Why we Talk About System - a Manifesto
I think that systems thinking might be well put to use as a diagnostic aid, to try to solve problems at the table, and perhaps has less utility as a design tool.
This is a very salient point, and one I want to address. First, I totally agree that it's all about what happens at the table. However, I think there's an assumption that rules aren't about what happens at the table. It's easy to see why this should be the case. Most early game systems, like say any early edition of D&D are nearly unplayable as written. Not only do they offer little guidance over how to actually play, they the sometimes contain rules that cannot be used as written. The first edition of Gamma World is an extreme example. The game you buy cannot be played.
The solution to this has been a set of practices and habits that generally get lumped into a big bucket called "good gamemastering" (and a smaller bucket called "good playing"). Here are some things that are missing from D&D:
- how to resolve disputes between players
- how to keep player interest
- how to handle the difficulty level of the adventure (addressed in later editions)
- what to do when the players decide to go off your map
- how much a player can say about what happens when he swings his sword
- how to generate color, narration, dialog
- is thing about story, or smashing monsters, or something else?
- how rich should the characters be?
These are all things that the game system can address, and do so intelligently. Over time, groups invent rules, habits, and practices to address these issues. Eventually, those practices become "part of the system" even if they're not written down.
What I want to understand is how rules effect what happens at the table, even when the rules are unwritten. Systems thinking is all about diagnosing causes that may be unknown, or may be having an effect that is unexpected (as we'll see when we get into more complex diagrams).
So yes, it's about the table, but we're game designers, and we want to design better games. Systems thinking is one way we can come to a deeper understanding of what happens at the table and what the rules have to do with it.
Plus cool diagrams with arrows are fun to draw.
It seems I jumped to some conclusions regarding RogerT's point. This is clarfied in his comment.
What I was trying to say, and obviously didn't do a good job if it, is that system thinking might be a good way to analyze actual play and then use it to influence game design.
That's more or less exactly what I was getting at.