Thursday, August 3, 2017

7 Rules

I don't want to get locked into an eternal deconstruction of what a rule is, but I can't help thinking it would be a good idea to tackle some kind of closed, simple system, since making/deciding upon rules is of considerable relevance.  Therefore, building on the examples that Charles Angus proposed, on the right we have an example of a straightforward set of rules on a subject that none of us are experts, where none of us really need to be experts: The Pennsylvania Association of County Fairs 2017 Blue Ribbon Apple Pie Contest.

Seven simple rules: #8 is the organizer's contact number.  I'd like to go through these and explain their relationship to role-playing, as "types" of rules we want to be sure to include.

Let's start with Rule #2, what Angus had called a window dressing rule (see, I can change my mind!).  He had mentioned perhaps there could be another name for it and I agree.  Window dressing is a method of displaying items in order to attract customers; it is the front facade of a business, or the "face" of the concern.  Therefore, we can see these as face-rules, rules that are there to ensure a sense of fairness and consideration for the participants, who in the case of the apple pie contest don't want to see a single pie sweeping multiple counties this season.  Such a thing would be unattractive, and we want the face of the contest to be attractive for entrants and audience alike.

Face-rules in RPGs can plausibly include JB's calling out of the drawn character rule, it can include rules for player behaviour, it can include the mannerisms of the DM and the general feel the game has for the participants as it is being played.  The rule has a meta-purpose, outside the particulars of making good apple pie.  It can even include alignment and backstory.  The pie contest includes the rule because it wants an audience; an RPG can include face rules because it serves as a fan service for players, because it bolsters the confidence of the DM, etcetera.  I will just say that, if the strict desire it to determine what is the best pie, bar none, then rule #2 really serves no specific purpose.

Rule #1 addresses the participants, that all must be from Pennsylvania.  I think this fits the mix between the face of the contest and the "gameplay" of the contest.  Let's call it a "prescriptive" rule.  It addresses a specific point: do we want to know what is the best pie produced by the field of entrants, or do we want to know what is the best pie in this county in Pennsylvania?  Clearly, the goal is the latter.  This is a contest, a comparison, so what we compare is important.  But again, it does not apply to apple pie making.  It has elements of a face-rule.

I'll suggest that an RPG equivalent would be no player-vs.-player.  PvP is, technically, an application of the RPGs rules, but it fails to address what I would consider the point of role-playing ~ that being an exploration of the world and survival in that world.  Some might feel that not being from Pennsylvania isn't fair; but given the intent of the contest, to promote Pennsylvania, for Pennsylvanians, I don't think it matters.  Some players may feel that denying PvP is also not fair.  But since the purpose is to promote good game-play and character creation and survival, PvP is unacceptable.  It really depends on what sort of games we want.

(Angus' example was that a baseball player must slide towards the base and not the baseman; I think this is also a good comparison to PvP, or any other rule that encourages disrespect from one player to another, such as players who insist on heading off for solo-adventures while other players are expected to wait)

Rule #7 is a "protocol" rule: if you want to play, get your paperwork in oder by such-and-such a time, delivered in such-and-such a place.  Participants who want to play RPGs need to come to the right place at the right time, have their characters, keep a readable character sheet, answer accurately and politely when asked about their ability stats, armor class, carried equipment, special abilities and so on, as much of this information can't be reasonably managed by the DM.

We could go one farther and argue that players have a responsibility to know what the rules are that apply specifically to their characters, so that they should have read the spell descriptions of the spells they want to use, know how much damage their weapons do, know the penalties for ranged weapons, know how much illumination a torch gives and how long a torch lasts, since these are all written down.  There is absolutely no excuse for not knowing these things, though players usually rely on the DM to check the pages when the matter comes up.

It might be worthwhile coming up with some basis on which to hold players accountable: but the most meaningful consequence exists in the pie contest protocol: if you don't adhere to the rules, you can't play. Expressed that way to a person who simply refuses to get it together may be the only way to make it clear to that player that less is not tolerated.  I have expressed as much when having a lot too many players, as carrying their baggage for them gets to be too much.

Rule #3 and Rule #4 can also be seen as protocol rules: to be judged an apple pie, it must BE an apple pie; and it must be presented in this manner so that it can be thoroughly examined and dealt with, without having to worry about the owner's plates (all of which are considered disposable).  I'm going to make a distinction, however, and call these "descriptive" rules, in that they describe what sort of game we're playing.  This is not a meat-pie contest.  This is not about the participants having control of the pie once it has been handed over to the judges.  Once it is given, it is the judges' pie, to be used in whatever way is necessary (admittedly, this could be spelled out more clearly in the rules, but it is traditionally understood that in pie judging contests the pie is going to be eaten).

The same applies, then, to the Dungeon Master.  This will be at least a 60% game of Dungeons and Dragons, or Rifts, or Palladium, or whatever game we're playing.  It does not need to be traditional but it does need to be recognizable as an RPG, with certain characteristics that would fit what an RPG is intended to be.  Is it a game or is it an acting performance?  That needs to be clear.  Further, it needs to be clear than once the game is entered upon, all the participants, including the DM, must adhere to the rules of the contest, er, RPG, they have supposedly decided to play.  Cheating is not permitted, nor is any notion that it isn't cheating if the cheating isn't known.  We have to define the game we're playing and then play it!

Rule #6 is tricky.  I presume the rule exists because participants became over-creative in their attempts at making apple pies and began to create a hazard for the judges, who obviously did not want to be forced to eat pies in which the little buggies were not properly killed.  That is fair. In the same way, a DM should not be required to adhere to player behaviour that goes right outside the bounds of what the game expects.  At some point, a player's creativity reaches a point where it has to be asked, "What game are you playing?" Let's call this the anti-"wtf" rule.

For example, I once had a player kill himself in a jail because he decided his "character" had let the fictional townspeople down, blaming himself for a conspiracy that was getting the upper hand, and that the only proper response was suicide.  wtf.  A player decides that wealth, experience and other game-driven goals are no longer important, and refuses to pursue any accumulation whatsoever, deciding that "the game" is to go from town to town and just talk to people, because character-to-NPC interaction is satisfying enough.  wtf.

Anti-wtf rules may vary considerably from campaign to campaign; what I consider ridiculous or boring may work very well with another DM.  Still, an RPG isn't about the player rewriting the game, however much they may strictly adhere to the rules as written.  If a player begins to act in a manner that calls the DM's reasons for participation into question, the player needs to be corrected or booted from the campaign.

Finally, Rule #7.  Here is the meat of the campaign.  The player is submitting an entry, with recipe, being entirely open and above board about who they are and their willingness to participate.  On the flip side (unstated in the pie contest rules but implied by the organizers' credentials), the DM is committing to running the game fairly, examining the ingredients, the quantity of the player's participation and the preparation of the pie, er, character.

This is, after all, a contest.  And organization must happen.  The DM, by demanding all this of the player, is responsible for providing a contest that the players want to win.  A hard contest, with meaningful rewards, where most of the participants expect to be losers but which the prospect of winning is of sufficient magnificence that losing is not that important.  To achieve that in an RPG, the actual process of playing the game (making the pie, with the scores of attempts that the pie-maker will employ at home before landing on a pie that they think might win) must be compelling, exciting, trustworthy and fulfilling, so that even the losers think on the way home, "That was great!  I'm going to enter next year!"

We can call this a "game rule" ~ and it is the only rule I'm going to discuss moving forward.  I'll concede and accept that there are other rules, but these other rules don't drive the contest or the game.  They address periphery concepts, they help contain aberant behaviour, they contribute to focus and suggest a proper attitude, but they are NOT the game.  They are the rules we make so that the game can actually be played.


Thank you JB, for your fine examples, and thank you Charles, for suggesting the template.  I had an idea of what I was going to say here but your idea was better.  The idea for the pie contest came from this UX convention speech.  And yes, I know I only created six categories, so the title of the post ought to be "6 rules," but I'm letting the pie contest dictate here.


Drain said...

Your character suicide story really is out of left-field, never read anything quite like that.

How /did/ such a thing come about? Was it really earnest or was the player somehow disgruntled and acting out?

Its a depressing cop-out, but one that leads me to think that a player could indeed create enduring change in a campaign setting through a series of strategic suicide-martyrdoms (I'm thinking about the spread of Christianity for point of comparison).

Also, how did it end? You talked the player out of it or expelling happened, or what?

Alexis Smolensk said...

In this post, Delfig, convinced he cannot run from the conspiracy of dopplegangers taking over the town of Dachau in south Germany, whom he unknowingly helped enable, insists on going back, alone, though the party tries to talk him out of it.

In this post, Delfig tries to fight the dopplegangers in the German Rathaus, where they have successfully set themselves up as the burghermeister and guards. He is knocked unconscious.

In this post, Delfig wakes up in prison. Believing that his blood is going to be used by the dopplegangers, decides to kill himself instead. I argue with him about it and he steadfastly insists this is his goal.

Absolutely, the most bizarre sequence of events I have ever run.