Tuesday, November 7, 2017

How to Write a Rule: Introduction

Most games are defined by their rules; we recognize what chess or bridge are by the manner of the pieces or the way in which the cards are played.  Most of the time, if there is a change in the rules, this usually indicates that we are playing a different game.  There are many, many versions of bridge, for example, where a change in the rules indicates that we're playing whist, pinochle, hearts, euchre and so on.

Generally, this is not the case with role-playing games.  In order for the game we are playing to be considered different, there has to be a major shift in the methodology of the game.  Even with genre, we're prepared to accept marked differences: if I were to propose a campaign in which the Masquerade would take place during the 1st century BCE in Rome, we would still call it the Masquerade.

And so, if we play with fairly accepted core rules, we're allowed to continue to call a game D&D [or whatever].  Since there are numerous "core rules" now, some of them quite fairly distinct from the original versions of the game, we have considerable latitude in which rules we play and how we want those rules defined.  This encourages virtually everyone to feel comfortable changing rules, since that is a distinct feature of RPGs.

Unfortunately, there are no dictums for how a rule should be rewritten or how a non-existent rule should be created.  On the whole, the process is a mystery ... with a fair number of would-be designers wallowing around without much success while a number of voices are now being raised to say that they want less rules, not more, and that rules-as-written neatly takes care of all this amateur designing mayhem.

I would be prepared to accept that, except that this is D&D and the "rules-as-written" are massively underwritten, under-presented and, in many cases, just not thought through.  The rules-as-written phenomenon expects players to change their expectations of the game to suit the rule-book, rather than the far more dynamic opportunity of driving the game by advancing the rule-book.  The argument against more rules is a gut reaction to multiple epic fails coming from a lot of different places: bloated rule systems, contrast shocks resulting from four new editions all launched within the space of 14 years (three of which are incompatible), an endless flame war consuming the community on every aspect of game design and a general ennui promoted by a conceptual vision that has seen mediocre development in the whole time of the game's existence.

We're making new rules, yes, but we're not doing so from a design viewpoint that has a theoretical structure: we're going on our gut, arguing that when it works, it's okay, without any real idea of what defines "works." At best, we're relying on people voicing their feelings about a given rule, which makes further development on a particular idea impractical or ineffective.

Am I the person to address this?  I'm not so sure. With my last post, I expressed my attitude that I am relatively alone in the practice of RPGs, being met with arguments that less rules are better because they are "simpler to build upon," which basically means not building at all; or that they are "easier"; or that complexity is an "obstacle" for new players.  I don't remember that campaign from Android where they argued that people who have never used a phone before shouldn't use their platform because the complexity is an obstacle for first-time users.  Too, I'm told that having to fill out "long lists of calculations" [that is, copying numbers onto a page, occasionally having to add or subtract like a 2nd grader] puts off "intelligent, creative folks" and that it is an excessive learning curve, far too excessive for ordinary humans to master.  Given such extraordinary expectations on my part, frankly unreasonable in every possible way, I'm beginning to feel that most role-players are just ~

Hurm.  Well, see, that's how the last post went.  I started off with a reasonable introduction into rules progression and let myself off the chain regarding my deepening lack of respect for participants who make such arguments.  It suggests that millions of words can't actually educate, that what's fundamentally needed is some sort of nanny-program that can be systematically designed to simply by-pass the need to think, thus enabling these intelligent, creative people to play at the level of grade 10 high school students.  As I was, when I first started playing the game, making long lists of calculations while carrying five and ten hour conversations with my peers about what kind of changes we'd like to make to the rules of this game that was only five years old at the time.

Clearly, I am having trouble getting over this particular angry hurdle.  I was going to say that I'm probably not the writer to explain how to make rules, because I am plainly just out there ... but after a few days of research, in which I was hoping to find academic content on the theory of rule design, I might just as well be the one.  Because there is no one else.

Ian Bogost wrote an interesting book, Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, which incorporates some compelling content on his theory of procedural rhetoric, but unfortunately it's not the vision I have about how to teach someone how to make rules for, say, players to mountain climb.  Bogost's argument is basically that a game about mountain climbing will produce an immersive experience that will increase one's personal experience with the nature and feeling of mountain climbing, enabling one to more thoroughly interpret the emotional and intuitive response of mountain climbers, having sort-of been one in virtual reality (I suspect Bogost watched David Cronenberg's Videodrome in his youth), but that is only loosely connected to how to actually make rules that enable the procedural effect he postulates.  It suggests a goal for making rules, and an effective one: but not the structure on how to achieve that goal.

Beyond that, it's an empty field.  Just now, we're relying on young, imaginative game designers to immerse themselves in playing games, and thus be altered by the procedural rhetoric of that experience to a degree that they comprehend how to make games ... but it's lightning in a bottle, really.  Not everyone who spends a lifetime playing games will be touched sufficiently by that rhetoric ... promoting the very incorrect notion that game making is a special talent that is only available to the specially blessed and talented.  This is how people used to feel about medical practitioners, people who could write letters and those who could understand math.  As it turns out, once those things were properly deconstructed, it turned out that even an ordinary person can be taught how to perform a tracheotomy, compose an essay or resolve algebra.  The only thing that keeps the ordinary person from designing a video game right now is that the educational theory is way, way behind the technology and there's little motivation to encourage it to catch up.

So, if you want to learn anything about rule making, I'm sorry, you're going to have to rely upon grumpy old me.


Samuel Kernan said...

I'm game! I appreciated the reminder in the last post that if a rule adds nothing playable, doesn't give the player new choices, then it is a poorly made rule.

Tim said...

"...bloated rule systems, contrast shocks resulting from four new editions all launched within the space of 14 years (three of which are incompatible)..."

You've made this comment many times, but for some reason the point on incompatibility leapt out at me here. You could certainly end up with a bloated rule system all the same, but why on Earth wasn't the marketing process simply to print bigger, more complex extensions of the rules over time? That way you can keep selling the old stuff (although I can see copyright or not wanting to pay certain TSR folks as being a potential reason).

Still, they might have started with the whole bag of books, and then a few years later, instead of second edition, created a kind of large-scale extension book that could replace old rules in varying areas and add new content to give people more complicated stuff, akin to Blizzard's World of Warcraft franchise (I haven't kept up with it but only recently, after four to six expansions, they started bundling the old content together in one product so you didn't have to buy the base game and multiple expansions for a higher price).

I suppose it was a simpler time.

Charles Taylor (Charles Angus) said...

I've had my head buried deep in research the last while and haven't been keeping up with the blogs, so I'm just seeing this now.

It indeed might as well be you, Alexis.

I think it's probably safe to say there is nobody out there who has spent as much time in deep, considered reflection on the game, on what makes it work, why it's effective, how it works, why to play it, etc. etc. It hasn't been within the halls of academia, but nonetheless, you've put more time and effort and thought into D&D than many people put into a PhD. And few, if any, others have done the same.

As you say, it's an empty field. We're all fortunate that you share your process and your findings with us on an open forum.