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Most Game Systems involve using numerical statistics to mathematically chart a character's abilities, though the exact stats and the nature of their use varies widely between systems. In addition, most systems generally involve some randomness, so that there's an element of chance in most actions -- you can't be 100% certain beforehand whether your attempt will succeed or fail. In Tabletop Games, this typically takes the form of dice-rolling, while Video Games use random number generators instead. In addition, there's typically one person who takes the role of "referee", controlling NPC's actions and deciding how rules apply in specific situations. The computer AI does this in Video Game RPGs, but it falls to a human Game Master to do this in Tabletop Games -- this, unsurprisingly, means that tabletop RPGs tend to be much more flexible and fluid than computer-based ones, due to the fact that a program can only handle what it's been programmed to, while a person is much more capable of improvisation.
Game Systems can be divided into two general categories: Character Class Systems and Point Build Systems. A Character Class System has each player pick their character's "class" (which represents a specific skillset, like combat or stealth) and allows them to advance according to that class's abilities. A Point Build System, on the other hand, allows players to spend character points on whatever abilities they want; balance is provided by the cost of abilities and how many points players are allowed to spend, rather than balancing specific classes against each other.
There is a lot of overlap between the two types of systems, especially in the from of sub-systems. Game designers want to prevent characters of a given class from being identical, so in order to encourage Character Customization, they frequently build a Point Build System into their Character Class System. This will usually take the form of some "universal" abilities available to all classes and purchased via point buy, having point-buy abilities within a class so that different characters of the same class may have different abilities, or both.
Originally a Game System and its setting were tightly integrated -- if you wanted to play in a certain setting, or genre, you bought a book or boxed set that described both the system and the setting, and/or an 'adventure pack' that detailed a pre-made storyline for the players to follow. However, over the years the concepts of House Systems and Universal Systems have emerged. House Systems, as the name implies, are House Rules taken to their logical extreme -- home-brewed systems consisting entirely (or at least largely) of House Rules. Universal Systems, on the other hand, are deliberately designed without a specific setting or storyline -- they usually consist of the basic framework (such as dice-rolling and combat mechanics), but also have rules that allow a player to adapt his favorite novel or computer game for use as a setting.
Specific Game Systems sometimes go through dozens of revisions. Each new version can be expected to either clarify existing rules (if ambiguities have arisen in previous versions), add entirely new mechanics to the system (ie, adding a new section for vehicular combat rules), or streamline existing rules that have been discovered to be unwieldy or poorly-designed.
Due to the nature of its design, a Game System's rules are not all-encompassing -- some ambiguity is usually left as a "fudge factor" so that a DM can create new rules to suit a particular situation. Such ambiguity can also allow the player some leeway, by creating loopholes in the game's rules that permit him to do what the rule system would normally prevent. Such loopholes, if found to present an unfair advantage to a player, are usually closed in subsequent revisions.
- The D 20 System, originally used by Dungeons and Dragons since 3rd Edition. Available under a free license, it has a huge number of settings and spinoff systems related to it.
- Hero System
- Guardians of Order's Tri-Stat system, used in:
- By White Wolf, we have the Storyteller system, used in:
- FATAL, an infamously horrible "adult" RPG.
- Legend of the Five Rings
- R. Talsorian's Interlock system, used in:
- The Palladium system, used by Rifts, Palladium Fantasy, and others.
- Pinnacle Entertainment Group gave us Savage Worlds.