What makes a game system a game system? What does a system accomplish when it does what it’s supposed to do? How stripped-down can something be and still be considered a full-on system? When I think about School Daze, I sometimes find myself asking those questions. I also sometimes find myself thinking about Simple Six, the name I chose for the system that powers School Daze, and thinking that they’re more of a framework than an actual system.
So today I’m going to start getting into the nuts and bolts of what makes a game system work, using Simple Six as the working example. This is going to be a multi-post series because, let’s face it, this is not a quick topic. Let’s get to it.
What’s a System Supposed to Do?
I figure if we’re going to break a system down, see what makes it tick, it’s useful to know what it’s supposed to be doing in the first place. Otherwise, how can you know if it’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing?
A quick note: a lot of this stuff get fuzzy, fast. When you start talking about one part of a game system, it can be really easy to end up talking about things that are system-supporting, or system-adjacent, rather than the system itself. I’m going to allow for those things to be classed as “system” for the purposes of this and future posts, just so we’re all on the same page.
At its most basic level, a game system is often about conflict resolution. That’s only one starting point, but it’s often the part of a system that gets used the most. Also, since there are a lot of possible answers to this question, it’s necessary to choose a starting point. Conflict resolution is where I chose to start because that’s where I started when I was making School Daze(2).
In Simple Six, the conflict resolution works by rolling a single d6. If you get a five or higher, you success, less than that, not so much. That’s it. At its core, that’s a conflict resolution system of Simple Six. With that and a lot of imagination you could, in theory, play an entire game.
“I punch him.”
*First player rolls a d6, gets a 5*
“Yes, I punch him.”
There’s more to it than that, but we’re going to leave things right there, for now. We’ll circle back around to the die system in a bit. I want to go into what else a system can or should do first.
Game systems also have ways to represent and express who a character is, what they can do, their motivations, etc(3). These could be represented by things like character class, ability scores, race, Aspects, skills, stunts, feats, etc. All of those things are components of system, and all of them express who a character is, to one degree or another. They can also represent what a character can do, which is different, but situationally can be of equal or more value.
Simple Six does this a few different ways. Two of those ways have a numeric component along with them (N), the other largely impacts the story of the game (S).
Expertise – This is what a character is particularly good at. In School Daze, it’s presented as a student’s Favorite Subject. Whenever a character’s Expertise could help them in a situation where they’re rolling the dice, they get a +2 to the roll. A character has only one Expertise.
Tags – These are character traits, things that stand out about the character, or are noticeable. In School Daze, these are Ranks. Characters can have up to three Tags. A character can have fewer than three, but they have to have at least one. When a Tag can help a character, they add a +1 to their die roll. When a Tag would hinder a character, they add -1 to their die roll.
Motivation – This is what’s driving the character forward. A Motivation is usually good for a session of play, but a more complex Motivation might not get resolved or finalized that quickly. In School Daze, this character attribute has the same name: Motivation. In the other Simple Six game, One Shot, it’s called Target(4One Shot makes assumptions that focus the Motivation).
There’s also another component that appears on the character sheets of both Simple Six games: Relationships. In each of those games, Relationships mean different things, and are there for different reasons. Relationships are not quite part of the game system, though. They do express something about the character, but because they’re entire other people or concepts in the context of the fiction of the setting, they’re not system components.
That’s All That Systems Do (Except it’s Not)
Systems can also do a few other things, like talk about how the repercussions of conflict are handled, how players might be able to change the outcome of a conflict resolution roll, etc. However, the two large piece above are the bulk of what Simple Six does, so we’re going to pause the discussion there. Systems, depending on how prescribed and deep you want to go, can do a whole lot more.
A huge takeaway from this, one I’ve only barely touched on, is that systems do what they do based on the priorities and focus of the game. If you’ve got a game focused on combat and conflict, the system needs to support that. If you’re focused on romance and relationships, same thing. Simple Six has two expressions so far, School Daze and One Shot, and they couldn’t be more different from one another content-wise. The system is able to handle both of them, though, because it’s flexible in what it will allow a designer to focus on and prioritize.
Between now and next week, I encourage you to think about the different pieces of the systems you use when you play tabletop games. What do they accomplish? What do they express? What are their focus and priorities? Let me know what you find in the comments.
(1) It’s entirely possible to have a game with mechanics that don’t focus on conflict resolution. In that case it might be more accurate to say that the mechanics work to allow players to establish what is true in the context of the game and what isn’t.
(2) So I actually started designing School Daze with Ranks (Tags) first. I came up with a rhyming list, realized they could all be used to describe a highschooler and I turned it into a game. I thought of the die mechanic when I realized I needed a way to resolve conflict. I started the article with a conflict resolution system because I feel it’s a strong starting point for developing a game, even if it’s not how I went about it.
(3) Here’s where the line between what’s system and the rest of the game get fuzzy. There are games where a character’s motivation are linked to the mechanics (Fate) and others where it’s completely decoupled. Because I love Fate, I tend to think of games as things where things are linked like that.
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