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Systemic Error

I’m a huge fan of Dimension 20. A good friend pointed me at Fantasy High and I’ve been hooked since. The cast is great, Brennan is one of the best Actual Play DMs I’ve seen, and the production is gorgeous. One of my long term goals is to run one fight in Lancer with the production values of a single Dimension 20 combat.

So I watched and greatly enjoyed Tiny Heist. But its finale brought up an issue familiar to many in the TTRPG scenes. Namely, during the climactic Heist, the fact that the game was Dungeons and Dragons was a detriment to the way the game was played. The game would have played more cleanly were it in a system better suited to heists, as shown by the car chase that follows which does play more cleanly.

The basic reason for this is that Dungeons and Dragons does not have a heist system and attempting to play out a heist using the existing mechanics kind of sucks.

This isn’t new to anyone in TTRPG writing or design, and is a common refrain in criticisms of Dungeons and Dragons and games like it. However, I feel like it’s a lesson more commonly espoused through insults and at odd angles rather than explained in a straightforward manner, something I hope to correct.

What’s a System?

A system is the parts of an RPG where the game tells you how to structure, adjudicate, and organize actions. Or, more simply, it’s when a game gives you hard outcomes for actions taken. Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, for example, has Exploration, Combat, and Magic systems.

This is separate from the resolution mechanics, the mechanics a game uses to decide if something succeeded or failed. To use 5e as an example once again, rolling a d20, adding all relevant modifiers, and seeing if you succeeded is the resolution mechanic. The network of mechanics around exhaustion, food per day, resting, finding traps, random encounters, overland speed and terrain, carrying capacity, getting lost and scrounging for food is the Exploration system.

Systems help outline what games are about and what they want players to mechanically invest in. They don’t necessarily define gameplay, plenty of Dungeons and Dragons campaigns go heavy on social interaction or intrigue and OSR design philosophy often aims to push players to find out-of-system routes to victory due to the lethality of the system involved, but they guide it and define the areas a system is good at handling.

To take Dungeons and Dragons as an example, Dungeons and Dragons wants you to travel the land on the scale of days, weeks, and months, explore locations on the scale of rounds, hours, and days, get into combat periodically, and interact with or use magic throughout all of this.

So let’s take this back to Tiny Heist.

When is this a Problem?

Not having a system can be a problem in many ways, but we’re concerned with two.

The first is when, in essence, it becomes an accessibility issue. Not having a system for how combats or conversations or macroeconomics works if everyone at the table is comfortable playing those out narratively or via the very basic resolution mechanics available. When that stops being the case, some players end up disadvantaged and this can ruin their play experience. Like being neurodiverse when a game turns to neurotypical social interaction. Or trying to plan out a complex, multi-stage mid-1700s military campaign when you have no idea what that is.

Players stop being able to play the game, even if it’s something their character would be good at. The experience can be alienating and sour people on the game, and can result in players just ignoring mechanics that aren’t deeply systematized since they know they can play on their own, out of character knowledge to pull through or get mechanical bonuses.

Tiny Heist largely sidesteps this problem in the same way that many big name actual plays do. The casts involved are, if not professionals, at least talented improvisers. There’s a lot of work and discussion going on behind the scenes to avoid this being a problem and all involved largely have the skill sets to avoid this becoming an issue. Or, at least, avoid this becoming a visible issue.

The second is when you’re trying to use the game’s systems for something they’re not meant to handle or aren’t good at portraying. This is not the game’s fault and, frankly, is probably yours. If you are playing Starcrossed and go “Why can’t I mechanize a fight, I want to go into turn-based combat” you should not be resolving that turn-based combat with Star Crossed’s mechanics. You should be resolving it narratively, and not bothering to use the mechanics, dropping into a different game with an appropriate system to use those mechanics, lifting those mechanics into your game to do the same thing, or using the basics of the game’s resolution mechanism to get through it without full systemization.

This is the problem Tiny Heist ran into. That last heist used Dungeons and Dragon’s combat mechanics to run a dramatic, Ocean’s Eleven style heist and it didn’t fit very well. A genre hinging around certain people only acting for part of a plan, elaborate preparation, and required successes to work for the game to progress doesn’t gel with a system where everyone is trying to act as often and aggressively as possible and where individual roll failures are meant to wash out over repeated actions. An incredible cast and solid work from a talented GM save it, but you can see portions where players are struggling against the system and its assumptions to make the game work.


The first step in dealing with this problem is to broaden the catalog of games and systems that you read. Even if you don’t play them, encountering systems that you aren’t familiar with and seeing how they’re implemented and how they mechanize and encourage different situations is useful. It gives you a toolbox of solutions that you can use to solve problems and lets you make informed decisions when figuring out how to approach situations outside the scope of your current game’s mechanics.

Now you have to evaluate your game, the systems and options available to you, and make a decision: Does your game need, or want, a system to handle the area in question? Are you better off handling this via a discussion with your players at the table? Can you get by with a basic resolution mechanism, or do you want a full-fledged system for this area of your game? If so, what are you going to use, and how are you going to fit it into your campaign?

Your answers are going to be guided by the needs of your campaign and conversations with everyone else at the table. However, as a general guideline, I recommend not having a resolution system if everyone at the table is comfortable resolving a type of conflict entirely through narrative. If people are OK with just talking about and narrating how a fight goes without the dice, then you don’t need a resolution mechanic or system.

Similarly, if people want some sort of adjudication but don’t want it to be important, complex, or something that they really have to track then use a relatively simple resolution mechanic. A full system probably isn’t necessary for your campaign. Lancer uses this for most actions on the Pilot level, it provides a simple resolution mechanic with clearly delineated measures of success and ways to make a check more difficult. The skill check system in many RPGs is basically this, and many PBTA moves are a more involved, guided form of this.

Proper systems should be saved for things that are going to be pivotal, that you do not want to handle through narrative, and where you do not mind or actively look forward to the complexity of handling a task with a system. In addition, the system you choose should be well-suited to the actions you are adjudicating with it. Combat systems rarely work rare for stealth, diplomacy systems rarely work well for the slow budding of a relationship, etc. Look through that repertoire of systems you’ve familiarized yourself with and find a system that works well for the actions or conflict you want to resolve.

If you’re aiming for theater of the mind combat with relative positions and disposable minions, Genesys may be a better pick than Dungeons and Dragons. If you want crunchy, turn by turn nation building with constant rolls and minute customization and optimization, a PBTA system is probably the wrong choice. Find something that fits what you want to do, and jettison the parts of it that you don’t need.

(This is actually something that D&D does reasonably well, in that plenty of D&D campaigns simply jettison the Strategic Exploration portion of the game with minimal issue because it’s not something they plan to use)

It is entirely possible that this won’t be the end of your work. Bringing over a d20 combat system to PBTA, or Flying Circus’ Routine to D20, can be its own trial. You can have players port their characters for different systems (Something done on Campaign Podcast when they dive into Dread or Reflections for a session), or you can put in the work porting that system to whatever game your campaign is using.

However, that’s a topic that deserves its own article. What you need to take away from this is the process of actively analyzing and choosing what systems you want to use based on the game you want to play.

Hey, if you enjoyed the article, consider supporting me on Patreon or Ko-Fi, or checking out my games on A lot of my contract work has dried up due to the current pandemic, so passing me what you can is greatly appreciated.


About Basheer Ghouse

I'm a twenty five year old male Muslim and Registered Behavior Technician. I'm Indian-American and I write, play wargames, and consume fiction of questionable quality for fun.

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