2004-12-24 : Archive 138

A friend of mine said to me over thanksgiving that RPG rules are just whatever, right? What matters is the group and the setting.

There's a good bit of that in response to my last post here, too.

Now, it's pointless to argue points of theory - Task Resolution vs. Conflict Resolution, GM Fiat, GMful play, FitM vs. FatE, Story Now vs. pastiche vs. polemics, whatever - it's pointless to argue those without first establishing that, in fact, the rules you play by matter.

So here are four questions for Jonathan, Trav, and anybody else on the "the group matters, the rules don't" side:

I think you'd agree that groups have styles. My group's style is different from yours, for instance. I also think you'd agree that different groups' styles lead to and are better suited to different types of play. My group's style leads to co-GMed play, for instance, while your group's style wouldn't be (as) well-suited to it.

1) Would you agree that a group's style depends on particular techniques, all acting more-or-less together? My group, for instance, uses particular specific techniques to make co-GMed play work?

2) Would you agree that a group could learn new techniques and thereby change its style? My group could, if it wanted, learn some of the techniques your group uses, thus changing our style to better suit your type of play?

3) Would you agree that a group could, with sufficient experience, change its style intentionally to adapt to particular types of play, by choosing which techniques they'll use? Having learned some of your techniques, my group could choose which set of techniques to use, to get the kind of play we're currently after?

4) Would you agree that it's possible to communicate in writing about the techniques a group uses? Your group could, for instance, write down how you play well enough that my group could learn techniques from it?

1. On 2004-12-24, Tom said:

Oooh! Oooh! Mr. Lumpley! Mr. Lumpley!

I believe that there's both technique and *talent* acting in concert and there are certain qualities that may be beyond formalization (or even practice).

Let me demonstrate with a slightly tweaked metaphor:

Rather than RPGs, lets use the wonderful world of Art.

Meg does Art and I do Art. Meg does art with Fiber, I do Art with writing. We have different styles of Art, but we both have fun doing it.

1.) Our style depends on our techniques. Meg works with fibers, I work with word processors.

2.) Both of us could learn new techniques. Meg could write something, I could take up knitting.

3.) Obviously, we could use these new techniques to change our this example each new technique pretty much maps to a new style.

4.) Could we communicate about the technique that we use? Yes, there's lots of books about writing books and different fiber arts.

BUT—we each do Art through our own methods. While we may be able to incorporate or build on other techniques, it's unlikely that we would actually be as good as if we worked in our own, preferred method.

OK, I've chosen two rather different disciplines, but let's move it a bit closer together. Say that we both paint. For the sake of argument, let's say we even both paint in oils. Walk into any art museum and you'll see the same basic tools applied in thousands of different ways to produce a kalidescope of paintings. And each artist has their own style, their own technique and they don't usually deviate too far from it. Picaso is different from Monet who is different from Da Vinci who is different than cave painting guy.

Now go outside and down the street to the artisian fair where dozens of wannabe Bob Ross's have their work out. They've followed the books, they've copied the technique, but a lot of times their work falls far short. Sometimes it's becuase they just haven't practiced their craft enough, but sometimes, these people just shouldn't be painting.

(Now, the person who is a terrible, horrific painter, but who's having a blast doing it, simply has a style that only he can apprciate, but a lot of bad artists have a slightly bigger agenda that just having a good time)

OK, let's bring this back to RPGs. If Co-GMing is a technique that really works for you, great. Can you teach other people to do it? Sure. But can you teach them to do it as well or better than you do? Well....maybe. If it's not a technique that they can engage both mentally and creatively, then it's going to fall flat and eventually, the group will just drop it. If it's something that they really "grok" then they may wind up taking the technique to new levels.

I think that rules do matter, but ultimately, it's the premise (or setting) that really matters. I think this is what hurts FUDGE for example. I like FUDGE a lot. I think it's a fabulous ruleset. But if you put out the core FUDGE rulebook and the core Vampire book out there, the Vampire book sells more every time. Even if we assumed equally high production values, Vampire would still walk away a winner. Because you pick up Vampire and go "I'm a Vampire! Cool!" and when you pick up FUDGE it's like "it's rules that let you do anything, but doesn't give you any direction". HERO has a ruleset that terrifies me (and I like Star Fleet Battles), but the Champions setting is like an irresistable siren song that calls to my wallet every time I see something for it.

Note that the rules might be great or they might be crap, but the game that gets my money, the game that makes me think about getting people together to try it out, is the game with the appealing setting. And if a game doesn't actually make it to a play session, then it doesn't matter how good the rules are or how many technique ideas there are.

Let's put it this way: Dogs in the Vineyard could've used Synnibar's ruleset. But you had me sold on a copy the moment you explained what it was about.

So yeah, a good setting gets the game started. Good groups can run with that setting for a long time. Good rules (and examples of technique) can help the group get better.



2. On 2004-12-24, jonathan said:

This is one I'll have to really think about; no time now, alas. My first instinct is to say the groups I'm in are an amalgamation of various "styles," some of which I could quantify (we have some min/maxers, to use old terms) and some I just can't. I think if we really sat down and deconstructed it, we could figure it out, but we're havin' enough fun not to do that. ;-) Generally, we only think about something like this if there's a problem. (i.e. someone in the group is making play/enjoyment difficult for the rest of us, etc.)

But, glibly:

1. My instinct is no, but I guess I'll say "maybe" until I'm able to sit down and think and/or discuss this with others.

2. Well, I don't know we have a specific "style," it depends on the GM, the game, who's actually playing, etc. But yes, we have absolutely proven we can adapt to different styles—though that's more in terms of GM style than player styles.

3. Hmm. It's certainly possible, if people wanted to do so. I mean, hell, I went from your ancient Cyberpunk game to Chris K's D&D game with no problems and those were *completely* different styles. Whether we'd do it now would depend on the factors in #2—especially the GM and what kind of game it was.

4. I'd agree it's possible. I'd definitely disagree that *I* could do it. ;-) At least, not in a meaningful way, unless we were using the same vocabulary and/or similar experiences, if you see what I mean. I just don't know enough of your theory and what little theory I do know is from the opposite side of the spectrum—the Monte Cooke side of the Force.

So, there are my off-the-cuff answers; I can think more deeply about this and try to write more over the next week if you'd like. I really wish I could get Hedberg into this conversation (of course, that would mean I'd have to get her to actually sit down and check a site regularly), since she'd be a lot better at expressing things and understanding things than I would...



3. On 2004-12-26, Vincent said:

Let's just set aside entirely for now the whole question of "would you want to" or "under what circumstances" - or especially things like where in the group its style is located, in the GM? in everybody? No, all I'm interested in right now is whether we agree to the possibility.

Tom, I take your post as an agreement to the possibility.

Jonathan? I guess I'm waiting for you on #1.


4. On 2004-12-27, jonathan said:

Hmm. Part of the problem is I'm in a few different "groups," that is several games with somewhat different player makeups. Individual players (and GMs, for that matter) do have different styles—some radically different—but that mostly combines to get a fun game. Thus my "maybe."

I think that individual games have certain styles of play, but I do not think that they are limited to those styles; I find things to be a lot more fluid than that, depending on the circs. As for specific techniques, that can also change. Mostly. (I myself have no idea what techniques I use; if I do have style or technique, it's instinctual enough that I don't recognize it as such.)

Ultimately, it depends on the game and whether it gels. If it does, than obviously the group is working together somehow to facilitate fun gameplay. But it depends on that gelling and on who the players are, who the GM is, what game it is, etc. for us to discuss particular techniques, I guess.

Bear with me; I don't think about things like this very often. Thus, my "maybe." Which I suppose I'll amend to "probably, but not on such a conscious level."

Does that help at all?


5. On 2004-12-27, Vincent said:

It surely does.

"Ultimately, it depends on the game and whether it gels. If it does, than obviously the group is working together somehow to facilitate fun gameplay. But it depends on that gelling and on who the players are, who the GM is, what game it is, etc. for us to discuss particular techniques, I guess."

I agree absolutely.

If you wanted to, you could start to identify the things that particular players do that a) make their styles their own and b) make some games gel and others not. I mean you've already said that Jerry's GMing is different from Matt's; what you'd have to do is figure out the particulars. You could figure out what published rules are suited to Jerry's skills and style, what published rules are suited to Matt's, and what's the overlap. You could examine how Jerry treats the published game text and compare and contrast to how Matt treats it. You could compare and contrast how they treat other players' contributions. You could do the same to your own skills and style.

...But there's no reason to do it if you don't want to, that's for sure. I'm not asking you to. You may in fact find that thinking about it while you're playing - which is what you'd need to do - would be an enormous suck that you'd hate.

Here's what I'm asking you to consider instead.

1) What a group actually gets out of play depends on its players' and GM's skills and style.

2) What a group wants to get out of play depends on the group's tastes and needs.

3) If you have a disconnect between what the group wants and what the group's skills and style give 'em, you have an unhappy group. Most groups' skills and style give them what they want, most of the time. However, if you want something new from a particular game, the way to get it is to learn new skills and change your style.

And here's the big leap:

4) Most published games' rules don't communicate real skills that a group will actually use. That's because the real skills - watch Jerry and Matt, you'll see - are social, interpersonal, and hard to communicate. ("+2 to hit if you have the higher ground" is not an interpersonal skill.) If a game text isn't telling you how to play at the social, interpersonal level, how to play it will fall to the group to figure out.

This is consistent with your experience that the group's pre-existing style dominates its play: "I think that individual games have certain styles of play, but I do not think that they are limited to those styles; I find things to be a lot more fluid than that, depending on the circs."

5) It's possible to write game rules that'll teach a group new skills all at once, that'll deliver a play experience that startles the group and changes its style.

This is consistent with actual play reports of a couple of my games in action, and a couple of my friends' games in action. It's not a hundred percent, not even close, nor would I expect or want it to be. It happens sometimes, that's all I'm saying.

So, again, set aside desireability, set aside "would you." Do you agree to the possibility of 1-5?


6. On 2004-12-27, jonathan said:

Oh, I'd agree—mostly. I would say that #5 is *sometimes* true, but that it sometimes does not work, or at least not in the way that was intended. Amber, for instance, was big on using the rules to create new interpersonal skills in gaming, but almost every time people tried to play it, it ended up in unmitigated chaos and no-funness. Although—I'm told!—with some groups, the new play experience in Amber is a lot of fun, works really well. Which gets back to my original point that ultimately, it depends both on how well the rules might be written and on the individual group. You could have the greatest gaming group in the world and give them a game like Amber or something, and they might dissolve into chaos. (I'm not using Dogs as an example because a. I haven't finished reading it yet and I haven't played it and b. thus far, I haven't found it to be radically different socially, really—thus far.) What often seems to happen, in my experience, is games wind up becoming adapted to players, with much less vice-versa, in a very broad sense. (Of course, players have to adapt to new rules/settings, but that often doesn't change social dynamics in a well-formed group, beyond the idea of, y'know, *roleplaying.* In fact, characters tend to have more impact as far as change goes than rules do—not the characters on the page, but the ones in the players' heads.) Often, if a game doesn't work, it's not always the fault of the rules, but of the GM or the party or whatever. (I could bring up the special case of "media games," but that's a whole 'nother argument, and doesn't necessarily have to do with rules as published.)

I think 1-3 are definitely fine, with some caveats for #3. I think 4 is a little simplistic, given that some people have fun with da rulz themselves and it can be fun (for me, anyway) to play a straight-up, rules-based game with stuff going on *around* the table. (In other words, the game is strict rules, but we have fun laughing, etc.) But 4 does bring up good points of personal style and storytelling, which I think are important, but which seem to butt up against your idea of "GM fiat." Again, 5, I think, is possible, but a bit less likely. Role playing is, ultimately, a social activity and I think a game that did what you suggest in #5 would have to be something every single player was really, really hot on and interested in investing a lot of time and work in in order to work well. Not that it doesn't happen, of course...hell, give us time out here and some of us are probably the psycho types that would consider it. ;-) But I suspect even we would tend to figure out ways (unconsciously) for old patterns to reassert themselves quite often. Not that we wouldn't be willing to try. After all, we *like* role playing, and some of us enjoy exploring new possibilities in the set-up. I just have no idea how well it'd work. (I do hope to try with Dogs at some point after March, though.)

I know you said set the "would you" aside, but it's difficult for me to examine the possibility of 1-5 without thinking about sort of real world examples, which is certainly a personal fault. I hope some of the above made sense...again, 1-3, sure, 4, mostly and 5 maybe. :-)


7. On 2004-12-27, jonathan said:

It also occurs me to ask a question—don't take this the wrong way. Sometimes I feel like I might be just frustrating you here, sounding simply contrary, which is absolutely not my intention. So the question is, am I helping here at all? (I'm hoping you're helping *me* understand, and I'm helping *you* articulate and question/confirm your own ideas.) What I'm saying is if this is just intensely frustrating to you, I can just shut up, since that's not my intention.

I just hope I'm helping the discussion and not, like, pissing people off. :-) Yeah, I'm cantankerous and contrary, not to mention anecdotal, but....


8. On 2004-12-27, Vincent said:

Oh no, not at all. I asked you.

Anyhow good enough, a maybe on #5 is good enough for me. And I certainly wouldn't suggest that Dogs would do a #5 to your group; there's no reason to expect that it might. Dogs is pretty cool but it's not all games.

The game that did it for me, by the way, was Universalis. Before I played Universalis, I thought that game rules were for people who didn't like each other.

But yeah. Before we can really talk about GM fiat, we have to talk hard about some particular techniques and goals of play, and I'm not sure how to go about it. It's precisely the "talking Forge to non-Forgies" problem.

Meanwhile, here's my conclusion. I'd sum up my original 1-4 and my subsequent 1-5 thusly (with "player" meaning everybody, including the GM):

1) In order to play, the group's players must have a functional answer to two questions: "what should I contribute to the game?" and "how should I treat my fellow players' contributions?"

2) A game designer can do some of the work of answering those questions. A game designer can do far more of the work of answering them than game designers have typically done.

So, again bar desirability: do you agree?

You probably see where this goes from here. Dogs, for instance: all of the rules in Dogs are aimed at providing nice, concrete answers to those two questions. Every group has already worked out its own answers, yay! So while Dogs' answers are probably different from your group's, a) they're pretty good in general, and b) they're really really wicked good for the kind of play the game text describes.

If you want to play the kind of game Dogs promises, in other words, I've done the hard work. The rules embody, in an easy-to-implement way, all the social techniques you'll need to play.

If you don't want to play the kind of game Dogs promises, even easier! Don't!


9. On 2004-12-27, jonathan said:

Well, with the caveat that #1 is probably less on a conscious level for most non-GM players, yes, absolutely I can get behind both of your ideas there. :-) On the other hand, I think that some of the more traditional games do have various mechanisms built in to deal with #1. Admittedly, they're mechanisms you don't dig, which is cool. And often they're pretty kludgy, to the point of ridiculousness, i.e. Gary's good ol' "The DMs rule is Law," which has been really misunderstood over the years. (Reading it now, it looks like Gygax meant to forestall rules arguments, etc., rather than stifling all discussion.)

As I've said, kludgy and, in some cases, intuitive. On the other hand, in Dogs (I'm assuming, I've had to set it down again, but I'm midway through the conflict resolution rules), you spell it all out. It's not intuitive, it's, er, extuitive? (sorry, sorry...) In another post, I called it playing with "training wheels," which applies a bit here. So yeah, definitely, #2 is true in a non-intuitive sense.

On the other hand, games like Feng Shui, while still keeping things really loose, talk quite a bit about the mood of the game, the general attitude of play (in short, Hong Kong wuxia-ish serious silliness), etc. So there's stuff out there that's, well, explicit without being rules-heavy.

God, now I'm talking in circles and confusing myself, I can only imagine what I'm doing to you...! Is this making sense? I basically (as usual) agree with you with a few caveats...