Saturday, October 01, 2005

Introduction to Forge Theory #2

Good Rules, Bad Rules; Foreshadowing "A culture of designers"

I assume everyone reading this has played, sometime in the past, a table-top RPG. In fact, my basic assumption is that everyone reading this is, in fact, a table-top RPG hobbyist of some form or another. If you aren't, this is about to seem really strange.

In my lecture tour around Finland, I asked the following questions, and asked for a show of hands in response:

1) Who here has ever played a table-top role-playing game?
2) Who here has ever GMed a table-top role-playing game?
3) Who here has ever, during the course of play, changed a rule, ignored a rule, or added a rule to their game?
4) Who here has ever attempted to design their own role-playing game, regardless of how far along you got in the process?

I am hands up for all four, but you all already knew that. The shocking thing is that everyone but everyone is hands up for #1 and #3. Everyone. Only exceptions were people who'd never played RPGs before, or people who'd only played one session or so.

Now, this is a pretty limited sample. It is about 100 Finns who chose to came to an RPG Theory lecture. We can imagine that it represents the hard-core of the Finnish hobbyists. But, I imagine a survey of the American hobbyists would result in the same thing, and I imagine that most of you reading this are nodding your heads.

We, as RPG players, ignore our rules.

Guys, this is wierd. Most people, well, play games more or less by the rules. If I'm playing Chess with you, I don't suddenly say "Hey, I think it would be really cool if my pawn moved three spaces this turn, like a knight, but without the jumping. How about it?" If I said something like that, you'd be well within your rights to sock me one, or at least refuse to keep playing the game. It is inappropriate and rude.

Even when we play games that are commonly houseruled, like Monopoly, the rules are traditionally passed down and certainly are not changed during play to make the game "more fun."

But, when we play RPGs, we think nothing of changing or ignoring the rules for no other reason than whim or the opinions of one empowered player.

I have a hunch about this. I have a hunch that the reason why we do this is because, frankly, if we didn't our games wouldn't be very satisfying. I mean, right? We change the rules so that we can get more satisfaction from playing our games. Or, more often, we change the rules so that we can get *any* satisfaction from playing our games.

Most RPG rules are, simply, bad rules.

Now, before you take me to task for just bashing, I have a very specific definition of what I mean when I say "bad rules" and also when I say "good rules." It is thus:

  • If a rule makes your play less satisfying with its presence, it is a bad rule.
  • If a rule makes your play more satisfying with its presence, it is a good rule.
  • And, yes, Mr. Anal Retentive, there's another case: If a rule doesn't make your play any more or less satisfying, I would say it is probably a bad rule, simply because it is making things more complicated for no good reason.

You can see that "good rule" and "bad rule" are quite subjective based on your play group and your own play styles. But, I think it is pretty safe to say that there are rules, in fact there are quite a lot of rules, that are bad rules for pretty much anyone. Further, we can imagine that there are some groups of rules which will "be good" together -- if we want a particular type of satisfaction from our game, a certain set of rules will work better than other rules.

Now, you're a role-playing gamer, and you've grown up as a game designer yourself, modifying the bad rules in your books into good rules for your own play. In fact, if you're anything like me, you've probably become pretty distrustful of rules in general. You're probably going "Ben, come on, good rules? Rules just get in the way of role-playing."

To which I say -- "Do the rules of poker 'just get in the way' of gambling? Do the rules of chess 'just get in the way' of strategy?"

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before we talk too much more about good rules and bad rules, we need to talk about what rules are.

And for that, gentle readers, you will have to wait for the next section.


Blogger Shreyas said...

You're probably going "Ben, come on, good rules? Rules just get in the way of role-playing."

Fuck that with something rusty. I have a big, complex, visceral response to this, but I don't want to eat your comments section so I'm just going to take it home with me. Thanks for bringing it up! (Yes, actually thanks, no subtextual bitterness.)

6:54 PM  
Blogger xenopulse said...

I've been having a problem in discussing why rules can help play. Here's why:

A lot of roleplayers see RPGs as games. We compare them, as you did, to Chess and Monopoly. However, RPGs have many fundamental differences to those kinds of games. Mainly because they are (often) collaborative creative endeavours. They are not mechanically competitive games, unlike Chess and Monopoly. Most of them don't have endgames (and endgames is a concept that most mainstream roleplayers seem to find very weird). There's interaction between fiction and mechanics, which is not the case in "regular" games.

Now, some people, like my wife Lisa, came to roleplaying from another angle. She's a writer who started chat games with people online, and they more resembled collaborative storywriting. This developed into playing by post and by chat with or without GMs. I play the same games, without mechanics.

There's an ontological difference here that matters, because of roleplaying being a unique blend of vastly different activities.

It's easy to explain to us game-side people why rules might be good. It's hard to see for a person for whom roleplaying is more about the creative storytelling aspect why they'd need rules. They don't compare it to monopoly or chess, they compare it to trading off writing a manuscript, or two writers working out the story together, etc. Neither of which has rules.

Therefore, it is much easier to talk about "good rules" with people who are inclined to accept the "game" comparison than people who come from the "authoring" perspective.

(And yes, I know there's a difference between "rules" and "mechanics.")

10:46 PM  
Blogger Bankuei said...

This is Chris, jumping up and down like a maniacal muppet, with agreement. Yes, that pretty much summarises the majority of my writing in 3 months blogging about games.

1:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"To which I say -- "Do the rules of poker 'just get in the way' of gambling? Do the rules of chess 'just get in the way' of strategy?"

They don't--however traditional RPGs are not and have not been played for an experience that is categorized as bluffing or strategy.

The role of "story" (which I'm defining as a narrative that has meaning to the recipient) is very complex in traditional RPGs.

In fact, I assert that it was the transition from war-game to RPG that was the paradidgm shift that brought in a level of play (attention to story) that was 'above' that of mechanics (although certainly not divorced from it) that says: "Some parts of this experience we think will be best resolved with traditional rules and some things we think are best resolved without traditional rules--or only with thier assistance."

The decision that this POV is wrong is, of course, a viable (if one-true-wayist) position to hold.

But it isn't the only reasonable position.


1:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And since I can't edit ... I will amend the first sentence of my reply to be something like:

A good deal of traditional RPG play has not been played for an experience that is easily summed up as gambling or strategy.

Certainly a lot of RPG play does center strongly on gambling and strategy and I expect that in those games (minature-battle D&D 3.5 games, forex) you will find--perhaps to your amazement, hopefully not--that rules are often meticulously followed.


1:53 AM  
Blogger Bankuei said...

Hi Marco,

The subtext of Ben's point is "Do rules designed to hit X aspect of play get in the way of X?"

If the answer is yes, then that's a bad rule.

And, yeah, that paradigm shift is still happening, mostly because people have been welding on new X's to the wargaming for almost 30 years. This is aimed at pointing out that we actually CAN support X, whatever X is, if we choose to instead of trying to squeeze X from a set of rules about Y.


2:21 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Christian -- Stay tuned for the next installment.

Marco -- Given your violent disagreement with Forge theory in the past, did you really think you were going to agree with the same thing said again?

Explanation, not evangelism.


7:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm just readin' and commeting. There's no violence there and I hope I haven't insulted you. If you'd rather me not post any more just let me know.

It seems pretty axiomatic to me that the goals of RPG-gaming are more diverse than those of poker and chess and therefore the interactions with rules can be a good deal more complicated. As such, your response is facile. As you were in an explanatory mode, I thought I'd address that.


8:24 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Marco --

A couple of things.

You can put your name in without a blogger account by clicking "other" under "choose an identity."

I don't care if you comment or not, although I'd rather that your comments were in line with the goals of the essay, because that way you're useful to me. But you certainly don't owe it to me.

I'm not going to going to argue with you about your arguments here. Like I said, I don't care if you believe me or not.


8:41 PM  
Blogger jhkim said...

I'm basically in agreement here. Obviously, system should fit what you want the game to do, rather than be ignored. This is a truism which has been around since long before the Forge. There are certainly those who ignore good design in favor of fancy packaging or cool but not-well-implemented ideas. I don't think this is unique to RPGs but it does seem to be more common. It just has to be spoken against.

I have two caveats:

One is that your question #3 isn't very good at distinguishing this. First of all, it's about what people have done ever. For example, nearly everyone has broken a law sometime in their life, even if just speeding or jaywalking. However, that doesn't mean that everyone ignores the law. Second, since you included "changing" or "adding" rules, then tinkerers who care deeply about system will also raise their hands. For example, recently someone used _Dogs in the Vineyard_ to run a game about vikings. They modified the rules for this, changing guns to swords. By your question #3, though, you're classifying them with people who constantly ignore every rule.

The important thing here is to focus your aim on those who actually advocate ignoring rules as a general practice, rather than on those who just have different rules preferences than you. For example, most of the D&D3 players I know play strictly by the book. It's not a game I personally like all that much, but it's not broken. My experience of James Bond 007 and Champions is similar, for example.

By the same token, Marco isn't opposed to good rules either. Marco is an indie designer and has been a Forge member for longer and written more posts than you, and far from being violently opposed to Forge theory, I think he's been a useful contributor and commentator.

3:38 AM  
Blogger Emily Boss said...

Xenopulse wrote:
This developed into playing by post and by chat with or without GMs. I play the same games, without mechanics.

It is fascinating looking at the separate & parallel development of online rp. They do use rules though--very specific & very important ones from what I understand. They may not use mechanics (specific repeatable, often crunchy & metanarrative procedures), but there are guidelines that everyone follows that make it possible to work together.

For example, without the rule: "Only the person who plays a character can determine what happens to the character," the collaboration would be very different or break down. When this rule is ignored, people get angry & the story goes awry.

I would imagine that this sort of things is especially important given the numbers of people that take part in online rps.


11:50 PM  
Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

First, a totally stylistic comment: the paragraph beginning with "You can see that "good rule" and "bad rule" are quite subjective..." really needs to be unpacked a little (and a full treatment is another post entirely). Lots of gamers --and designers -- don't recognize that they actually have goals in play. This is an essential first step for understanding Forge-speak.

More substantially, I'd submit that there is another motive for adding or changing rules: the glory of authorship. It's not (necessarily) that the game-as-published is broken or has bad rules that need fixing, it's that, if I make a house rule that my group agrees to, and maybe they export it to other playgroups, then I get a nice warm fuzzy feeling inside because I've authored something. That nice warm fuzzy feeling is something that we Big Important Designers lose track of once we see our stuff in print a few times -- I was reminded of it when a new coworker here was all starry-eyed cause he saw stuff he copyedited in print for the first time. No doubt gamers amend rules to fix them, but there are also a ton of rules (and entire rulesets, entire games) that exist, not because the original game was broken, but because the author wanted to do it himself, too. Especially in gaming, which is a creative endeavor start to finish, this is a common occurence.

Your point in the thread is going in a different direction than this, however, so it may be nothing more than a tangential point.

3:35 AM  
Blogger xenopulse said...


yes, there are fundamental rules in online RPs. The funny thing is that most people did not recognize those explicitly. I struggled for a while to explain the idea of character ownership to other players, mainly because it's subject to bullying. Because you want others to play with you, you have to give in at times. It can be a healthy give-and-take, or it can turn ugly. I've known many people who start arguments over "you can't do that" or "you're just a God player." Most of them were competitive people who tried to make the cooperative endeavor into a competitive one. Since no mechanics are present, social pressure is the only way to go about that.

Any more details would probably be beside the point of this thread, so I'll shut up now :)

- Christian

10:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Most people, well, play games more or less by the rules".

That's just plain wrong, in my experience. With the exception of people who have games as their main hobby (chess players etc), people actually ignore rules very often, especially when they get complicated.

A lot of games are, after all, played for fun, by kids with or without their parents. They don't really care whether they're following all the rules; probably only one of them has even read the rules, and then, they only read what you need to start the game. Everything else you just skim when you get to it. This goes even for simple and/or common games that "everyone knows", like Monopoly, Ludo and Chess.

The set of people who read all the rules to a game is a small subset of all the people who play games.

2:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hm. I am seeing this from two points of view.

1. I guess something akin to structuralist. That is, okay, I'm looking at how a game functions. From that point of view, yes, I agree. If a rule makes play less satisfying, it is a bad rule; if more, it is a good; if neither, it is a bad, because it's an unnecessary complication that introduces a new mode of failure. If we are ignoring rules because the game would suck if they didn't, these are bad rules.

2. From the point of view of how I play an rpg. From this point of view, it isn't that I disagree, but. But... what about areas that the rules don't touch and don't need to touch?

That is, suppose we are playing Dogs in the Vineyard, and we get into an in character philosophical discussion. It isn't a conflict, and nothing is at stake. We're just in that headspace where we are really having a blast talking in character. No one is bored or impatient; we're all enjoying this.

I neither want nor need rules for this situation. This may be obvious to everyone, and it may be a total non-issue. That would be cool.

But, I often get the sense that the Forge -- insofar as it makes any sense to lump a very disparate group of people into a collective -- by and large disapproves of this situation. Many Forge games seem to have this idea that, if you're not using the mechanics to move things along, something is wrong. There seems to be a distrust of an aspect of roleplaying that I very much enjoy, one covered by the "Say yes" part of the "Say yes or roll the dice."

Now, I may be completely off base. But, if I'm not, where does this aspect fall in the scheme of things? I cannot think of an analogous situation in, say, Poker or Monopoly.


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