Underlying The Rules Part VI: Discussion and Development

And for today it’s an answer to a question again…

So I’ve recently been reading Dave Arneson’s True Genius, and it’s really been making me think of Eclipse. The first essay in particular, regarding how Original D&D utilized a melding of open system and closed system designs to establish a new paradigm of game design (and play) that went beyond what either could accomplish alone – and how this was largely lost with the release of AD&D and its rejection of the open system principles therein in favor of standardization – is an excellent summary of why I love what Eclipse has done with regards to (as I see it) trying to reintroduce those principles back into Third Edition (at least somewhat) via the mutability of game rules (a la corruption and specialization for abilities, world templates, a stronger focus on modularity with what’s used and what’s not, etc.).

In that light, this article takes on a new dimension, as it honestly looks like KrackoThunder is trying to leverage the closed system principles of Third Edition (e.g. the immutability of the “implied setting,” the invariability of the rules, and their extrapolation with regard to “how things work”) to achieve the results that you’d get from an open system, wherein those things are defined as part of the act of creating the setting (or, at a slightly higher level, using the rules as ur-tools to effectively build a game – along with a setting – unto itself) and so more easily allow for that level of alteration with regards to players tinkering with what is and is not allowable within the scope of the game.

Of course, as you noted here, that doesn’t really work; it’s like trying to “rob the bank” in Monopoly. Of course, the same is true in reverse as well, which is why I roll my eyes whenever I see someone unironically utilizing Eclipse to make what you called an “atrocity build.”

-Alzrius

Breakthroughs are often very simple insights; the genius lies in picking out something that no one else saw.

Test your hypothesis. Only survivors breed. “Particles” are waves. Motion is relative.

Those are the key insights that led the the scientific method, to the theory of evolution, to quantum mechanics, and to relativity in three words each. Each explained things – why philosophical theorizing rarely led directly to practical advances, why animals and illnesses were so well adapted to their environments, why electrons didn’t spiral into nuclei, how Maxwell’s equations could work when things were moving.

Exploring the consequences of those simple ideas is still underway – in some cases after many centuries.

Personally, I’ve always seen the stroke of genius fundamental to role-playing games as a bit of psychological insight; Adult “Let’s Pretend” needs rules. And while that phrasing does evoke safewords and agreed-on limits rather than RPG’s… that’s fair enough, since that’s where the notion appeared first – even if that’s arguably an independent line of development.

But when it comes to games and “let’s pretend”… Unlike kids adults won’t be happy with Robbie the Dinosaur, Spaceman Spiff, the Wicked Witch of the East, and Megatron.

  • Adults are competitive; they don’t like to be overshadowed – and so every role needs to be unique and important. They need some rules on creating tolerably “balanced” characters and some expectations on what kinds of characters are appropriate.
  • Adults have firm opinions. Since they won’t give in easily they need rules to resolve what happens when they don’t agree on an outcome.
  • Adults want “fair” rewards and consequences for their decisions. They need a rules system for that or they’ll always suspect bias.
  • Adults want details – a more complicated plot with surprise twists and turns. They need a game master.

All of that flows from “Adults need rules”. They aren’t going to be happy with the vague “everyone imagines their own thing” that little kids are. For them… it’s not much fun without acknowledgement by others and a certain level of participation. That’s why a player who’s sulking, or busy reading a book, or getting drunk instead of playing is such a downer in a group.

And the practitioners of this new hobby looked upon it, and it was pretty good – but, unlike the works of a divine creator, it was equally obvious that it could be BETTER.

But, the hobbyists being human, and each having their own personal inner description of the perfect game, they didn’t quite agree on what would improve it.

  • Inevitably there were a lot of things that the original, simple, pioneering, rules did not cover – and so there was pressure for more rules, more tables, and more systems. They had a point. When there were no clear rules on a topic disagreements soon broke out.
    • Of course, more rules complicated everything. The people who wanted to play casually didn’t like that.
  • There was the push for more coherent and simpler rules. They had a point. All those tables and different systems for resolving various tasks were complicated and messy to deal with.
    • Of course, that meant that a lot of factors that affected specific tasks didn’t get included. The simulationists didn’t like that.
  • There were players who wanted pure role-playing and who didn’t like being restrained by rules at all – and wanted more options if there had to be rules. They had a point. More options meant more interesting and distinctive characters.
    • Of course, that complicated the rules in proportion to the number of options added. The people running the games didn’t like that.
  • There were the wargamers, who wanted to just relabel tanks, infantry platoons, and artillery units as “Knights”, “Men At Arms”, and “Wizards” and so on. They had a point. They were experts at turning limited sets of rules interactions into exciting scenarios.
    • Of course, the people who wanted more “realistic:, normal-human-scale characters didn’t like that.
  • The competitive players wanted clear methods of “winning” and – since that really didn’t work in a social game – at least wanted a way to keep score, whether that was accumulated gold, experience, reaching “name” levels, or access to better toys.
    • Of course, the people who liked to try new characters all the time didn’t like that.
  • The world-builders wanted a coherent underlying description of the way things worked so that they could explore the worlds and social systems that would result from such things, instead of just presuming a vaguely-medieval world.
    • Of course, the people who wanted to search the rules for exploits that were being overruled in the name of “the way the setting works” didn’t like that.
  • The deep-immersion players wanted death to be the result of heroic sacrifice, or a dramatic climax, or something. Wounds, disabilities illnesses… what fun were they?
    • Of course, the people who liked really big weapons and “realistic” battles didn’t like that.

And so compromises were made. Gaming groups filled with house rules, each group worked under different assumptions, and gaming fragmented.

And there were many other, albeit mostly more specific, fault lines and opposing forces for each.

And the publishers looked upon their sales figures, and this was bad.

To try and fix things there was compromise on the writers and publishers side. It was weighted towards new rules of course, simply because the publishers needed to keep selling stuff – but for quite some time gestures could be made towards almost everyone’s priorities because early game systems weren’t very sophisticated.

And so.,,

  • There were more rules, but there were attempts to keep a lot of them unobtrusive, on the game masters side, optional, or limited to particular situations.
  • There were premade characters, and quick-generation options, and ways to try to get people playing as quickly as possible.
  • There were attempts to streamline and unify the mechanics with things like single-mechanic skill systems instead of a mess of specific formulas and tables.
  • Compiled lists of special modifiers were (not unreasonably) pushed over to the game master to just assign some modifiers.
  • Options were added.
  • Characters did get to be the equivalent of military units (and superheroes and possibly even gods) later on, but they started off weak.
  • All sorts of character milestones were set up.
  • Character advancement was greatly accelerated, and the gap between old and new characters was (sometimes, since this annoyed the people with old characters) reduced.
  • The rules attempted to imply dangerous combat, deadly wounds, and long-term consequences – but were rewritten to make actual consequences vanishingly rare.
  • Some coherent information on “the way things worked” was added – but it was always a side-bar thing since the marketing department wanted every customer to buy everything.
  • Exploits were plugged, but mostly in obscure errata that only the people who were really annoyed by the exploits bothered to find.

That didn’t all happen in every game of course. Some games – those designed after the first rush – started off with some of it in place. Champions / Hero System, for example, started off with a well-chosen bell-curve generic resolution system, lots of options, and military-unit characters, but is still struggling with complexity, a lack of character milestones, “the way things work”, and various exploits. Rifts – thanks to creator decisions – has never really updated much of anything past the first few “different from AD&D” reforms. Basic Dungeons and Dragons went the minimalist route – and soon ran into the nothing much left to publish” barrier.

Eclipse, of course, is a compromise just like everything else – and, not too surprisingly, leans towards my biases.

  • Complexity? I can easily deal with that. Bring on the complexity!
  • Casual play? Grab a pre-build (although I’ve put out a lot of those for various settings). I’m not giving up my options!
  • Coherence? Well, using d20 as a base took care of THAT. If anything it had gone too far – and thus my support for a 3d6 skill mechanic. Roll 3d6 instead of 1d20 sometimes seems reasonable enough to me.
  • Modifiers? I can think of thousands for everything. This is hopeless, so the game master will have to handle it.
  • Realistic characters? A bit at first – but I can be a realistic person every day. I want my larger-than-life impossible feats of heroism!
  • Disparity between old and new characters? Eclipse offers several ways to play with the power curve. For this… new characters can be made powerful, but very focused – becoming more versatile as their association with older characters drags them along to higher levels more rapidly fast enough to add new abilities as they finish exploring old ones.
  • Deadly combat? I tend to prefer role-playing, so defenses are fairly cheap and plentiful – if sometimes (such as Action Hero/Stunts) limited use to ensure that there’s some longer-term cost to losing.

Perhaps most importantly… Eclipse restricts itself to pure mechanics, with little to no “setting” material – but directly tells the game master to restrict, modify, or ban any options that do not fit into his or her setting. In Eclipse, “The way things work” explicitly overrides “but the rules say”.

Not surprisingly, Eclipse appeals most to those with similar biases – although there is a substantial secondary appeal of “everything you need to make an optimized or exotic character is in the basic book”.

When it comes to KrackoThunder, I could be wrong, but I suspect that he or she sees the games as fairly adversarial things in which the game master has arbitrary power and it’s up to the players to try to “win” by coming up with rules-combinations that trump various game master ploys (or, occasionally, each other). Thus the questions about making your minions absolutely loyal, making spells totally unbreakable, using Channeling (Conversion) to gain limitless use of Wish or Miracle, laying mega-powerfed curses, and so on.

Unfortunately, from that point of view, suggesting that the setting and the social requirements of the game override rules, exploits, and gambits like the classic “introducing gunpowder” routine amounts to arbitrarily declaring that the players are not allowed to win and that there is no point in playing.

Still, while a few games (and MMORPGs) are run that way, tabletop RPG’s were never really designed to be adversarial at all – and “winning” generally consists of having a good time, being creative, and winding up with good stories rather than dominating clashes of rules. To the best of my knowledge, only World Of Synnibar has attempted to put in a rule which says that if anyone can identify a spot where the game master failed to follow the rules exactly as written during a session then the entire session is null and void.

I hope that KrakoThunder and his or her friends are having a good time with their games – but given that all the stuff I write ultimately comes with the caveat “See how your game master thinks this works in the setting” I just don’t see how I can contribute. to an adversarial game. Writing a few books doesn’t give me magical powers of overriding local game masters.

Still, I hope this little retrospective has been interesting!

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