A Paladin in Citadel's post today about Why System Matters is just spot-on. It captures what I have been thinking very succinctly and clearly. Excellent work!
The last paragraph in particular stuck a chord. I think Paladin is right -- that the quest for the One True System is futile, because no system is ever going to adequately capture all those competing demands he mentions. Add to that something he doesn't mention -- genre emulation (1) -- and I think he makes a convincing argument that systems are tools and that some necessarily are better suited for some jobs rather than others. I also concur that seeing systems this way is a blessing. It takes the pressure off one thing to be everything. And it reminds us that if system X isn't working out for you, then Y might. You may just need to be clearer about what sort of job you want your system to do.
Here's where the systems as tools argument (2) gets tricky. It's much easier to see that the hammer isn't going to work very well for painting, mainly because we have a good, shared idea about what painting is and what tools are necessary to paint well. We are clear about what tools are needed to paint a wall, because we have a pretty good idea about the desired outcome -- our wall will be a new color. I think what's tricky about systems as tools is that desired outcome can be widely varied among individuals within a gaming group and, painfully enough, even within an individual. That individual variance can come both from daily mood due to circumstance (when the hard day at work makes you just want to go Kill Things and Take Their Stuff and not hatch long term political plots or worry about character nuance) and the dreaded Gamer ADD (when you just get tired of fantasy and want to run a horror game, but no one else seems to buy into it).
Seeing systems as tools is helpful, at least in part because it forces us to reflect on our own gaming goals. What do we want? What tool will help us get the job done? One of the problematic (and also wonderful) things about the hobby is that those goals are constantly in negotiation. Gaming is social, so it's in negotiation between all of us who play. It's also personal, and fun, and idiosyncratic -- so it's always in negotiation within ourselves as well.
(1) Sure, I know that genre emulation ties directly into the competing concerns Paladin lists. Certain genres fall better into "grit" than "grandiloquence" for example.
(2) Notice I didn't say "metaphor" because I think that systems are not just like tools, they are tools. They are tools for facilitating a certain sort of experience