Systems of Relation
When I was a child, my best friend and I would play pretend on the playground. She would be a superhero and I would be a supervillain, and we would narrate a chapter from her incredible adventures. I would pose a challenge to her, but she would ultimately defeat me. There were no mechanics besides the kinetics of our bodies. We would follow this ritual daily for years and years, iterating on a framework and a story until we grew too old for playgrounds. With the benefit of hindsight, I can now understand that the games we played on the playground were identical in nature to the tabletop RPGs I would grow up to play and help design.
We can learn a tremendous amount from children’s games, even ones that we don’t typically associate with modern fields of game development. With this essay I hope to take a stab at using these games to expose some of the underlying mechanisms behind how we play, expand our framework for thinking about games in general, and ultimately give you a couple tips and tricks on how to incorporate these new ideas into your design. Along the way, we’ll dip our toes into the nuclear family, Minecraft, and the best-selling role-playing game rulebook no one talks about.
(This essay is a spiritual successor to my essay “A Dozen Fragments on Playground Theory”, although you don’t have to read that essay before this one — any relevant arguments I allude to in that essay will be repeated here.)
Let’s Talk Warrior Cats
Warrior Cats is a series of books by a group of authors writing under the pen name Erin Hunter, about cats with a complex clan structure in the woods outside the suburbs. It is a sprawling tale of political intrigue and feline violence spanning multiple generations and featuring multiple rival gangs of cats with their own religion and society. Pretending to be cats is a popular game for children to play. Kids will create their own clans or pledge their allegiance to existing ones, duel for dominance in the woods, collect herbs to heal each other, and incorporate the legends of the books into their play.
That’s all fine and good, but let’s now compare the Warrior Cats series to a tabletop role-playing game like Honey Heist (chosen because it’s free, one page long, and if it’s good enough for the McElroys it’s good enough for me). In both instances, a player sits down, learns the conventions and rules of the fictional world (either from the book itself or from other players), and then pretends to be a character within that fictional world in relationship to those rules. The book is often referred to when seeking to mediate disputes about how the fictional world operates.
In fact, when we go to articulate what makes Honey Heist and Warrior Cats different, we find a division in the form of system. Honey Heist devotes the vast majority of its content to the mechanical systems that govern this heist, the physical realities of being a bear in this crime-ridden hat-filled world. Warrior Cats devotes its time articulating the social systems of its universe, who leads each clan, what roles each clan needs, how the clans separate from one another, how ones name and gender shape their role.
When I play Warrior Cats, I’m not given rules for dueling or foraging or communing with my ancestors, but I am given cultural context for the emotional weight of those actions, and the social consequences of that behavior. For both systems, the concept of “breaking the rules” is still deeply meaningful — while there might be no mechanic preventing me from using a gun in Warrior Cats, I think the majority of players would agree such a modern device is out of place in the context of the books.
Therefore, Warrior Cats is an RPG — the best selling RPG of all time, far outpacing Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition worldwide. Sorry nerds!
…Okay, I’m being intentionally provocative. Warriors Cats is not an RPG, or if it is it’s not uniquely an RPG — basically every other book geared towards children, especially those with delineated groups based on personality traits or powers, is going to enable this form of play. The separation of tabletop RPG game-texts from other genres of creative writing is still more or less a meaningful distinction, but by acknowledging how these genres cross over allows us to recontextualize tabletop RPGs within a larger canon of “books which teach systems.” It also allows us to contextualize a game like House as having a lot more in common with TTRPGs than we might first assume.
Systems Of Relation
House is a children’s game where kids pretend to be members of a nuclear family and do regular family stuff, such as make dinner, argue over the kids, and repress nascent feelings of gender euphoria. I believe it’s accurate to describe House as existing in relationship to a system just as much as Dungeons & Dragons, but while Dungeons & Dragons is built on a system of mechanics, House (and Warrior Cats, and so many other children’s games) is built on a system of relation.
House doesn’t need a book to frame its system because it’s run on the Nuclear Family itself, a system both complex and omnipresent in the lives of American children, especially those with messy family dynamics at home. Children might debate whether it’s okay for a woman to play the Husband role in a game of House, thus mirroring their own conflict with the oppressive hierarchy of the nuclear family. Some kids might choose to intentionally reject the very premises of the nuclear family within their game of House, but they are still playing within its context.
When I describe this system of relation, it becomes clear that this is not merely comparable to the systems of mechanics we find in many games, it is nearly identical in function. This means any intellectual leap or practical mutation you can make to a mechanical system can also be made to a relational system. For example, one can imagine systems of relation that are rules-lite or crunchy (a stranger in a wasteland vs. a multi-generational birthday party), that require system mastery (political intrigue), that have tutorials built into their design (childhood?!).
The flip side of this is that it allows us to perform these permutations back onto our mechanics. If systems of relation can be either entirely fictional (such as in Warrior Cats) or exactingly real (House), what is the real-world analog for mechanical systems? If fictional systems of relation often “use” real-life relational systems to reduce system crunch (such as having cats with only two genders, limiting the author’s need to explain a whole new set of cat genders to us), can we lean more heavily on these real-life mechanical systems to reduce crunch — and what does that look like? Is it possible to release a TTRPG text that is solely systems of relation, carefully engineered and playtested social dynamics that create interesting games when enacted — and is that what adventure modules are already doing?
Once we free the system from the burden of being a purely mechanical description, we begin to discover what else is possible for that unshackled noun to describe — and it would be foolish to assume this is where it ends. Perhaps it becomes meaningful to discuss systems of storytelling (such as my first anecdote about superhero stories, and how the villain would always lose), systems of place (which root themselves in a particular relationship to a physical location), or systems of emotion (which the best lyric games take advantage of). Systems of grief; of time; of history; of violence; of aid.
This is not exclusive to tabletop role-playing games either — a lot of this framework around what is or isn’t a system comes from reflecting on video games and the games we play with them. Games like Minecraft or Team Fortress 2 rebuke most prescribed or assumed definitions of video games. These video games themselves are sometimes described as sandboxes, which highlight their lack of a 1-to-1 relationship with the act of play. These games, along with approaches to video games which fundamentally challenge authorial intent (such as speedrunner or pacifist communities) give us space to contextualize video games themselves within a shared broader creative scope.
This essay is not the end to the conversation, but neither is it a push for a taxonomy of all possible systems of being. Instead, I hope I can shed a light on the incredible possibility space left for tabletop RPGs, and how much we still have to learn from the games kids play.