Game, Set, & Match

Rules aren’t Games

We often mistake the books of rules for games. Except they aren’t. The rules do not make up the basic game. Rather, the game exists in the experiences of the players, which can be quite different from the actual game itself. This isn’t to say that the rules need tweaking so that players can enjoy them. That’s true enough, but it’s not what we’re saying. Instead, the game only exists in the realm of people playing it. Without human beings, the game is just ink on paper, or ifnormation recorded in an even more ethereal medium like electronics.

We’re not saying this just to sound deep and philosophical. It has serious consequences to how we play games. Greater adherence to the rules demands more time and effort. This increases even more as the rules grow ever more complex and lengthy. And the more rulebooks you add, the more and more time it requires to sift through and understand, even to have a decent enough understanding to look up the important bits later.

That’s simple enough. But this also has importance relating to how we relate rules to the setting, and why it’s incredibly important to keep an eye not only on the actual rules that you write, but how they interact to create systems or incentives that influence gameplay.

For example, Shadowrun 4th edition has a good system. In fact, we would say it’s a very good system. It’s quite clean, easily understood, and applicable to a wide array of situations. However, if you’ve read a lot on this site, you may know that we don’t think very much of that game around here. To understand why, consider the impact of just two rules: all human characters get a single point of Edge, and all characters with Edge may use it to survive otherwise fatal events.

This has consequences for gameplay. In theory, a passenger jet crash in Shadowrun 4 should see almost all the humans survive – and babies would be more likely to survive than their parents, because they haven’t had to spend that Edge point previously. Even if you handwave this scenario, there are dozens of conflicts great and small, which collectively erode the illusion of the gameworld as real. This affects everything in the game, from out-of-the-box character creation to the details like the economics of small business firms. Nothing can be understood and accepted by the players without explanation, unless they are willing to blindly ignore all contradictions. But even that is not a solution.

Either questioning everything, or blindly ignoring contradictions, makes it harder to accept the gameworld or the game as real. Similarly, you can’t predict the logical outcome of player action, and therefore can’t make good judgements about what your character should do in the gameworld. Because the world isn’t internally consistent, it relies heavily on the Game Master specifically telling the players what’s going on.

This doesn’t mean that Shadowrun 4 is a bad system. Instead, it’s a system which doesn’t match the game world the players expect to interact with. You could work up a very good game based on the Shadowrun 4 rules, but it would have radically different culture, environment, and people. The game wouldn’t be at all like the earlier Shadowrun game – but it doesn’t have to be. It can still be a cyberpunk game although the themes and concepts behind it would differ greatly.

Some people might try to relate this to the Gamist vs. Simulationist debate, but that’s not quite relevant and not where I’m taking this. There will always be inconsistencies no matter how you write the rules. But writing them in a way that smooths over most notable inconsistencies is what makes games worthwhile. When the rules effectively apply *only* to the player characters, it’s impossible to have a game world. It becomes mere scenery dressing for rolling dice, or perhaps worse, requires two sets of incomplete and contradictory rules: the official rules written in books, which apply to the players, and the real rules which are written only in the GM’s mind. The gameworld then becomes a a gran scenario of playing Mao, and attempting to guess or intuit what the GM is thinking.

For a literary comparison, consider if in Lord of the Rings, Gollum was repeatedy killed “offscreen” in slapstick accidents while nobody noticed. Even if this would be entertaining in its own right (or we think it would, anyway), the concept can’t work because it undercuts the story as a whole. Humorous and light-hearted moments do exist in the books, and even more in the movies, but most agree that they don’t betray the basic themes or the plot at work.

For a more positive example, consider how easily understood the major characters are even when introduced late in the story. Denethor ( son of Ecthelion, Steward of Gondor, World Champion of the Flaming 100 Yard Dash) is a major character who affects events in extremely important ways. Yet he doesn’t know up until the last book. His entire backstory is a tangle of personal relationships and complex politics, military campaigns and the grief of an old, tired man trying to hold out one more day. ASlthough we don’t learn much about Gondor’s politics and we’re never explicitly told all these things about him. Tolkein instead shows us hints of these things and allows us to fill in the blanks for ourselves, and explains these things in a very brief way the reader can understand. Even better: even though we aren’t explicitly told anything, we quickly understand Denethor’s character, why he does the things he does, and even come to care and admire him. We don’t need to understand everything about Gondor and politics and history to understand Denethor.

What Tolkein absolutely did not do was to make understanding Denethor’s actions contingent upon first knowing the complex relationships and history and politics. Obviously that would have sucked horribly for the reader, but it would also have been a betrayal of the way Lord of the Rings was constructed. You don’t, and shouldn’t, need to know all these things to enjoy the story or understand everything which goes on. The books hint at the history, but you can read it straight through, understanding every event, without having to refer to a separate history book.

But in game terms, that’s what writers often do to because they fail to match the rules with the game world they want to write. For example, if your rules system is pretty realistic in terms of damage, then you really can’t have an epic fantasy world – nobody’s going to make it long enough to become an epic hero, unless there the one-in-millions near-superman. And even then, they’re more likely to become a hero by raising armies and forging kingdoms, not by personally killing dragons. On the other hand, in a standard 3rd or 4th edition DnD-type world, you probably won’t see many armies or great conquests, because armies are uselesss compared to a single high-level character.*

*Whether or not armies would even exist is another question, and we’ll get to that another day.

A game which did an excellent example of merging the world and the rules was Legend of the Five Rings. You can level many complaints and point out many rules problems, but in terms of making the rules match the universe they were trying to create, the game did an excellent job. Fundamentally, the rules say that life is cheap and that advancing in power through adventure is the way to become effective. And lo and helod – that’s what the game world says happens. On the low end of play, or if you’re surprised by enemies and unable to defend yourself or escape, you probably die. Meanwhile, history is mostly written by great heroes, with armies as appendages for duelling generals. The only reason most Samurai even have weapons is so they can die gloriously, with a handful of lucky or tough survivors going on to become the great champions of the realm.

This isn’t to say it’s perfect. The creators eveidently don’t understand concepts like math or demographics very well, and sometimes their desire to make the game “fantasy Japanese, sorta” ends up being goofy or overly stereotyped. Still, the game on the whole does a very good job of merging what the players are told explicitly through the world material with what the players are told implicitly through the rules.

In games, maintaining a consistent world is especially important because the players and Game Master must interact with each other and with the rules to play. The *players* can break from the game reality to indulge in Monty Python jokes, nerd references, and off-color humor. But the game cannot do so unless that’s built into the tone and structure of the game. That’s when you break out Paranoia.

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