What I want to focus on, is thinking about how games are designed and how skills outside of game might directly help you with system mastery, vs. games where the road to mastery is only through knowing the game itself.

Chris puts into words something I’ve been ruminating about a little, at least in terms of my own preferences. I think my tendency is a preference for what he terms “Parallel System Mastery” games. At least, I think Isolated Mastery is a bigger hurdle for me.

It’s probably why, despite being a huge Burning Wheel fan, I still suck at a lot of the subsystems; I don’t get to play often, and so can never develop the skills required. Even with D&D 3.5, it took me years to figure out how to “game” combat, and I still paled in comparison to guys I knew who were good at abstract mechanics.

Likewise, it’s probably why I fetishize systems like HERO. IME, I felt like I could always approach the game by just reasoning “realistic” solutions, and the game supported me, for the most part. Likewise, games that are very genre-reliant, like MHR. or even Fate.

Parallel vs. Isolated System Mastery

36 thoughts on “What I want to focus on, is thinking about how games are designed and how skills outside of game might directly help…

  1. I’m not really sure I enjoy one kind over the other! Although he’s come up with a pretty good way to differentiate. I just used to call those kinds of siloed games “masterable.” Like, you can get better at them.

    I do think the smaller the system, the more it needs to rely on other skill sets: lots of freeforms require directorial skills for pacing and framing, acting/expression skills for getting your portrayal across, and better-than-average social sensitivity mixed into all that to read the temperature of the table.

    But even in a masterable game, those outside skills can’t help but improve the experience, yeah? Although in the case of Burning Wheel, I think Luke spent some time deliberately undercutting non-game skills like social manipulation by replacing those with formal procedures.

    I know some players greatly prefer there be ROOLZ telling you how things come out rather than squishy human conversation, largely because they aren’t confident or skilled where they need to be. That’s an old conversation. Ye olde “would you just talk out how a fight happens?” to justify Duel of Wits and all that. And, well, yeah some folks might just talk it out.

    There’s probably deep roots all the way back to the whole “rule of cool” thing, too. Yeah that’s totally fine if you’ve got a facilitator/table/players whose skills and tastes align.

    It’s mean to say but most of the folks I know who prefer system mastery over human mastery are kind of poor sports and/or are expressly not interested in collaborative play. JUST MY EXPERIENCE.

  2. < ![CDATA[I'm not really sure I enjoy one kind over the other! Although he's come up with a pretty good way to differentiate. I just used to call those kinds of siloed games "masterable." Like, you can get better at them. I do think the smaller the system, the more it needs to rely on other skill sets: lots of freeforms require directorial skills for pacing and framing, acting/expression skills for getting your portrayal across, and better-than-average social sensitivity mixed into all that to read the temperature of the table. But even in a masterable game, those outside skills can't help but improve the experience, yeah? Although in the case of Burning Wheel, I think Luke spent some time deliberately undercutting non-game skills like social manipulation by replacing those with formal procedures. I know some players greatly prefer there be ROOLZ telling you how things come out rather than squishy human conversation, largely because they aren't confident or skilled where they need to be. That's an old conversation. Ye olde "would you just talk out how a fight happens?" to justify Duel of Wits and all that. And, well, yeah some folks might just talk it out. There's probably deep roots all the way back to the whole "rule of cool" thing, too. Yeah that's totally fine if you've got a facilitator/table/players whose skills and tastes align. It's mean to say but most of the folks I know who prefer system mastery over human mastery are kind of poor sports and/or are expressly not interested in collaborative play. JUST MY EXPERIENCE.]]>

  3. < ![CDATA[I guess I'm just trying to parse out what you're saying. I may just be confusing myself ​since Chris is talking about one axis and I think you're talking about another.]]>

  4. It’s mean to say but most of the folks I know who prefer system mastery over human mastery are kind of poor sports and/or are expressly not interested in collaborative play. JUST MY EXPERIENCE.

    Can you expand on what you mean by “poor sports” in this context? It seems to me that the way you’re using it doesn’t line up exactly with the way I’d expect the concept to be used in this context.

  5. < ![CDATA[It’s mean to say but most of the folks I know who prefer system mastery over human mastery are kind of poor sports and/or are expressly not interested in collaborative play. JUST MY EXPERIENCE.
    Can you expand on what you mean by “poor sports” in this context? It seems to me that the way you’re using it doesn’t line up exactly with the way I’d expect the concept to be used in this context.]]>

  6. Roger.

    I had been thinking about abstract games vs. simulation games, which is something I remember writing about a while back. I.e., my theory that I suck at board games which are highly abstract, and thus rely on the “isolated” mastery Chris talks about. This spills over into RPGs, too. 3.5 and then 4e even worse would give me fits ​because analyzing the fiction was generally useless.

  7. < ![CDATA[Roger. I had been thinking about abstract games vs. simulation games, which is something I remember writing about a while back. I.e., my theory that I suck at board games which are highly abstract, and thus rely on the "isolated" mastery Chris talks about. This spills over into RPGs, too. 3.5 and then 4e even worse would give me fits ​because analyzing the fiction was generally useless.]]>

  8. I might actually prefer, personally, to invert Chris’ formulation: I think there are RPGs that are less sensitive or amenable to outside human skills (broken down as finely as you’d wish). But I’m starting from the assumption that pretty much all RPGs benefit from those skills by default, and those that aren’t are the exceptions because a procedure has been added to strip it out or invalidate it.

    Agreed with you re certain categories of boardgames. Some of them are so purely mechanical that you can’t really apply, say, your understanding of genre or theme. Doesn’t matter how many times I’ve watched Raiders of the Lost Ark when I play Lost Cities, yeah? That’s kind of a showstopper for me in boardgames, tbh.

  9. < ![CDATA[I might actually prefer, personally, to invert Chris' formulation: I think there are RPGs that are less sensitive or amenable to outside human skills (broken down as finely as you’d wish). But I’m starting from the assumption that pretty much all RPGs benefit from those skills by default, and those that aren’t are the exceptions because a procedure has been added to strip it out or invalidate it.
    Agreed with you re certain categories of boardgames. Some of them are so purely mechanical that you can’t really apply, say, your understanding of genre or theme. Doesn’t matter how many times I’ve watched Raiders of the Lost Ark when I play Lost Cities, yeah? That’s kind of a showstopper for me in boardgames, tbh.]]>

  10. Paul Beakley Yes, I’m assuming Chris’ model has some baseline, and his categories are about expertise beyond that. E.g., your knowledge of fantasy fiction will probably enhance your D&D game to a certain extent, but it probably won’t matter in terms of manipulating the game’s currency and whatnot. (Whereas in, say, Fate, you might be better at coming up with evocative, and thus useful, aspects than someone who lacked your familiarity.)

  11. < ![CDATA[Paul Beakley Yes, I'm assuming Chris' model has some baseline, and his categories are about expertise beyond that. E.g., your knowledge of fantasy fiction will probably enhance your D&D game to a certain extent, but it probably won't matter in terms of manipulating the game’s currency and whatnot. (Whereas in, say, Fate, you might be better at coming up with evocative, and thus useful, aspects than someone who lacked your familiarity.)]]>

  12. I’ve been thinking about it a lot in terms of running one shots or games for non-gamers – if the game has heavy parallel that this particular person or group has access to, then it’s usually easy to play and leads to lots of fun. (Primetime Adventures does this pretty well by having people select for genre knowledge).

    If the game runs on isolated mastery, then there ends up being a lot of handholding and advice, and it may take several sessions for things to “click” with players.

    Mind you, the actual procedural steps might be very different than the thing you’re having happen in the fiction – the “systemless” game that really boils down to “convince GM Jim that it would make sense or at least slide it under his awareness that it shouldn’t work” is a mechanic that has nothing to do with the specifics of whether your choices made sense tactically in your WW2 game. You’re still operating out of a real world skill, which is mostly “How well do I know Jim and how well can I socially play him?”

    There’s also the fact that a lot of games are misleading about the espoused skills to apply vs. what actual skills apply, and that’s even rules-as-written, long before you get to the next layer of confusion in “The GM says it’s all about story but if you aren’t at least this optimized you’re going to get eaten by rats in the second room”

  13. < ![CDATA[I've been thinking about it a lot in terms of running one shots or games for non-gamers - if the game has heavy parallel that this particular person or group has access to, then it's usually easy to play and leads to lots of fun. (Primetime Adventures does this pretty well by having people select for genre knowledge). If the game runs on isolated mastery, then there ends up being a lot of handholding and advice, and it may take several sessions for things to "click" with players. Mind you, the actual procedural steps might be very different than the thing you're having happen in the fiction - the "systemless" game that really boils down to "convince GM Jim that it would make sense or at least slide it under his awareness that it shouldn't work" is a mechanic that has nothing to do with the specifics of whether your choices made sense tactically in your WW2 game. You're still operating out of a real world skill, which is mostly "How well do I know Jim and how well can I socially play him?" There's also the fact that a lot of games are misleading about the espoused skills to apply vs. what actual skills apply, and that's even rules-as-written, long before you get to the next layer of confusion in "The GM says it's all about story but if you aren't at least this optimized you're going to get eaten by rats in the second room"]]>

  14. I know some players greatly prefer there be ROOLZ telling you how things come out rather than squishy human conversation, largely because they aren’t confident or skilled where they need to be. That’s an old conversation.

    I think there are other reasons to prefer rules for some things other than being socially disabled, Paul. I feel like maybe I’ve misread you, though.

  15. < ![CDATA[I know some players greatly prefer there be ROOLZ telling you how things come out rather than squishy human conversation, largely because they aren’t confident or skilled where they need to be. That’s an old conversation.
    I think there are other reasons to prefer rules for some things other than being socially disabled, Paul. I feel like maybe I’ve misread you, though.]]>