Let's run through some of the excuses that DMs express when their intention is to adjust the game arbitrarily.
- Because I am not arbitrary all the time. I am only arbitrary when I arbitrarily decide that being arbitrary is necessary.
- There is a very important "balance" when I run a game, between knowing when to play the game by the rules and when to ignore the rules ~ all I am doing is ensuring that balance is respected.
- The sign of being a truly great DM is understanding when the rules matter and when it is important that the DM not be used by the rules.
- This arbitrariness that I employ, this very important balance that I achieve, is never noticed by the players, and that is the most important part of my DMing.
- Achieving this balance is very difficult. I should be respected for being able to do it.
- My judgement of how much balance and fun the players need to be having justifies any moment I decide it is necessary to ignore the rules.
- It is up to me to judge when the rules need to be ignored. That is my job.
- Ignoring rules enables me to move past boring parts and get to a resolution more quickly, maintaining momentum.
- The game is not about overcoming the rules or die results, the game is about narrative and role-playing.
I'm not going to discuss the illegitimacy of any of these excuses. They are plainly outside any set of standards for one human's behaviour in the company of others. Arguments such as "things done in secret are acceptable" or "I am arbitrary only when I need to be" are red flags that indicate an individual has lost all perspective where it comes to dealing with others, on a scale that has nothing whatsoever to do with role-playing games. Such people should seek counselling.
What is of interest to us is the appearance of concepts that do matter a great deal to the intentional inefficiency of our system. When I say, as a DM, that I have to approach the game in a manner that ensures all the persons in the game are being treated the same, that I am making judgments fairly and retaining the trust of my players, it is to balance that I am referring. Not the sort of balance that is created arbitrarily, but the sort of balance that is created by a set of rules that everyone expects and is able to predict for future use against the interface. When Bogost describes play as an activity of freedom and possibility, he certainly expects that the play will be interesting and compelling and therefore possess momentum, which is possible by limiting our freedoms and choices in the game. Our game will certainly have role-playing. It will certainly result in a narrative from the interplay between the players and the DM. Resolutions are important and it is equally important that we move past the boring parts, as obviously we're not trying to be boring. Yet these things can absolutely be achieved through the rules, and are in fact made more interesting by the rules limiting our game.
It is merely that skipping past the rules is easier, since it: a) vastly reduces the amount of memory work we have to possess when DMing; and b) provides an alternative to our having to create better adventures, better consequences, better dilemmas and better exposition, all of which take time and brain sweat, and some of which are, frankly, beyond my capacity to manage.
In other words, I wanted to write a book, but that was hard and required my own words, so I cheated. Buy my book!
The whole point of binding our choices with rules that make most easy options unacceptable is to make a game that really pushes our creativity, our effort, our sense of accomplishment and our satisfaction to the wall. Golf, which Bogost and I keep bringing up, is a really great game with really difficult inefficiencies built into it, what with the size of the ball and the amount of grass and the ridiculous shape of the stick used, but let's be completely honest: golf is a kiddie game compared to D&D.
D&D is hard. And it should be hard. It's the hard that makes it great.
In making the functionality of our games, we are faced with a different sort of limitation than exists in traditional games or in the more massively appealing video games (which are reducing interest in every activity invented before 1975). The largest struggle with video game limitation has to do with how much can be reasonably programmed into a game, specifically given the amount of cost it takes to create that game. Good games take millions of hours of paid-for wages to create and are bound by the expectation that the amount of money being spent will, eventually, be regained. No one is making a game with an unlimited budget that is, say, attempting to recreate the entire city of London with all 12 million inhabitants, each with a completely different personality, so that you can pretend to go to London and hang out there. That could be a potentially interesting game. Ain't gonna happen.
But the process of creating the limitation we can afford to create in a video game makes the difficulty of that game more or less static, once the game is made. The rules can't be changed, not without somehow having access to the programming and then, again, having the money to pay for the untold number of man hours it would take to adjust the game from its initial parameters. Video games are wonderful and interesting, but for what they are, the rigidity of the game is fixed prior to play.
The rigidity of traditional games is less fixed. There are "official" rules for how large a baseball diamond has to be or the number of yards in a football field, but those are rules invented for money-focused competitive play. We can play football in an alley, we can play baseball in a living room (which I have done, not with traditional equipment), we can bend or manipulate the rules of cards or board games in any way that is agreed upon by the participants. But the capacity for these games to expand beyond their simple premise is obviously limited. The rigidity can be adjusted, but the actual game cannot be potentially expansive like an as-yet unmade video game can be. That is why video games are superior to traditional games and why, from the very first, they drew us away from those games our parents and grandparents played. Chances are, if you are younger than 30, you will live to see the disappearance of sports broadcasting for a wide variety of games that were super-important when you were ten. I have already lived long enough to see the disappearance of less-than-common sports that were once free to view. There isn't enough money in pure advertising anymore to support the small number of people who are still interested.
RPGs are unlike both sorts of games. We can literally do anything. We're not limited by any interface except our own brains. We can make rules, unmake rules, even adjusting and providing precedents for unexpected situations as we go along. The problem starts, however, in that misunderstanding RPG game-players have convinced themselves that this rule-changing, because it can be done on the fly, can be done arbitrarily if necessary. It is a short hop from there to people arguing that it should be done arbitrarily.
I can't speak for the reader. My personal experience with childhood play was a lot of boredom, mostly from growing sick of playing the same games, occasionally punctuated by our making up our own games and our own rules. Just as now, there were participants who misunderstood the rules, who deliberately misunderstood the rules, who steadfastly refused to play by rules they did not like, who pouted and went home because their version of the rules did not make them accepted and who took every opportunity to challenge rules because that was a way to get around them. With some games in our neighborhood, which were recalled and played again multiple times, particularly that game we called "guns," the rules became fixed and traditional, to the point where those who resisted the rules were not permitted to play.
Any system that appears to lack a firm and rigid set of rules will draw persons who will challenge those rules on the basis that, any rule that is not clearly understood can be gotten around by argument, outright resistance or passive aggressiveness. This is all we are seeing now, with ongoing conversations about the necessity of rules, which rules need to be followed, which need to adjusted, which should not have been adjusted and so on. The issue was made whole from the beginning, in that the breadth of the game was not considered in the initial creation. The issue was made worse by the endless litany of rule-making and unmaking that has gone on since. A litany to which I happily contribute.
Realistically, it is not possible for me or anyone else to tell any campaign what rules to employ and what rules to disregard. At best, we can make arguments for and against. My principle goal here, then, is to established two conditions for which to argue those two sides, existence vs. non-existence.
NO, a rule should not be included if it does not meaningfully contribute to the measure of play within the rigidity of the campaign being presented. If the rule is merely window dressing, primarily for the purpose of imprinting an emotional sensibility in the mind of the player, such as making a rule that all players must make or find a picture of their character if they wish to play, then it is clear the rule does not enable or fail to enable the actual game play of the participant, the movement within the more rigid system, and therefore that rule can be tossed out with no meaningful negative effect on the campaign. If the element of game "play" cannot actually be gamed, in the strict definition of the word, get rid of it.
YES, a rule should be included if it increases the inefficiency of the system, limiting our ability to accomplish something within the orbit of that rule, so long as the rule dynamically changes the way that the game is resolved. I recognize that "dynamic" is going to be misunderstood, so I will explain it: I mean that the rule creates situations which are characterized by change, activity and progress. In an RPG, that would mean the progress of the adventure, progress of the character's accumulation of stuff and status, progress of the game's novelty, a change in the player's sense of enlightenment and a contribution to the player's sense of purpose when participating.
It is possible to make arguments for any rule in any RPG that support either of these two sides. Good. Make them. But make them inside this framework. Because arguments made outside this framework don't mean anything. The frame is not defined by me, the frame is defined by what a game is, what makes it successful, why people play it and what it is meant to accomplish: all conditions which I have taken a month and more than 25,000 words explaining.
People will make arguments outside this framework. Constantly. I have set myself to begin ignoring them. That way, we can settle three things:
- That rules matter.
- That it is possible for anyone, once educated, to understand why a rule should or should not be included and how the rule is intended to work.
- That settings can be created that will excite players by steadfastly operating inside rules that apply to ALL the participants, players and DM alike.
With this argument in our pocket, we can effectively build a campaign.