Games & Systems

In “The Year Ahead in Tabletop Roleplaying Games” (January 2023), Linda Codega writes:

“A lot of TTRPG systems have been made with the intention of being extremely accessible and flexible, but do not have a game that really makes them stand out at release. … I want more games. I want games that are built up around a system, or a system that is specifically designed for a game, that supports the game from the ground up.”

It’s a sentiment I immediately recognized, something I’d felt intuitively but never really conceptualized. So many of the systems I’ve looked at don’t compel me to use them because I don’t see an inherent game in them; I see that they can do things, but I’m not sure what to do with them. Most of systems that really capture my attention have inherent games in them, and those games give me ideas and make me want to bring them to the table.

This post will unpack and elaborate the difference, as I see it, between a system and a game, and the implications of thinking in those terms.

Paidia & Ludus

In Man, Play and Games, Roger Caillois (trans. Meyer Barash) distinguishes paidia (a term derived from childlike activity, “a kind of uncontrolled fantasy”) from ludus (formalized activity defined by “arbitrary, imperative, and purposely tedious conventions”). Paidia and ludus, he says, “are not categories of play but ways of playing.”

Paidia, according to Caillois, is “an almost indivisible principle, common to diversion, turbulence, free improvisation, and carefree gaiety.” In ludus, “this frolicsome and impulsive exuberance is almost entirely absorbed or disciplined” in order “to make it more uncertain of attaining its desired effect.”

He goes into more detail on the distinction and relationship between the two in culture and in individual development: “In general, the first manifestations of paidia have no name and could not have any, precisely because they are not part of any order, distinctive symbolism, or clearly differentiated life that would permit a vocabulary to consecrate their autonomy with a specific term. But as soon as conventions, techniques, and utensils emerge, the first games as such arise.”

In other words, when freeform play starts to become formalized into specific activities, games emerge in recognizable—and therefore nameable and categorizable—forms: various games of chance, of mimicry/representation, of competition.

Systems & Games

RPGs obviously fall at the ludus end of the spectrum (though some, particularly lyric games and games that eschew formal mechanics partially or entirely, lean more toward or wholly into paidia). However, within RPGs, the paidia–ludus distinction is analogous to that of systems and games.

In the abstract, systems are analogous to paidia: they give you rules and mechanics, but the cost of their flexibility is a lack of direction—they don’t tell you what to do with them. Games, on the other hand, provide varying levels of trajectory, direction for using the system they’re embedded in.

Knave, for example, is a system. It doesn’t internally direct players or GMs in a particular direction; it expects them to bring that direction in, from the outside, presumably by importing old-school sensibilities alongside OSR dungeons and adventures.

That’s not a knock against Knave; I think it’s a clever little system, but it’s still just a system, not a game in  itself. But when you roll up some characters and enter a dungeon? Then you have a game of Knave—an implementation of the system with concrete, achievable goals. Knave’s game is implicit—it’s designed for OSR play—but not inherent—a first-time gamer who picks it up may have no idea what to do with it.

Errant, on the other hand, provides context and trajectory. First-level characters are outcasts struggling to survive at the fringes of society. They advance in level by wasting money on hedonistic carousing and lifestyles, and by suffering material and financial setbacks. Along the way, characters will build strongholds, institutions, and wealth. Errant’s inherent game is progressing from being a downtrodden wretch to being the sort of elitist asshole that you hated when you first started.

In sum, if you look at Knave, you can see it handling a wide breadth of possibilities. When you look at Errant, you can see its more limited but inherent arc. It’s not just a system; it has its own game.

Aside: Games in Improvisational Theatre

In Truth in Comedy, Charna Halpern, Del Close, and Kim Johnson devote a few pages to discussing how successful improv scenes are structured around emergent games.

As an example, they cite an ImprovOlympic performance attended by Budweiser executives, who were deciding whether or not they wanted to sponsor an event the venue was hosting. Naturally, they threw out “beer” as a scene prompt, and the players ran with the suggestion.

According to the authors, by the end of the scene, the execs were in stitches—but Budweiser had never been mentioned. The players named every other beer under the sun, praised them, and totally neglected the elephant in the audience. The comedy emerged by subverting expectations—that they would pander to a potential sponsor—and doing the opposite—completely ignoring them instead.

That was the game the players discovered: ignore Budweiser. The scene developed by finding ways to namedrop any other brand they could think of. Within the first moments of the scene, the players had identified a pattern, and they pursued it to create an entertaining arc.

RPG systems with inherent games do this work for the players. Instead of expecting the players to discover their own game, systems with inherent games give them a premise for playing and a course to pursue.

More Games

Errant can accommodate a wide variety of adventures and player goals. Other games are more targeted and tightly woven. Several of Jason Morningstar’s RPGs exemplify this.

First, look at Fiasco (specifically, Fiasco Classic, which is the version I’m familiar with). The core book comes with four Playsets, and many more are available. They cover a range of scenarios, from midcentury suburbia to an Antarctic research station to medieval sword and sorcery to a gory slasher flick.

Players can select from a huge array of scenarios, but each of those scenarios is structured around the same clearly defined arc: an absolute shitshow motivated by powerful ambition and poor impulse control. Although much lighter mechanically than Errant (or Knave or D&D, etc.), Fiasco’s system elegantly facilitates its game from beginning to end.

Games like Carolina Death Crawl and The Shab-al-Hiri Roach operate within much tighter guardrails without necessarily being on rails. In Carolina Death Crawl, set during the US Civil War, a group of southern-born Union soldiers desert behind enemy lines and must make a dangerous overland journey—during which they’ll lie, cheat, steal, and kill—to rejoin their comrades. The beginning and ending are definite, but the cards that the players draw, and the interpretations thereof, will result in a unique story each time.

The Shab-al-Hiri Roach pins its events down even further. The characters are professors, students, or townies at a 1920s New England college, and they must navigate a set of predetermined events while trying to stay one step ahead of an ancient, eldritch roach-god. Each playthrough will visit precisely the same events, but how those events play out is determined by the character builds and players’ choices in various social situations.

No Conclusions

Codega, in their article quoted above, seems to feel like the Manager in Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author: beset by systems seeking the direction that games provide. And based on the preceding analysis, we might be tempted to start drawing conclusions about games versus systems. (I certainly am.) Systems have tropes and motifs, while games have themes. Systems are open-ended, while games are less so. Gameless systems have more replay value than systems designed specifically to facilitate their embedded game.

The fact of the matter is that the breadth of RPGs in the world is too huge, too rapidly growing, and too diverse to ever fully study, let alone evaluate and draw overarching conclusions from. But volume and heterogeneity isn’t the only thing holding us back.

This discussion is sorely constrained by the language used to think about play and games. I use the Greek terms paidia and ludus and draw a parallel between them and the terms system and game. But that clean distinction isn’t necessarily universal or objective.

Just as a thought experiment, consider the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure’s distinction between langage, langue, and parole. Langage is the abstract concept of language as a structured system of communication; langue is a particular spoken language (English, Greek, French, etc.); parole is a specific instance of language in use, such as this sentence.

To draw another analogy: langage is like the abstract concept of a game used to structure play (like the differentiation of ludus from paidia); langue would be a specific game (Errant, Fiasco, etc.); and parole would be an instance of playing that game (“I played a game of Fiasco on Saturday”). A three-tier structure like this differentiates games in a way that English, having only one word for game, inherently doesn’t. (At least, not without a lot of ad hoc jargon or imported terminology.)

Now look back at my discussion of Knave: the system becomes a game (“langue”) by becoming an instance of a game (“parole”). I can make that claim because the two are denoted by the same word in English, but to the hypothetical perspective, the claim conflates two different concepts. (Though it is interesting that Morningstar’s focused games discussed above are explicitly designed for one-shots, discrete instances of gaming.)

To be fair, it’s a flaw in my own logic, but an instructive one that helps reveal a limitation in the language—and therefore the conceptual framework—used to make that argument. Does any language actually work like this hypothetical one? I don’t know, but my knowledge is pretty limited. (If you know of one like it, or any language that conceptualizes play and games in another interesting way, please let me know in a comment, on social media, etc.)

None of this invalidates Codega’s call for more games, and that call does not necessarily devalue general systems that players can use to play many different games. Overall, I think, it points out the need for us to consider the terms we use to describe the things (and ways) we play and how that language conditions our conceptualizations and expectations.

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5 thoughts on “Games & Systems

  1. I was not familiar with the term paidia, that’s good to know. I’ve been thinking of some “game”-related ideas lately, I might want to account for this distinction between paidia and ludus.


      1. Damn, I was going to create a Homo Ludus! Ok well I guess I shouldn’t be surprised someone already made that term up. Might have to rework that post now…


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