One of the most horrible terms in the business world is “core competency.” Like most overused terms, it turns out that folks use it so much because there is a useful concept buried in there. The original concept was defined as “a combination of complementary skills and knowledge bases embedded in a group or team that results in the ability to execute one or more critical processes to a world-class standard.” For RPG terms, identifying the core competency of a game system helps us figure out what is the right game or helps us figure out what needs to be fixed to make it the right game.
The concept could be revised to describe a game system as “a combination of complementary rules and design goals embedded in a system of rules that results in the ability to execute one or more critical processes to a world-class standard.” Then think of “critical processes” as things like combat, RP situations, fostering creative play, etc.
If asked, “What is the core competency of your preferred game?” I imagine a lot of people would respond, “It is fun,” “It helps bring my friends together” or even “It is supported.” But none of those are core competencies. To figure out the core competency, you have to answer what the game does especially well; what other games would struggle to replicate (or could not replicate) because they made other design tradeoffs.
Let’s take a look at 3e/4e to draw out this distinction. Both games are ridiculously fun and both still receive support and have active communities but they also made fundamental design decisions that pushed them in different directions. Let me give the caveat that I don’t claim this is a definitive assessment, just an assessment I’m trying to defend.
3e core competency: system incrementality
The 3e system pretty much hung its hat on the idea that a level is a level is a level. If all levels were equal, then you could mix and match levels from different power sources to build whatever you wanted. By withholding more potent abilities to later in a power source or having prerequisites, a natural tradeoff between power and flexibility would emerge.
It didn’t always work, but it is pretty amazing in principle. You have the tools to create anything. Sometimes those tools forced you into weird moments like needing a creature to have 30 hit die to be a challenge but not wanting to assign it a dozen feats, but it followed a consistent and unyielding logic. It took time to learn that logic, though, and it was a hard to effectively bring your visions to life in the early stages of mastery.
Third edition is sort of like the guitar. You can pick it up and immediately start making noise. At first, making noise is fun and you like the look of yourself just holding it, but eventually you want to do more and that takes a lot of time and practice. As your skill develops, you come to understand just how much depth to the system mastery can bring and that you have a lifetime of practice ahead of you.
4e core competency: system reliability
The 4e system put playability ahead of everything. Fourth edition asks the question, “What would make this a fun challenge” and then tries to answer that as efficiently as possible. If you want to build a Goblin King for the end of the adventure, you don’t build the Warrior 2/Barbarian 1/Fighter 1 CR3 goblin of doom, you just give the Goblin King the stats needed to be an effective challenge and customize as desired to give it the right feel.
The downside is that in order to be reliably challenging, it has to be more constrained. As the number of combinations approaches infinity, your ability to be reliable approaches zero. It is probably a testament to the quality of the system that you have as many decisions as you do while continuing to be reliable.
Fourth edition is sort of like the bongos: you’ve mastered at least half of it just by showing up to play. Of course there is room to grow and the game does become more fun as you increase in skill, but you can hit the ground running with confidence.
Okay. So what?
Once you’ve figured out what a system’s core competencies are you’ve basically figured out the tradeoffs in choosing between them. If you can also determine your personal critical competencies (the things you need a game system to have) then you can make a better decision on what game you should be playing or how you can bring a game more in line with what you want.