System Mastery: A Legacy of Ivory

I first heard the term ‘system mastery’ a long time ago, around the D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder era most likely.  I remember thinking, “Hmm, yeah, that’s cool.  Makes sense!”  Oh, how things change.  The term came up again recently while I was snooping around on some old role-playing game posts.  This is the perfect chance to explore how my thoughts about games have changed over time.

System mastery, in my words, comes from understanding how rules interact and using that knowledge to maximize the goals of the game during play.  It goes beyond simply ‘knowing the rules’ – that’s just system comprehension.  For instance, making a rules-valid wizard requires system comprehension.  Character optimization and theorycrafting result from system mastery, as does knowing which spells are maximally effective in which situations.

How Did System Mastery Get into My Game?!

System mastery isn’t limited to role-playing games but they certainly have their fair share of it.  To my knowledge, the ones that get the worst rap are the two I mentioned earlier, D&D 3.xE and Pathfinder.  Both game systems have layers of complex rules, endless splatbooks, and highly optimizable character creation and advancement.  To master the system, one must be able to start with an effective character and utilize all of the tools available.

First, we have to understand where some of this comes from.  Originally, the company TSR published Dungeons & Dragons.  Later in the mid-90s, a rather more well-known company bought them out: Wizards of the Coast.  A few years after that, the Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition hit the shelves.  As part of their design process for 3E, WotC used several design concepts from their successful Magic: The Gathering trading card game.

It’s a little hard to find (Thanks, WaybackMachine!), but one of the senior designers, Monte Cook, published his thoughts in retrospect about the design process that he participated in.  If you’ve heard the phrase “Ivory Tower Game Design”, that’s the source.  To sum it up, some choices are better than others and part of the game involves the players knowing what to pick and what to avoid, depending on their circumstances.  A lot of people hear that and go, “Oh, so they intentionally designed pitfalls for new players to walk into!”  That may be an overly harsh criticism, but it’s certainly one way that you could look at it.  However, I think the most important part of that post was the bit about just spreading the rules before the players and asking them to make the required logical connections.

System Mastery Through the Ages

I’ve seen many arguments for and against the idea of system mastery, but I’m most interested in the lasting effects that it has had on game design.  You can still see the the concept carried down into the derivative systems, like 3.5E and Pathfinder.  There are many players who accept and enjoy it as part of the game they’ve known and loved for a long time.  I know I would spend hours optimizing, planning, tweaking every little character idea.  I used to play with a friend who loved to play psychic characters and could pull off the most ridiculous damage combos.  Oh, how we hated it!  Looking back, I can see now that – in his own way – he was playing the system mastery game way better than all of the rest of us.

It honestly gives me a greater appreciation for Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition.  (I can put that down on my list of things I didn’t expect to say today!)  In many ways, 4E was a complete rejection of the idea of system mastery.  For instance, character classes underwent major rebalancing, to the point of receiving heavy criticism about homogenization.  Many of the myriad options met the chopping block and players only had to pick from a few different choices.  Now, to be fair, later so many extra player handbooks and settings books came out it was hard to keep anything straight and fair.  But the initial release was about as different from 3.x as anything could have been.

I think that the reason 5th edition is so well received because it is a refinement, rather than a rejection.  For all it’s flaws, 3rd edition retained many aspects from its beloved predecessors.  Dungeons & Dragons 5E returns to that mindset but simplifies everything.  It’s true that you can make some (rather silly) maximized character builds still.  But so far, Wizards of the Coast haven’t added any major complexities to the base rules.  A new player can have as much impact in the game as veteran – and that is important.

My Opinion

Personally, I do not believe that system mastery is a necessary aspect to include when designing a role-playing game.  That’s not to say we should make games without it, just that it shouldn’t be a primary consideration.  Given my preference for narrative story games, that should come as no surprise.

I feel that for a well-designed game, the barrier to entry should be as low as possible – preferably non-existent.  If we want to bring people to the hobby we need to make it easier, not harder.  I would much rather play or run a game that I can explain, in entirety, to new players in fifteen minutes or even during the course of the session.  Obviously, that’s a pretty tough requirement.  But gone are the days when I would suggest a system where learning how to play through trial and error is the expectation.