Not too long ago, I became preoccupied by how permeable the popular notions of system and setting seemed to have become in mainstream TTRPGs. I’m not talking specifically about the idea of a “traditional” universal system, such as GURPS, BRP, Cypher, Savage Worlds, etc. (Thankfully, ‘cuz blecchh!) Neither, particularly, am I talking about systems that foreground “story mechanics,” such as Fate, Powered by the Apocalypse, Forged in the Dark, etc. (Though I like them a good deal more than the blecchh stuff…) All of these systems have small to medium sized armies of adherents and sit above any infinitesimal objections I might raise toward them. Hmm…so why am I writing this?
Oh yeah! Because I want to provide a public service, I think, and I’m just monomaniacal enough and needlessly analytic enough to do so. So listen up, I’m gonna break it down… None of those systems matter anymore than the other. Don’t care who’s moving the most units or occupying the greatest numbers of shelfies… If you’ll allow an argument that might seem initially facile… systems are not the same thing as story concepts, genres, or settings. If you are in love with, say, the steampunk meets heist movie optics of Blades in the Dark, that does not necessarily mean that you love the Forged in the Dark system, mechanically. If you’re enthusiastic enough about the former, you might work around, or at the very least forgive, the inevitable bumpiness of the latter. I’m not denigrating FitD. All systems are more or less bumpy here and there. (Except for Rifts, obviously. My heart broke the day they ported that shit to Savage Worlds 🙁 ) I am saying that, in itself, it does not guarantee a fully satisfying experience of the Blades setting.
Let’s pretend, for a moment, that we live in a world without FitD. If someone had the vision to develop the Doskvol world and then left it stat-less—or system agnostic or mechanically inert or whatever—how do you think it’d’ve sold? My guess is: not very well, for two reasons. First, people are presented with Blades in the Dark as a solid product, wherein system and setting determine one another. (Not true!) Second, because people are intimidated by adapting story elements to a system. These fictional “people” aren’t lazy—however much they might (tend to) otherwise insist. In my experience, they are intimidated. It’s understandable—remember the Mercer Effect? Some people are so gifted when it comes to building worlds, so adept at ushering them from system to system, and so annoyingly charismatic that they can flood a whole (admittedly small) industry with romance. Screw Wizards or Paizo—without the evangelization of Mercer, many of us aren’t doing this hobby. And if Mercer can move a gateway drug that leads people to, say, Dialect, I’m not gonna hate him.
But what about the example of Blades? Well, back in this part of my life in which I used to worry about people mistaking system with setting with scenario, etc., I would get frustrated with how many systems were springing up. Most of them, it seemed, weren’t really contributing anything to an existing set of resources and were, sometimes, exploiting that gamer who didn’t want to port things from one system to another or to hack an existing system into something that would better suit a setting or individuated styles of play or whatever. To be fair to myself, my frustration was largely the frustration of a consumer…one who found himself studying —and shelling out for—system after system—many of them dubious— when really the established field of systems was, if not wholly adequate to every fictional notion, at least robust enough to allow for a good pairing of baseline mechanics to fictional setting.
There is a problem here, and I think some very good games are looking ahead to one kind of a solution. (Some examples would be Brindlewood Bay, Blades in the Dark, and Trophy, which, in turn, pull together elements from existing design systems like Cthulhu Dark, PbtA, and, by extension, Fate.) What we need is not more systems, but rather a lot of solid synthesis of existing rules. The path to every kind of gaming setting you like is right there…you just have to figure out how to follow it.