Trying to get my brain back: RPG rant part 2, version 2

So, this is an attempt to re-construct what was a fairly incoherent stream of thought last night, so bear with me…

Also, I (completely coincidentally) stuck my oar in to mearls journal about D20 (specifically D&D) procedural design, relating to stuff that’s fun to some, but real asshattery to others in relation to the rogue’s mantra of “I search the room”.

Now, to my mind, D&D is one of the most procedural of games: a well organised party, in a well run dungeon, runs as much as possible on standard operating procedures, and the interesting wrinkles, to my mind, come from the adaptation of SOP’s to changing circumstances. But if it’s procedural, I don’t think you should rely on players plugging through the procedure in every room (unless your players are grooving on it, natch): Jared’s suggestion of making it a mechanical definition as you progress is interesting, but why not make it a function of the initial description of the room (of course, many modules do this as part of the room descriptions anyway). To my mind, the default assumption should be that any character is using their talents to the best of their abilities anyway, in as far as Rogues don’t “forget” to scan rooms, priests don’t “forget” their detect abilities, if any, that they’ve been alerted to the possibility of being tripped, and so on. Very little sucks as much as “Why didn’t my rogue find the trap?” “Because you didn’t say he was searching for one while he opened that chest.” How frickin’ dumb is the rogue supposed to be?

Anyway, to drag this back towards topic, mearls‘ statement that, in looking for a way to get n00bs (sic.) rolling dice for searching rooms, while avoiding it for us mature folks who get bored by that shit, who are, in his terms, familiar with the procedure. He said “I have no insights into how to make that work without confusing both groups or wasting energy.” Now, my idea was that you write a section in the rulebook saying why the search rules are there, how they work, functional suggestions for changing them, and the consequences thereof.

Now, the fact that mearls is one of the top D20 writers (IMHO), but that the idea of explaining design decisions inside the rulebook doesn’t pop up immediately kind of worries me a little, if only because I think it would be very low down on most designers solutions to a problem of design or presentation.

I don’t know if this is a historical or cultural thing: certainly, Gary Gygax, in the early days of D&D, would defend the baroque, chaotic “structure” that was AD&D 1st. ed.. by saying “These systems have evolved naturally over play, if you mess with them you are not playing AD&D, you are playing something inferior.” Quite understandably, the reaction to this was rule zero, the golden rule, play the story not the game, whatever. In other words, system is unquestionable became system doesn’t matter, which is a state of affairs which defends bad design, undersells good design and promotes fog. Whatever the reason, even in games that arise from the much improved Forge design fora, the general meme is still that the system stands or falls on it’s bare bones description, supported by colour text. We’re still fighting shy of “metagame” talk in rulebooks, however prepared we are to have those discussions, at last, in an open forum, or even to offer them in post-publication online discussions, “designers notes” articles on support webpages. Precious little of this justification shows up in rulebooks, and I can’t think of one single good reason why not.

Thinking about it, I remember some designers from a Fairly Big RPG Company saying they didn’t put that kind of stuff in their games because they “didn’t want to tell people how to play their games. Hell, they bought it, it’s theirs now.”

Frankly, bollocks. Your game has rules. Presumably, the rules are there because of the effect they have on the game, and presumably those effects are intended. If your design had intents, and you believe that your rules fulfil those intents, then I think you owe it to your customers to “show your working”, and you owe it to your design to say why it rocks (presuming it does). Your rules are telling people how to play their games, you owe it to them to say why.

anyway, again time is catching up on me, I’ll get back to talking about fog later.


4 thoughts on “Trying to get my brain back: RPG rant part 2, version 2

  1. That’s what I like about the Monster Burner for Burning Wheel–it’s (as I’ve said before, and has been quoted by others) the source code for the game. Luke says, “Here’s why I did this, and here’s how it works, and here’s what happens if you tweak it.” Why more games don’t include this is beyond me.

    1. Yeah, I ought to say that these journal entries are coming from me in ranty shout mode. I more than welcome counter examples where designers “show their working”. (points to Tony LB)

  2. I can consider one good reason why they’re not in the rulebook – space. If you’re printing a book, and costs dictate that it’s going to be 48 pages or 128 pages or 256 pages, you may want to fill it with rules (and/or background) rather than meta-content. That is of course no excuse to not put it on a webpage.

    1. But to my mind, filling a book with more rules, or more background, that doesn’t directly contribute to functional, coherent play is a damn waste of space. Again, it comes to a cultural thing. As gamers we’re conditioned to see rules and background as legitimate content for a game, and discussions of design and, shock horror, actual play, are either cruft, or harshing a potential players’ fun. But more of that anon… BTW, where comes this idea of costs dictating book size? If you’re an independent designer, that’s completely arse about face. If you’re developing as part of a line, you can plan your content per book.

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