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Overly rules dependent?

Started by wyrdlyng, February 20, 2003, 01:30:36 AM

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Now hold on a minute.  In the initial post, and my immediate response to it, I took it for granted that the question what how much, not whether.  Does anyone here still think that rules don't matter, just flat, plain, are not necessary?  Rules of any kind?

1. Please read" target="blank">System Does Matter, and then we can talk specifics.

2. If we accept that some sort of system is helpful (not "necessary or else X"), then on what basis can "rules" be eliminated as some sort of unnecessary silliness?

(rant on)

3. Lots of people like to chatter on about how storytelling is an ancient practice and it's all about people getting together and whatnot, and it doesn't have rules.  Okay, go read a stack of careful analyses of actual mythology in action among the cultures who live with these things, not as primitive TV but as actual myth.  It's got rules.  Lots of rules.  And they're very complex, and flexible, and effective, and they allow myth to do whatever the hell the people want them to do.  But it's done through rules.  If you want to tell stories around the campfire in a sharing sort of way, go for it, but recognize that you are in the minority.  It's not that somehow these days we've all gotten so dependent on structure.  Structure is the way life, and stories, and meaning happen.  You want to be an anarchist?  Okay, but you're not getting back to basics --- you're a modernist radical.

4. Oh, and Ron?  You somewhere remarked (I'm sure a lot more than once) that you really hate the distinction rules-heavy and rules-lite, and I seem to recall I disagreed.  If this is what happens because of that distinction, call me a gaming-rules-crack-whore like Mike.

(rant off)
Chris Lehrich

M. J. Young

First, I want to say a hearty amen to Mike's posts. I like rules. The give structure to what we're doing.

Having said that, let me get anecdotal.

Years ago there was a computer network service called Quantum Link, built for Commodore users. It was the model for AOL, and had the same emphasis on chat rooms. One of those chat rooms that developed was called the Red Dragon Inn, or RDI. If you stopped into the RDI you would find a wizard in the corner, a bard serving drinks at the bar, a sorceress chatting with a fighter and a cleric, some barbarian sharpening his axe in the corner, and in general a sort of free-form role playing as a context for online socializing. But from time to time some guy would come in, draw his megablaster and start shooting up the place, and the barbarian would throw something at him, and there would be this huge fight with magic and machines going head to head. Now, maybe that was within everyone's expectations; it wasn't within mine. I never expected aliens or space marines to show up at the Red Dragon Inn. But it was free-form, and people could be and do whatever they chose. Oh, but your free-form doesn't allow aliens and space marines to come into the Red Dragon Inn and start shooting up the wizards and barbarians? That's because you've got rules. I'm sorry, but that's the reason. You may not have articulated them, but they're there.

I'd been running OAD&D for most of a decade, and had a current group of teenagers who'd been at it for at least several months, maybe something over a year, approaching what I'd call mid-level (~5) characters (O.K., advancement wasn't too quick), when I was adding a new player to the group, a guy who had been playing and running games as long as I had. I wanted to avoid the "new PC automatic party member" syndrome, so we created a couple of characters for him to play. One was an insane high level gnome illusionist; he'd played a lot of illusionists over the years, so he was pretty familiar with the class. I'd had few in my games, so I wasn't. Engaging the party, he started playing games with them, and threw some complex illusion that had detailed rules in the game book as to what would happen. Now, he was very much a seat-of-the-pants referee, and he expected that the effects would happen quickly and that he would be doing a lot of other things at the same time. I was a much more by-the-book referee, and particularly with a spell I'd never seen before I was going to pay attention to the rules. The spell, with its round-by-round checks, slowed the action considerably. It also limited what he could do, because checks had to be made round-by-round for each of the party members and each of their animals (they were in the "everyone has a pet" phase, with cats, dogs, and birds, in addition to a couple of mules for pack animals), so he had to wait for the results of his action to be determined before he could do the next thing. I don't think he'd realized how limiting the spell would be in terms of action and game flow when he chose it. On the other hand, I think the way he'd have run it, the illusionist would have wound up far more powerful than the book intended. In this case, although the players were certainly overmatched, the rules were designed to prevent them from being completely overpowered, and ignoring them would have been unfair to them.

I've got a player in my Multiverser forum game who likes to push the envelope of what he can do. In his current world, he's finding psionics fairly easy, and is working on a lot of different mental powers in a lot of different situations. Thing is, he's not particularly good at most of them yet--amateur levels of skill--but he is good at bluster and posturing. In tonight's game, he announced that he was going to mentally put six security officers to sleep, steel the weapon and communication device from the nearest, issue a demand that the evil interplanetary federation surrender within twenty-four hours, then telekinetically start throwing things around, ripping apart the area of the enclosed city in which he was standing, tear a hole in the ceiling, and fly out into the outside world. It's not the first time he's dared to string together so many potent actions in one post. About half way through--when he was at the ripping and throwing part--he botched. Botches are in the game for a reason. They prevent player characters from becoming completely omnipotent. Now, you can argue that the rule spoiled the creativity, because it would have been wonderful to see him tear up the floor and the wall and the ceiling, then rip a hole in the dome and fly away--but I would argue in response that if the player character could do whatever the player wanted, and the player was completely unfettered and could never fail unless he chose to fail, the game would get very dull indeed. It happens that when I tossed together my botch list and rolled the die, he got a rather simple botch (creation of a gravity well in the floor in front of him) which he will probably easily escape. But without those botches I could really go home and let him write stories of how he defeated everyone and everything and never had any problems.

The rules are that which gives form and framework to the game and the story. They always exist, even in freeform, as long as people are able to play together. It is the rules that enable us to play together. They may be articulated or assumed. They may be complex or simple. They may be contradictory. There may be elaborate rules about rules. Before I was a lawyer, I had a system of precedent established in my OAD&D game: if there was something which was not clear in the rules, the DM (me) made a decision, and the decision was written down, and became the rule thereafter. The rules provide reliability in this way: we know that what worked before will work again, because there are rules.

As to people thinking that they need to have a licensed rules set before they can play some particular product (Buffy, Star Trek), I wouldn't know about that. One of the aspects promoted about Multiverser is that you can use it to run those things; the game encourages that kind of plagiarism for home use. So maybe that's different, but the people who play my game tend to look at everything as fodder for games.

--M. J. Young

Walt Freitag

Quote from: M. J.But without those botches I could really go home and let him write stories of how he defeated everyone and everything and never had any problems.

I was planning to post the following comment before I read M. J.'s post; now it can just be a generalization of the point M. J. already made.

Rules are what makes it possible to fail. The possibility of failure is what makes the activity a game.

You can play without rules, but you can't play a game without rules. The issue of reaching consensus between participants is secondary. All by yourself, you can go out and have a great time throwing snowballs at trees. That's play. The moment you think to yourself, "let's see if I can hit the maple tree from here with a snowball in one shot," you've got a rule. You've got the possibility of failure. You've got a game.

- Walt
Wandering in the diasporosphere


QuoteI think a lot of people's biases are coming into the argument. It's like they're saying, "Well, I don't have fun with these sorts of rules, so the people who are having fun must be deluded, conditioned, deendant."

Sorry Mike, perhaps I've miscommunicated my point.  I like rules.  I'm a system junkie just like many people here.  But just like Gordon said, rules are a tool, and if they don't do the job, I'm dropping them without a second thought.  

My point about conditioning is that most folks have been conditioned to require permission/approval from outside sources to do anything.  This includes mods, or simply, not playing what everyone else is playing.  

Conditioned folks are the ones who make rules that aren't necessary for their goals in play, or else continue to tweak rules that are fundamentally unable to provide to their needs.  For example, no amount of rules will overcome social contract issues, yet there exists a lot of rules(actual rules, not just guidelines) in an attempt to correct the issue.  Many people don't believe that there is more than one way to play.  One can simply look at the issues of railroading vs. protagonistic play to see perfect examples where someone's conditioned belief prevents them from seeing that other forms of play are even possible.  I'm sure you've met many in trying to explain Universalis.

All in all, my point is that gamers are not more conditioned than any other group, and that rules are not the cause of conditioning, but rather a scapegoat that gets used by conditioning, just as videogames become the scapegoat during school shootings.  Conditioning, like insanity, is equally spread across many groups, it just differs in how it comes out.


Ron Edwards

Hi there,

I hope everyone reads Chris' most recent post carefully. I was just about to close this thread, until he posted that.

My concern is that "rules!" "no rules!" is a juvenile, empty discussion. I trust that everyone here knows that this thread was not begun as such a thing, and cannot be allowed to become one.

I'd hoped to achieve that common understanding with my first post, but I'll put it even more bluntly here: Do not refer merely to "rules" without defining what you are talking about - very clearly. Do not refer merely to "people" or "players" without also defining what you are talking about.

That ought to do it.


Mike Holmes

Ron's right. Chris (Lerich), and MJ, when I say rules, I mean something beyond the social contract. Freeform can be defined as no (or very few) rules beyond the social contract.

People can fail without rules. That, or they cannot succeed without rules, either. In a freeform, I can just say, "Bob misses". I would restate your point as, "you cannot fail in an objective or otherwise externally meaningful way." But that's just not at all important to some people. Some people do not want to play a "game". They simply want to imagine consensually. And there's nothing wrong with that.

It's just not what I want most of the time. Interestingly, though, I've done it, and had a great time. I love to "prove" that I'm a better consensual storyteller by having my characters fail regularly in all sorts of entertaining fashions.

Chris (Bankuei), sure there are demented people out there. The question was, "Are we too dependant on rules?" not "Are demented folks dependant on rules?" "We", as a rule, are pretty sensible people, and are doing exactly what we want. Yes, I've had trouble explaining Universalis, at which point I discovered the solution - I no longer refer to it as a RPG. It's not a dependance on rules that causes the problem with Universalis, it's a problem with the perception of what an RPG must be. Since that's defined by D&D, and certain kinds of rules for most people, it's no surprise that my definition and theirs doesn't match up.

But as soon as it's not an RPG, then they have no problem accepting the many, many different rules that are in Universalis. Further, I've seen lots of people who understand freeform, even after playing lots of RPGs with lots of rules. There simply isn't a phenomenon here to talk about.

Now if you want to talk about lack of education on what RPGs are or can be, we can talk. But I fail to see how that has anything to do with a purported dependance on Rules. We all have a dependance on rules, if you include the social level. Just different rules for different people.

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Gordon C. Landis

I'm looking for a "point" in ths thread, and I'm not sure where to find it - but going back to the original post, I can now see it as a warning about the danger of getting wrapped up in rules-issues, in such a way that the play-issues are entirely eclipsed by the rules-issue focus.

I take "rules" in that first post, and in my description, to refer to a structured, formalized set of "how to" information, either contained in the text of the game or generated (in various degrees of formality) by the play group as a whole.

So, in the context of "traps and pitfalls that rules-focus can lead to" - what can we say about the warning?  For someone to whom the rules-issues are the play-issue - someone whose enjoyment comes entirely from "playing around" with the rules themselves - there's no need to be warned, they're entirely happy with that kind of play.

But if you actually do have an agenda for your play that goes beyond just manipulating the rules, the warning is a good one - for many people (including me, from time to time), it is pretty seductive to focus on the rules, to get lost in the interesting twists and implications of a tweak here and a mod there, and end up spending all your time playing with the rules INSTEAD of pursing your "real" agenda.

Now this is tricky, because rules really can be made to serve your agenda - in fact, I think just about everyone here would agree that in a broad sense some kind of rules are fundamental to even being able to persue that agenda at all.  So it's not always wrong to focus on rules - as clehrich said, it's a matter of "how much" (and, I'd add, "precisely in what manner"), not "whether."

But the warning that seems to me implicit in the thread-starter is valid in (at least) this way - rules-focus isn't always going to get you what you want out of play.  Ron pointed out another - thinking you need official/licensed rules in order to play (e.g.) Star Wars provides an interesting market opportunity for certain kinds of product, but is usually not really about a general role-playing agenda at all.

I'd change the title of this thread to "Too rules focused?" and say yes, that can happen, and here are a few ways how - and (hopefully) here're some ways to avoid it.  For me, remembering that my agenda has nothing DIRECTLY to do with the rules is often very helpful.  And it is sometimes all-too-easy to forget that.

Gordon (under construction)

Mike Holmes

Quote from: Gordon C. LandisBut if you actually do have an agenda for your play that goes beyond just manipulating the rules, the warning is a good one - for many people (including me, from time to time), it is pretty seductive to focus on the rules, to get lost in the interesting twists and implications of a tweak here and a mod there, and end up spending all your time playing with the rules INSTEAD of pursing your "real" agenda.

I'm not seeing this.

Let's say I have a goal of building a shed. Along the way, I find that tinkering with my powertools beocomes an interesting side distraction. So I stop and tinker some. Sure it takes me longer to build the shed. But I'm doing what I thought was interesting/important at the time. Why is that bad?

Now, if there are others about who need that shed built, and built soon, that's another issue entirely. But that just goes to incompatible play goals, and has nothing to do with whether or not the person taking his time with the rules is right or wrong.

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-Get your indie game fix online.

Gordon C. Landis

Quote from: Mike Holmes
Quote from: Gordon C. LandisBut if you actually do have an agenda for your play that goes beyond just manipulating the rules, the warning is a good one - for many people (including me, from time to time), it is pretty seductive to focus on the rules, to get lost in the interesting twists and implications of a tweak here and a mod there, and end up spending all your time playing with the rules INSTEAD of pursing your "real" agenda.

I'm not seeing this.


How about this - if tinkering with powertools and building the shed are entirely equally enjoyable acts, there's no issue.  But if what you really want is to build that shed, and you end up tinkering with the tools just because you get sucked into it, or to avoid the heavy-lifting that it takes to build the shed, or so that your tools look prettier than your neighbors . . . well, you've lost track of the shed-building goal, haven't you?  If it adds 20 minutes to your build time, no big deal.  But what if it's 20 hours?  And you tinkered with powertools you're not even going to use in building the shed?  Hey, if you're happy with it, you're happy with it - if it affects no one else (or only people who agree with you are involved), no one can say adding 20 hours to the shed project was bad but you.

But personally (and back into RPGs), I find the number of times I've seen people debate/discuss RPG rules INSTEAD of playing the game to be incredible.  And damned if I don't get sucked in myself sometimes - the rules are an interesting puzzle to work on.  

But really, I'd rather be playing.

Gordon (under construction)