RPGaDay 2021 #12: Think

Today’s RPGaDay prompt is “Think”, which certainly is an as multi-interpretable prompt as I could have thought of.

In general, RPGs do prompt my thoughts quite a lot. What fascinates me is the structures and mechanics used in RPGs and how they spawn narratives. I enjoy the interplay of mechanics and genre as well as seeing the effects of their interactions. Fortunately, I have some friends who also enjoy thinking about RPGS, which means that we frequently have interesting discussions or they confront me with interesting thoughts and views about RPGs that have me reexamine some of my own. Last Tuesday, Fub posted on his blog about “Trust” for RPGaDay2021, which was one of those moments that had me reconsider views on RPGS.

He referenced something he saw in Secrets of Blackmoor about the origins of D&D (by the way, that story is quite fascinating, and I recommend on reading up on Dave Arneson). He writes:

Another way to deal with this is to codify in rules those things that give the most arguments. I think this is why old-school games have rules for combat but not much else — everything else was handled by the GM.

Fub, August 10th 2021 on his blog

Those lines sparked an interesting train of thought in my head: what is the origin behind rules for RPGs in any case? Fub points out that in the early RPGs, codifying rules to avoid player conflicts was one of the possible reasons to establish them in the first place. It suggests the host of an RPG game being the storyteller determining the world in which the players play characters. Now, I could argue that still involves a game with a plethora of rules, with the only exception that those rules are implicitly and perhaps subconsciously coded in the mind of the game host, but that’s a philosophical argument for another day. What interests me there is that this would suggest that RPGs are primarily a storytelling exercise which places a primacy on the game host.

An image like that reminds me a lot of my professional life. In a large professional organization, rules can get in the way. One of my tasks is to ensure the quality of examinations for our education, so I’m there to ensure that certain rules are respected. As you can imagine, those two viewpoints directly contradict each other. At times, I see colleagues encounter exceptional situations, and their natural response is to make a new rule to deal with the situation; that kind of behavior is counterproductive, as exceptions are better handled by discretionary power. Other colleagues are far too loosy-goosy: they’ll put hardly anything on paper, and just decide as the mood hits them. There, quite naturally, we end up with arbitrary and contentious decisions. Both positions end up causing the organization as a whole problems: the former locks down so much that you either can’t do what you need to do, or anything you’d want to do becomes to cumbersome to manage. The latter creates a lack of structure and discontent colleagues and students that end up in conflict with nothing to fall back on.

These colleagues also naturally take on certain perspectives: some will externalize the authority they are to wield, so that they can hide behind the rules. Others either circumvent rules or constantly argue to scrap as many rules as they can, willy nilly, in an assumption that this will make things better in some undefined way. Neither, I think, has a point; however, I also don’t believe in a golden mean where the answer lies in the middle. Rules, in my view, are there to serve a purpose—rules must facilitate certain types of behavior that we wish to elude from people. That’s why I like that Fub made his post about rules because of the prompt “Trust”, because that is also what determines the necessity of a rule: how much do you trust the people subject to that rule? Dutch law, for instance, has quite a number of grey areas. The assumption is that citizens will figure things out without too much conflict that requires a judge to solve. For instance, there is no strict law to my knowledge that determines who goes first if two roads cross and there is a car on every side of the crossing. Sure, the person to your right has right-of-way, but everybody has somebody to their right. The Dutch approach is that somebody will end up going first, and as long as there’s no car crash, there’s no problem. In South Carolina, U.S.A, however, the rule is that the first person to arrive at the intersection has right of way. There, less trust is issued to road users.

Games, however, are a unique proposition when it comes to rules. Ever since my MA thesis, I’ve been a great proponent of Johan Huizinga’s theory of play, laid out in Homo Ludens (I’m linking to the Dutch original, because the English translation commonly misinterprets his words—too long a story for this post). One of the things he points out is that, ironically, all games are incredibly structured and rule-orientated. They’re testing grounds for our lives, from the most basic of games that children play to the structured organized sports in Western civilizations. Now, clearly, children don’t reference a 300-page The Rules Of Tag manual before they run around on the street, but there is a culturally transmitted set of rules taught by the older kids to the younger kids. Any game, Huizinga argues, is defined by a set of rules that sets it apart from normal life. Take, for example, playing Solitaire. Now, you have a whole deck of cards and you could just sort them into four piles without a problem. Yet, the player of Solitaire imposes a rule on themselves that they may only take cards from the deck in a certain manner; for instance, in sets of three at a time, where they may only work with the topmost card when they are viewed face-up. Huizinga argues that rules like this are necessary and fundemental to games, because the limitations they impose allow us to model certain ideas and explore them. Once we’re done, we declare the game over, and none of the rules apply anymore—we can just grab all the cards and put them back together into the deck.

Now, his whole argument is extensive and goes much, much farther than this tiny little bit I picked out from his work, but the question of rules sparked the memory of his work in my thoughts. It’s the rules and the limitations they impose that circumscribe a game. Even if it is a vague rule like “for combat, we role a die, for anything else, the GM decides”. You should be able to read all the rules of an RPG, and that should lead you to conclude what the game is about. Now, it doesn’t tell you if a game is good or bad, naturally, particularly since a game should be fun and what’s enjoyable is very much determined on an individual level. It can, however, tell you about the way in which the game works to make its point. For me, the game mechanics should function like clockwork (I enjoy how that simile plays with the word “mechanics”): every little bit of the rules should function together with all the other bits to produce a singular, solid result (in the case of the clock: showing the time). If rules work together to do that, great! Nothing wrong with that’s going on. Again, it doesn’t mean that this will be enjoyable for everybody, but as far as the game itself goes it reached its goal.

A month ago or so, a member of the Burning Wheel subreddit posted a hack he made of Burning Wheel (in a nice coincidence, one of the prospective players to my Burning Wheel game also linked to it two weeks ago):

The formatting on this embed is somewhat off. If you want to read the post correctly, I would recommend clicking through to reach the actual Reddit post.

Not that the “Hot Circle” referenced to is another fan hack of Burning Wheel. Unfortunately, the motivation for the hack is not provided explicitly, though the site for Rúnica Games lists a shortened version of Apocalypse World, and a few homages to other games as well as a collection of nanogames. Clearly, the author is a fan of reworking games—awesome! Many interesting and great new games find their origin as a hack of of tribute to other games. What’s interesting to me, though, is that some time after releasing The Gold Hack, the shortened version of the game, a supplement was released: Extended Conflicts. Apparently, the more in-depth rules of Burning Wheel that were intended to be left behind did leave something lacking that still could be included after all. Ironically, this is what Burning Wheel already does: you can run it with only the first 70-ish pages of the book, using none of the advanced materials if you so choose. So, the core question for me becomes: aside from just the challenge of making a system as small as possible to see if it could be done, what is the added value of removing rules? What is the author trying to achieve here? Or, more specifically, what is the purposes of the rules and what is the reasoning for including X and not Y?

I haven’t quite worked out how I want to codify something like this, but I figured that, similar to one axis of game mechanics, simulationism versus narrativism, I imagine that there is a secondary axis of game design that involves highly mechanical gameplay versus abstracted gameplay. Perhaps one day I’ll see about making a chart like this and figuring out whether I can map out RPGs on that. It would be interesting to see what ends up clustering, and whether that leads to categories of RPGs.

So, in the most anticlimactic endings to a post like this: yes, RPGs make me think about things frequently. I love it.

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