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:

I've been thinking about "ambient" versus "acute" rules, which is, I think, the same thing you're talking about.


2. On 2011-05-18, Emily said:

Let the mad mad dash of naming begin!

They get at different things, though, really. Vincent & me have been talking about mediated mechanics (usually quantified mechanical procedures like "roll higher than your dexterity") which end up being "immediate" mechanics.

But there would of course be immediate mechanics (like drinking from the bottle in

Drunk) that are not mediating. (That one is a narrative cue that directly informs the fiction without having symbolic/representative cues that inform the fiction via human interpretation after weighting or "mediation" by those cues.)


3. On 2011-05-18, Ben Lehman said:

Yeesh, yeah.

We could draw a line in a bunch of different places. I think this is a particularly productive place to draw the line because, to me, it separates "resolution" from "just play."



4. On 2011-05-18, Emily said:

These are what I often mean when I talk about structuring tools, too. A shared story you are playing out is a long, continuous fictional cue that guides the flow of play. Very different from the staccato creation of story through the interjection of bifurcated choices that immediate mechanics bring.

A function of the continuous guiding form of mechanic or rule is also that they often serve to put everyone on the same page at the start, with a referent that all can look to, to keep the consensus of play moving. This is a major difference between traditional and forge/indie/nar games and the set of larp/scenario/freeform play that is popular in Europe: when you use chance based mechanics to create space for twists and turns for a story or series of events to take place, you create the possibility for narratives with more varied specific events. The choice to use a pre-determined storyline creates a different dynamic between the players and the game.

US larp style play and European that is characterized by the extensive use of mediated mechanics have a very different flavor. Julia learned that when she brought our game What to do about Tam Lin? to Denmark. "What is up with drawing cards for our powers?" was a common response.

Ben, are we agreed that there can be immediate mechanics that are not mediated? Jeep and others do use them, just judiciously. And of course, much of the continuous type of rule/guide/mechanic/structure would be content derived.


5. On 2011-05-19, Oliver said:

Clarifying question: How does designing a game around a specific social group provide the unwelcome?


6. On 2011-05-19, Ben Lehman said:

It's at a social level.

So like, for instance, Happy Ends. In Happy Ends, all the characters must have a happy ending. In a lot of social circles, this doesn't qualify as unexpected or unwelcome. In jeep circles, though, where tragedy and misery are the rule of the day for characters, a Happy Ending is decidedly unwelcome, and thus brings with it the boundary stretching possibilities Vincent is discussing in posts early.

Make sense?



7. On 2011-05-19, Oliver said:

Yes! Thank you. I've myself been discussing the very thing you use in your explanatory example, but hadn't made the connection.


8. On 2011-05-19, Zac in Virginia said:

I think another angle on immediate rules is that they both condition people to play a certain way and provide an opportunity for mastery.
Continuous rules do that too, but if a continuous rule relates to genre trappings, setting, or suchlike, then it conditions us into a particular creative headspace, rather than into how we approach the fiction we're creating, say.

In Polaris, keeping Hearts from dying til they hit Veteran status probably helps folks think less about risk-of-dying and keeps that from coloring their play decisions. At the same time, the setting material is also continuous rules, right? So it colors play decisions at the level of Color, rather than at the level of Techniques, yeah? Maybe?

I think that latter group of continuous rules is what Emily is talking about.
Another factor is that setting material, functioning as a form of rules, can be/is just as important as other continuous or immediate rules. It colors what we think about, what excites us about the game, what angle we have for characterization and what have you, etc.


9. On 2011-05-19, Emily said:

So it colors play decisions at the level of Color, rather than at the level of Techniques, yeah? Maybe?

I think that latter group of continuous rules is what Emily is talking about.

Yes. "coloring play decisions at the level of color" = "you can change people's normal social system with content"

setting material has a continuous structuring effect. It's positioning, and becomes the material of fictional positioning when it triggers (mediating) mechanical effect—or has substantial effect on your play decisions even if they aren't mechanical.


It colors what we think about, what excites us about the game, what angle we have for characterization and what have you, etc.

Indeed, and some! These are no small potatoes.


10. On 2011-05-21, Jaywalt said:

I guess I'm not sure what this distinction helps us understand, if continuous rules can also be invoked as immediate rules (and IME, regularly are).

I mean, there are also "continuous rules" that operate only in a relatively short window.  Like, say, in games with rotating GMs or different phases of play.  The underlying assumptions in those games are not really "continuous" at all but shift over the course of play.


11. On 2011-05-22, Zac in Virginia said:

Jay, I think your confusion has added to the discussion. Good call!

Not only are there things that frame our input all the time, and in certain moments, there are things that explicitly *change* how they frame our input, over time. Neat!


12. On 2011-05-23, Josh W said:

The distinction makes sense to me, continuous rules tend to be more higher level than immediate rules; one might say, "be agressive", when another says "this attack action has these consequences". In a fundimental sense both of those rules are acting via players, but the player has more space in the former to express themselves and improvise within the rule.

Another distinction is that I can't really think of a definition of "handling time" for immediate rules. Play might take longer or shorter, but there isn't that mind shift to see what the game suggests.

It's funny to say that of course, because the biggest part of interuption of play when dealing with principles, turn order, setting structure, etiquette etc is learning them. People don't expect themselves to memorise tables then apply them instinctively, but these kinds of mechanics are much more likely to be treated that way, in fact, perhaps they are used for most of the time because they are intuitively memorisable.


13. On 2011-05-23, Vincent said:

This is hard to think about for me. I probably won't get it until I design a game.

Check me on this, Ben. I've been saying of Apocalypse World that the resolution rules, the moves, are designed to work for only a second or two at a time, and then dump you straight back into, uh, the flow of play. By this breakdown you'd say that the moves are mostly-immediate rules, and they're designed to refer play back after only a second or two to the game's mostly-continuous rules, which are the players' and MC's agendas, principles and always-says.

Sound right?


14. On 2011-05-23, Ben Lehman said:

Vincent: Yes.

Jonathan: I think the distinction of "rules that occur over a moment and are exceptions to regular flow of play vs. rules which occur continually throughout a period of play" is a pretty good one. Even if you, say, rotate GMs, you usually do so over the course of, at the smallest possible, a scene.

I think of this split like—if I can be a physics geek for a moment—waves and particles. Yes, the distinction breaks down if you look at it too finely. Nonetheless, it's a darned useful distinction.



15. On 2011-05-23, Ben Lehman said:

Oh and I should add: It's particularly useful for me because now I can see freeform in terms of rules preferences (freeform preferring people clearly prefer continuous rules over immediate ones), rather than just a set of cultural prejudices about rules or particular methods.



16. On 2011-05-23, Vincent said:

So this would mean, let's see.

A "mediating" rule is one that refers materially to fictional things. "Whichever player has the high card, that player's character wins" is a mediating rule, where "whichever player has the high card, that player says what happens" is a procedural rule. These both happen to be immediate rules (usually), but as Emily and I have talked about this, wanting your distinction, we've fallen sort of generally into a habit of mediating=immediate, continuous=procedural thinking. For mediating rules we've talked about resolution mechanics, which are usually immediate, where for procedural rules we've talked about things like "I'm the GM and you're a player," which are usually continuous.

But this doesn't really hold. Check me on this, next: in some versions of D&D and its like, your character's alignment is an example of a (usually) continuous mediating rule. My character's lawful neutral, for intance, so I'm supposed to have her do lawfully neutral things. It's continuous, not immediate (except in its violation, which is fine), but it still refers materially to a fictional fact, and maybe to a representational cue if we care about that. Make sense? Emily, make sense to you?


17. On 2011-05-23, Jaywalt said:

Ben: I agree that it's an interesting thing to think about, no doubt. I guess my issue is more whether the way you've put it here clearly describes what I think you're getting at.  And that may just be because you're getting at something that's interesting to you while I'm more interested in something else, sitting near it.

If we're cool on continuous rules occasionally being invoked as immediate rules (in Vx's example: "No, you can't do that, you're Lawful Good," say), are we also agreed that immediate rules can potentially become continuous rules as well?

Say, for example, that we're playing D&D and I've tricked out my PC with all the climbing feats I can get and have magical climbing boots and have gotten my climb skill as high as I can get. I can climb anything with no trouble, no matter the difficulty, and so after a while we've decided that we don't have to roll or invoke a procedure for that anymore. Everybody just knows that my PC can climb anything. That's immediate -> continuous, yeah?

And then, taking it further, here's an edge case: I write a custom character move for Lukas' faceless character, Trench, in my AW game. It says, "When you roll+Hard, don't actually roll. Just treat it as if you rolled a 10+."  In the beginning, we're going to have to remember that and invoke it, just like in the above example where we might forget my character is a badass at climbing. But eventually, I would argue, it gets internalized and just happens, at least the rolling part.  But then Lukas still has to look at the moves and pick his results, right? He'll get Hold 3 on Seize by force and have to choose 3 of the 4 options.  So, unlike the previous example, internalizing part of the procudure (rolling) as a continuous rule doesn't get rid of the other aspects (choosing options) of the move, which still need to be invoked.

Second question: what about, say, highly procedural "freeform" games like Ghost Opera or Mridangam, where freeform is more an aesthetic choice, creating a certain kind of game experience, rather than a preference for continuous rules? Could that also be operating in other freeform styles without calling it something negative like a "cultural prejudice"?  What about just a "cultural preference" or "cultural practice"?


18. On 2011-05-23, Ben Lehman said:

I agree with what you're saying. I think you're repeating what I say at the end of my essay, with the examples of Riddle of Steel and Tony and the Mud Dragon. Right?

As for the second bit, if you're going to claim that Mridangam is freeform but Polaris isn't, I'm lost again.

But we're running up against terminological difficulties here: I think what you mean by "freeform" and what most other people mean by it are different things. I think if I showed Mridangam to, say, a random AmberCon attendee they would identify it as "weird" and possibly "narrative" but definitely not "freeform."



19. On 2011-05-23, Ben Lehman said:

Vincent: I dunno. I wrote this because I couldn't make sense of your mediating vs. procedural distinction :D It would make sense to me that they don't exactly align.


20. On 2011-05-23, Ben Lehman said:

Hahahah. 3x replies in my own thread here.

I just noticed something, based on your example, Vincent. Continuous rules become immediate in the breech. I wonder if there's any other way of transformation.



21. On 2011-05-23, Jaywalt said:

Ben: Yup, your TROS example is close to what I'm saying here. Just making sure we're on the same page.

I guess I'm less interested in the distinction between continuous and immediate and more interested how rules move between being one or the other.

You're probably right about freeform and the feelings of a random AmberCon attendee.  Freeform still often equals "no fortune" in my mind, but that may be relatively unique. So Polaris isn't fully freeform because you roll dice. But Mridangam is. I've been trying to switch to calling this "deterministic resolution" for clarity's sake, but old habits. And Polaris, yes, aside from the die rolling, is an icon of deterministic resolution, with the ritual phrases. Mixed-method games are hard to talk about in simple terms, no doubt. Including Amber. Diceless resolution but complex point-based character builds, WTF?


22. On 2011-05-23, Jaywalt said:

"Immediate in the breech" is sharp.

The inverse is "continuous in obseleteness / internalization" which isn't as catchy. Help?


23. On 2011-05-23, Ben Lehman said:

Ahah! Yes, "deterministic resolution" is much, much clearer.

I (emphasis on the I here) think that in general freeform means considerably more than just "no fortune." To my mind, Amber and Nobilis aren't really freeform, in their original state, although Amber in its GM advice (getting rid of the attributes, getting rid of the powers, etc.) is ideologically if not methodologically freeform.



24. On 2011-05-23, Jaywalt said:

Ben: Yeah, I agree on freeform, actually. And Nobilis and Amber (and Marvel Universe and Active Exploits). Invoking diceless mechanics in the exact same place where you would normally roll dice is a strange in-between place in design, but it has its own aesthetics. I'm not a huge fan of resource manipulation as a strong replacement, but otherwise think its a fertile place to make games, especially for audiences who aren't necessarily sold on (or comfortable with) other kinds of freeform.


25. On 2011-05-23, Simon C said:

My prediction is that immediate rules that don't use fortune more easily get used as continuous rules.

For example, initiative in D&D3E. We don't normally think much about who is going to go first in the encounter, until the moment we roll the dice. Sure, we game that system in terms of what feats we buy, etc, but it doesn't often affect how we describe the lead-up to combat.

In my draft game, Dungeonfuckers, the person with the longest weapon strikes first. As a rule, it's invoked in exactly the same way as D&D3E's intiative (i.e. as soon as one person attacks another), but it doesn't use fortune.

The effect in play is very different. If you've got a shorter reach than them, you describe your character doing something other than attacking outright to initiate combat. Also, you buy yourself a spear.


26. On 2011-05-23, Jaywalt said:

That's a super interesting idea, Simon. Are rules that are solely karmic and dramatic easier to internalize?  Hmm, that's a strong possibility. Karmic rules would be internalized as heirarchies, yeah? While dramatic rules would become principles or something?  "When things are boring, have a fight"?


27. On 2011-05-23, Jaywalt said:

Wait, wait, one other thing!

In my previous climbing example, watch what happens!

The fortune mechanic ("roll dice to climb stuff") becomes a karmic mechanic ("my guy is good enough to climb most anything") and then gets internalized from there!

Wow, that's magic! Now I have to write a game that does that intentionally: Fortune -> Karma -> "Yes."


28. On 2011-05-23, Josh W said:

Oh I helpfully said exactly the wrong one for continuous vs immediate in my last post, I can't see handeling time for continuous rules. Classic cases of immediate rules are where the idea of handeling time comes from.

Continuous rules; principles, turn structures and so on, are more learnt than referred to (ie it's about learning to do it right rather than checking a table). Wheras mechanics are more referred to than learnt, except that part of them that sticks in your mental model as "This class of situations will lead to this kind of thing via that mechanic", or however detailed you make it.

Structuring of play by content would be mostly continuous as well by that characterisation, unless it's obscure setting history/metaplot stuff you go through to get an answer to a question.

That's basically a form of outside resolution like a dice roll; no-one can remember what the setting book says, and it could go either way, but you can stop the flow of fictional events to check.

Then bang, you have your answer, so you carry on.


29. On 2011-05-24, Simon C said:

I have another prediction!

I think that continuous rules and immediate rules complement each other, as do rules where you know how things will turn out before resolution (karma?) and rules where you don't (fortune?).

If you know how resolution is going to turn out before you commit to it, it leads to negotiation and positioning and description, so that you get to an advantageous position. But without some uncertainty, there's never that impetus to throw yourself into the conflict, to commit.


30. On 2011-05-24, C. Edwards said:


Regarding the climbing example, I've also seen this sort of thing in play where despite having low or no skill a character still comes to be regarded as good at the thing through repeated successful performance. Like, my character may have a low charisma and have no social skills to speak of but if I manage to repeatedly make high rolls and succeed in my social roll then my character gains a reputation (in the fiction AND among the players) as being a Romeo, or a diplomat, or whatever specific thing the social rolls entailed. Which in turn has an effect on when or if I need to make future social rolls of that type.


31. On 2011-05-24, Emily said:

What a great discussion!

Josh W. wrote:
Continuous rules; principles, turn structures and so on, are more learnt than referred to (ie it's about learning to do it right rather than checking a table). Wheras mechanics are more referred to than learnt, except that part of them that sticks in your mental model as "This class of situations will lead to this kind of thing via that mechanic", or however detailed you make it.

The distinction of internalized vs. referred to is right on. They form a background that informs play. It's this that makes folks who focus on the "flow" of play get so uptight about mechanical procedures. But! Principles, turn structures etc. are immediate rules, rather than continuous, I think. (Check me on that.) They are however, not deterministic, (or mediated—we should check our terminology here, are talking about the same aspects of the rules?)

Jay W wrote:
Mixed-method games are hard to talk about in simple terms, no doubt.

I think we mostly have mixed method games, though. The use here is to be able to say more clearly how the games are functioning. "Freeform" is a thing, but it's misleading, since there are all kinds of structures in them that provide guidance, create tension, help form concensus etc.

Part of the issue is that freeform is never really applied to games that are without structured. The divide the term describes is that between games which rely on deterministic/mediated mechanics as their core mechanic*, and games that either primarily (as Polaris) or in whole reject deterministic mechanics.

Simon C wrote:
If you know how resolution is going to turn out before you commit to it, it leads to negotiation and positioning and description, so that you get to an advantageous position. But without some uncertainty, there's never that impetus to throw yourself into the conflict, to commit.

Uncertainty, yes! How you get that uncertainty is the controversial thing. And what you consider to be uncertain: is it just outcomes that count? Or interpretations of character? Player experience? Consequences and prices paid?
If one looks at dice as the only path to uncertainty, that's a narrow, narrow road.

*rules of play, anyone? I haven't read that section yet, but it seems right. :)


32. On 2011-05-24, Vincent said:

Just terminology here.

"Deterministic," as Jonathan's using it, means diceless; deterministic as opposed to randomized. "Mediating" is short for "fiction-mediating," which means referring materially to fictional things. An alternative to mediating rules is procedural rules, where the rules tell us how to talk, not what to say.

Deterministic mediating: "whichever player has the higher strength rating on her character sheet, her character wins."

Randomized mediating: "whichever player rolls the higher strength roll, her character wins."

Deterministic procedural: "the player on your left says what happens."

Randomized procedural: "whichever player has the highest card, she says what happens."

There's a third distinction that's useful to draw, which is cued vs noncued. People use "freeform" to refer to qualities of cues or lack of cues too. ("Cues" here being things you can point to in the real world, like dice and words on character sheets and who's sitting where.) Dogs' traits get called freeform all the time, because you get to make them up for yourself.

Ben's point is that on top of all these distinctions, rules ALSO operate both continuously and immediately, some primarily one and some primarily the other, but all in principle both.


33. On 2011-05-24, Emily said:

Great clarifications. I misunderstood what Jonathan meant.

Continuing, mediated mechanics can be quantified or descriptor based. Randomized ones rely on quantified cues, or at least ordinal (Benedict is strongest in War). Mediation that is descriptor based is more suited to deterministic use ("the next scene is in Paris" in Doubt) but can be random or arbitrary ("pick a noun to help you describe the aliens" in Sign in Stranger).

A distinction of most freeform styles or traditions is the minimization of quantification. And the use of arbitrary, human choice rather than pure randomization. (Freeform traits, as in Dogs or Over the Edge relates to that meaning, though its applied in very different contexts.) Is arbitrary human choice deterministic?

Examples I'm thinking of are things like the choice of a partner in The Upgrade (the men choose a woman, not their mate, to be matched with over the course of the reality tv show)and the Devils and Angels scene in Doubt(again, the players choose whether or not to stray, pressured by extra-character narration from other players a la bird in the ear) on one hand, and the simple choice of what character does based on player impulse that characterizes all free-play, and most freeform style play.

It doesn't seem right to call free play deterministic. Free play, establishing or simple resolution seem more accurate.


34. On 2011-05-24, David Berg said:

Here's a way to look at it:

How does fiction get established?  By talking.  What do we call fiction-establishing talking?  Narration.  How do we know what to narrate?  Sometimes we use mediation, sometimes we don't.  If we do use mediation, how do we know when and how to use it?  Procedural rules tell us.

Procedures can be random or deterministic.  Mediation can be random or deterministic.  Unmediated narration is neither.  It's unmediated narration.  I think that's the best label for it in this schema.

That's my answer to Emily.  More generally, I also think it's useful to think of fiction-mediating rules as existing inside procedural rules.  "When you want to punch another character, you pick up the coin and flip it," is a procedural rule.  "Heads you hit, tails you miss," is a fiction-mediating rule.  I'd identify procedural rules that don't have mediating rules inside them by the label "purely procedural rules".  That way we can talk about the random or deterministic nature of employing a procedure ("GM talks" vs "high roller talks") without conflating it with whether or not the procedure mediates the fiction.


35. On 2011-05-24, Vincent said:

I hate "narrate" as a technical term with a hate just short of "shared imagined space." It's badly misleading. Fiction gets established by assent, in response to the talking, never by the talking itself. "Narrate" is responsible for some of the poorest game design we've done, and its position as a fixture of our games needs to go the way of stakes setting.

I like your procedural / mediating / purely procedural construction a lot. That's useful.


36. On 2011-05-24, Judd said:

That post makes me want to spool up the podcast again just to discuss those points.


37. On 2011-05-24, Ben Lehman said:

Judd: Wow. A bigger compliment I cannot imagine.


38. On 2011-05-24, David Berg said:

Vincent, gotcha.  It seems like we need three terms: (1) for speech that attempts to affect the fiction, regardless of whether or not it succeeds, (2) for speech that attempts and then, through assent, succeeds, and (3) for speech that attempts and fails through lack of assent.

It seems logical to me to have a broader term for (1), that (2) and (3) refine.  Like, "X", "rejected X", and "admitted X".

I'm having trouble finding a one-word X that isn't "narration".  Game speech, play speech, and performative speech are fairly clear but unwieldy.  Contribution, assertion, and input are convenient but unclear.  Anyone got better ideas?

Alternative idea: don't discuss the talking, just discuss the dynamics of assent.  "Unmediated narration" would become "pure assent dependence" or some such.  Sounds impractical to me—most of us tend to like talking about the talking—but maybe worth a mention.


39. On 2011-05-24, Vincent said:

The problem's the concept, not the term. The term's perfect for the concept. People like to talk about the talking, but the talking is the part that doesn't matter.

Please don't chase after this here! This thread is for Ben's post, not for my opinions about "narration."


40. On 2011-05-24, Chris Chinn said:

This is a great discussion.

This is definitely more nuanced than my thoughts on Directives vs. Procedures a year ago ( - in my case, my "Procedure" = Immediate here and my "Directive" = Continuous, here.


41. On 2011-05-24, Vincent said:

42. On 2011-05-24, Josh W said:

Emily, the way I find the distinction between continuous and immediate helpful to think about is where continuous rules are expected, part of the default rhythm of the game, and looking them up in the book basically means you've forgotten them, whereas immediate rules form break points, where you don't expect to have to remember, you look it up instead, or roll a dice.

Rules appear as continuous when they're edges of a river bank, about pacing and rhythm and colour and general constraint, or as the parameters of a stage.

An example: My dad drives in a pretty continuous way; like a racing driver he takes all the corners and lane changes in terms of lines, he'll start turning slightly before he gets to one and smoothly go round the corner. My mother drives straight, until she gets to a corner, where she slows down a bit and starts turning. You can feel the difference between the two approaches in the suspension of the car:
When I ride in the car with my mum after not having done so for ages, I can get slightly travel sick, just because of the weird roll when she turns or changes lanes, whereas it's always comfortable to be in the car with my dad, because he treats the corners not as decision points but as parts of the rhythm of a long term path he is taking. You can basically blur together all the transitions.

Turn structures can be the same; "I've done my thing, who's turn is it?" or they can be "Right it'll be me then Dan then Dave then Katie"

You did some of the work on Monkeydome right? Well in that the turn system is very immediate, you explicitly choose the person who will be the main player now by giving them the dice, unless you start building a rhythm of passing the dice round all the players and then to the GM (or whatever he's called).
The latter rhythm would be like the group making the rule more continuous.

At the same time the turns are not very strict; there's that continuous roleplaying around the main turn structure, with the principle of giving the player with the dice space to do stuff and mainly supporting them.

I'm itching to get clever with this stuff!

Monkeydome operates pretty much entirely on the basis of mediating cues, in Vincent's terms; you don't refer to who gets to speak, you just directly give their character spotlight and tell other players not to upstage them. It's on the far side of "roll to narrate" engines, because it has the bareist hint of procedural rules.

At the same time the dice roll primarily influences the tone of the scene, something that is normally an overarching principle. But like with alignment, it can be seen in this context as mediating.


43. On 2011-05-24, Vincent said:

Mediating tone vs mediating events is curious. Curious!


44. On 2011-05-24, Jaywalt said:

Emily: I mean deterministic in the sense of "self-determined" by the players (through choice) or "casually determined" (if X conditions, then Y happens) by invoking rules or logic (which is still ultimately a player choice, but of a different kind). Not in the sense that there's a fixed outcome.  The term is still a bit problematic, I admit. In my mind, it's different than what you're calling "free play" or "establishing."

I feel like I understand what Ben and Simon are saying but still feel like you (Emily) and Vincent are using terms in ways I don't fully understand. Guess we have to keep working on this communication thing :)  It feels like we all have overlapping terms and language that we're comfortable with and aren't exactly on the same page.


45. On 2011-05-24, Jaywalt said:

Above: it's supposed to be "causally" NOT "casually"!


46. On 2011-05-24, Simon C said:

Taxonomies are easy to make and hard to defend.

There's this whole other bit we haven't really talked about, which is rules which ask questions of the fiction, vs. rules which ask questions of real-life things.

When this came up the first time I drew a little 3-way matrix with "Immediate-Continuous" "Mediating-Procedural" and "Fiction first-Real life first" as a way of classifying rules. Of course, as Ben points out in the original essay, all these categories blur into each other. The matrix was great until I tried mapping actual rules onto it, at which point it got very confusing.


47. On 2011-05-24, David Berg said:

My two cents on immediate vs continuous rules:

Every rule says some version of "when X, do Y." "When X" is a continuous condition, "do Y" is an immediate action.  So how frequent is X?

Whatever properties we might attribute to continuous vs immediate rules can be better understood as deriving from rules we use relatively frequently1 or rarely2 along the whole spectrum from constantly3 to almost never4.  Well, it's easier for me to understand, anyway.

1-"when you Read a Situation, roll that move"
2-"when you take Harm, roll the Harm move"
3-"when it's not your turn to talk, don't"
4-"when you try to brainwash a mosquito, roll 2d30"

And then the issue of "brief dip into immediate rule, quickly back into continuous ones" is just a matter of the handling time of "do Y" (roll to hit vs roll hit + dmg + armor + shock vs take a vote, etc.)

Is that helpful?

Seems like this thread has moved past that stuff anyway, and is mostly about mediation and cues at this point...


48. On 2011-05-25, Emily said:

So much good stuff, and not time to write! Say more about deterministic, Jaywalt. Say more!

re: DB. time for new thread?


49. On 2011-05-25, Josh W said:

David, I think it's a bit of a wave/particle duality thing, do all rules for a game fit into the domain of trigger/action? Maybe, but you might not see your own behaviour in those terms when using them.

So these two categories could refer to the way that people approach the rules, and the ammeanability for the rules to be approached that way. But I'll get back to that.

Looking at things in terms of triggers, consequences, frequency of application and other stuff could be one way, one that applies very nicely to events like skill checks or random encounter tables.

The thing is that some people like to approach their games differently, internalise them rather than refer to the books or sheets or tables. And internalised rules can blur into seeming like no rules at all, just a way of being.

And there are certain ways of veiwing a game from that perspective, like "When your in there playing, does it feel natural? Forced?" "What are the constraints on creativity and the new avenues openned up?"

I think the reason that designers couldn't address the concerns that 4e D&D felt "boardgamey" was because they put a lot of attention into how those rules felt as immediate rules (handelling time, clarity when disputed, seperate spheres of application, consistency) and less how they felt when internalised. (Collapsing mechanics into character decision making, variety of pacing in encounters, diversity of strategic objectives within a party, minimum energy and concentration levels required)

Ok, I think it was considered, but there doesn't seem to be the vocabulary to express the difference between the continuous feel it has, vs the feel a lot of people were able to get with earlier games.

To my mind that's one of the things that's useful about this kind of characterisation, for some functions of game rules, certain features predominate. Some bits of how they work really matter. And you can probably set up two different criteria for judging mechanics that apply to some mechanics more than others:

Like I still can't picture how you'd apply handeling time to D&D alignment, except when you start having an argument about whether some character is following their alignment. That's when it appears as an object, as a rule, rather than acting more like an extension of your general playing of your character, and you probably go rummaging in a book to prove your point.

Frequency of mechanic application does match up to something I think is quite important when looking at the game from a continuous perspective, the rhythm and energy levels of the game, the amount that you need to keep an eye on stuff, and the dominance of various different types of interaction/headspaces within the game.

I'm filling out stuff massively here obviously, but I think it's better to think of them as overlapping approaches to a mechanic that it should be able to fulfill. I can pack a load of stuff into both characterisations, but coming off the back of reading vincent's threads about free play, I'm personally more interested in exploring the continuous side of things at the mo.

On determinism, I have something: You know I was saying about my mum and dad's driving? About blurring through decision points or discrete moments? Well in strategy games, after you've played them a bit, you can start doing that even through there are random elements. You go, "right this will happen, and I'll keep about 50% of my units and I'll maybe have enough forces to take there". You make a sort of stretchy present tense, opperating over a larger time scale.

Now those dice aren't deterministic to anyone; they do their thing and no-one in the game knows what that will be. But mechanics like chess are at least deterministic to someone; you are able to do what you want on your turn. But the other player is still blurring through the decision points caused by your possible behaviours, with the expected future getting more multi-state (there's a great word for that I've forgotten). If they're thinking ahead and don't know you very well, you might as well be a dice!

Emily, does jeep style roleplaying usually involve a bit of churn in groups? Ie a few mutual strangers in each group? Because that would probably be one of the ways to help that feeling of possibility, without any random elements.


50. On 2011-05-25, Josh W said:

Oh and sorry if I'm loading you up with too much stuff, don't rush on my behalf, take your time! I've got loads to get on with.


51. On 2011-05-25, Simon C said:

Here's what I was thinking about last night (instead of sleeping):

Rules can usually be broken down to an "if/then" statement. That's almost never the best way to communicate them, or to remember them, but for the purposes of this analysis, it's useful.

"If [thing] then [action]"

The "thing" referred to above can:

a) Happen in the real world, or in the fiction
b) Happen frequently, or rarely

The "action" referred to above can:

c) Tell you something happens in the fiction, or tell you to do something in the real world
d) Be very predictable, or very unpredictable

I think that covers what Ben's talking about in this post, as well as Vincent's "Mediating Cues" stuff.

Very often, if the "thing" is very common, and the "action" is very predictable, we tend to internalise the rule, and it's never overtly invoked. That's what Ben means by "continuous" rules. They become part of the landscape of play. For example:

"If [someone is talking about something 'their' character does] then [give that credibility - it happens in the fiction]"

That's a very common rule, which is almost never invoked during functional play, because it happens very frequently, and the action is very predictable.

"If a character is going aggro, roll +hard, ..."

That's a rule from Apocalypse World. It's almost always invoked when it comes up, because it happens infrequently, and the resulting action is unpredictable (in this case, because you have to roll the dice).


52. On 2011-06-07, Deliverator said:

Sorry I'm jumping late into this thread!

Ben, I've been thinking about this issue for awhile, specifically as triggered by some discussions with Jenskot about 4E D&D, and you've explained it beautifully and succinctly here.

The way I was conceptualizing it before is that recent-edition D&D gamers are actually pretty good at following numerical rules (calculating to-hit bonuses and whatnot), but not so good at understanding textual rules.  Jenskot's big peeve, and one of mine too, is when people don't play with the "stunting" rules on p. 42 of the 4E DMG?it's one of the major things that can make the game feel less boardgamey.

I think violating what you call continuous rules is actually much worse than accidentally violating an immediate rule involving dice values.  The latter is easy to fix going forward, the former tends to lead to fundamental deformations of how the game is supposed to work.  (The example of people setting stakes for conflicts in Polaris comes to mind.)



RSS feed: new comments to this thread