to Irma” to “I open the door” to “I check the body” to “I jump on my horse and ride to the grocer where I meet Bill, who informed me yesterday at the inn when we were playing quoits that he’d be there for the pickle barrel sale,” etc., etc.

So what rules restrict the imaginative sequences when, for instance, you suggest anything?  Well, that variable answer might well denote what type of system you are using in D&D.

When Dave Arneson described the imaginary surround to his player in Blackmoor, David Megarry, and then asked, “What do you want to do?” we are now in an “open system” category.  Anything’s possible, perhaps; and if it is then probability rears its head. 

Arneson is implying that anything is contingently possible here and is only limited by what your imagination suggests; and it then falls to the DM to determine if it is, or is not, possible.  This is the best starting example of an “Open System” design implementation attitude.  It also suggests infinite ranges for the open model limited only by what the DM says is limited as he/she decides the ranges of what is a base, infinite system.  Imagination has no boundaries except those we impose upon it.

One can really view the game model that Arneson created and that Gary and myself readily implemented in the play-tests of D&D as the first OPEN System Game for adults.  It has no end, it has no limits to iteration, it is the applied imagination working in tandem with pre-generated guidelines (rules and laws) which we say work in this manner (Arneson’s 1st Law I referred to in Dave Arneson’s True Genius:  “This is what it is!”) and can indeed collapse, disappear, reappear, be re-imagined forever just like the imaginary terrain we utilize them within can and does. 

Infinite expression (unlimited variability), by the way, produces incalculable differences (more choices in all matter concerning the subject) where if you limit the system with an opposite attitude (throttle back its possibility to produce expanding variability) then you have less to observe and to potentially partake of (i.e., less choice, less player interaction, less design realization/growth, etc) just based on numbers alone.

You can think of this thusly:  Imagine a 1-100 point line, 1, 2,…99, 100.  Now.  Point 1 is the RIGID “By the rules, through the rules and nothing but the rules”.  IOW, if it’s not in the rules it’s getting no play.   The other extreme, Point 100, is EDGE of CHAOS.  The system is always and repeatedly redefining itself to the point where this could only be monitored and forwarded by a computer for game play.  It’s processing too many changes in information to be praticable in PLAY (for design experimentation it has some benefits, depends upon the input).  D&D pretty much started near Point 50; I have since nudged my own open system up to around 60-70 depending on what part of my mind you’re in… 🙂


Rob Kuntz

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