Sunday, November 5, 2017

You're Just Not Me

I finally listened to the recording of the WHTSI podcast ~ I find that a hard go, it just never sounds right to me.  I really understand these actors who never watch the films they're in.

There's a part where I talk about rules being enabling and not restrictive; I'd like to tackle that in print, where I sound better and not like I'm embarrassing myself.  Here goes.

I don't want to be pedantic about this, but we will need to understand the term "rule," so here's the definition I'll work inside.  Rule: a set of explicit or understood regulations or principles governing conduct within a particular activity or sphere.

Let's take a single instance of governing conduct within D&D.  With my weapon in hand, I roll to hit an opponent.  The principle goes that I have to achieve a certain number on the die in order to succeed, and thus remove hit points from my enemy, in an attempt to remove my enemy as an obstacle.

Now, there are rules defining hit points and defining the die number needed to succeed, but let's just focus specifically on the circumstance of attempting to hit.  Effectively, the understood activity is that my character, or entity, is in combat with another entity, and that I have the explicit right to attempt to remove that entity as a threat.  The rule to hit is designed to address this.

But let's be clear: for the rule to be explicit, it has to be understood that my entity's position is directly in front of the enemy entity's position, and that the enemy is facing me.  What if the entity is not facing me?  Does that change the sphere in which the particular activity is taking place?

If we argue "no," then we are making the decision not to increase the variability of the combat sphere.  If we argue "no," then two entity combatants might as well not have a front or a back, since we have decided not to make a rule governing that situation.  However, to add nuance, to add opportunity to the combat experience, to make it deeper and richer and therefore more interesting, we can argue that the defendant's facing matters!  If it does, we will need to create a rule that will govern the defendant's facing.

And if we want to make a judgement that attacking the enemy from the flank is a different activity that attacking the enemy from the back, then we need a different rule for that as well.  Each time we want to expand the sphere in which we operate, we need to increase the number of rules in order to maintain the expansion.

Yes, naturally, there is a limit to how many rules we can practically maintain within the game space.  Rolemaster's appearance near the beginning of the RPG era coincided with an idea called "hit location," which proposed that any hit should include a random roll to determine which part of the body was struck, with a commensurate effect depending upon the result.  At first, this seemed like a wonderful idea, and most games I was involved with, including my own, ran towards hit location with gusto.  At first, it seemed to work marvelously.

However, while the location rule's complexity was suitable for one-on-one fights, it quickly lost its appeal when the number of combatants increased.  Five opponents against five player characters was manageable.  Though it slowed combat, the effects were interesting and the time could be allowed.  Once the game reached ten opponents against five player characters, however, the increase in necessary rolls verged on annoyance.  At fifteen or twenty opponents against a party, battles that might take half an hour to run were now an hour and a half.  Even with the hit location table open on the table, constantly having to address it again and again, along with the effect, along with keeping track of multiple effects, seriously began to wear on everyone's patience.

Those who stayed with it for a few months were able to memorize the tables and that improved the manageability - but by that time, we could not help noticing the repetition of more common results, which itself increased our annoyance and impatience with the system.  After five or six months of playing in games with hit location, we just did not give a fuck where the blow landed ... and all but a few games I knew dropped the system.  Fundamentally, the rule added to the verisimilitude of the combat experience ... but because it was entirely based on random numbers, hit location did not improve the player's opportunity for play.

If I know that my approach against the opponent's flank or rear will improve my chances of hitting, then what I want from a rule is the right to arrange that situation.  If, however, my character's position in relationship to the opponent is a random chance, then this rule offers nothing with regards to my personal ability to play the game.  It's just bother without a meaningful payoff.  It's a bad rule.

Where people respond to the addition of rules to the game, it is most often a response to bad rules.  3rd Edition was a composite of hundreds upon hundreds of similar bad rules, which despite having a structure that enabled characters to tailor-make their characters, the stitching inside the tailoring reduced the act of game play to a die roll.  For the most part, those involved in that version failed to understand where the fault lay.  As such, the structure was allowed to linger as a game design flaw for more than a decade; it was only after the presentation of 4th Edition that at last people began to see that the game's structure had seriously gone astray ... with the only imaginable alternative being to go back to the basic structure of an easily understood, rules-lite game system, such as B/X.

But this was more of a gut instinct than a clearly understood deconstruction.  Like a cook that empties a shaker of salt into the soup, making the soup so salty that it cannot be eaten, the game makers have decided that the solution is NO salt, none at all, because salt is obviously bad for soup and no sane person would add it.

I expect this problem will right itself.  However, examining my own comments on the matter, I feel that I'm probably not helping.  I have a tendency to embrace new rules, which I design specifically to expand opportunities for the players.  To others, this sounds like a lot of detail that, surely, can only serve to overwhelm the DM during the game.  "For fuck's sake, Alexis, I can barely manage the rules that I have!  And you want me to adopt more?"

Yeah.  I suppose people do look at my version of play like that.  I don't know what to tell them.  The search engine on my computer and on my wiki lets me dredge up obscure rules I wrote four years ago in seconds, although occasionally I do forget the name of that old file.  But it may be that I have an unusual memory, or that I have some unusual skill with search engines and finding things, that others don't possess.  If, during a game, I don't have time to look up a rule, because I'm already looking up something for some other purpose, I will tell my players to look it up.  And they will.  But perhaps that is because I have some special way with people, or I'm profoundly intimidating, that enables me to impel other persons to carry out my will without complaint.  Players seem to be able to look up the rules without any problem, and understand the rules, even turning them against me for their own purposes, using my own words as a weapon.  And I go along with that.  But maybe that's because I have some unusual quirk in my brain that's willing to concede to a player's willingness to argue with me; maybe its because I don't care as much about my preconceived world or my designed adventure as other DMs, or perhaps I'm faster at adapting to an unexpected thwarting of my expectations.  And perhaps the rules are comprehensible because I have an unusual skill as a writer and as a designer that other DMs can't achieve.

Perhaps everything I say about running a game, about working at the process and understanding it, about writing down rules and putting them in an electronic format so that all the players can read them, all the time, can only work for me because I am totally and completely a different person than every other person running RPGs.  Perhaps my advice can only work for me, because a person has to be me before they can appreciate what a good rule set can accomplish.

If so, then I'm wasting my time.  When I say, put the rule book on your lap and type the rules into a computer, until your fingers and your wrists are sore, there's no possible way that advice can be valuable because, well, you're just not me.  You don't think the same way.  You can't learn things like I have learned things, in the 38-odd years that I have painstakingly gone about steadfastly repeating and repeating the work that I've tried to do.  You can't memorize more than you have, no matter how many decades you work at it.  You're fundamentally crippled in some way that I am not crippled.

I suppose that must be it.


Ozymandias said...

7.6 billion people in the world, chances are there are more like us than we realize...

Alexis Smolensk said...

Well, obviously, I'm being sardonic. I'm simply tired of hearing that reasonable adjustments to a DM's game, such as taking it out of the 1970s and into the present day, are just too darn hard.

Drain said...

As someone still currently wiping a sweaty forehead from hammering fifth edition into a pleasing game shape, I commend you for your wiki, your sound rule design and your fearless experimentation. You're an enduring inspiration for my blogging, Alexis, both in game running tone and systemic structure.

Maliloki said...

I've got to go back into my 5e rules and start digging at them again. Made a huge dent into it on the 1st pass, but I've got a LOT of cleanup and changes to make based of finally being able to run games again. Not to mention I have over half the spell levels left to go through and I haven't even started on the monsters yet. Big projects I'm looking forward to getting back to now that I've had some time to recharge.

Most (read: almost all) of my rule changes are informed by, if not outright stolen from your blog and wiki, twisted to suit my purposes and the differences in base systems.

Key thing I try to keep in mind (especially on this next pass) is "does this give the player more or less choice/options to overcome obstacles and is that the result I'm looking for"

Makes looking at any rule/system fairly interesting that way.

Hope that makes sense (typed on my phone whilst on a break)

Basically, all the work and repeatedly telling me the same thing multiple times in different ways until it finally clicks in my brain has made my game better.