Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The System Mastery Grail

I want to "master" a system. A roleplaying system, to be precise.

I read a certain post over at The RPG Corner a while back, and it's been on my mind ever since.

What do I personally mean when I talk about mastering a system? For me, the ultimate type of system mastery would be memorization of nearly all the core rules of a system. I have a strong desire to be an "encyclopedia" of a system, or should I say a living "core rulebook."

Now, this isn't because my ideal game system would have a rule for every situation, or that I think all players and GMs should strive to memorize a system. Memorization is NOT a prerequisite for good roleplaying. This is just a particular quirk of mine, I suppose. I have always been most comfortable at the table-top when I could rattle off rules without having to refer to a book or a referee screen.

Right now, I feel like I have a different, "lesser" type of system mastery when it comes to Castles & Crusades. I may not have every character class ability or racial ability memorized, for example, but I have a solid grasp of the core mechanics for ability checks, saving throws, combat, and the like. And this, to me, is perfectly fine and is more than enough for me to run a good game.

BUT I would REALLY love it if I could muster up the time and brain power these days in order to memorize character class abilities, racial abilities, poison creation rules, etc.

I am currently not what I would consider a "living core rulebook" for any system. Perhaps in my teenage years I was a near-master of AD&D or the Palladium RPG system. But this is just not possible for me at this point in my life, at least not when it comes to games like Castles & Crusades.

But of course, in typical "me" style, that darn system mastery urge won't go away.

So I've been looking at Basic D&D (B/X to be precise) as my most likely candidate for system mastery. I think the rules are short enough for me to have a good shot at memorizing most of them. And more importantly, it's D&D and I've got years of using that system under my belt.

But it seems that system mastery may come at a price: most likely, mastering a system takes all of one's mental and temporal gaming resources (or at least, this will be the case for ME). So forget about becoming similarly erudite in any other system. Unless you have unlimited free time (that's not me), have an eidetic memory (my memory is still pretty good, but not photographic by a long shot), or some combination of the two.

Now, combine all this with my sometime-desire to run games in genres other than fantasy, such as cyberpunk, post-apocalypse, Cthulhu mythos, etc. This makes me think it would behoove me to master a more "universal" game system that lends itself more readily to different genres of play. Yes, yes, you can of course remove the fantasy from the D&D engine if you tried, but that's just more work for which I don't have time.

The only universal game system with which I have current experience is Savage Worlds. I suppose the Palladium system is universal, but I've got a "been there, done that" relationship with Palladium from my teen years and I really have no interest in picking it back up. I've never played GURPS, but I've dabbled in the rule books and was never really drawn to it.

So would the solution for me be to dedicate myself to mastering a simple-enough universal system, so when I get the genre "switch itch" I wouldn't have to change game systems as well? That is appealing, not having to learn a new system all the time, as well as not having to ask players to learn new systems.

Anyway, here are some questions for you:

1. What would you define as system mastery?

2. How important is system mastery to you?

3. Is there a system (or systems) that you can confidently say you have mastered, or that you would like to master?

A final thought: all of this makes me wonder if the system mastery desire is part of the reason many OSR gamers, especially GMs, seek to create their own versions of the old D&D systems. A system that you tweak yourself may, by extension, become one that you know very well.

Anyway, I look forward to hearing from you all out there!


  1. 1. Similar to you, I'd define it as knowing all of the frequently used rules, and most of the less frequently used rules. You may have to refer to the books from time to time, but you know enough to just confidently wing it and be near the mark on the parts you don't exactly remember.

    2. Not as important as I used to think it was. (see below).

    3. Back when I was in junior high/high school, I had most of Classic D&D (the B and E, most of C, and some of M of the BECMI line) all in my head. I could remember most monster ACs, damage types, almost every spell effect, etc. From 2000 until about 2004, I attempted the same with 3E/3.5E. Didn't get there of course, but I do still retain a lot of rules minutia that I was able to call up recently in a Pathfinder game.

    I'm not really interested in getting to that point again, but I am crafting my own version of Classic D&D, pulling anything from any edition that I like, so I have a pretty good grasp of those sorts of things these days.

  2. 1: System mastery is knowledge of all the system's parts and understanding of how the parts of the system work together.

    2: Not really. More important is that you know where to look to find the rule. You'll generally come to know how the most common rules work, and the rarely used rules are simple to look up or just make a ruling on it until next game.

    3: I think I've got a pretty good handle on D&D 2E. There are a lot of expansion books, and the spell and magic item compendia are just massive, but if stuck on a desert isle I could probably run 2E for the natives.
    Recently I wrote down the 0D&D rules from the 3LBB in my own words, fixing some stupid stuff (like changing the huge pursuit and escape rules from percentages to x in 6 and reducing the block of text modifiers down to a couple lines). It's clearer, down to 20 pages, and I could add some stuff (more monsters, spells, magic items; maybe the suggested rules that each DM was supposed to write) to get it up to the 40 pages of a LBB digest. But take that 20 pages: I think that's a game you could get total knowledge of, not just system mastery. As in, after playing the game for some time, you could be stranded on a desert island and simply write the rules out by hand in a couple days.

  3. Funny you mention B/X. In a follow-up to my system mastery post, I mused about the possibilities of B/X as a sort of ersatz universal system, what with all the B/X-derived OSR products out there (SWN and its supplements, Mutant Future, Realms of Cthulhu, etc.). I'm still thinking about the possibilities there.

    1. System mastery is knowing the rules well enough that they essentially become transparent at the table. Any player queries can be easily and quickly answered and consultations of the rules are exceedingly rare.

    2. I go back and forth on this one. I guess at this stage in my gaming career (20+ years in), my interest in new and shiny systems is at an all-time low. I'm tired of reading new rules and would just like to feel comfortable with, i.e. "master," a set of rules.

    3. Probably the closest I've come to mastery would be the old AD&D 2e days, back before the "Player's Option" books at least. I had most of the PHBR books and knew them well, and was pretty competent, rules-wise, as both player and DM. Nowadays, as I wrote about in my post, I'm more interested in mastering a universal system (or at least something with theoretically universal applications, like B/X), since I can't see restricting myself to a single genre. I love GURPS for its flexibility and adaptability, but it might be too crunchy for me. Jury's still out on that one.

  4. Here is my two cents:

    1. What would you define as system mastery?
    Knowing the rules to such a level that the rest I can figure out by example or abstraction.

    2. How important is system mastery to you?
    Depends on the system and the players. I don't mind looking something up when I am with my kids. When I am at a game at a Con, then I want to keep the action moving.

    3. Is there a system (or systems) that you can confidently say you have mastered, or that you would like to master?
    I would say I have Mastered Unisystem, and in particular Ghosts of Albion, Buffy and WitchCraft.
    I would also say I have masters (lower case m) Basic D&D and to some extent AD&D.
    The difference is in Unisystem I pretty much have the rules memorized. In the D&D variants I have enough background knowledge to certain do it with out need of books. I don't have say XP tables memorized, but I know how they are built and could rebuild them if I needed too.

    A final thought: all of this makes me wonder if the system mastery desire is part of the reason many OSR gamers, especially GMs, seek to create their own versions of the old D&D systems. A system that you tweak yourself may, by extension, become one that you know very well.

    Well with Ghosts of Albion I have that memorized because I wrote it. Since it is based on Buffy and WitchCraft I pretty much have those memorized as well.

    Frankly to me Mastery is only as good as the effort needed to go into it. I am not a master of D&D4 by any stretch, but that doesn't harm my enjoyment of running the games. On the other hand when I play Buffy in someone else's group I don't pipe up and say "no, a Big Ass Sword does not do STR+1 x2 damage." instead I let it slide. They may have their reasons for doing things.

    Though at Gen Con I did point out to a Director (GM) about how to do Essence Channeling faster and she was happy about that.