2019: Rules

Most of five years back, I wrote a post about rules, and what I thought they were for. I think I broadly stand by a lot of that, but I’m currently deep in 1st-draft rules-writing mode for Crucible, and a friend gently mocked me on Farcebook the other day, in a post contrasting the fact that I was spending the afternoon writing LARP rules, while another group of friends were designing backstory for the same game, and sort of going “rules? *shrug* . Sure, if we have to, I guess…”. This was and is funny to us all.

And if I had a less-obessessive brain, that’d be the end of it. But in my head, I started interrogating the basis for the joke, which is (broadly) the common idea in LARP circles that “rules based play” and “feelings/story based play” are opposing styles. To be clear: I don’t think my mate believes this, any more than I think that my friends who were doing character design don’t care about the rules I’m writing – it was a joke, and I took it that way. But the stereotypes exist and so my brain took me somewhere else, because I have a Stupid Brain. And it left me wanting to write about why I’m doing this mad thing, and what I think rules are for again.

Most importantly: Rules are for fun. They exist to generate fun game. Different game systems and different gaming groups need them to different extents, but the goal of them is to provide fun. In a perfect world, it should be as fun and rewarding to use the rules as it is to drop to one’s knees weeping over the IC corpse of a friend. That’s a tall order, I admit, but it still ought to be a game-enhancing experience to use them.

Rules exist to create feelings. I start most of my game design by answering the question “how do I want the people playing this game to feel?”. And then I make sure that my rules speak to that, as often as possible.

Rules exist to define the boundaries of the possible play. In a LARP system without mechanics for violence, it is not possible for a character to solve their problems by fighting another character. It’s one of the things I love most about the system for Hannigans: Graduation night. The rules will let the characters do the most absurd, cinematic, over the top, reality warping things, but they cannot seriously physically harm one another – because to do so would be break the university-life part of out setting. (I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember physical violence beyond one or two minor fistfights being a part of my student days.)

But, and I think this part is interesting: you can’t define that boundary as easily in a truly free-form rules-less setting. Well, of course you can, but the minute you have, you’ve added rules to your play, and it’s literally just a difference in scale. And if someone is saying “well, when we say ‘we don’t like rules’, we just mean we don’t like to deal with maths because that isn’t fun for us”, then that just means they need a different rules system with less numbers. And that’s OK.

But often the counterpoint to “we don’t like maths rules” is often the idea that they’re OK with “social” rules. And sometimes those are explicit – “At this free-form, we all agree that we won’t have our characters murder one another, because that’s not what this game is about” is a very reasonable explicit rule, but sometimes, there are implicit assumptions about play styles that are, effectively, unwritten rules.

“I don’t like gaming with X because they don’t enjoying playing to lose” or “Y hogs the spotlight”. And those might be very fair critiques of X and Y but still – if it’s implicit in the social contract surrounding the game playing to lose (or not spotlight-hogging) is an important part of everyone having fun at the game, then it’s lazy game design not to acknowledge it as a rule, explain where the boundaries for it are, and to make it equally clear to everyone what the group’s expectations of play are. And, if you’re smart enough, you find a way to design rules that work to ensure that if they’re followed, the kind of fun everyone is after follows naturally.

What rules are not for (in my view), and the thing that gives rise to this rules-based-fun vs story-based-fun idea, is to be a mastery challenge in and of themselves. There’s a perception that complicated rules means that the maths nerds and rules lawyers will be able to “master” them, and thereby thwart the play of the less rules-interested. And it’s not without some truth – we’ve all been to games where the sucking charisma void in the room says something like “I have charm 5 and status ‘Really Great’ so you’ve got to behave as if you admire me now”, and it can break the sense of the “reality” of the game that some gamers want.

But all those problems with social rules vs maths rules and system mastery vs immersive play don’t indicate a problem with the basic concept of rules, they just indicate mismatches between a styles of play and sets of rules. I think it’s disingenuous for anyone to say that they don’t like rules, or that rules don’t matter. Everyone likes different kinds of rules, just like everyone likes different kinds of stories. And they matter, because the shape the stories we tell, and the feelings those generate. And, for my money, if they’re well designed, they take an active part in that shaping – they take players to places they might not go themselves, and support them in going there.

To put a final stake in the heart of the idea that “rules based play” and “feelings based play” are opposed: on Saturday, I took delivery of Star Crossed – literally a set of rules for a game about feelings. I recommend it to you all.

And on that note, I return to my ongoing efforts to develop a rules-set that works for Vampire the Requiem in LARP that provides “fun” and “feelings” with a minimum of “maths” and ensures the game still feels like Vampire: the Requiem. About which more another time.