Earlier today, I was trying to make a point about games. I was trying to construct a sentence along the lines of "Hell, if the DM and players trust each other and are all there to have fun, you could play (name of pathetically bad RPG system here) and still have the time of your life."
And I couldn't think of a system to go in the parenthesis.
I mean, there are legendarily bad games--Synnibar, Blue Rose--but I've never played them. (Edit--I re-iterate, I've never played them or even read them, so I have no idea whether their reputations are deserved, that's my point. Feel free to comment on how you love either of those systems in the comments but realize your comments are totally irrelevant to the subject of this post since I have no basis to argue with you. All I 'm saying is I've heard bad things, early and often but have never had reason to investigate. My hobby is playing games, not testing them.) There were a few games I played as a kid that I didn't play again--Ghostbusters, Tales of the Floating Vagabond--but in both cases it was more because of the setting and tone than the system.
When I was a kid I had a sort of blissful trust about system: when you were playing DC Heroes you used the Mayfair DC Heroes system, when you were playing Marvel Super Heroes you used the TSR FASERIP system. Those were the games and they were fun. Playing them felt different in some obscure way, but it never occurred to us why that might be. Plus it was never that different, because we were still us and we ran things like the glue-sniffing metalheads we were no matter what game we were playing.
It no more would have occurred to me to question the system than it would occur to me to try to improve on the rules of soccer or tic tac toe. We tweaked stuff, for sure--I remember figuring that, since Jetfire the Transformer was basically a Macross VAF-6J, you could use Jetfire's stat graph from the back of the Transformers toy package to figure out Palladium stats for any Transformer you liked, I padded out the Marvel system with tons of new powers, and, like everybody else, we ignored encumbrance. But, in general, we saw the system and setting as inextricably linked. In fact, it occurred to me and my friends to make our own games long before it ever occurred to us that any system we used might be "fundamentally flawed".
I think the fact that we were in school helped--yeah, the Shadowrun damage system was involved, but we all did way harder math way faster five days a week. Now I look back and can see ways to simplify it, but at the time not only would I have not seen the point, I had a superstitious fear about leaving out rules. Wasn't it possible that some vital hole would be torn in the space-game-balance-continuum if your cyberpunk damage wasn't rendered as 6L4 and your dungeoncrawl damage wasn't expressed as 2d6?
The first time I remember not liking rules was when I read the first revision of Warhammer 40k--not because I didn't like playing with them ( I never tried) but mainly because, if I remember correctly, the web guns and vortex grenades with which my Eldar had, up 'til then, caused untold havoc were way less powerful.
Even today, I still have trouble thinking of a system I've played that I wouldn't play again. You take whatever system, you house-rule the fuck out of it, and that's that. Most of the tweaking I do these days is just to simplify the rules to make them easier for new players--porn star and otherwise--to understand.
Of course, like everybody else on my blog list, I like to sit around and pontificate on whether variable weapon damage is better than standardized weapon damage or whether pure Vancian magic creates a significantly different game atmosphere then semi-Vancian magic, but really, this is like just us swishing the wine around in our mouths and spitting it in the sink. In reality, if it tastes good and gets you drunk, I could give a fuck what vintage it is. As long as we're having fun, we're doing everything right that matters, and the rest is just variety.
If you're a professional game designer, everything matters, because you're trying to sell just a few more units than the next guy and every inch of marginal utility you can get is important, and I respect that. But if you're just playing the game, pretty much whatever seems to work.