Sunday, October 16, 2005

Introduction to Forge Theory #3

Introduction to Forge Theory #3

Rules and what they are

The absolute basis of discussing role-playing game design and role-playing game theory is the rule. And so, to continue our discussion any further, I'm going to have to give you a definition of what a rule is. So, without further ado:

A rule is a method through which we effect our play

Which, if you consider "system" to be the sum of all "rules," you can see is pretty much identical to the more canonical statement:

The system is the means by which the players manipulate the shared imagined space

Which goes by the name "the lumpley Principle" in Forge terminology, 'cause it is due to Vincent Baker who, for odd historical reasons that I am sworn to secrecy about, has the screen name "lumpley."

(This is how we name things at the Forge. All I can say in our defense is that it is just as good as the system which has given modern Chemistry such elements as "Berkelium.")

Except that my definition includes the whole of our play, rather than simply the shared imagined space. We'll get into that more in the next section.

For now, I want to talk about the absolutely large breadth of what I mean by "rule" here. For one, it encompasses all things which you normally think about as game rules, things like:
  • When you attack someone, you roll a die to see whether you hit or not.
  • You can spend a hero point to roll again.
  • Dice higher than 7 are successes, if you get more successes than your opponent, you win.
  • and so on...

But it also includes things like:
  • We determine the events of the game through discussion amongst the players, with the GM facilitating.
  • The GM has the final say over all events.
  • The player of a character has the final say over all actions, emotions, and thoughts of that character, as well as some say over their fate.
  • All typed up backstory is in-game canon, a player writes backstory for his own character.
  • and so on

With this in mind, we can see something very clearly -- in terms of this definition of rules, there is no such thing as "rule-less" play or even, really, "rules-light" play. Any event in the game occurs because of one or more rules. "Systemless" or "freeform" play is simply play in which the rules are less obvious, less mechanical, more social, or something else. With this in mind, we can see that "systemless" is, in fact, a rather broad swath of play with lots of diverse and interesting types of systems (remember: System = sum of all rules). The really cool thing is we can realize that, since these are rules, we can write them down and share them with others.

The common practice is, as designers, to skip writing down most of our processes of play in favor of writing down some task resolution, character creation, and advancement rules that may or may not reflect the actual rules we play with, and certainly not the whole of the rules that we play with.

From a theoretical and design standpoint, this is really exciting. From a play standpoint, it is even moreso. We don't have to rely on people who hold the same sort of unspoken social rules that we do: "good players" and the even rarer "good GM." Rather, we can start to talk openly about what rules we use that result in satisfying play, and even teach them to others.

Anyway, I'm getting a bit ahead of myself again. Let's talk next about what rules do during play.

P.S. Whether or not things like the below count as rules is a matter of some debate:
  • The GM never has to pay for pizza.
  • We alternate nights between Jim's house and Lauren's house.
  • Whoever's house we're at gets final say about which campaign we play.
  • Jim has a loud dog.
  • Betty has the hots for Jim, even though he's married to Christine.

As for myself, here's what I think currently: These are not game rules as such, although some of them may be social rules. The important thing is that, while these things certainly can and will affect play, we can't really use them actively to effect our play in the same way -- they color our interactions, but they don't really produce play on their own.


Blogger Thor Olavsrud said...

Hey Ben! Glad to see you're back to posting.

I don't know if you realize this, but your post Introduction to Forge Theory #2 set off a firestorm of contention and controversy at nerdnyc. That led me to attempt to formulate my own definition of a role-playing game itself. (Yes, it got that contentious.)

Anyway, I bring it up because of your definition:

A rule is a method through which we affect our play

I'm in 100% absolute agreement. In fact, here's my definition:

Rules are the method through which we assign each other the power to change, add to, or challenge each other's contributions to the shared imagined space.

Which I think is essentially the same as yours. I also think that with this definition in place, we can discount your "rules that are a matter for debate," with the possible exception of "whoever's house."

What do you think?

12:06 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Thor --

This is key:

A rule is a method through which we effect our play

I'm using effect in it's verb transitive sense of "to bring into being"

Social situation can, of course, affect our play, but it can't be the whole of what we use to bring about our play. For that, we need rules, too.


11:44 AM  
Blogger John Kim said...

Yup. The point that "systemless" or "rules-light" games actually have many unwritten rules is a useful one in many ways. I remember wrangling about this for my RGFA FAQ, and eventually settled on "mechanics-light" as the more appropriate term.

One suggestion, though, is that you need a simple term for a written, concrete rule (as opposed to an unwritten, perhaps subconscious rule). In RGFA parlance, for example, we used "mechanic" for objective rules while keeping "rules" and "system" more general as you do. Even though they both have system, there is a real difference between, say, a game using Phoenix Command and a game using GRAPE -- and it is good to have a term for it.

12:33 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

I segregate between the following things for rules:

Formal versus Informal -- Formal means that we are conscious of it as a concrete rule, informal means it is mostly internalized: even if we are conscious of it, it is more about a "you just don't do that" rather than a rule.

Textual versus Personal -- Whether or not the rule comes from an external authority, such as a gaming text. Note that all textual rules are formal, but not all formal rules are textual. Polaris has some experimentation with trying to establish Textual, Informal rules, but the jury is out on whether it worked.

Mechanical versus Social -- Pretty much what it sounds like.

Not an inclusive list, by any means.

6:44 PM  
Blogger James said...

Ben, you may want to find another way to say that definition of a rule. I realize (now) that your use of "effect" is deliberate and considered, but with 90% of the english speaking world constantly screwing up 'affect' and 'effect', I assumed as Thor did that you mean 'affect'.

I suspect most readers will misread that. The ones that won't, aren't likely to get the verb transitive usage anyway.

4:58 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

James --

This may be true. However, I refuse to bow before the weight of hyper-correctors and ignoramouses.


P.S. Perhaps the final version will have a footnote to that effect.

12:14 PM  
Blogger Shreyas said...

If you're going to spell ignoramus like that, then it behooves you to say ignoramice.

5:35 PM  
Blogger James said...

Ben, it isn't so much the hypercorrectors and ignorami, as the simple fact that educated people will assume you're using the wrong word, from context. The sentence is shaped in a fashion that implys 'affect'

No skin off my nose, I just wanted to raise it as a readability issue. I'll shut up now. :)


10:50 PM  
Blogger Elliot Wilen said...

"From a theoretical and design standpoint, this is really exciting."

is unclear as written, although clear if one is already acquainted with the concepts...which of course doesn't help with an introductory essay.

In the above sentence, "this" is "the recognition that the common practice elides many of the actual rules or procedures of play."

One way to make it clearer might be to add a "by contrast" somewhere in the sentence that starts with "The common practice".

8:21 AM  
Blogger Mo said...

Hiya Ben!

Just a note. Under your definition...

"A rule is a method through which we effect our play"

Then two of your grey area points become less nebulous.

"-Whoever's house we're at gets final say about which campaign we play..."

must absolutely be a rule, social or not, because it is meta-responsible for bringing play into being in the first place.

Further, in your def, I'd say:
"-Betty has the hots for Jim, even though he's married to Christine."

is probably going to be a rule as well, as it's likely to effect play, functional or not.

9:37 AM  

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