Rules matter, but you have to make them matter

There are lots of ways that rules, not just written rules, can change your game. I wrote a big list of ways they can do this.

But rules only work if you enact them. No rule can make you do anything, make your group do anything — you have to make rules work by following them.

This sounds obvious, when you say it like that, but looking at arguments online it’s clearly not obvious to everybody. I’m not sure it was always obvious to me.

Question — but don’t people generally follow the rules in rpgs?

No. People routinely ignore and customise rpg rules. Often for good reasons, but also often because they don’t notice, or don’t realise what they’re losing by doing so.

Objection — rules aren’t the only thing that matter

No. Of course not. Personalities, relationships, playing environment, skill and experience all matter.

(There was a trend at one time to make hierarchies — “people, environment, snacks, system, in that order”. Those are silly — you can’t pull a complex system apart like that. A good starting point is to think about bottlenecks or weakest points — a serious problem with any one of rules, personalities or play environment can make a mess of things.)

Objection — most games have basically the same rules

Yes. Rules can change your game, in interesting and desirable ways, but many rules don’t do that. Justin Alexander gave us good wording for this“most RPG systems don’t actually carry a lot of weight, and are largely indistinguishable from each other in terms of the type of weight they carry”. Most trad rpgs have the same very lightweight framework around major game events and “plot”-significant elements; to a large extent, they say “the GM decides”. They also have huge fine-detail subsystems, but those don’t fundamentally change how the game plays out — they don’t change the kind of larger scale narratives that it produces.

Once you step outside the trad-rpg circle, though, there are a host of games that can radically change the way you play.

Saying “system matters” is almost never useful

Saying “system matters” is almost never useful, at least in a public forum where you don’t know everybody in your audience and what jargon they understand.

If the reader doesn’t speak Forge, they’re likely to read it as “rules matter”. And that’s true, and worth saying … but there are enough Forge-speakers still in circulation that one might crop up and read it in a different way. Or, worse, derail your thread by starting a fight about what it means.

Such Forge-fluent readers are likely to read it as something like “there are a wide variety of factors that shape your play experience, including, but not limited to, explicit rules, and this can be investigated, described, and deliberately changed”.

But they might also read it as “the most important thing in gaming is that the whole group is on board with how you play — explicit rules, implicit norms, habits, and assumptions”.

Or as “rather than try to force your game concept into those rules you always used, you’d be better off trying a ruleset built for that kind of concept”.

(If you go to the Forge Provisional Glossary or the Big Model Wiki, you can find out the Forge definition of system, but slotting that into the phrase doesn’t help get to (1). You end up with ““The means by which imaginary events are established during play, including character creation, resolution of imaginary events, reward procedures, and more, matters”, which is pretty opaque)

So, if you want people to reliably understand what you say:

  • If you want to say “rules matter”, then say that.
  • If you want to say “there are a wide variety of factors that shape your play experience, including, but not limited to, explicit rules, and this can be investigated, described, and deliberately changed”, then say that.
  • If you want to say “the most important thing in gaming is that the whole group…” … etc

As ever, if in doubt, be concrete and specific.

Just don’t say “system matters”. You’ll just obscure your own message.

D&D 5e’s art and design is not all bad

I don’t like the presentation of D&D 5e. I particularly don’t like the art. If you’ve read There is an aesthetic that I want and a way I want to feel, this may not surprise you. But I can see its properties support the aims and desires of the creators and their audiences.

The key challenge for 5e is appealling to a very wide audience. It’s going for the broadest possible market share, and has a wide range of player groups who consider it “their game”. It’s not a niche-niche game, at least not compared to LotFP or Vampire or Burning Wheel.

And of course its owners want to get money out of it, or at least to maintain brand value that they can use elsewhere. And the fan base has diverse interests and values

First, some simple good things that are compatible with the aesthetic I’m describing:

  • Diverse ethnic and gender representation
    • (e.g. they represent “human” by a black woman who looks tough and is not sexualised)
  • The organisation of the text, the typography, and the graphic design are all very clear.
  • Their way of describing rules is very precise and consistent. It’s too precise, and too detailed for my liking, but there are advantages to pedantic precision.

Then, some things incompatible with my aesthetic, but that have other benefits:

  • Colourful, attracts the eye
  • Generally controlled and competent — doesn’t ever look very clumsy
  • Consistent with what a lot of people like – cf many video games, comics, and their associated fan art
  • Implies a fairly wide range of possible settings, in both environment and costume
    • (this is common to most generic system, and I find it off-putting — FATE and Hero Quest have the same problem)
  • Inoffensive to the vast majority of people [1]
  • Broadly suitable for children, even in the eyes of fairly censorious parents.
    • (And most adult owners will be happy for their children, of any age, to flick through it. So it can go anywhere in the house)
  • Not upsettingly gory or painful for almost anyone.
    • (Issues around this are killers for a fair few people. And even I, despite my commitment to things with extra tubes, won’t watch e.g. Saw or The Human Centipede.)
  • Possibly the background pattern has some anti-piracy value, making copies harder to print, or at least more expensive [2]

Footnotes

[1] Exception is a certain class of bigot. But I think most of us can live with that.

[2] Though may be a problem for people with limited vision? Though a comment on Stack Exchange suggests probably not.

An rpg prep checklist needs goals and techniques

Conjecture — A good handy guide to GM prep moves needs to have, for each move:

  • A goal, desire, or applicable situation — when should you use this? When is it worthwhile?
  • A name of the move/technique — as a reminder for moves you know well
  • A brief summary/prompt set — so you can do it there and then, from the aforementioned handy guide, if you’re moderately familiar with the technique

For example:

Continue reading “An rpg prep checklist needs goals and techniques”

Some motivations for rpg prep are better than others

As a GM, There are lots of reasons you might want to spend time on prep. I’ve sketched out below what I think are the major ones.

Prep as support for play

  • I.e. your motivation is to prep so that your game is good when you run it

  • This is the healthiest relationship, both psychologically and for the health of any game community who sees you at work. It’s the one that best matches the ostensible goal, so least likely to be distorted by motivations that aren’t obvious.

Prep as pure leisure

Continue reading “Some motivations for rpg prep are better than others”

A statement on Zak Smith

On this site I have previously referenced articles by Zak Smith, and I’ve engaged with him in the comments section. I’ve not done this for a while, in the light of his past behaviour (see Patrick Stuart’s summary of Zak’s online conduct). In the light of his more recent behaviour, I have now gone through the site and deleted all such references and comment threads.

Futher to that — If you support, endorse, defend, or purchase the products of Zak Smith, or indeed if you would piss on him if he was on fire amid the stacks of the British Library, please do not interact with me in a hobby-games context.