2011-05-18 : Ben Lehman: Rules and their Functions
by Ben Lehman h/t Emily Care Boss
a guest post
Role-playing games, like all games, are made up of rules. Role-playing games are pretty interesting in that a lot of the rules are free-floating ideas, existing only between the players or in a rulebook, rather than manifesting physically (in the case of board or card games) or electronically (in the case of computer games). Because of this there's a very broad swath of what rules can be, and what they can do, to the point where we often don't recognize rules as rules or, even if we do, we don't really understand what they do to our play.
Rules in role-playing games perform two distinct functions, and for the moment let's say that they fall into two distinct types. There are what we might call "continuous rules," which continually shape our play process. Examples of this might be "I'm a GM; I control the world and the minor characters" or "you're a player; you control the character 'Christina'" or "before any knight has become a Veteran, no one may make a statement involving a remnant as a whole." While we play a role-playing game, we don't generally need to state these rules. They are engaged the entire time that we play.
Alternatively, we can think of rules which perform immediate, direct functions on the fiction of the game. We might call these "immediate rules." These are rules like "when you act under fire, roll 2d6. On a 7+ ..." When we play a game, we do state these rules, because we need to enact them every time that they come up and then, when they're done, we stop enacting them. They are engaged only in specific, immediate instances.
There is a tendency among role-players, particularly those who identify with freeform play as a thing, to classify immediate rules as "rules" and continuous rules as "not rules." Someone who says "we didn't use the rules once in the entire session!" is only referring to immediate rules: the only way to avoid use of continuous rules is to not play the game at all. There is also a tendency among rules-focused game designers like, say, me, to consider all of these things just "rules" and not to distinguish between them. To someone like me, "we didn't use the rules once in the entire session" doesn't make any damn sense at all: of course you were using the rules! You divided responsibility, decided what happened in the fiction, and so on.
But there are important differences between continuous rules and immediate rules. All rules exist to constrict and guide our creativity, but they perform these functions in very different ways. Continuous rules tend to shape our creativity by establishing authority and limits to that authority, and then allowing a free range of creative output within that. Because they establish authority and its limits, they socially must be available to all people: there can't really be an element of uncertainty to them (although I'm sure, having said that, that people will come up with counter-examples). Immediate rules, however, have a tendency to say "this happens. Now what?" In general, they narrow creative output to a particular point and then allow expansion from that point. Although sometimes this is fuzzier (like in games which determine narration rights rather than game events) but it's a definite tendency among immediate rules. Whether this is habit, prejudice, or a true facet of game design I couldn't tell you yet, but I bet there's something to it.
In terms of recent discussion on anyway, these types of rules have very different ways of bringing unwelcome and unexpected content. In general, continuous rules cannot bring unexpected content: because they establish authority, and must be known to all, there can't be content that is unexpected to all players. Rather, content is unexpected to some players, because anything that occurs is authored by one particular player. That said, these rules can bring about the unwelcome in a couple of different ways: first by using hidden information (where one player is allowed to author fiction-bits in secret, and then on that authority bring things into play), or second by designing the game around a particular social group (so, for instance, Happy Ends and the jeepform community.) By contrast, the result of particular rules (regardless of whether randomizers is involved) is definite and procedural, and thus much more likely to generate an unexpected or unwelcome result.
Now that I've built up this binary, I want to finish the essay by tearing it down a bit. Although it useful to think of these as two different types of rules, they are more precisely two different functions of rules. Some rules function more commonly continuously, some function more commonly immediately. But, a normally continuous rule can become immediate, as in: "no, GM, you can't tell me what my character thinks. Actually, she thinks this." Likewise, a normally immediate rule, such as the famously deadly Riddle of Steel combat rules, can function in a game continuously: in Riddle of Steel players will go out of their way to avoid fights in way that is different from most other games.
For another example, when in Mud Dragon I say to Tony "that's beyond your capacity, you have to roll for it" and we do, that's immediate, because it applies in this instance, and it determines a concrete result. But when Tony goes "hey, as long as what I do is stupid or pathetic, I don't have to roll" that's continuous, because it never stops being part of our play.
So let's not please divide rules, or ourselves, into these categories. Rather, let's use this binary to look critically at how rules function in our games and our social groups.
1. On 2011-05-18, Joshua A.C. Newman said:
2. On 2011-05-18, Emily said:
3. On 2011-05-18, Ben Lehman said:
4. On 2011-05-18, Emily said:
5. On 2011-05-19, Oliver said:
6. On 2011-05-19, Ben Lehman said:
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8. On 2011-05-19, Zac in Virginia said:
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10. On 2011-05-21, Jaywalt said:
11. On 2011-05-22, Zac in Virginia said:
12. On 2011-05-23, Josh W said:
13. On 2011-05-23, Vincent said:
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