Sunday, September 10, 2017

Rules are the compromise you agree upon ... (discussing "Rules vs. Reality" again, are we?)

Time to write a post, I think. Work has been killing me, but that shouldn't be an excuse, right? Main problem is, that I'm really fresh burned out of ideas after most work days and the weekends are needed for recreation. Sad but true. Anyways, post time! I just saw that old argument flame up again, if games should be played raw and how to take "reality" into account ... I have, of course, an opinion on that. Thought I'd share.

I've talked about this to some degree three years ago in this post about why it's fun to take the rules serious. It brushes some of the concepts discussed here, so you might want to check it out. (I also think it's one of my better posts, for what it's worth).

There is two more posts down this road published just this weekend: +JD McDonnell has written on his blog about the question why we play by the rules


+Howard Beleiff aka The Goblin Stomper has written about how The Game is played "right" and the learning curve of becoming a good DM/player (which is, of course, also related) on his blog.

Both good reads, check them out, if you haven't already. My thoughts are loosely related to theirs, but I will go different directions with this. In that sense this post is not understood as an answer or critique, but as its own thing. An addition, maybe?

"Rules vs. Reality", my ass

There is something fundamentally flawed with an argument of "rules vs. reality" and that is assuming that rules don't take reality into account. People who have been around on this blog (bless you and your children) know that talking about languages is one of my pet peeves here. That's mostly because they are so damn relevant for role playing games. Everything you could possibly read about languages is somehow relevant to our games. Same here.

First of all, languages follow rules and try to describe reality. Easy as that. A table is a table because you say this construct is called "table", fulfills the following criteria: [...] and everyone agrees on that (within limits, because other languages and dialects are a different matter). Or that a "?" signals a question and there are rules to signify a question when talking ... etc., etc., you get my drift. It's so common sense, most people don't spend a second thought on that. They just grew up learning the rules and use them almost naturally. Some more successfully than others, of course (which is also somewhat important, in the grand scheme of things).

That being said, we have with role playing games a second layer that needs to be taken into account, as it is about using language in connection with other systems (the rules of the games we chose) to sustain a fiction (and this is definitely another stab at "reality" here). It's more akin to a book or a tv series in that sense. To finish reality off, the proper term would actually be "suspension of disbelief". That's what you want to have and it's highly subjective.

A bunch of 10 year olds will have a totally different suspension threshold as an old fart like me has. Which is not only totally fine, but also very, very relevant. It's about compromise. You don't (you never!) just play a game. I don't know why people don't seem to get that on a regular basis, actually. There's also the language you use, the people you play with and the experience and synergy they all bring to the table. Only that makes a game and every game is different.

Just like with language, the rules will "color" your game. They are one aspect. Think about that famous scene in Pulp Fiction, where Vincent Vega describes how different the golden M is in France just because of being French:

Rules are (again, just like languages) the terms you agree upon to sustain the fiction you aim to produce at the table. And just with learning a new language, there is a learning curve to that. So, yeah, people will encounter situations where the rules aren't clear enough, then people will talk about it and compromise to a degree that the game doesn't fall apart (suspension of disbelief often enough doing the trick here, even to a point where the table beliefs it's how the rules themselves are and go on because of it). Sometimes they find the appropriate rule, sometimes they have to find their own solutions, but it's all part of the learning curve.

Therefor it's not only about which set of rules you are willing to use, it's also about how well you not only use them, but need to use them. Which is a matter of taste. Somewhat. But also offers a deeper understanding you can achieve if you put in the time and the effort to go there (think "system mastery"). To give the language comparison one more run for its money: it's the difference between barely being able to communicate and being able to write a book. Both have their place, with lots of places in between to get comfortable in. Compromise.

I'll keep it short

We tend to look at those games as if they are entities of their own. Holy texts, maybe. Scripture. But when it comes down to it, they are just analogue apps to use language in a fictional context. They can be, within that analogy, underdeveloped or have bugs, but the beauty of it is, you don't need to be a programmer to fix them to get the game you have in mind, just like you don't need to be a linguist to play with language.

You still have to take all of it serious and explore what it means, though, even if it's just to explain what it means to you. That's the least you'll have to do, the minimum of effort you have to put into anything, really. Beyond that, the sky is the limit and I don't think it's a good thing to discourage people going there. They should push the boundaries, experiment, talk about it and go as deep as they dare.

The essence of it is, we are mistaken if we assume that the rules make the game. It's a common mistake, deeply rooted maybe in consumerism, maybe in corporate lies, maybe just in the common misconception that an object, a thing itself can have meaning without context (a bit like Dungeon World tells you it is what D&D can be ...). In my opinion, nothing we as humans are able to comprehend is ever without context. It's all connected.

That's not to say rules aren't a crucial ingredient to the game. They are, but so are the players (are they friends? are there some group politics or negative vibes? did the DM have a shitty day at work?), the season (summer games are different than winter games, aren't they? why is that? is it important?), the language (see Pulp Fiction), time of the day (you are supposed to play Vampire in the dark ...) and everything else that adds to a single rpg session. Context.

No man is an island ...

In the end rules are nothing more than accessories. That's nothing to look down at, of course, it's just as important as the clothes you like or the people you decide to hang out with ... But those decisions will always have a deeper meaning, a motivation that stems from somewhere. Especially with role playing games it's more often than not an idea we like and maybe (just maybe) we fight so hard about those rules because those ideas are dear to us, but to see them realized, it needs others. And others are complicated. Always.

So the discussion maybe shouldn't be about how "realistic" a game needs to be or how that is in conflict with the "real world", they shouldn't be about right or wrong. Instead they should be about the "why" way more often than not. Why might it be important to someone to feel his understanding of reality reflected in the rules? Or why is a rule perceived as broken? Why does a game not work for a certain group? Why did the campaign fall apart ...?

Because when all is said and done, it's all about making it happen at the table. What's your opinion on the best rules EVER worth if no one plays with you or if you need to force people?

Alright, I'll close: the tension between rules and the suspension of disbelief is somewhat system-inherent. It's the equivalent of describing a color you haven't seen before or explaining an emotion. In a way, it's not even about the rules you use but more about how good you are at using them in context with what you bring to the table (aka: everything else). In that sense, a couple of Navy Seals will have an easier time to use a simple system in a military context than anybody without that training might have. They will interpret the game with their experience and actually compensate any shortcomings a game might bring. But let them play ballerinas and they'll have a hard time getting anything out of that without some help. Needn't be the rules, could be a capable DM or seeing Black Swan and so on and so forth.

And that's just that.

Punchline ... [source]


  1. The map is not the territory.

    The paper is not the game.

  2. The consumerism is something I never considered. Maybe people fall in love with the rules because they shopped around for them. Part of the fun of going skiing is acquiring the gear (even more fun when you can afford the gear you are acquiring). Who wants to show up at the mountain and be told, you don't need all of that crap. Any pair of skis will do.

    Good post Jens!

    1. Thanks! And yes, that's what I meant. Great example with the skis! Once you've spent enough money, you are almost bound to tell others how great it is, whatever you bought. That's how it works :)

  3. lot's of good meat for discussion here, as there always seems to be any time we take a look at a reason there may be tension between the player(s) and the DM. I certainly agree that examining the 'why' is more important than the 'what' or 'which' in most gaming situations, but as with all endeavors, sharing a common history with a particular game or ruleset will ease the tensions that often arise (as will complete ignorance of a game/system).

    I think the founders certainly understood the conflicts that might arise, hence the "change/adjust these rules to fit your needs" addendum. Making sure that everyone agrees with that first can eradicate alot of lawyering later on.

    Great read, and thanks for linking back to mine!

    1. Thanks, and you are welcome! I agree about the founders. They cared until it all went corporate, nowadays publishers rarely care about what happens at the table ... The "common history" part is important, but the hobby being just above 40 years old, I'd say there's a lot of dust to settle before we can speak of a history. Right now this hobby of ours is still forming, imo ... Yeah, lots of stuff to discuss :)

  4. I have always wondered if when the game was young, Gygax took any particular glee in killing off player characters? Examples exist, like the tomb of horrors module out there which, I know is an outlier but still designed to kill overconfident characters.
    Early games coming up from the competitive roots of wargaming may have held onto some of that adversarial tone.. That may still carry a bit of momentum today.