The new and improved defender of RPGs!

Thursday, 10 December 2015

10th Anniversary Classic Rant: 2 Declarations in Relationship to Rules

1. I believe that a good RPG is one where there is harmony between the players and the GM.

All my talk about GM authority comes down to the fact that I don't believe that you get a good RPG out of making the players antagonistic to the GM, or thinking they have to somehow "trick" or "beat" the GM, or even have to somehow "protect themselves" from the GM. My strong belief in GM absolute authority is a call for "peace through absolute power" and all that jazz.

And to me, the more a game emphasizes player mastery over the rules, the more it encourages players to pore through the rules to try to find little loopholes with which to "cheat", to "beat" the GM or to thwart a carefully-crafted encounter, or to create a character that the GM can't "beat"; the more said game will end up decreasing player-GM harmony and creating conflict that is neither necessary nor fun.

2. I believe that a good RPG is one where the rules are tied to the setting/genre, and the more they are tied to that, the better they will work. 

Conversely, the more a set of rules create a system within themselves with no particular relation to the world they're supposed to let you play in, the worse they will be.

When Alejo (one of my players) said that I "think rules are there to control" me, I immediately rebutted by saying that I didn't feel that way about all rules systems, that there were many that felt liberating to me, rather than restricting. But at the time, I really couldn't do a good job of explaining WHY that was so, why those rules in particular were liberating. I chalked it up to the idea of a toolkit format; and certainly rules that work as toolkits where the GM can pick and choose from various options and can select which components of the rules work for him (rather than have to take the entire system or reject it entirely because all the rules are intricately knotted to each other so that you can't separate a part you don't like) will tend to be the kind of rules that I enjoy.
But it goes beyond that. Its also a question of how well a system blends into the type of genre you're going to be using it for.

That's why I love Amber more than any other RPG: because with Amber, once you get through the character creation, it simply flows. And it flows because every single part of the Amber rules are directly tied to the setting, with no level of abstraction. You have the four attributes, which reflect the personal talents of your character. And then every other "rule" in the game: the powers, the items, the stuff, they all tie in directly to something that actually physically exists in the game world

Pattern isn't some abstract technique, its a physical part of the setting. Trumps are a physical part of the setting. There's no rule in Amber that's there just because, or that is present for the system's sake as opposed to the setting's.
Because of this, for a player, after you create your character the rules simply disappear. In fact, the players are using the rules all the time. But the player won't be thinking in terms of "I'm using a rule"; he'll think in terms of "I'm using the Pattern", or "I'm casting a spell" or "I'm using my sword".
The GM, meanwhile, is looking at the mechanical side of things, but the resolution of the mechanics is based directly on what the players are doing in the game world.

This declaration explains why I despise mechanics like Feats, Attacks of Opportunity, Second Wind, etc. They don't reflect what's happening in the world, they reflect how to use the system. When a player takes a feat, he takes it because it will give him a +2 to something. A player is encouraged to think up all the 56 ways to cause and/or get out of causing an Attack of Opportunity, not because it has to do with his character or the world but because it is a way to "beat the system".

I was initially very enthused with the idea of Prestige classes when 3e came out, because they were in theory meant to be a way to reflect a game-world element into the mechanics of a character, but they quickly evolved into anything but that; instead becoming a way to mechanically enhance your character in a specific way, while using some thin setting veneer to justify it.

And to be clear, this whole "system abstracted from setting" situation is hardly exclusive to 4e, or even 3e and 4e; every edition of D&D has had it to some extent, it's only that 3e and 4e seem to be based on the design philosophy that this concept is something that isn't just there, it's somehow good; it's somehow meant to be encouraged.

And lots of games besides D&D have this: every Forge game I've ever seen has it; so do tons of other regular games. Just replace Feats with "point buy advantages/disadvantages" or replace Attacks of Opportunity with "dice pool management".

And consistently, the more an RPG features this sort of thinking, the less I like it; the more the rules feel like a barrier to immersion rather than an aid.

So those two declarations basically sum up my entire thinking about what I consider the difference between rules that make for a good RPG versus rules that make for an RPG that will hinder the GM's efforts to create an immersive atmosphere for his players.

Let the discussion begin.


(Originally Posted May 18, 2008)


  1. Replies
    1. Well, I've run two different FATE campaigns (one with Starblazer Adventures, and another with ICONS). So generally I like it; but I usually strip it of the narrative-control part that lets players use Fate points to change the setting.

  2. I can't see a game where GM and players are at odds with each other. I've seen it, but it doesn't have to be. A GM is the story teller and the world runner. S/he will have to really screw up to end up in an antagonistic relationship with his or her players. On the other hand, I have seen egotistical munchkins and competitive rules lawyers, who can't see the game for their personal issues. They will have THEIR character and they will have THEIR supplements to power up their PC's. This is largely the fault of the D&D manufacturers, who switched the marketing focus from making products mainly for DM's to making products mainly for the more numerous players to customize and empower their PC's.

    I have avoided these problems mainly by gaming in my own setting. When players create their characters, they WRITE it into my setting. The obverse is that once I agree to their character, everything in their bio becomes part of the canon. If your family owns a merchant fleet, then you your family owns a merchant fleet with all of the in-game advantages of doing so. The game takes place in the regions, where there are six human ethnic groups, each with their culture, language and history, that at different times settled the region. Each of these groups have produced their own merchants, priests, nobility, mages, and warriors. Differing schools of magic, different warrior cultures, emphasizing different skill sets. Player is lost, they can't help, but sink in the immersiveness of it all and enjoy the ride.

    Ultimately, the key to harmonious play is trust between the DM and players. If players are newcomers, I don't confuse them with rules. I just tell them the story and offer them choices. I had one guy, a total newbie, who got really mad and held it in, because he thought, that when I had him roll a second d20 to confirm a critical hit, I had him re-roll, because I was trying to screw him. I explained the game mechanic to him, once I figured out why he was getting pissed, and I got his trust. Later on he DM'd his own adventure, but he didn't know the rules, so I handled the game mechanics for him, while he ran the adventure. His story and setting were original, unexpected, since he never read D&D literature, and players enjoyed themselves. In another case, I had a player, who tried to turn others against me, because he wanted to DM himself. Without me knowing anything at the time, players ignored him, he ended up picking a fight with me over something trivial, and leaving. I had people leave, but not over rules, they were disturbed with things in the game - strong female NPC's with power, the mysticism and the demonic nature of some monsters, putting the players into their character's shoes when combat occurs instead of using miniatures. I got a game that challenged their worldview. I am satisfied.

    In short, the DM has control over your first point, and I agree with your second point based on my experience.