The importance of the rules
Posted Saturday August 09, 2008 at 06:07 AM
[Rules] help 'inspire' things you might not create on your own. — Fang Langford
I always intuitively felt that D&D, as a game of creative imagination, was intensely flavoured by its rules. I didn't really understand what this intuition meant when I was a high school–aged DM and I was trying to figure out why I did and didn't like certain sets of rules. Later when 3e came along I bemoaned the treatment of psionics, but I could never articulate why beyond complaining, "it's just magic with a different paint job".
Which brings me to the monograph I've quoted up there. I loved reading game rulebooks. Like a sponge, I sucked up the ambiance that the art, layout, side-bar fiction, examples of play, lists of equipment, and the mechanics themselves wove together. Most importantly, reading game books made me want to play because my brain was overflowing with scenes of such delightful events and imagery. I wanted to pull those out, show them off to my players, and then see them inhabit, explore, and expand these imagined places and histories.
I'm sure that this is why I was never a fan of GURPS and other "universal" systems. They deliberately omitted the very inspirational elements that resonated with my imagination. I knew that much of the reason for such universal systems was for them to impassively and impartially represent any imaginary world I could think of, but they were dull, dry, and soulless: I wanted them to sing to me, and they just gave me a blank staff. Sci-fi almost always went with dry and mechanical rules too, which would explain why none inspired me until I became aware of Blue Planet and Shock.
There have been a lot of arguments lately that rules don't matter, just the roleplay. Mostly I've seen this argued by people advocating for D&D 4th Edition against hold-outs. Even leaving aside the inherent contradiction in that approach ("you should use these rules, because it doesn't matter what rules you use"), there's a problem with this line of reasoning. The rules do matter. The fictional objects they emphasise; how they feel and flow as they're handled during play; the implicit and explicit bounds on the fiction that they represent: all those serve to inspire the imagination in different ways than another set of rules would.
The roleplay is certainly paramount, but it doesn't spring from players in a vacuum. If the roleplay that a group produces can be likened to a meal, then the game rules are an important ingredient that contributes to the overall character of the final dish.
Tuesday September 09, 2008 at 11:37 AM
This is one significant purpose of rules. They have others, too, but this is a big one.
Friday September 12, 2008 at 07:12 PM
(Thanks, I think this is one of my better posts.)
Beyond the feel and framing it lends to the fiction and the inspiration that can provide, the rules have a lot of influence on pacing. One of the reasons I dumped 4e after being so excited about its possibilities is that it was unredeemably bad for handling the transition from the freeform play to the regulated play.
4e, and a lot of indie games like Dogs and Universalis, put the mechanics forward as the objects of strategy and decision. I'm not sure I like that, since it forces the players to disengage with the fiction enough to see the game from the game-view, and then translate back. I know it doesn't work to my taste in 4e, but I've yet to coax my group to play enough indie games to judge them on that.
That last is part of why I'm running a 1st edition AD&D game right now. Apart from character creation, it's refreshingly fiction-forward even in combat.
Monday September 15, 2008 at 07:59 PM
I can generally handle rules-first approach if (and only if) I can think of the situation from some character's perspective and do mechanical choices from that basis. Universalis did really not work for me. DitV I have neither read or played up till now, so it is still an open question.
Wednesday September 17, 2008 at 02:04 PM
The heavy authorial stance of Universalis did seem to confuse my group. Not turn them off it, but just confuse them. I'm not sure if a purely authorial stance works for me just because I've never played that way with others for whom it did work enough that my experience, good or bad, could be isolated down to my own tastes.
That said, being able to understand a mechanical choice from an in-fiction perspective is really important to me. Being able to see the potential consequences in fictional terms is also really important, which is again why 4e really didn't work for me.
I haven't yet had the chance to play DitV either, just read a lot about it. I suspect that the heavily mechanical bidding process with its focus on determining authorial power over the action resolution would be difficult to get used to. It sounds like it puts an emphasis on player ownership of the character's internal life and dice-mediated group ownership on the external actions of the characters. That would take some getting used to, too.