Underlying The Rules Part IV, Commandment The Fourth: Setting Over Rules

The request was for an article on what I thought of the social dynamics of gaming groups before you get to looking at particular sets of rules. I’m still not sure that I was the best one to direct it to, or whether there will be more – but here’s part IV anyway.

  • Part One in this series – The Social Contract – can be found HERE.
  • Part Two – Adjusting The Spotlight – can be found HERE.
  • Part Three – Making A Group Effort – can be found HERE.

This entry has taken a lot of time (admittedly, mostly spent awaiting inspiration), and is once again more than a bit rambling – but here it is at last; Part IV – Setting Over Rules.

A part of the social bargain that’s specific to role playing games is a tacit agreement that the game master will present a reasonably coherent setting and that the players will accept that their characters live in it. A part of this pretense is normally pretending that the setting exists beyond the player characters; it has a long history before they arrived and that things go on in it that they are not involved with. That is only a pretense of course – but it’s very important for the role-playing part. Good characters need cultures, traditions, and regions to come from, histories to give them depth, and events to react to and to make it seem like the world is alive when they’re not watching it.

Sadly, the fact that this is specific to role-playing games means that a lot of players aren’t very clear on it – and so this bit probably causes more arguments than anything else so far.

The first step in accepting that your characters live in the setting is making one who could plausibly have come to exist in it. Unfortunately… there are a lot of ways to refuse to do this.

  • There’s “I want to be of a species that doesn’t exist in the setting/is always the enemy/cannot communicate/makes no sense as a player character”.

For example, thirty years ago it was fairly common to hear “I want to play a Predator!”no matter what the game setting was. Now I did allow Ri’al The Huntsman – who was pretty much the same thing (albeit with a detailed racial and technological background) – but that game was an open setting with creatures and items potentially being brought in from across the multiverse. That character – and his starship and support staff – really wouldn’t fit into, say, The Forgotten Realms. Similarly, a cheerful singing whale-bard will not work in Dark Sun. We managed to squeeze a Runequest Elven Mage and a Barbarian with a magic sword into Call of Cthulhu – but that was because the game master wanted to swap from Runequest to Call of Cthulhu and the final Runequest scenario involved some of the characters staying in the Call of Cthulhu setting to seal the gate through which Lovecraftian Horrors were oozing into Glorantha. (hey had some reliable magic and were used to monsters, but needed sanity checks for things like high-speed car chases and didn’t understand all the technology… they did give the party a much wider range of options than usual in Call Of Cthulhu though).

But if you’re playing Legend Of The Five Rings… somebody who insists on playing a pistol-packing cowboy, or a Star Trek Gorn with a phaser rifle will not fit in. If you’re playing in the Atheria setting or World Tree – where the universe is entirely made up of structured magic – then demanding to play a totally nonmagical character simply will not work. Some of those players got quite upset when told that it simply was not possible to play such a character, but that they could be delusional if they wanted to – but what they were asking for simply did not work in the setting.

The setting does not have to accommodate any creature you want to play – and you should not be asking it to do so. Asking that the setting to be redesigned just to suit your idea… is being a greedy, selfish, !@#$%^&*. You’re demanding that the game master devote a lot of extra time to fitting everything around YOU.

On the personal-background level there’s “I want to be from a culture that doesn’t exist in the setting/I have been psychotically murderous and have dealt with every situation by charging into battle to the death since I was a small child (or am otherwise suicidally insane)”/”I insist on being hunted by enemies who do not exist for reasons that would not apply in the setting“/”I wish to build my character around being trained from youth to in an ancient art using equipment that does not exist on the setting”/and even “I am a force-sensitive who goes into berserker rages at the drop of a hat, but have made it to age forty without a problem” (but who falls to the dark side without managing to get through an entire in-game week in actual play).

That’s another “no”. Admittedly, in the case of the Star Wars game it became “you may not make force-sensitive characters any longer” since the player was more or less incapable of showing any trace of restraint and had his characters respond to any frustration by going berserk (You! Street Merchant! I need clothing!” “Ur… I sell fruit drinks… There’s a shop that sells used clothing two blocks dow… Ow! AAAAGGHHHHHH!!! Burble…. Die” (character falls to the dark side, player has them try to kill the entire population of the planet in a mad rampage through the streets, gets overwhelmed and killed by the rest of the party) – but your character history needs to make sense in the setting too.

On the other hand, it’s up to the game master to try and accommodate the unusual. Player characters are OFTEN lost heirs to ancient kingdoms, have stumbled across mysterious bits of ancient lore, possess strange powers and talents, have mysterious mentors, are the subjects of cryptic prophecies, and employ strange arts – and that’s just fine. Game settings really should be large and varied enough to have plenty of room for all kinds of oddities lurking in the corners. The more of this stuff that the players some up with, the more fodder for adventures, discoveries and plot twists the game master will have.

The trick here is that it the players shouldn’t demand that this sort of thing have any game effect. So the character is actually a young dragon, utterly transformed by some powerful curse and with amnesia? And the transformation is so powerful that only a game master plot device can detect or undo it and – barring that – the character is in all ways a normal elven child? And no one knows about this?

That’s interesting, and can inspire odd plots and strange mysteries – but it only matters if the game master feels that he or she can fit it in. Most game masters will fit those weird details into the game given time. Juicy plothooks like that are hard to pass up. Still, if the party never goes on the proper quest, and so never finds the ancient crypts that will open only to the hand of the lost heir… than that bit won’t make any difference either, and no one should be upset about that.

Step two is accepting the setting around your characters.

The most blatant form of this is insisting that rules from elsewhere apply to the setting.

The most stubborn examples of this that I’ve ever encountered were (and are) weapons enthusiasts of one kind or another – although the players who want to bring in secondary sources from things like the Star Wars Expanded Universe (all the books and such) come in a close second.

Yes, you may have build a crossbow expert who specializes in sniping for the d20 game – but d20 is intentionally designed to avoid easy, repeatable, one-hit-kills against major targets (such as player characters), to allow characters to confront their attackers, and to have all kinds of countermeasures to various attacks. Insisting that your sniper should be able to pretty much control a battlefield, take out opponents instantly with headshots, and that crossbow bolts are extremely lethal because you think that’s “realistic”… is attempting to apply an only-in-your-head version of real-world rules about sniping (and not even a very good model of those rules) to a setting where they simply do not apply – and rage-quitting because other people said “Wall”, “Wind Wall”, “Protection from Arrows”, “There are no rules for called shots and I’ve got enough hit points to take twenty of your shots”, “Invisible”, and so on… gets you nowhere.

OK, it produced a very dramatic (if totally irrational) rant, but it still got nowhere.

Similarly, in a setting where Dragons were spirit-beings who reinforced and animated convenient masses of rock as “bodies” like a puppeteer – and so could only be briefly inconvenienced by mere physical force, no matter how enormous – complaining that “This is bull! The hydro-static shockwave from that missile hit will have turned that dragons insides to mush even if it’s scales are some kind of handwavium super-tough stuff!”meant absolutely nothing.

The outbursts along those lines from that particular military-enthusiast player got quite tiresome. It was his privilege to have his characters dislike “magic”, or “psionics”, or whatever reality-bending was called in the settings that he played in, but it was NOT his privilege to insist that his opinions about how destructive weapons were override the rules of the setting. Similarly, the rest of the game was NOT obligated to relegate the settings special abilities to a ghetto of “a few guys can do weird shit, but I don’t have to pay attention to it” just to oblige him

The players who insisted that – because an expanded universe book said so – forensic analysis would not be able to tell a hundred small explosions from one big one, or that they wanted to use the Sun Crusher, or that the Ancients sourcebook for Traveler said that “Black Globe Generators” existed and that therefore they could buy one, were being just as silly. No you may not have Stormbringer just because it was listed in the first edition Deities and Demigods book (even if I do have a copy with it in there), Similarly, you may not have psionics in a no-psionics setting just because it has a section in the SRD.

There are a lot of other ways – ranging from dragging in political, economic, or military ideas that do not work in the setting, refusing to admit the existence of pre-human intelligences in settings that feature such histories, refusing to admit the existence of problems with your favored plans, insisting that you can so make gunpowder (and that it will be revolutionary) in settings that either don’t include it or use locally more-effective methods, but they’re all the same basic strategy. They’re “I don’t like some feature of this game – so rather than running my own game, or asking “why” and accepting the answer, or trying actual persuasion, I’m just going to try and blackmail the rest of the group into changing it by being as disruptive as possible until I’m placated” – one of the most direct possible ways of being a greedy, selfish, !@#$%^&*.

You have to play the same game that everyone else is playing. Of course, that’s incumbent on the game master too. If the game master has some group of non-player characters doing something that is popularly believed to be impossible – and which the players were not offered the opportunity to be able to do – then the game master MUST give the players enough clues to let them figure out how it’s done within the rules of the setting – and must also provide BOTH a chance for the player-characters to learn to do it if they wish AND a reason why the trick, whatever it is, isn’t commonly known or used. Suddenly solving the problem with a super-invention, or dropping a Green Lantern into your Call of Cthulhu game, or revealing that the reason that Sherlock Holmes and Company could not solve the case was because the murder was committed with a voodoo doll… is just as much a cop-out as “it was all a dream!”.

Sure, you can do that sort of thing once in while, but you need to set it up in advance. “One gift I can give… Once every century the Dreamstone of Ithlia can grant a Questing Dream. If you can accomplish your task in the dream… then it shall become real. If you fail… then you will re-awaken here, and may attempt the task waking. Beware though! This gift I cannot grant again until the full century has passed!”.

Then send them to the Tomb Of Horrors. Maybe they can get far enough in the dream to help them pull it off on their second, “real”, try.

The other major form of this particular problem is extreme gamism – often known as “breaking the game”. It usually appears when someone wants to “win”(despite the fact that – in a RPG – this is actually losing) instead of socializing and cooperating on building a narrative. In Stormbringer it may manifest in creating a Noble Melinobonean character with massively powerful demon armor, a demon weapon, and a dragon steed while everyone else is making young kingdom mercenaries. In d20 you find infinite wish loops, hulking hurlers doing more damage than there are atoms in the universe, and – thanks to their being so many sourcebooks – hundreds of other “I Win!” buttons.

Sometimes it’s accidental. In Nephelim I gave my character loads of past lives (an idea I found irresistible, given how many time periods I found fascinating) – and found that that meant having most of your skills at “master” and knowing almost all the spells and systems of magic in the game. Sure, you lost raw magical power and host quality with each life and so she was a weak caster with a lousy social position to start with – but you got to roll for a power increase with each relevant casting and the character had spells for pretty much everything. Her power grew at a monstrous rate with no need to even adventure, while characters who started off with fewer lives, but much more raw magical power, gained strength very slowly since they rarely had a relevant spell to use and didn’t have a lot of skill with either magic or mundane abilities.

The game didn’t last very long anyway (no one could really find a reason to go out and do things instead of sitting in the library doing magical research) – but the game was obviously broken by the third session, even if no one really cared.

The principle here is pretty simple. It’s Setting Over Rules. If the setting says that Dragons are terrible avatars of destruction and almost unstoppable – but the rules say that a combination of three cheap and common items/powers/spells/whatever (likely from three unrelated sourcebooks since that sort of rules interaction accumulates as more stuff is published) can, if combined cleverly, take out any dragon with ease… then either those items do not exist or their interaction does not work that way. If the setting has a lengthy “history”, then – no matter WHAT the rules say – there are no quick and easy routes to infinite personal power or vast wealth or other silliness because they would be in common use. Similarly, you cannot accidentally destroy the world with common effects or it wouldn’t be there to adventure in.

Sure, the player characters are always special – but if they really want to achieve cast cosmic powers, or destroy the world, or defeat evils that were old when the current universe was young, or some such… they will, at the very least, have to work on very hard within the setting. If it was EASY they wouldn’t be the first.

This one applies to the game master and the players equally; if some application of the rules would leave the setting making no sense… then it doesn’t matter what the “rules” (or an optimization thread or handbook) says; the game does not work that way. There won’t be any special exemptions for the villains, just as there won’t be for the player characters. EVERYONE has to work for things.

If there is a fifth installment on this… it may be devoted mostly to examples. This is approaching the point at which things start to get game-specific – which is a bit beyond the intended scope of this series. On the other hand, if I think of something, or someone asks a question that requires extensive explanation… then there may be a fifth segment yet.

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5 Responses

  1. Eh, I can get behind most of that… At least as long as the DM allows character rerolls. There is killing off a character you don’t like (which already sucks) and then there is making a player stick with a character that sucks because you made him magically out-of-nowhere suck.

    Personally I feel that Setting, at least in 3.5 or pathfinder, isn’t actually that relevant. Want a spaceship? Mind Flayers had spaceships, so spaceships obviously are a thing, and given infinite universes that are all connected via Far Realm, there’s a good chance somewhere there’ll be someone who fits the criteria. You probably can’t refuel it and you won’t find much out there, but you can have it.

    How unlikely is it for heroes to be the first one to find an exploit REALLY? I mean, someone simply has to be the first. The History of Humanity has always included the very same elements that make up the computer I’m typing this on (as refined etc. as they are)… And yet, computers sure didn’t exist at the dawn of humanity.

    I feel like a lot of it is a nonissue unless someone is entirely uncooperative (btw, are you sure he didn’t mean Top Cow from Image Comics?).

  2. […] Part Four – Setting Over Rules (The part that this comment was addressed to) – can be found HERE. […]

  3. […] Part Four – Setting Over Rules (The part that this comment was addressed to) – can be found HERE. […]

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