A Ruleset is an Intervention Tool

Status: messy. There is a valuable idea here, but it is awkwardly expressed. The examples are relevant, but mediocre.

A friend comes up to you, careworn and unkempt. She says “I’m tired of my Pathfinder campaign. The fights take too long, the prep is too arduous, the players just follow my lead, and I’m bored of fantasy as a genre.”

“No problem” you say, “I have a remedy for you”. You pull Apocalypse World from your battered messenger bag. “Play this instead. It will solve your problems.”

“Oh!” she says, smiling for the first time in seven months as she leafs through the pages, “I think this what I’m looking for”.

You ride off on your low-seat BMX, pleased to have given her the new game system she needs.

But you should not be so self-satisfied. You did not give her a new game system; you merely gave her a tool to help her intervene in her group’s social system. She should not be smiling. Her work has only just begun.

When you intervene in a social system, your goal is to change behaviour

Not just change behaviour once, but to change patterns of behaviour in the future. E.g.

  1. You have4 twenty professors marking essays. Students complain there’s no consistency — Dr Beard gives marks mostly for grammar, Dr Hair for reasoned argument, and Dr Thoughts for use of long words. You want to make their marking behaviour consistent, for the next set of essays and every set after that.
  2. Your gaming group spends hours in Pathfinder battle sequences. With all your actions and all the monsters’ actions, and all the rules lookups, a round can take twenty minutes. Most of you are sick of this. You want your fights to go much faster, next fight, and every fight after that.
  3. Your gaming group spends hours in-character planning, preparing, and weighing up odds. Usually past the point when most of you care. It’s boring. You want to just skip to the damn action, next time and every time after that.

In example 1, you might intervent by introducing a mark scheme – some written criteria that capture what “a B+ essay” must be like.

In examples 2 and 3, you might intervene by changing the ruleset. For (2) you might champion a switch to Mentzer D&D, which doesn’t have the complexity. For (3), you might champion a switch to Blades in the Dark, which has a mechanism for flashbacks and thus retrospective “planning”. You might plan to replace your group’s planning system, or combat system, with the one from the new game — you might hope to put a new system in place of the old.

But a ruleset is not a system design — it is an intervention tool for an existing social system. When you take a ruleset to a gaming group, the group does not slot into the game’s system; the players merely use the ruleset to modify their trained instincts for play. They can take more, or take less; they can merely be inspired by the cover art, or they can try to replace all their conventions with the ones the ruleset suggests. Either way, the group is still the group. And the group is bigger, more complex, and more self-correcting than a mere ruleset can be1.

This may not be news to anyone but me7.

Implication 1 — you never design systems

At least, you never get to impose a system design on people — you can only do your best to change the system they’re already in. As an rpg designer, game evangelist, or GM, you don’t even have the coercive power to make people play along. You will have to do some real work.

Implication 2 — a ruleset is a tool for intervening in social groups

The value of an rpg ruleset is in helping groups modify their natural social practices (of meeting up and talking) into a new form. Hopefully a particularly interesting and fruitful form. A form that is more fun, or more meaningful, or otherwise better, than their default9.

Implication 3 — the system will push back

Beyond mere inertia, human systems are actively self-healing. When you fuck with a system, the forces that shaped it don’t go away. The GM doesn’t stop wanting the status and creative freedom that come from GMing just because they agreed to be a player this time6. Dr Thought’s next promotion will be based on her research, and giving her an essay mark scheme doesn’t change that (nor make her want to spend her research time on careful marking).

If the group already exists, and they’ve got an established roleplaying form, then you can get resistance from the system that sustains that form. And that probably has lots of properties that it actively sustains.

  • E.g. Dave wants to play more often than everyone else, but high-level Pathfinder compensates for that because its complexity gives him something game-related to do when he’s not playing (he optimises, he reads the extended players’ books, he talks on forums about character builds). If you shift to Mentzer, he’s got none of that. He’ll probably resist.
  • E.g. Michelle couldn’t give a shit about those compicated combats, and much prefers to roleplay, to see the characters arguing.  So she keeps those planning sessions going to get more of that. They’re far from her ideal play, but they’re a lot better than 20-minute combat rounds. If you squash the planning process, she’ll lose that. She’ll probably resist.

Implication 4 — you need buy-in to make a change

Not just consent, but enthusiasm — a willingness to be changed, and to do the work of changing. Change is hard, and often not worth it. And even mere consent requires trust — trust in you, trust in the materials you present (Do they trust Apocalypse World? Do they trust its author?), trust in their ability to make the change3. And they must trust not just motives but competence as well5.

Implication 5 — what change is possible depends on the system and your relationship to it

The group is playing Dungeon World in 5e, constantly grating up against the detailed combat rules? You are ripe to switch to Dungeon World. The group is having a good time in 5e, enjoying the turn-based rules-interaction tactics? You’re going to have a harder time.

The group looks to you as a demigod, lust and zeal in their eyes? You can probably make any change you like. You are the junior member of the group, younger, less educated, working a job with lower status? You’ll have a much harder time causing any change at all.

Implication 6 — the best change to attempt depends on the system and your relationship to it

See Implication 5 — this follows.

Implication 7 — the best change to attempt is probably not a whole game ruleset

A ruleset — a “whole game” — is a very big and clumsy intervention to attempt. If you are an experienced group, especially one that’s long-term stable and plays one main game, you are a very particular social system. And you know a lot about that system. Trying, hard, to push a whole game ruleset into your group-system is likely to do collateral damage as much as it brings benefits.

There are some nuances to the above claim11, but I think it broadly holds.


1. The same is true for other kinds of rules, policies, procedures. If you bring in a new project management method for your company, it will not slot in as “your project management system”. Not usefully, anyway. You, as advocate for the new method, will be making an intervention with the system’s books and articles and videos and hired consultants as tools. The established system is much bigger and much stronger than the mere method you are bringing.

2. There is no footnote 2.

3. I’m reminded of some single-language computer programmers I heard about, who seemed to believe the literally could not learn a new language. Some people have strange hangups.

4. “have” — am I saying that you own them? Possibly.

5. I think we have all seen a well-meaning evangelist ruin a thing.

6. Come watch me be a player in anything longer than a session.

7. It is not news to Vincent Baker, who was talking about this a decade ago —

“The goal of designing rules is to change social contract.

When I design a set of rules, I’m trying to change the way that people relate to one another, within the confines of the game. I’m trying to force, trick, or provoke them into treating one another in particular, possibly unnatural ways. I’m fuckin’ around with their working creative relationships.”

(http://www.lumpley.com/archive/156.html, 20 Jan 2005. Third comment from the bottom.)

He says “social contract”, not “patterns of behaviour”, and I don’t know all the nuances of what he means by that. But I am confident we are close enough.

Note how he says change, not define.

8. One thing unfamiliar to me — it’s been a long time since I had a game “crash”. My worst failure state is boredom. But perhaps I do not play brittle games, nor take the kinds of risks that might make a game end badly. Perhaps I should.

9. Most likely, not a form that will replace all their meeting up and talking. E.g. I only want to play rpgs about once a week.

10. (not linked from post, but included for the pleasure of those who like footnotes) You can intervene on yourself — you are intervenor and subject. Often, you split up cool-headed planning from hot-headed action — you know you’ll eat junk food if it’s there and you’re hungry, so you intervene at shopping time by not buying any. Sometimes, you merely arrange for knowledge now to be preserved as knowledge later — now, you know you need milk, but you may not remember later, so you intervene by putting it on a list.

11. E.g. Baker again, same source as 7

“It may work better to think of RPG rules as strong or weak, flexible or brittle: a strong RPG draws the players into its particular play, where a weak one allows them to play however comes naturally. A flexible RPG can survive or redirect a broad range of preexisting social dynamics, where a brittle one requires a particular social dynamic to already be in place, or the game crashes.”8

A suspicion — there are no strong, flexible rpgs. Strength implies brittleness. 


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