Monday, August 9, 2010

What Game Are We Playing, Anyway?

I was (briefly) embroiled in a conversation on the Forge regarding the interaction between rules and fiction. (Truthfully, the conversation was fruitless for my conversation partner, who essentially stated "Rules win every time, what you mean rules aren't the rulebook, you don't get what I'm saying, la la la I can't hear you.") The conversation did, however, spark some reflection in my mind. When you consider your favorite tabletop RPG system -- D&D 3rd, White Wolf, Traveller, BESM, 3:16, doesn't really matter -- how do the "fiction", the story situation as it stands, and the "rules", the system by which the story is played out, interact?

The "conversation" I had involved the often nebulous dilemma that isn't really approached in most rulebooks; if the rules say you can accomplish some particular action, does the GM have the right to say that the fictional situation your character stands in makes that action impossible? The example I saw repeated most frequently involved a fighter in close combat with an ogre. The ogre slams the fighter with a tremendous club. Okay, fighter loses a chunk of HP, no problem. But then when the fighter's turn rolls around, and he announces his counterattack, the GM states, "The ogre's attack knocked you too far away. You can't get to him to attack this round." Wait, what? When was that established? Was it in the rules?

As written, combat like this in a D&D-style system (and I'll move forward assuming we're playing D&D, but probably without a grid) says no. The attack simply beans the fighter for 2d8 + (1.5 * STR mod) damage, and life goes on. That said, I'm not trying to imply the GM was wrong in stating that the fighter was SOL this turn on attacking. I'm sure this statement seems incongruous -- it's a violation of the rules to say the fighter was knocked back, but the GM wasn't wrong to say he was. How does that make any sense?

We can start with a bit of an off-the-wall question: How do you define "the rules"?

The easy answer, of course, is the stuff that's written in the rulebook. I don't, however, think that tells the full story. I mean, consider a couple of friends of mine, whose system of choice is first-edition White Wolf. For those unfamiliar, the resolution mechanic for most actions is as follows:

Add together the number of points ("dots") your character has allotted in an Attribute and a Skill. Roll that many ten-sided dice. Now, count up the number of dice that show a number equal to or greater than the established "difficulty" of the action (six is standard, but it's variable). Then subtract the number of dice showing ones. If your character has at least four dots in either the attribute or the skill, and he has selected a specialty in the action being attempted, reroll all tens as if they were bonus dice, and add them to your total. If the total is positive, the action was successful; zero, the action failed; negative, the action "botched" (snarl), resulting in complications.

The group in question, however, doesn't use these rules as written. They instead apply the following modifications:

  • Always reroll tens.

  • Having a relevant specialty decreases the difficulty of the roll by one.

These modifications are what are referred to as "house rules". Quite frequently, GMs and gaming groups as a whole will make modifications to the rules of the game in play, in order to better facilitate their style of play, overhaul perceived imbalance in the system they are using, simplify mechanics, or add complexity to increase depth.

All right, so let's consider the impact from that tree-trunk club again. Let's assume the GM states the fighter can't get to the ogre, and the group as a whole is okay with that. Now we have a house rule, theoretically speaking: particularly strong physical blows can knock characters back, even if it isn't specified in the monster's stat block. Fine, I don't see a problem with that, assuming the GM applies the rule consistently to both player and NPC actions.

The reason the debate on the Forge even began was a situation like this, in which the GM decreed the same thing (once again, fighter hit with tree trunk, blasts off again), only the player did not agree; the GM said "tough", and the next time that happened, the player wasn't knocked around and could fight as normal. The player, in this instance, has a right to get pissed, because the decision wasn't made as a house rule; instead, it was an attempt to facilitate the direction of play that the GM wanted, using "the fiction" as an excuse. A compromise, therefore, is necessary to resolve two diametrically opposed (arguably straw-man) viewpoints: the rules in the book should always win, or the fiction should always trump the rules. Neither is right, but not, in my opinion, for the reason you might think!

I argue that there is no compromise necessary, because both schools of thought want nothing more than a consistent interpretation of both the "Shared Imagined Space" and the rules or system by which the action therein is adjudicated. In essence, the "fiction", interpreted correctly and uniformly by all participants at the table, is part of the rules, just the same as an explicitly defined house rule would be. Therefore, the rules in play are NOT what is written in the book, but the rules explicitly or implicitly agreed upon by all players at the table as a consequence of consistent play.

In my previous post, I pointed out how simulationist players, to once again borrow the GNS terms, wouldn't be particularly fond of the White Wolf system, since a substantial amount of detail is abstracted away in favor of (relatively) simple mechanics to facilitate roleplaying. In the comment thread, "Lynne" pointed out the fact that she and a few of her friends tend to lean more toward simulationism, and make modifications to the application of rules in play to explain the idiosyncrasies between the abstractions made by White Wolf and their own particular interpretation of the "Shared Imagined Space". Does this mean that White Wolf is a good system for simulationists? I don't believe so. I do, however, believe that the changes they make in play yield a ruleset, based on White Wolf's framework, that is useful as a hybrid of simulationist and narrativist play. The instant they make a rule change, they're no longer playing White Wolf as written -- well, that's not entirely true, since the first line of the "rules" chapter in White Wolf texts is usually "Ignore these rules". But the point stands.

Let me bring up a point in OneShot's design that isn't entirely apparent; when I first set to work on building OneShot over a lunch break, I intended to create a simple, simulationist game that enabled players to roleplay cool gunfights in a mafia setting. I failed catastrophically in that attempt. What I created, instead, was a framework with which to build that concept, or to build a really cool story, or to just set to work in an encounter and see who wins. OneShot is not a simulationist game, but it's also not a narrativist game or a gamist game. Hell, at some level it isn't even a game at all! It's tools to build a game. That fact is more or less true of nearly any tabletop RPG system devised. Some, of course, make this easier than others.

So, to bring this back to the point with which I started this post. Properly defined, the rules and the fiction are one and the same. Used capriciously, they're a tool, crutch, or excuse by a GM who wants to railroad or confuse his players, or play his story, his game. If he hopes to keep his players satisfied and help his players tell a story, he'd do well to at least try to interpret everything as consistently as possible. Given that, who cares how closely he follows the rules as written? Those aren't the rules he's using, and more power to him.

Don't play D&D, don't play White Wolf, hell, don't play OneShot. Play your game.