RPGaDay 2021 #21: Simplicity

Today’s RPGaDay 2021 prompt is “Simplicity”. I’ll take this opportunity to argue for complexity in tabletop roleplaying games.

Every now and then, I see new indie RPGs being launched that tout rules-light systems. Proudly they’ll proclaim that there will be a minimum of die-rolling, or that characters can be created within a few minutes, and so on. Rather than encourage me, such claims end up making me less excited about these games. Don’t get me wrong, simplicity for its own sakeor complexity, for that matteris pointless. Now, I’ve argued before that complexity isn’t inherently bad, nor is simplicity inherently good. Similarly, I’ve argued that rules are there to serve a purpose, and whatever amount is needed to meet that purposes is fitting. Today, though, I want to make a more emotional argument as to why I enjoy complexity.

Firstly, I like rolling dice. I enjoy the clicking of them in my hands or die-cup, the clitter-clatter of them rolling over wood, and gather them all together to add up the numbers. I just even like the look of dice and the varying shapes. There’s something pleasing about those little Platonic solids (and the d10 as well, to complete the polyhedral set). I also enjoy the small arithmetic of character sheets and RPG systems. I’ve spent time working out the probability of rolls, and what different rolling mechanics will mean for outcomes. It’s fun when you roll a unique number in the system, like a 20 in a d20 for systems that reward that, or rolling additional dice per 6 rolled on a d6 for exploding dice. The pure physicality of them is enjoyable to me.

Similar to enjoying the visceral experience of dice, I like RPG rulebooks. At times they feel like tomes of knowledge that I leaf through to find the answer to my problem. Cross-referencing rules and tables bring me back to the fun times I had as a university student, hidden among the stacks in the library reading academic treatises about philosophy. When writing adventures, I’m in the middle of a circle of books, with rules references in one, literary theory in another, and details about monsters or traps in a third. A well-written and designed book is a joy in its own right. Looking at the various illustrations, a good font, or a consistent set of design principles brought into reality is lovely.

It’s not just the experience of the physical books that is enjoyable, though. I like watching the mechanics come to life in play. Just comparing a pair of numbers is all right, and I suppose just rolling a die against an obstacle number will also get you a resolution to a conflict. That all seems rather arbitrary to me, though. I like allocating points to this or that, or forging a character by selecting the right skills. I enjoy mechanics that provide some influence over purely stochastic resolution systems. Whether that’s a set of combat moves or spells that provided bonuses or maluses to the numbers, or actions in volleys and exchanges that introduce elements of strategy, it’s enjoyable to me to see all the gears move in the machine. I like having part of this diegetic world under my control and the rest to be wildly out of it.

And, lastly, I enjoy seeing a full system run like clockwork. I love it when character creation, resolution systems, and reward systems all fit together to create a unified experience. Seeing a system achieve what it intends to achieve is fun. Seeing the emergent property of a system come to play is a pure joy. It’s fun to have worked with such a system and really understanding the core of it.

RPGaDay 2021 #20: Foundation

Today’s RPGaDay 2021 prompt is “Foundation.” With rhe risk of falling into platitudes, for all beginnings a solid foundation is needed to build on. Tabletop RPGs are no different in this respect.

I prefer to start tabletop RPG campaigns or adventures with a solid “Session 0”, which is a meta-conversation about the game to be played. A good Session 0 should lay out the interests of the players and the GM, and outline some of the Dos and Donts during gameplay. At the end of my ideal Session 0, both players and GM have a pretty good idea of what the plot will revolve around, what style and genre of game will be played, and what the end state of the story will be. However, this is also a case of my personal preferences for how to play. I also know players who prefer simulation-style games with no end in sight (a “we’ll play until we’re no longer interested” style of game) or players who prefer to be surprised by whatever the host of the game will come up with (how can there be exciting plot twists if we know everything ahead of time?). I’ll gloss over improvisational games, though I could argue they would be a style of simulationiist game. Whatever the case, though, my preference is to have these elements clearly defined before the campaign proper even begins.

The game that really opened my eyes to defining plot points in advance was My Life With Master. The system itself already defines the plot that you will be playing: all players are Minions of the Master, and the game is the story about how the Master meets their demise and what happens to the Minions during that time. That main plot should be the plot of all games run in My Life With Master, and as such the entire system is quite narrowly focused on facilitating this story. Interestingly enough, even though the plot is tightly defined and structured, the story the group ends up with can vary wildly. All you really know at the start is that in a number of sessions, the Master will fall. This leads to interesting player behavior, as there is a built-in sense of urgency. Will some of the Minions desparately try to save the Master? The player knowledge that this cannot succeed can lead to great moments around the table. The key is that the story can be one of dramatic irony, where we see the sad doomed struggle of a Minion that will meet their end together with the Master, or just as easily it could be the hilarious slapstick comedy of a Minion oafishly trying to save the Master yet bringing about their doom by their very actions. Despite having this narrowly focused plot, the stories told can be wildly different.

To be fair, the game is intended to be played seriously: the subtitle of the RPG is “a roleplaying game of villainy, self-loathing, and unrequired love.” The Minion attributes are REASON, WEARINESS, SELF-LOATHING, and LOVE, which also gives a good insight into the feeling of the game. The game also prescribes five possible epilogues, of which four are negative. Once a minion has a LOVE attribute higher than their FEAR plus their WEARINESS, endgame is triggered and that Minion will cause the Master’s downfall. Then, depending on the individual attributes, each Minion may either wander off into nothingness, the Minion may be killed, or end their own existence, or become so awful that they themselves grow into a Master. Alternatively, if a Minion’s story goes just right, they may find themselves integrated into the society of the Townspeople.

On first reading, this did seem odd to me. The game seems to prescribe the full story: from a group of Minions, one Minion will accrue enough love to find self-worth, and then by their hand they will end the Master. Afterwards, based on a set of numbers, each Minion will get a prescribed ending. So, why play at all? We can just have a PC generate the numbers, crunch out the math, have an AI write the text, and be done with it. If that was the case, though, we could just close down all theatres now. After all, Shakespeare’s plays have all been written down, right? We know the plot and story, so why bother? Clearly, the point isn’t the plot, or even the story in the case of theatre, but it’s the performance that matters. My Life With Master really solidified the thought in my mind that tabletop RPGs are no different in this respect. The way in which individual players approach this single plotline has varied wildly and interestingly in play.

In my experience, instead of limiting choice and hampering experience, such a solid foundation for a game helped to focus gameplay, support players in their decisions, and create a much more cohesive experience for all at the table. The key, of course, is that this isn’t a railroad enforced by the host of a game, but a shared agreement around the table for what the foundation of the story is and what the group wants to achieve.

RPGaDay 2021 #19: Theme

Today’s RPGaDay 2021 prompt is “Theme”, which is a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

Much as I think that every RPG should be about something, I want stories to have a point to make. In order words, narratives should have a central subject or message to convey. That provides an interesting problem when running RPGs, though, as the stories are more interactive than one person telling a story to a group is. The goal of an RPG is to tell a story together as a group, and so there will always be some measure of improvisational nature to the storytelling process. I do think that it’s the task of the host of the game to try and bring that theme into the experience. Since you cannot control the actions of the players, the main method of bringing theme into focus is the opposition or conflict provided to the players, whether it’s the desires of the enemies that they meet or the recurring nature of problems that they must overcome.

This is also one of the reasons why I tend to dislike continous games: they’ll end up losing focus. If there’s no central theme beyond “we’re a group of adventurers going on an adventure”, and the game is essentially just an ongoing simulation, then my attention tends to waver and ends up waning. As I write this, I realize that this is also the reason why I do enjoy strings of smaller or medium-sized campaigns, even though practically they may ask the same time-investment as a longer game would: there, at least, I would expect each of the smaller campaigns to have its own theme, and therefore provide a coherent experience to enjoy. Without conscious effort to introduce themes to the narrative of the game, all that remains is the subconscious themes introduced by the biases of the participants, and that doesn’t interest me too much.

It’s somewhat thought-provoking to me that, reading back what I just wrote, I naturally assumed it was the host of the game that carried the responsibility of managing the theme of the game. However, at the same time, I cannot think of serious reasons why the players wouldn’t be able to be the ones introducing theme by coordinating their actions and characterization. Even in that situation, I’m realizing, it still requires the host of the game to recognize the theme that the players are bringing in and to ensure that the rest of the experience that’s outside of the players’ control matches that theme.

RPGaDay 2021 #18: Write

Todayś RPGaDay 2021 prompt is “Write”, which is ironic for a blog to write about, as that’s all I’ve been doing the past three weeks or so, of course. I love writing about RPGs, but for this post I’ll write about writing for campaigns, to mix things up.

I enjoy the idea of writing out campaigns and sessions, so that I have something to fall back on. While my GMing style at the table is improvisational, I want to have a solid background or preparation to fall back on if needed. I don’t enjoy laying down a railroad track for the players to follow but as long as you have a broad plot in mind you can always create a story together with the players. If you have the plot points ready, during play you can always move things around as needed. Your intended murder suspect can end up being the informant who was being framed, and a new previously innocent person ends up being the murderer. Sure, who cares? The players are having fun solving a murder mystery, which was the overall point anyway.

One thing that seems quite interesting to me, but also incredibly daunting, is using these types of notes to create a more polished product that I could actually put out there. A fun module that other people could use as well. It sounds cool, but I suspect the reality of it would be quite intimidating and potentially frustrating. Maybe once I’ve run this current campaign, I’ll take my notes and solidify them into a more polished thing and see what I can do.

RPGaDay 2021 #17: Trap

Today’s RPGaDay 2021 prompt is “Trap”. Narrative games have markedly changed how I view the use of traps, and this seems like a good moment to write about that shift.

When I just started playing RPGs with D&D, I applied traps in games in a very D&D sense, being just yet another attack on the players. Much of D&D mechanics back then were purely combat focused. In fact, it was quite a paradigm shift when D&D rulebooks suggested equal rewards for avoiding a conflict as would have been for fighting it out. Whichever way, I viewed traps through that lens for a long time: it’s just a delayed, abstracted attack by some nemesis on the group of players.

Starting with Burning Wheel, though games like Dungeon World, Fiasco, and My Life With Master, I started learning how traps can be fun ways to advance stories and give meaning. In games like Burning Wheel and Torchbearer you are rewarded for getting yourself in trouble; Fiasco is built around the idea of people with poor impulse control getting into deeper trouble than they were; and My Life With Master is about the imminent and unavoidable demise of the Master and the question of what happens to the minions afterwards. Each of these games reminds the players that failure is okay, and should make things more interesting. For Burning Wheel and Torchbearer, traps aren’t there to kill the players, they’re to give them poignant choices: do you go on despite being injured? You should really turn back at this point—are you sure you want to push your luck just to not break your promise?

As a player as well I’ve learned to see traps as an invitation from the host of the game to some more interesting narrative. If there’s a big shiny red button on that control panel looks so alluring, surely there’s something interesting that will happen if I press it. Moreover, if terrible things happen to my character, wouldn’t that just be really cool? In Die Hard, what’s cool is that John McClane ends up shoeless, beaten up, and poorly bandaged for his final encounter. In Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, there’s an incredibly poignant moment where Luke has, for all practical purposes, defeated Darth Vader and cuts off his hand; this prompts him to realize that his father and him are similar in quite crucial ways. How would this moment have happened if Luke hadn’t willingly walked into the Cloud City trap at the end of The Empire Strikes Back?

RPGaDay 2021 #16: Move

Today’s RPGaDay prompt is “Move”. Again a solid choice for a prompt by RPGaDay, as there’s quite a few directions you can go with this. I will take the prompt to indicate a game mechanical concept, being an action by a player in a game as an abstract component of playing that game (rather than, say, a “move” as an action as used in D&D, for example).

I’ll admit to doing a little preparatory research on what would constitutee the exact difference between a villain and a fiend. Apparently, crucially, a villain is a base criminal, which is to say somebody very human in their criminal activity; a fiend, by contrast, is somebody whose criminality borders on evil, and carries connotations of possession or inhuman desires.

A recent post by Fub made me think about the possiblity to abstract actions in RPGs. His post on RPG-a-Day 12 (topic: “Think”) dealt with the difficulties of having a character who is smarter than the player is, and how to deal with that mechanically.

If you’re interested in what prompted this post, have a look through Fub’s post!

Specifically, near the end of his post, he poses the following question:

Deduction is much harder to abstract away. Well, you could do the same as with recall, but is that really satisfying? Suppose there’s a murder mystery, and you collect clues. You roll the dice, and then your character solves the case. Is that fun?

Fublog, August 13th 2021

It prompted me to think of player interaction with games in general. How far away can we abstract those? If we take his question to an absurd extreme, what if we thought of the following game: you start, roll a die, and if it comes up 4, 5, or 6, you win; if it comes up 1, 2, or 3, you lose. Is that even a game? There’s no interaction between the player and the mechanics of the game. You either start the game by rolling the die or you do not. There is no further action that the player takes to influence the odds, stakes, or system. I would argue this doesn’t quality as a game. To take the other extreme, if we posit a game where every tiny little detail must be worked out by the player to a nauseating detail, we reach a level of disfunctionality similar to The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, a novel whose very central joke is that the narrator digresses so constantly and in such detail that he doesn’t reach the birth of the protagonist until the third volume of the novel.

To avoid these two ridiculous extremes, games abstract actions into moves. In boardgames, these are quite easily distinguished as player “turns” in which, often, players have a number of “moves” or “actions”. In tabletop RPGs, this line gets blurry. During most roleplaying games I’m aware of, narrative or roleplaying sections have no separate player turns, as all action happens simultaneously. It’s let up to the discretion of the host of the game to organize and structure the narrative with the players. Usually, when conflict occurs, many games end up having a system that includes some manner of turn-taking of declaration of moves.

It reminds me of what I wrote a few days ago in response to an earlier post by Fub; broadly speaking, Fub explained how in old-school RPGs conflicts were made mechanically more rooted in rules to avoid conflicts at the player tables. In that case we externalize rules to make them objective (though arbitrary), and provide players with explicit moves to more easily categorize their actions and make them fit within the rules more easily. This type of codifying of rules, if not integrated with the system, works to separate certain elements of the narrative out into a sub-game that is more strictly regulated.

Recently, Fub and I were in a Torchbearer game together, run by a mutual friend of ours. In an after-discussion, Fub voiced the criticism that he felt Torchbearer felt too much like a boardgame. A key point is that Torchbearer does codify quite a few more things in move-like actions. I would argue that the game integrates its systems so that there’s far more cohesion in all its components. However, I can see Fub’s point that the increase in the number of moves you work with makes it feel more like a boardgame at times. Part of the issue for that particular game, I think, is that we were all struggling with it: two of the players were new to the system, I hadn’t played it in years, and the GM hadn’t run too many games of it yet either. I do wonder whether with some more practice, we could have reached a more satisfying experience with the game. It’s a pity that the GM of the game doesn’t blog as well, as I would have loved to refer to his thoughts on the matter here.

Regardless of the outcome of that particular game, however, in general I am interesting in exploring the move in games in general. Integrating mechanics throughout an RPG interests me, as I enjoy mechanical operations in games as well as seeing intricate systems work well. I’m sure this is a topic that will be returning quite frequently on this blog.

RPGaDay2021 #15: Supplement

Today’s RPGaDay prompt is “Supplement.” Supplements for RPGs are usually additional or optional sets of rules released as a separate product.

Supplements, I think, are a good way to try and create an additional revenue stream for RPGs, as long as they are truly devised to be additional information rather than a system in pieces. The Revised edition of The Burning Wheel, for example, was originally released in two volumes, namely The Burning Wheel and the Character Burner, being the books for the Game Master and the players, respectively. Over the years, the Monster Burner, Magic Burner, and Adventure Burner were released. Later, these were rebundled for the Gold edition in two books, The Burning Wheel and the Codex. The Burning Wheel is fully playable with just the first two books, and as a group you can enjoy good games with them. The additional three books for the Revised edition are there to provide additional input, help, and structure for Game Masters.

Pathfinder is another one of those systems that I appreciate the supplements for. The rules for Pathfinder are actually all published online, and the game is fully playable like that if you’d so choose. However, some optional and additional material is released via published supplements. That, to me, is a pretty fair business model. You don’t have to have all the latest toys for free. Moreover, the rules online are barebones and functional, but the purchased products are extensive and beautifully illustrated. Even then, while a print version of a supplement may cost around US$50, a PDF version of the same wil be as cheap as US$15; again, as far as I’m concerned, a quite acceptable price. I suspect their business model is based on providing easy access to their materials; after all, the more people play your game, the more people will end up buying your products.

Lastly, what I really enjoy about the type of license that Pathfinder applies is that they’ve opened up the door for a Compatibility License. In short, anyone can publish material and state that it’s compatible with Pathfinder. Essentially, as long as they make clear it’s not an official Paizo product, it can be published. As a result, indie RPG stores have a plethora of incredibly cheap mini supplements that add a couple of rules or items for RPGS. What a great way to include your customers in your business!

RPGaDay2021 #14: Safety

Today’s RPGaDay prompt is “Safety”. While I could write about safety for players of the game, I feel like that would be doubling the post I made for the 10th day of RPGaDay (“Trust”). Instead, I’ll write about safety as a story component.

Either Limits or Momentum would also have been very interesting to write about.

The essence of most stories is some version of a lack of safety; at some point, danger has to be introduced into a situation. The core of any story is a change to a situation, and most change introduces some measure or risk or danger. After all, it’s easiest to stay the same. The danger may be the risk of leaving behind everything that’s familiar, such as leaving a steady job for a better but more uncertain one; or, alternatively, the risk of staying the same, such as when when a natural disaster is coming but a group refuses to leave. Either way, danger is a crucial element to introduce into a storyline to motivate action.

Danger, however, is only relevant when it’s contrasted to safety. As I wrote in the RPGaDay 2021 #11 post, the relevance of the danger of wilderness is that it’s contrasted to the safety of the village, town, or city. However, this is also a very structuralist view rooted deeply in semiotics. In those types of literary analyses, everything comes in binary pairs. In those perspectives, Lord of the Rings is about Sauron versus Gandalf, Dark versus Light, and so on. Structuralist analysis argues that all stories move from A to B. First the story is at A, it then moves to Not A, before going to Not B, and arriving at B. If A is “Bad” and B is “Good”, you have the basic stucture of a comedy or a feel-good story. As you can imagine, if A is “Good” and B is “Bad”, you’re dealing with tragedy. While dealing with concepts of safety and danger in this sense will lead you to decent story structure, it also runs the risk of oversimplifying and marginalizing. To give a simple example, the story of a group of people reaching a new land might be a story of moving from bad to good for them, going from danger to finally a place of safety, but for the native population is might be a story of tragedy, where their safety was broken by the danger of opressors invading their space.

That last example leads to a literary theory that I find far more interesting, namely post-structuralism (or post-modernism, depending on who you ask). Part of what this theory argues is that because words are defined in part by their opposite (as structuralism argues), it also means that no concept is fully on its own. You’ll always have to refer to other things to find meaning. Imagine an alien on earth, who is intelligent but completely unaware of any earth concept. If you needed to explain to this alien what a pen is, you can say it’s a metal device to transfer ink to a paper. The problem is that you’ve now introduced three new concepts: metal, ink, and paper. So, you’ll have to explain those three. As you can imagine, each will introduce several new concepts yet again. Because of this, a postmodernist would argue, meaning is always shifting and just out of reach. So, in that example above of the group moving to a new land, the postmodernist would ask what “good” means and whose good we’re talking about. To a postmodernist, each story, each argument carries within it everything to undermine itself, because there can be no absolutely certainty and clarity.

That to me is also the most interesting way to handle safety and danger within RPGs. Yes, there needs to be pressure and release, narratively, to facilitate reflection on the parts of the players. At the same time, however, it’s quite interesting to have the evil cave of the goblins that is threatening the village turn out to be their home. The players delve into the dangerous cave with weaponry in hand to discover parents cradling their children and warrior goblins taking up arms only to form a cordon around their family. The safety of the village was never in question, and because of their ignorance, they turn out to be the inadvertant aggressors. To steal a famous example, that magical ring that can render you completely invisible also slowly corrupts your being into evil. It provides a player with tremendous power while simultaneously making it into a slave of the antagonist. This kind of handling of safety and danger makes conflicts complex and interesting.

After all, that fictional steady job that you can leave for a better but uncertain job isn’t necessarily a scary type of danger but an exciting one. It’s a question of risk versus reward and cost versus benefit.

RPGaDay 2021 #13: Flood

Today’s RPGaDay prompt is “Flood”, which feels a bit awkward, given that my home, The Netherlands, is most likely to see excessive flooding over the next decades due to climate change. It’s one of my larger worries given the property we just bought is closer to the shore than we currently are.

Come to think of it, I’ve never played or ran an RPG where natural disasters were a major determinant of the story. Sure, there were epic games with large wars between nations, there’s been epic games with massive magics that could almost be considered natural disasters, and there’s been games where disasters happened long in the past, such as the setting of the Forgotten Realms, where magic ceased to work for a brief period, causing a whole civilization of people on floating mountains to experience tragic loss. Never, however, have I played in a compaign with a very natural, commonplace natural disaster driving the urgent situation.

It may be interesting to start off a campaign like that. A small tribe forced to leave its ancestral home due to flooding, having to trek out of their natural environs to venture out into the unexplored world, or a city that is lost due to the eruption of a nearby volcano having to deal with the exodus of refugees.

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.