So last week I guest GMed an indie-developed game called Asylum. Now I didn't sign an NDA, but I'm going to act as if I had, out of respect to the designers. I'll give some very general ideas and keep it brief. After all, it's Friday.
Asylum is a modern fantasy game with a rich and compelling setting. The system is nothing innovative, but like a tortilla, it's more of a delivery mechanism for something more savory.
But... should it be? I had a chat with one of the designers after, and we talked about that. The system should be designed to evoke dramatic tension in the ways that the setting suggests it does. That means the system needs to be exciting if the game is exciting, or cause a downward spiral of personal horror (i.e. doing bad things you didn't mean to do) in a game where you play monsters succumbing to their dark side.
I don't know if it's absolutely necessary, but a setting comes with a mood, and a mood comes with types of scenes that evoke that mood, and those scenes have moments of tension based on the protagonists' actions and their outcomes. And that's what system is all about. Whether it's the "bleeding to death" mechanic in D&D that lets people heroically save their friends, or the "Self Control" and "Humanity" stats in Vampire that cause characters to do things they regret despite the player's intentions (or worse -- things they don't regret); a game's system can evoke the mood of the setting as well as the setting write-up can.
A tabula rasa system has the advantage of not stepping on the setting. A lot of the time system and setting are at odds: Look at the weapons table, sheer number of combat-related Disciplines, and round-by-round combat mechanics in Vampire and you can see where the system says Blade despite the fact that the setting says Interview with the Vampire. So a simple system might be a good starting place for designers of setting-rich RPGs.
I know the Asylum developers have some spice up their sleeve. I have some ideas about how to handle flavor mechanics as a GM. Any thoughts on how to handle it as a designer?