On “Texts versus Culture”

Brendan S has written a blog post on how  some people treat rpg rules as primarily in texts, while others treat them as residing primarily in culture of a play group and its hinterland —

“I contend that one of the major causes of misunderstanding in discussions of tabletop roleplaying games is differential prioritization of where rules should live. At base, games are bundles of practices that can be stored and communicated in various ways. For example, baseball in the United States started as a game played by amateurs using informal rules that lacked textual basis. A social club wrote the first baseball text in 1845: the Knickerbocker Rules. Tabletop roleplaying game rules can also reside ultimately in culture or in texts.”

The post felt very important when I read it, and I felt I should blog about it. Now, several days later, I cannot remember what I planned to say in such a blog post. I know it indirectly lead to Why do rpg players ignore rules? and What Do Rules Ever Do For Us?, but I thought I had something more specific to say.

I remember thinking that this clearly relates to the comments by Zak Smith and Eero Tuovinen I summarise in Valuable insights into OSR play, and to my position in A Ruleset is an Intervention Tool (in Brendan’s terms, the latter talks about written rules as a way to modify culture).

If I remember more, I will put it here.

Why do rpg players ignore rules?

Over on G+, Dan Maruschak laments that many rpg groups will not or cannot follow rpg rules as written. I said

“In most life contexts, believing written rules and procedures is of dubious value. When you enter a new community, you’re usually better to follow what others do rather than what the rules say you should do. The real rules — those that most people follow in practice — are unlikely to be exactly those that are written down.”

to which he replied

“Which is why I find it so aggravating that that “follow the written rules of a game” is such a hard sell. People can get no-rules everywhere else, why demand no-rules here, too?”

In other words, Dan is asking why people don’t take rpg play as a chance to enter a well-defined magic circle — to play, for a change, in an environment defined by rules.

I think the following reasons are all factors here:

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What Do Rules Ever Do For Us?

Status: nascent, larval, to reach its fullness later in time.

Why bother with rules for roleplaying games? Why not just freeform, using group consensus of equals or by appointing a GM and respecting their judgement? After all, freeform games are easier to set up and more flexible in play. And if you have a stable group, or a stable play circle, you can hone your freeform play with informal procedures and conventions that meet precisely your needs. Why try to impose formal rules on top of that?

In other words, what do rules ever do for us?

They can provide a tactical challenge, something to master to achieve your goals. This is great source of pleasure for many players.

They can provoke players to say interesting things. If nothing else, rules can push players towards actions they might not have considered, perhaps by having rules about them, perhaps by having rules that enable them (such as by superhuman powers). PBtA games, which provide playbooks full of player moves, seem particularly good for this.

(I attribute the above to Vincent Baker originally, but a brief search didn’t come up with a source for it)

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Setting Goals in the Burning Wheel Style

Adam Koebel, in a video (early on in Roll20 Burning Wheel, I think), suggests you aim for a set where the goals are, in turn:

  1. About your past life
  2. About your current situation
  3. About another PC — how you relate to them

In StarCruiser, my main advice is that they should collectively be:

  1. Resolveable in the space of the current arc
  2. Things that will involve your PC with other PCs (even if only indirectly)
  3. About things that you, the player, want to see in play

Paul Beakley, over on G+, presents his Best Practices for BW Beliefs (and Instincts, and Traits). They include  a list of what your Beliefs and Instincts should cover:

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Fundamental Scarcity of Attention

Attention is a critical resource to manage in game design. The enjoyment of players (and GMs) is contingent on getting it right. It’s particularly important when you want to move from “passable” to “excellent”. In design and prep and postmortem you will benefit from thinking hard about attention and where it’s going.

I know I’ve not been thinking about it enough because I’ve been distracted by other concerns in my designs and GMing (e.g. world simulation, inter-PC balance).

Design is about resolving conflicts between goals. And the biggest bottleneck in rpg design is attention. Primarily GM attention, but players too. And central to design is tradeoffs. For example:

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Why don’t I run Burning Wheel?

A player in The Edge of the Forest asked about Burning Wheel the other day, and there’s a Reddit thread asking “what is BW?” right now. The discussion in the latter focusses on the experience it leads to, on what Burning Wheel well and as designed achieves. E.g.

What is Burning Wheel?

Well, there’s this novel idea that whatever is the important thing about your game, you should design the rules around that thing. There’s a limit to how fast we can communicate, and so we abstract the things that don’t matter and focus on what does. I won’t go deeper, but there’s a whole philosophy to it.

Burning Wheel follows this philosophy. Burning Wheel says, “Who gives a crap how much gold you have or how many goblins you have murdered? That’s not important. The important things are those moments when you stand at a pivotal crossroad, where your choices either affirm your core sense of who you are or change you forever. The moments when you are purified in the crucible of decision.”

So the game is structured around your character’s beliefs. You roll when it is important to your beliefs. You advance when your beliefs get challenged. A character can wade through a battlefield of goblins and gain nothing, if he has no core belief challenged by the event. He can bake a cake the next day and have a life-changing epiphany if he has a core belief about bakery.

That’s why it’s awesome.


And I think that’s the right way to describe it — tell people, first, what it achieves. If they want more, tell them, how it does it. And it does do those things, so it’s important to tell people. I don’t know anything that does them better — nothing I’ve run, anway.

(Admittedly, the description above is inaccurate in details, and overstates how focussed BW is. If you want a more prosaic and accurate version, try the top-rated post in that thread — https://www.reddit.com/r/rpg/comments/7t4usm/just_what_is_burning_wheel/dt9um91/)

But I don’t run it now, and don’t plan to. Why?

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Notes on Mountainlands

A former player in my Mountainlands game asked me some questions to help him set up his own similar game.

The house rules and player guide — The Mountain Lands Campaign – player briefing v5

The player-created map as it stood after the 19 sessions we played — player_map_2015_04_06


Compared to more open styles / systems (where you adapt the game for players, improvise or fudge dice rolls) west marches seems more inflexible. Did you stick to this West Marches style or where you flexible behind the GM screen?

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