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The importance of the rules
stipes ex machina

I always intuitively felt that D&D, as a game of creative imagination, was intensely flavoured by its rules. I didn't really understand what this intuition meant when I was a high school–aged DM and I was trying to figure out why I did and didn't like certain sets of rules. Later when 3e came along I bemoaned the treatment of psionics, but I could never articulate why beyond complaining, "it's just magic with a different paint job".

Which brings me to the monograph I've quoted up there. I loved reading game rulebooks. Like a sponge, I sucked up the ambiance that the art, layout, side-bar fiction, examples of play, lists of equipment, and the mechanics themselves wove together. Most importantly, reading game books made me want to play because my brain was overflowing with scenes of such delightful events and imagery. I wanted to pull those out, show them off to my players, and then see them inhabit, explore, and expand these imagined places and histories.

I'm sure that this is why I was never a fan of GURPS and other "universal" systems. They deliberately omitted the very inspirational elements that resonated with my imagination. I knew that much of the reason for such universal systems was for them to impassively and impartially represent any imaginary world I could think of, but they were dull, dry, and soulless: I wanted them to sing to me, and they just gave me a blank staff. Sci-fi almost always went with dry and mechanical rules too, which would explain why none inspired me until I became aware of Blue Planet and Shock.

There have been a lot of arguments lately that rules don't matter, just the roleplay. Mostly I've seen this argued by people advocating for D&D 4th Edition against hold-outs. Even leaving aside the inherent contradiction in that approach ("you should use these rules, because it doesn't matter what rules you use"), there's a problem with this line of reasoning. The rules do matter. The fictional objects they emphasise; how they feel and flow as they're handled during play; the implicit and explicit bounds on the fiction that they represent: all those serve to inspire the imagination in different ways than another set of rules would.

The roleplay is certainly paramount, but it doesn't spring from players in a vacuum. If the roleplay that a group produces can be likened to a meal, then the game rules are an important ingredient that contributes to the overall character of the final dish.

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An interesting line of reasoning, though I think you have misrepresented the "anti-grognard" argument above. As far as I can see, the original criticism of 4E by 3(.5)E players was that the new rules, in their combat-centered state as presented to us in the PHB, stifled roleplay by taking away the focus from non-combat resolution.

The counter-argument to that was that unlike earlier editions, 4E's tight corset of rules governing combat streamlined play so much that the time spent fighting actually went down, thus allowing more playtime for PC/NPC interaction and the like.

Hence the argument was not "you should use these rules, because it doesn't matter what rules you use" but "if you want to roleplay, you can use these rules just as well as the 3.5e ones, because the argument that they inhibit roleplay is based on false assumptions".

Ah, but he's not arguing that 4E fails in non-combat situations. Rather, 4E's mechanical rules and unappealing presentation fails to provide the sort of flavour and excitement for the game that old-school (2E or earlier) D&D books did.

And hell, fair enough. I never thought I'd see the day when I would be bored by reading the magic items section of a D&D core book...

Nono, his argument isn't invalid. I was merely pointing out that the answer to the "rules stifle roleplay" argument in the Edition War was misrepresented above. The reply was -- as far as I have been able to follow it -- that if you argue that an overabundance of rules hinders roleplay -- as many did and do in the face of 4E's combat system --, such criticism must be leveled at 3.5 as well, especially in the area of skills. But I am by no account an active or willing 'combatant' in that ongoing discussion, so I am quoting from the memory of having once read someone say something to that effect. Intake of salt is advised. ;)

Concerning presentation, the experience is quite the opposite for me. The core books of 3.5 where the most unappealing rulebooks I had read up to that point, and still remain that way today. Fourth edition, on the other hand, had me intrigued precisely because of its clarity and emphasis on a balanced combat system, and not because of the vague "Points of Light" setting. (Though I consider it a welcome change to the abominable pseudo-Greyhawk setting of yore. I'm still not happy with the nonsensical pantheon, but that's another matter entirely and something that would fall to the GM to rectify by worldbuilding something more believable.)

It's not that an overabundance of rules inhibits the roleplay. It's that the rules are mostly coherent only unto themselves, and are often dissociated from the in-fiction action and decisions. The disconnect in 4e's rules force me to choose between the imagined fiction and the mechanical action, which makes it unplayable for me.

But yeah, the 3e books sucked. I didn't like 3e's rules flavour much either, but I did find them playable. The rules were more firmly grounded in the fiction, so they didn't force me to choose between my imagination and using the rules well. When I have to ignore the rules in order to roleplay, I have to ask myself why I'm using those rules at all. (Aside, I agree with you though that the 3e skill system got in the way of roleplay, as I covered in a recent post.)

For a much better explanation of why 4e's rules are highly dissociative, here's something Justin Alexander wrote: "the game mechanics require you to make decisions as a player which have no analogy to the decisions of the character... 4th Edition is filled with dissociated tactical decision points. (For example, the fact that certain powers are more useful against minions than non-minions and vice versa.) ... Dissociated mechanics, by their very nature, insist that you pay attention to them instead of your character's world if you want to play the game." He's got a whole page full of examples of dissociative rules in 4e. The observations about dissociation in skill challenges are particularly bizarre. (e.g., it gets harder to climb a wall if you scout out the guards' patrol schedules first.)

Yes, I agree fully: the idea of skill challenges is one of the worst forms of non-combat resolution I've come across. It probably has its place, such as trap disarming under duress, similar to how Extended Tests work in ShadowRun, but I'd never want to put that rules corset on players for something as fluid as interaction with a major NPC.

I also agree with the point on how arbitrary the restrictions of Power use are. However, playing a system with something akin to "Special Attacks" (which fighters can learn, and which give additional benefits when attacking), I have seen that without a limiting factor, players of any color -- the ones that like the acting as well as the ones that love to fight things -- will invariably use the most powerful maneuver available to them to the exclusion of all others.

I was very happy to see 4E put a limit on the use of powers, but I still haven't seen the system in action. My experience with combat in any system that doesn't merely gloss over the confrontation in favor of narrative flow has been, however, that they are tedious, repetitive, and cause a disconnect with the game world, which is put on hold while the group rolls for outcomes.

they are tedious, repetitive, and cause a disconnect with the game world, which is put on hold while the group rolls for outcomes

This pretty much perfectly describes my experience of combat in 4e.

I know there are ways to spice up combat that could be applied... but running a 4e combat forces so much focus on the rules that it would mean running two parallel processes in my head—with attendant sync overhead—that it's just not appealing. (That doesn't even factor in maintaining a parallel thread for the in-world fictional version of the combat.) I can do the same thing better with other systems.

I'm not claiming that all anti-grognard arguments are of that form. But I have seen people reply to the objection "4e inhibits roleplay" with the rejoinder that "you can roleplay with any rules, so if you can't with 4e that's your fault and not 4e's fault". My observation is that much of the stuff that actively enables and encourages roleplay in other systems is missing from 4e (and from GURPS, etc., to be fair).

I also think that 4e's rules actively inhibit roleplay with their dissociative mechanics, but that's an independent problem that just happens to contribute to the same effect.

I still think you have to refine that observation. It's not so much that what encourages roleplay is missing in 4E across the board, I think, but that there is little to no 'background noise' associated with a given game world. The 4E PHB is a rulebook, not a sourcebook, if you can see what I mean. It works, as a book of rules, but I'd agree that it isn't facilitating roleplay other than world-independent dungeon-looting.

True, there is much less background noise. I wouldn't say that it's a book of rules sans source material though. In fact, what little world detail is included is even more tightly integrated with the rules than it was in 3.x.

Starting with the very basic feature—the class and race selection available—the rules make statements about the world they represent. True, that is changeable by the DM. The problem a DM then runs into, though, is that the heaviness of the rules means changing that stuff is a lot of work. Just witness the monumental amount of work that must have gone into re-creating the bard class for 4e.

So, to sum: there is subtle source info embedded in 4e, and the tight interconnections and heaviness of the system make eliminating or replacing that info a labour-intensive job. If you add in all the subtle source info that will be built into later 4e material, it becomes a Sisyphean task.

I agree to you on that. Only recently we had to ask one of the GMs in our Dark Eye game to step down. He's not a bad GM as such, he ran wonderful Vampire and Seventh Sea campaigns before, but in this particular system he is an old veteran and prefers the 1 and 2 version. And although people might think that it doesn't matter, it mattered a whole deal in a group that is used to 4.1. Even people who shun rulebooks like poison (like me *cough*) noticed discrepancies and it all boiled down to the fact that the universe the players thought they could rely on was not the universe the GM gave us. I'm really not a rule nerd and am all for free playing but that showed me how important a solid rule background for a group is.

Edited at 2008-08-09 12:23 pm (UTC)

That's mostly why I'm moving toward 1st and 2nd edition AD&D. With those I can present a world and let my players interact with it however makes sense to them, without them thinking about the rules. Those early editions put the world in front of the players and hid the rules behind the GM. The rules are loose enough that it should be easy to eliminate any discrepancies between what players expect to be able to do and what the rules let them do.

...I hope!

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I ran 1st edition D&D so briefly that I never actually consulted a to-hit table. Playing 2e I got used to the pain of constant THAC0 calculations. 3e, by comparison to 2e, is wonderful.

However, the 1e tables method is better than both I think. There are no calculations involved, just a direct lookup. (As a programmer, I appreciate that calculations and lookups have their advantages and tradeoffs. I think the advantage is to the lookup here.) THAC0 is a pain to calculate and involves both addition and subtraction, which is apprently harder to do on the fly. 3e's attempted fix—make everything addition—solve that problem but necessitates a slew of different modifiers be tracked and managed, which is a severe violation of the 7±2 rule.

The 1e tables have no such problem. Bonuses are few, small, and easy to handle on the fly. There's little addition and no subtraction. As an added bonus, a 20 can hit a larger range of Armour Classes than it can in any later edition, because the arbitrary entries on the table can accomodate that.

*stands on soapbox*

In my opinion, the system is somewhat important and it is good that the people playing it don't feel like they are slogging through molasses trying to get something done. Most critical, I think, is how the GM develops the setting. I love descriptions that build a detailed picture in my imagination so I can get a really good feel for the environment I am playing in. That allows me to excel as a player because I have a better idea of how I can interact with the environment and it gives me more options. From what I read of your games, you do this, so kudos.

I think my favourite game system might be Harn because 1) low level magic (it has some and that is really hard to come by), 2) more realistic (two arrows in the chest are highly likely to kill you), 3) it has one of the most well-developed settings I have seen and it makes sense, 4) the rules while adding little overhead to use adds a lot of detail to the gaming.

Also, I like a game that offers options for characters to do whatever they like. Some games are very channeled, but life usually isn't quite like that.

Some truth to that. Harn had a very detailed and flavourful low-magic setting, very internally consistent and well-thought-out. The system, on the other hand, is about as much fun as cancer, with sheet after sheet of tables, most of which you have to consult to resolve a single combat attack. Dying of infection after a fight isn't much fun, and neither is a fight where both combatants get so wounded that they can no longer do anything more than flail ineffectually at one another. It's a perfect example of why "realistic" != "better".

It's also a great example of how the choice of setting influences the choice of system -- try to imagine playing Harn using 4E D&D! They're two things that just don't go together.

That depends on what people are looking for in a game. It sounds as if you can't beat Hârn for deep realistic immersion. It sounds like it's not a game about heroes, so much as it is a game about ordinary people in a fantastic world. That's some people's cup of tea.

The detailed and torturous system supports the internal consistency of the setting. For people who value the believable development of a fictional event over the amount of time it takes, and value that even over whether it's favourable or unfavourable to their character, Hârnmaster is awesome.

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Yeah, the maps were done to a particularly high quality. I suspect they might have been a big influence on my becoming a cartographer.

I guess, in a grosser, more base version of what you're describing - the rules also facilitate how and why I chose to be playing D&D, verses say a vampire larp, SCA, Civil War recreationist, or whatever.

Although I'm only in the SCA currently.

At the event I was at this weekend, we had a guy talking a lot about a rival group - the EMP, the rules also help you to chose which group to play with.

That's a good observation. It explains to me why larp has never interested me: the larp "rules" require acting out the role, which actually makes it harder for me to suspend my disbelief and imagine the fantastic events being acted out. I'd rather have a perfect movie playing in my head during the game, than watch a bunch of people with imperfect costumes, makeup, and props.

'Course, I could find a group where costuming and prop verisimilitude is really important... but then I'd be spending a lot of time sewing instead of imagining, which isn't what I'm interested in.

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I'd agree. I should clarify that when I talk about the "rules" of LARPing turning me off, I'm including the meta-rule of "to make your char do something you have to act it out". That particular rule—act something out physically to make it happen—is a rule that makes it harder for me to get what I want—rich imaginary events—out of the game.

*nods* It sounds a lot like those that prefer text-based or askii(sp?) computer games over graphics.

Or the same way some people prefer the book over the movie - I was quite happy with what Harry Potter looked like in *my* head, and what his world looked like to me, seeing some other artist's depiction detracts from that.

I like theatre because I'm an actor - which I define as someone who enjoys trying to bring their own interpretation, or mental picture of the character to "life" and to show off to other people. But it depends on what you want from the game you play, or what aspects of the game you enjoy most.

To me part of the fun is trying to express a character visually, and I enjoy the persona I play in the SCA, but I also find I have an easier time creating characters in short stories.

I like the story of my persona a lot as well, every item I buy for Wendy I try to construct a story around, or an explanation of why she'd have that item. That's not a challenge that would interest some people.

The analogies with text-based versus graphical games and books versus movies are great. Thank you! I hadn't thought of that, which is odd since I've mudded so much in the past and feel the same way about most movie adaptations of books.

(It's "ASCII", or more informally "ascii", for "American Standard Code for Information Interchange". I had to look that last bit up.)

*nods* I knew it was an acronymn, I just have problems keeping all the acronymns straight these days.

I was also thinking today about how the rules are also there to protect - the players, their characters, the parameters of a given universe, etc.

In a physical game, they physically protect, but in an imagination game, they protect intellectual property and train certain forms of creativity.

They contain as much as they also define. Unless it's a specific cross-universe game (which has it's own rules), the rules also protect you from, "You walk into a dungeon and see Barney the Dinosaur. He starts singing, "I love you..." and hurls a lightening bolt for +28 damage."

There's some truth to that. Very old school games didn't have that kind of rules though, and relied instead on a shared idea of what the game was supposed to be about.

The linked quote that starts off the original post is actually to a forum post about this. Fang Langford points out how Mechanics and Genre Expectations are separate parts of the game, and then goes on to make some observations about how games play out from that.

Even in 4e I could easily whip up a Barney monster and unleash it on the players, and it would be quite within the rules. It wouldn't fit the style of the game and would be completely incongruous with the world, though.

*nods* But there's the hard, in the book rules, and the unspoken rules.

One of my English Proffs talked about the idea of the collective conscious, the idea that we all sort of subscribe to a few ideas about reality - the world is round, grass should be green, ice cream should be a universal food, etc.

I submitted (and I doubt I'm alone) that there's also a collective unconscious that stems from our mythologies, vampires should hate garlic and fear silver, werewolves only transform at full moons, D&D should have gelatinous cubes but not Barney, etc.

Social rules tend to develop faster than actual written ones.

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Right, then to you the difference isn't visual, but unlimited verses limiting.

You find graphic games and roleplay to be more limiting than text-based. Just movies doesn't work as much, because we have the technology to at least project the illusion of an actor flying faster than a speeding bullet and going all kung fu on your ass.

Also, that can't suspend your disbelief as easily when you're watching a lame geek flapping anime wings as when you imagine it in the game.

You also mentioned something else interesting - that you imagine the voices differently - I think that's an important point. Not everyone's imagination is purely visual, depending on what kind of learner you are, you process information differently, and project it for yourself differently. For you you probably get as upset about how a character sounds, as I might about how they or the universe looks.

This is one thing I like about tabletop play. Nobody ever gets upset about how a characters' voices sounds. :>

Oddly, for me that's at least in part because my heavily-engaged imagination filters the sound of player's voices partway into how I would expect the character's voices to sound. When I'm speaking it's even stronger, since I can "hear" how my character should sound in my head.

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