Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Way of the Rules Chick.

So, I like rules.

The reason I like rules is because, apropos of Shieldhaven's post about Wizards, and some other stuff I've seen in games, when systems don't have comprehensive rules, they go SQUISH! and you're floundering in an undefined world where, it is reasonable to ask, "well, why don't you just teleport Frodo into Mordor" because there's nothing defining what the possibilities actually are.

This is a huge problem when we're talking about magic, but it applies to other systems too, particularly in games, where you want your magic users, your fighters, and your fighter-mages (among your other tropes) to be at about the same competence for amount of time spent building skills.  Yes, I am assuming that game/character balance is a desired thing. And I refrained from saying, of the same level to allow for systems without levels, like Ro3 LARPing, or World of Darkness Tabletop, which define advancement in other ways. 

I know a number of people, however, who do not like rules. At least, they express discomfort with rules which ranges from, "I am just not a rules person," to "I fucking hate rules because they get in the way of my ability to Just Play."

I won't get into the expectations connected with who hates rules and why, but will point out that for most people, the thing isn't that one really hates rules. One hates rules that...

  • Seem arbitrary (also called, "are too obvious/visible"), 
  • Are badly presented,
  • Are convoluted and difficult to parse,
  • Change or explode too frequently to keep up with,
  • Are 'solved' (there's a right way to do things) or easy to exploit (unbalanced).
So allow me to go into some completely unsolicited advice for people who do think of themselves as Rules People, who love to design, modify, or add to rules systems for fun and/or profit.

At this point, you may be looking at the title of my post and expecting me to talk about how a lot of ladies fit in this spectrum. And you'd be more-or-less right; a larger sample size of women, in my experience, will express some version of these statements than guys. And there's a number of reasons why. The biggest reason, however, has to do with how when the perception of, "because I am [Quality], I am like [this or that], and not good at [Thing]" comes up, it winds up being self fulfilling. I know, there needs to be a citation here, but merely mentioning, "you're a girl, and girls are bad at math," or even, "there's a perception that girls are bad at math, but you'll show them all!" winds up dropping the score on a subsequent math test, compared to math tests given without mentioning gender at all.  So too with Rules.

Now that I have reinforced the idea that a gender disparity actually exists, and have focused your attention on that topic rather than the one I actually want to talk about, allow me to slap myself across the face, and kick you away from that digression so we can get back to subjects I care about.  Namely, addressing the above mentioned problems with rules presentation.

Arbitrary Rules & Poor Presentation: Can Haz Context?

I deal with these two first and together, because they are between them and in concert, the biggest barriers to rules adoption and understanding, and it's incredibly difficult to talk about one without the other (yeah, I tried a few times).

Most experienced gamers, attempting to bring new people into the hobby (or introduce players to new systems), will have run into the problems inherent in handing your intended victim...er, I mean, recruit a manual filled with rules text and telling them to have at. I can speak for few enough other people, but looking at rules text is more likely to make my eyes bleed than not, for a number of reasons, not least of which is that such books are generally kind of schizophrenic on the subject of just who their audiences are-- and to be fair, they _are_ trying to please a huge and widely diverse variety of types. So you have six paragraphs for people who have pretty much, you know... played Monopoly as kids, followed by a bunch of incredibly jargony stuff for people who are versed in the game medium and have been playing for over a decade, followed by a page or six of setting fluff, which is interesting... assuming you want to play the given setting, rather than picking up the rules to tell your own story. (This probably seems tabletop-centric, but LARP rulebooks are created with notoriously fewer resources, and while they have a lot of the same problems, they also deserve a bit more leeway.)

Somehow, in all of this, some rules got buried, devoid of relevant context or understanding of the balance behind them.

I cannot stress enough, by the way, the importance of context. By which I mean two things:

a) Rules must needs be grounded in a game world, or at least, imply the feel of the game genre (gritty, low magic, high-magic, exalted level, whatnot. Yes, Genre and power level do go hand in hand, methinks) OR must justify themselves for the balance reasons they exist. For example, 4e Marking mechanics, which look arbitrary on the surface, actually serve the purpose of allowing the Defender role characters to lock down opponents, and keep them from wanting to smear the caster. Here, the rules are all out on the surface, but the context of the rule-- why it exists-- is clear, or at least, understandable in practice.

This also means that the player is likely to remember it, because one can associate terms-- Defender = marking mechanic. This leaves only details to learn as far as what conditions are imposed by the mark. Which leads to my next point...

b)  Gameplay should clearly follow the implications of the rules. Yeah, sounds like the inverse of what I just wrote, don't it? But bear with me. The reason that magic and systems of magic are interesting to talk about is because the way magic works in the world tells you oodles about what the world is actually like. If a witch can flick her hand and send an enemy flying across the room and animate a bunch of architecture (we may have seen the movie Dark Shadows this weekend, but nu) at virtually no cost to herself, this tells you that OMG, witches might be fucking OP in this world. I refer you again to Shieldhaven's post linked at the top of this one. But once you've decided what magic is like in your world/game system, nearly every other decision-- including how fighters work and interact with the world-- follows thereby. So if you have squishy, not very defined magic, then you are likely to have a lot of super annoyed fighters wondering why Wizards are so bloody OP, or a bunch of frustrated wizards, wondering why their magic doesn't work half the time, and why things go terribly wrong when they do. Consistent magic-- and by extension, consistent world rules-- let the players know, without constant GM guidance, what they can and can't do with their abilities.

If you have players who are constantly fighting the rules, and arguing that the rules don't support their concept, try to help them find how the boundaries imposed by rules actually do the opposite, and give them a framework within which to innovate. Too many options actually wind up being kind of terrible-- witness a mage with a 22 intelligence in any D&D edition before 4th, whose GM was silly enough to allow them to learn every spell in the book.

Yes, I was once that mage. I was deeply offended that there were spells in the book I couldn't learn (why do they have them there elsewise, to torment me!?), and then had yet another problem when I had so much choice, that a few creative applications of my sickeningly huge spell list meant that the GM had to come up with artificial seeming reasons why what I wanted to do wouldn't work. The game would have benefited hugely from there being some limits to spells, and perhaps even GM innovation on spells to fit what they wanted out of the world. If the available spells and the way spells progressed were seated more naturally in the setting (a tough thing to do with D&D, I know), even miserably whiny me would have accepted it, and been reasonably happy in my RP.

How do I know? Because that's how I learned to be happy with it, later.

(It is also important to note that sometimes, it's the layout. Really.

My answer here? Suit the presentation to the system. Large, tomely books like this classic example look super impressive on your bookshelf, but are hugely problematic when you're actually trying to learn anything out of them. Plus, they get out of date whenever there's expansions, errata, and additional power-sets. Games like Fiasco are small and simple enough for traditional books, but I encourage most RPG and LARP writers to move electronic as soon and as fast as possible, especially as the ability to update e-versions of books explode. For LARP systems, having an interactive rules site or wiki is the way I'd go. Yes, like books, there is some learning curve in how to organize these as well, but at the very least, it gives something that is much easier to work with, and something which is searchable.

Now, on the high end, you have the lamented and lost desktop version of the 4e Character Builder, and the amazing work of Lone Wolf Studios, which makes me seethe with envy, as I totes had this idea too! But seriously, publishers should seriously consider working with companies such as this one to make product adoption as easy as possible.

Is electronic a foolproof system? No, not everyone has the tech, or access to the tech, to make it viable. But there's smarter ways to handle print than have been done, certainly, largely involving not skimping on editing, if you've the budget.

Further, I am a fan of being very binary when it comes to combining systems and settings-- either go big on the setting, and go ahead and integrate it fully with your rules, or cut it out entirely, write the core mechanics, and provide copious notes and advice on how to adapt the game to settings, and actually run it.

This may seem like a toss-off, but this last portion is critical. When being introduced to a new system, or when shopping for a system to run a particular setting, pretty much every gamer is a n00b. The ins and outs are as oblique to a potential GM as they are to the player's she's trying to get to join her game. Scripted "gameplay examples" are of limited usefulness; what's more valuable to me are walkthrough-style guides for how to resolve sticky situations that arise from rules, or potential rules conflicts.
Convoluted, Solved, and Exploding Rules: Ur Doing it Rong.

I could write about these separately, but it seems to me that one of the primary causes of rules which seem to grow exponentially in number and complexity is that the rules were too bloody convoluted to understand anyway. Now, a certain amount of complexity in rules may well be the by-product of poor presentation, but sometimes there's no really good way to present a given ruleset, because there's just too much, and it is too crunchy.

3rd Edition D&D, 3.5, Pathfinder, I am looking at you. And to some extent, 4e, which made up for way too many feats and powers to parse by providing the above-mentioned tool to make up for it, but which meant that you were seriously suffering if you didn't have access to electronics... and once they went web-only, fuggettit.

The other problem with super complex and convoluted (aka, crufty) systems is that they tend to wind up being solved, or having portions of them which are solved. That is to say, there is some choice, in feats, build, itemization, or spell selection, which is just objectively better than any other choice you could make. This creates a twofold problem: first, exploding rules, as new stuff has to come in to solve for the pieces that are brokenly over powered, or that are now underpowered and neglected, and second, barrier to adoption to those who are too put off by having to search for the exploits to "do it right." This attitude becomes reenforced when the "right ways" to do things are explained. No one likes to feel dumb, and super complex-mechanical things tend to be very bad about making the players feel incredibly dumb.

Although it is again too crunchy for some, I feel that Magic the Gathering has a lot of wonderful lessons to offer on this topic. I will refer you to the subtitle of this blog: A Life in Taglines.

Taglines which have consistent, knowable effects are a wonderful way to preserve interest and a complex feel, while keeping the mechanics simple. It also gives a systems designer something to quantify when trying to identify potential balance issues, rules conflicts, and other situations where the resolution might be very strange, or contentious among players.

Which leads to my next piece of advice: playtest your game. As much as you can. This is tough in a LARP, where on a big enough scale, playtesting is time taken away from when your player base could be playing their PCs, but in a LARP, it's the only real time you have to handle serious imbalance issues before they become Just a Part of Things. Retconning rules is extremely difficult, and becomes more difficult (and less advisable) the longer play progresses. Once you have a paying customer base on anything, any change is going to infuriate someone, and a LARP is much more like an MMO in this: everyone must use the same rules set and system, whereas in a tabletop game, a given GM can easily house-rule a change back to the way they prefer it. I know we sure ignored the hell out of Essentials when it came out.

Next, on the topic of Exploding Rules. Feature creep is a software term, but it applies to game systems too. Sometimes, no matter how much you've done, you'll feel compelled to change... something. Either a given spell is breaking the game, a class/warrior order/monster is unusably terrible, or there's a play-style you completely neglected,  but all of the PCs want to play it. So you add things. And add things. And amend things. And all of a sudden, you have a big knotty mess of a ton of rules you created in the same way that the little old lady swallowed the spider to catch the fly. And Your players are going on about how things are so odd and complex, and they long for the simple days of just a few rules that they understood. While yet another group is inundating you with suggestions on how it's totally fixable, with just a few tweaks here and here, and if you just added this...

Rules by Committee (Mostly for LARPs)

Not a fun position to be in. Now, this portion of the post also applies to those helpful souls who are offering rules suggestions, as well as the initial designer. It's important to consider what the goals of any rules addition actually are. Too often, player-suggested design changes wind up serving no purpose but to make said player way, way too powerful. In systems where the players cannot know all the rules, this is incredibly frustrating to everyone-- both the GM/Plot who doesn't want to give the game away, and the player who is wondering why he can't just do This One Thing.

  • Don't get angry with rules suggestions, whatever the concern is. Take them in stride, evaluate them for the goals you want to achieve in the game, and make a decision. Whatever the concern is, the right answer is to at least evaluate it, so the players know their opinions are valued, and so you're not automatically passing on something that might be a good idea. 
  • Don't be afraid to say no. Sometimes, a given suggestion just doesn't fit, there's no room to add anything else, or while the suggestion might be cool, it doesn't fit your world. That's okay. In an active game, you have to balance the happiness of the suggesting player with all the other PCs a change could effect.  Still, you should be gracious, thank the PC for their input, and be sure to mention things you liked about the idea, even if you're not going to use it. Or use part of the idea, and discard what you can't do.
  • If your suggestion didn't get used, don't get mad. The GM/Plot committee, as indicated above, have a lot of different needs they have to balance, not just yours. Accept the verdict with good grace, and move on. Most GMs will work with you to help you do what you want, even if they're not willing to, you know... modify the whole game structure to do so.
  • Know when to quit. There's a lot of good games which could still use improvement, but are simply too weighty/entrenched to handle a lot of change, and a lot of neat innovations which, while it's tempting to try to apply them to an existing game/system, are really better suited to their own, brand new system. As much as I am a fan of continuous development, maintaining a player base that doesn't feel like it's being left behind by said development is super important, and there comes a time when focusing on story and story concerns should trump rules innovation. 
 The last point loops back around to the point about context, from... oh geez, it feels like a million years ago now. Once you have a game system, and you're running stories in it, rules additions may still make sense, for the purpose of serving the story. But for the love of Vecna, make sure what you're adding makes sense in-world, and perhaps even try to get the addition across in an in-play way, as much as possible.

So, now that I've gone from why too squishy is bad to why too crunchy is bad, allow me to return to the middle, and be quietly content in my push for moderation in all things. If nothing else, I hope that I have made my point that Rules and Story are not, and should never be enemies, in anything that calls itself a Role Playing game. If you are running, designing, or even playing a game where this seems to be the case, try to figure out where the break is: in presentation, crunch, squish or some other detail. If you're the runner or the designer, and you want to run for people who are not comfortable with super crunchy rules, take the time to consider these elements, and figure out a better way to serve the goals you want to serve with the game, in a more integrated sort of way.

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