Thursday, January 23, 2014

Rules that enable players and rules that don't

I want to talk a bit about the effect rules have on player options. In tabletop RPGs rules are made to create a game which allows the player play the role of a character in some setting, be this fantasy, scify, modern, etc. As such the rules should allow the GM and players to describe any action the characters could really take in such a setting. Thus if a game has magic there are rules for magic, if the game centers around combat there are rules for combat and so forth.

Yet a great deal of times when rules describe or regulate actions they also limit what players can do. This occurs when rules take certain abstractions into consideration in an attempt to make things manageable. Examples of this are combat rule elements such as attacks per round, initiative and movement rules. In games with detailed combat rules these will dictate what actions are possible and which not and in what sequence. They work to make the complexity of combat fit into a flow diagram that can be followed again and again until combat is resolved.

Unfortunately it is quite common that these rules limit what a character can do. I don't want to get too deep into the debate of "the one attack is an abstraction and actually means many actions taken". I just want to point out the implications this has on the storytelling process and see what can be done about it. Is it possible to arrive at a rule set that sets some limits for characters so the game doesn't blow out of proportion, yet still allows for more narrative freedom and a greater variety of actions?

Lets take a look at an example of such combat rules since they are a clear case of this issue and then look into other ways of working with combat that allow for more flexibility.

The encounter in this example starts as a conversation between the party and a group of kobolds which might unfold into a combat encounter. The conversation goes quite smoothly the GM narrates what the kobolds say and the players what the characters responds and so forth. There's a great correlation between the actions in game reality (what the characters are doing) and game story (what the players are narrating). So far it all looks just as if the players were actually in the game setting itself, doing and acting what the characters are actually doing. Nobody rolls for initiative to see who speaks first, there's no rule saying you can't say something or that you can't interrupt the kobold chieftain in the middle of his speech. There certainly is no rule that limits players phrases per round nor rules that close their mouths as they walk. Now come combat and all that changes. If negotiation goes sour it's time for initiative.

A disparity between game reality and game story arises that wasn't there just a few moments before. The rules begin imposing limits to character actions which are not directly derived from the game's reality. Certain limitations are not a natural consequence of the setting's physics. In an attempt to depict what is happening in combat the rules leave out a great deal of actions and options. Characters that were just moments earlier speaking freely are now taking a turn and having one action in that turn, and while they could freely move around and talk seconds earlier, now they either walk, stand or attack. What happened? Combat rules kicked in.

Combat rules dictate what can be done, in what order and how. Yet they usually fail to explain why. Why is there just one attack? Why only one movement? Why just one weapon? For example when a rule says a fighter can't fight two handed the rule is imposing a limitation. A limitation which is the consequence of some physics of the world the fighter lives in, but not the actual reason. On the other hand when the rule says a fighter can fight two handed, but there's a -7 "to hit" penalty due to the extra burden and the coordination skills required, the rule is not limiting, it is describing a phenomenon. It isn't saying the fighter can't use two weapons because the odds of success are too low. It is saying "here are the modification to the odds" and letting you choose. Two handed fighting may not be in the character's best interest given such a high penalty, but it is certainly not some limitation imposed from "outside his world". Imagine the character's expression when some invisible force stops him from grabbing a dagger AND a sword. It simply makes no sense in for something like this to happen.

Now, not only does this create unreal barriers to player actions, it also adds unneeded complexity to the game. What happens when the character has four arms? Do we write a rule as an exception to the prior rule that limits two handed combat? This make the rules more complex, the rulebook heavier and the learning curve longer. Such rules can add up like polarizing lenses and end up with very little options for the player.

Lets start adding different rules together: weapon use, movement, attacks per round, healing, etc. All the things a character can do can be seen as normal unpolarized sun light. As the first rule is applied only actions that abide to such a rule "may pass". When we hit the second rule actions will be able to pass only if this rule is "aligned" with the first. If it isn't perfectly aligned, or worse yet totally perpendicular to it, less or even no actions will be possible.

The bigger the rule book the more probable it is that rules have contradictions and not all rules are coherent with each other. So in the same way many polarized lenses eventually cut down all light so will rules cut down a great deal of options and actions a player can take.

We can see the effect in a graphical way in the following diagram.

Wonder why min maxing occurs? I strongly believe it is because the final set (the one labeled "After a set of rules") is so small it is easy to wrap one's mind around it and find the key elements at play.

So what's the alternative? I strongly believe a more descriptive and less declarative set of rules goes a long way in solving this. By descriptive I mean a rule that tries to explain why something happens instead of just declaring the consequence. It might get a bit more complicated if for example fatigue rules are used to keep tabs on character actions. On the other hand it makes things a lot more unpredictable because there are more options. Characters still move, attack, act and react to the environment within acceptable limits, but they are no longer bounded to a single attack or movements in 15' increments.

The issue of limiting player options through the rules is currently of great concern to me as I work on a modern warfare game which borders on the action thriller. Can you imagine Jason Bourne having only one action every round? Neither can I.

Thus I've been moving away from the types of rules I grew up with. Moving away from the more fixed type with one attack, roll for initiative and follow a flow diagram type of rules to a more loosely coupled ones. I'm now interested in rules that explain how the character's potential is transformed into actions rather than just enumerating possible actions.  To do this I constantly ask myself two questions:
  • Am I limiting the character beyond the normal limits? If applying the rule somehow limits what the character could reasonably do then it gets taken out. Limits exist, but they're "explained" by some character attribute or fall within reason.
  • Am I really representing the game's reality? Rules are a great way to convey how the world I've conjured should work. They help a GM recreate my world on someone else's tabletop. If a rule does not help to build this it gets taken out or rewritten. As a modern warfare game designer, if I see live combat footage and a rule in my game prevents me from recreating that setting, the rule gets taken out or rewritten. 
The first question helps me push the game into the narrative side of gaming. I want the player to tell a story. The second question helps me push the game into the crunchier side of gaming. I impose certain mechanical restrictions that help describe and thus recreate the setting. In the context of a modern warfare game these rules and restrictions help differentiate one weapon from another and one skill from the other. In a game in which everyone plays a fighter it is interesting to see how these minor mechanical restrictions add up to the tactical value of each element in the team. Couple this with the more narrative combat resolution mechanics and a dynamic emerges in which tactics, player decisions and team work are more important to success than exploiting a fixed combat flow diagram and a set character options.

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