2005-06-03 : The Subtle Rules

This is magic. This is the body and the subtle body. Rules have a soul!

Who here has played Pit? It's a great game. Far greater than reading its rules would reveal. I remember quite distinctly sitting there in the midst of and between hands of Pit, going "why, why, why is this game so much fun? Why when every hand ends do we whoop and laugh and shuffle and deal again? What is it, what is it, that grips us like this?"

The rules are so simple they're dumb. Hand of nine cards, you win if you have all the same card, you trade cards blind, no turn taking. So say I have four coffees, two wheats, two oats and a sugar. I hold out my two wheats face down, I shout "two! two! two!" Somebody else is also holding out two cards face down shouting "two! two! two!" When we identify each other, we swap cards. Eventually somebody manages to get all nine of the wheats or whatever and they win.

That's all there is to it! It's a compsci101 sorting algorithm. We enact it. Why on EARTH is it so much fun?

You should play this game. If you're a game designer, you should play this game hard and intently.

Here's why it's so much fun: the whole deck in play becomes ordered more or less equally. I start with three coffees. Soon I have four, then six, then seven. I'm throwing other stuff away as fast as I can to get those last two, I know they're out there circulating, then DING! You've got all nine wheats.

I was >this close

<. Every single time, everybody who lost was >this close

<. Because the deck becomes ordered more or less equally across everyone's hands.

"Oh man I was this close! Who has those last two coffees, you? Dang! Let's play again!"

The subtle rules. The enlivining principle. When we enact rules, we create a dynamic that's not evident in the rules themselves. It's not enough, as a designer, to create rules that hold together, like corpse parts sewn into person shape. You have to create rules with a


1. On 2005-06-03, Doug Ruff said:

Hi Vincent,

Sounds to me that this is about emergence. You know, put a few simple things together, and end up with something much more complex.

Thing is, I think it's hard to design with a particular emergent goal in mind: often, those simple rules will take you somewhere you weren't expecting. I wonder if the designers of Pit knew in advance this would happen, or whether they discovered it the same way as you did?

I also wonder how often a designer sees some unexpected behaviour in their game, and then stomps all over it with rules "fixes" rather than exploring the new possibilities and seeing if it results in a better game.

The concept of "alchemy" springs to mind - take some base ingredients, mix them according to a set of principles which are based as much on philosophy as they are on science, and try to create gold. Except the ultimate object of transformation is yourself.

Does this strike a chord?


2. On 2005-06-03, Michael S. Miller said:

Yes, I've played Pit. Yes, I'm thinking of swiping many of its rules for Limelight. And yes, this is part and parcel of what you've been saying all along: Games only really *exist* betweeen real people when really played. A rulebook is only the blueprint of The Thing. A game being played is The Thing Itself.

Playtesting cannot be underestimated. Ever. Everytime I play With Great Power... I learn something new about the game. It reveals a different aspect of itself to me. I could never playtest it enough to learn all its subtlties. Sometimes you just have to say "enough!" and publish. But I know I'll still be learning more about my game afterward, because it'll be alive.


3. On 2005-06-03, Vincent said:

For RPGs, the subtle rules are where design goals like "foster permission to act passionately" and "make everyone secure in their investments" and "get every player to value every other player's creations" go. Universalis is a prime example, playing Universalis gave me a similar jolt. "Holy CRAP, look what the rules make us do!"

Doug, well, of course you start with trial and error. After a while you get to start making educated guesses. Eventually (I hope) you learn some reliable principles and, like any craft, you get a feel for it in your hands. That's what I'm counting on, anyway.

Dogs' rules fulfill, well, let's say most of my subtle design goals, and while I did lots of trial and error for sure, the pretty-goodness of the game's design isn't really an accident. If you see what I mean.


4. On 2005-06-03, Vincent said:

Also I should say - play games! Not just RPGs. Every game you play is a design exercise.


5. On 2005-06-03, ScottM said:
I think this is a tangent from your main point, but I find it interesting. I was >this close<. Every single time, everybody who lost was >this close<.

It's not the core principal of many games, but closed end games seem like they should encourage this feeling.  For example, in

My Life With Master

, most players who want a shot at the Master should be close to the point where their characters could challenge the Master. It's even better if there are multiple characters who could... but they're holding off for some reason.

[Removed a further, stranger, tangent. This struck a chord with me for some reason.]


6. On 2005-06-03, ScottM said:

I'll cheer on the call to play games.  We do board games once a week, and there's a lot of strategy and cool elements that seem ripe for the stealing. Heck, a simple trade sub-system like Settlers of Catan could be a great element in a game—do you give/trade/lend something that helps someone else at the cost of delaying your own progress? Can you make a win/win trade, corner a rare resource?  I could see an RPG using just that subsystem to really underline some issues.


7. On 2005-06-03, Valamir said:

Interestingly, Pit was one of the few games my family would actually play together as a family.  Pit and Dutch Blitz...which is such vonderful goot fun.


8. On 2005-06-03, JasonL said:


Cool.  Yes, the Subtle Rules are the soul of the game.  I agree with Doug that it's about emergence, and with you again that emergent behavior can be designed with a specific goal in mind.

I do find it interesting that the fun in being >this close< to winning comes from our essential competitive nature.

That links back to the stuff Ben's posting on his blog about, forgive the jargon, Gamist facilitating design being a key to opening RPGs to a wider audience.

In my own experience, the friendly competition of games like Pit, Hearts, Bridge, Poker is a huge attraction - a huge part of the fun.  I find that folks I know who aren't roleplayers are more interested in RPGs that have these competitive elements.

Also, to finish out this line of reasoning, the fact that all the players have the same credibility relative to the rules in games like Pit make them a lot more accessible to a wider variety of players.

Good stuff.


"Oh, it's you...


9. On 2005-06-03, Ben Lehman said:

I agree.


P.S.  Your link to Pit is brokenx0r.


10. On 2005-06-03, Vincent said:

I think I fixed it. Thanks!


11. On 2005-06-03, Emily Care said:

So right on, V.

When we enact rules, we create a dynamic that's not evident in the rules themselves.

There it is, the dynamic of play that the rules create. There's the internal dynamic of each individual participant ("oh, I almost got it that time" in Pit etc). And their solo dynamic interacts with the interpersonal dynamics between the players. The rules shape the emotional (intellectual, etc) experiences that the people actually playing the game have.

That's the dimension we are all really designing for. That's where people "have a good time" or not.  That part is why I don't play Diplomacy. It has an incredibly cool dynamic, that grates on my like fingernails on a blackboard.  Positioning mechanics (like in PtA & tMW) may be so powerful because they do this directly & create strong positive reinforcement/feedback between the players themselves.

Rules that take the players into account. Good thought.


12. On 2005-06-03, Jason Petrasko said:

Yes, the lively breathing game is much more than just the sum of the rules. Very accute observations here. I wonder how connected this is the particular players, such that the soul of the game is quite different for each group?

Ben, I was just relating this to a friend last session when we talked about a couple games I was working on- the emergence. I never had a term for it, thanks!

I think I might write something on my own blog about this... *thinks*


13. On 2005-06-03, Ben Lehman said:

You mean Doug.

My contribution here was just useless link correction and agreement.



14. On 2005-06-03, Jason Petrasko said:

Well I don't really know if my musings over the topic have gone anywhere constructive, but here are my thoughts:


15. On 2005-06-03, Vincent said:

16. On 2005-06-04, C. Edwards said:

Just about all the games I've played that demand your full attention during play seem to be gripping. Various forms of Blitz, Egyptian Rat Screw, even Tetris once it speeds up, have this quality about them.

I think the grippiness has something to do with having to be constantly in the Now while playing. You can't be daydreaming or otherwise not paying attention while playing these games and be at all competitive. There are no periods of down-time during play.

Being fully present in the moment can be addictive, fun, and joyous, all by itself. No wonder combining that with gaming makes us all giddy and ready to play again.


17. On 2005-06-04, Tom said:

What I like most in games are those that have hard choices to make every turn.  Puerto Rico is a good example of this, although I don't care for it too much.  PowerGrid is much more my style.  Partially becuase it explictly says "Go ahead and buy this power plant, but as soon as you do, we put a new power plant up for auction and it'll be better than the one you just bought...but if you wait for that one to come out, we'll just put out an even better one".  Very pleasantly frustrating.


18. On 2005-06-04, Spamnet said:

I usually just lurk for lack of anything interesting to add, but I just have to post this time. I can't help it.

C Edwards wrote "the games I've played that demand your full attention during play seem to be gripping...even Tetris once it speeds up...have this quality"

It occurred to me that this is immersion in another 'setting'other than rpgs. So it doesn't really depend on your rp stance or your techniques or whatnot. It has grip. I bet this is why Gamist/Challenge/Competition type games are more common than the others; it's intuitively easy to give it your full immersive attention. More story-oriented games need the right mindset and dramatic choices to spur the same kind of attention grip.

Chris (


19. On 2005-06-06, TonyLB said:

This is exactly the feeling that underpins the(otherwise nonsensical) notion that rules have an in-built agenda which operates through the actions of the players involved.

Does it matter what the intent of the rules are?  Or will most any rules-intent that excites me (say) also excite many similar people?  Do we want many different things from games, or just a few?


20. On 2005-06-06, Spamnet said:

I think the rules intent matters, but I think it matters only to the degree that the players allow the rules to shape what happens.

We want so many things out of a game that we can't usually tell you just the top three. Some are competing, polar opposites, mutually supportive and much more.

No set of game rules, by themselves, can override our own whims and preferences. So that means how the rules are applied in order to meet our preferences is much more important than how they were designed. Now, a good sell will put all players on the same page. Some games have this, most don't.

Chris (Spamnet)


21. On 2005-06-07, Vincent said:

Chris: "I think the rules intent matters, but I think it matters only to the degree that the players allow the rules to shape what happens."

You've probably read my periodic refresher above, by now. So given that by "rules" I mean "the established procedures by which you agree what happens," - the red area in the circle of what you actually do - it's given that the players allow the rules to fully shape what happens.

That is, we always play by rules. The question is, which rules? How well do they work? What do they do? Are they giving us everything we hope for? Would more intentionally-designed rules give us a better experience?


22. On 2005-06-07, Spamnet said:

Your original post discussed creating rules with a soul and later I got going on about game grip. My overall observation is that game designers build their soul (preferences for specific amounts and kinds of things and the things that grip them) into the game. Our individual soul and the group's soul may or may not jive with it. I see successful gaming and games successfully designed (and entertainment in general) as being gripping, no matter the way you get to it.

It sure seems to me that most rulesets are less about grip and more about procedure. Which misses the whole point.

I can imagine, working from principles (such as grip, participation and others) a ruleset that is flexible and generic and allows a gaming group to fill it with their own soul (or a predesigned soul.) I intuitively understand that it's possible, but there's a lot of baggage in rpg design that needs to be unlearned, myself included. Part of the reason I am here is that I wish to understand more of what these principles are and what they do for us.

To directly answer the questions, there are indeed basic principles that will resonate with everyone. But the way most games are put together tend to work around these things than focus on them, although some do better than others in some ways. A well designed ruleset could improve our gaming experiences.

Chris (Spamnet)

Note: In writing this, I have been interrupted about 100 times so I hope this is coherent and has merit to the reader.


23. On 2005-06-21, Adam Dray said:

I was >this close

<. Every single time, everybody who lost was >

this close

<. Because the deck becomes ordered more or less equally across everyone's hands.

This makes much sense to me. It helps me understand what I should do with my Verge game. The dice mechanic has this sort of back-and-forth reroll thing between the player and the GM where the player can get just one die ahead and then have that victory snatched away by the GM, then repeat and so on. A lot of Verge conflicts end up with the player just one die ahead, because the GM's roll failed to match the player's.

When most every roll has that feeling of being ">this close

<" then every conflict feels important.

Even better, when the player does tie the GM, Verge resolves the conflict with a 50-50 die roll. There's a lot of tension there, too. If you win, you know you were on the brink of losing, and if you lose, you know you were >

this close< to winning.


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