Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Rules Blindness

Jared von Hindeman dropped a phrase in twitter today which struck me as a very good way to describe an idea that's been running through my mind a lot lately - "Rules Blind."  Running a game rules blind means that the players need not know any of the rules to play.  Jared proposes it in the context of getting players interested - run the first session rules-blind, and if the players have fun, they'll have the interest to then read up on the system and setting themselves.  It's a good idea, but I'm mostly grateful for the term.

It's useful because certain games are very problematic to run rules blind, and that distinction highlights a point that's very important to me.  In many ways it speaks directly to the role of fiction in the game, and how it interacts with rules. Specifically, it addresses whether fiction or rules drive play.

Howso? Consider a game like 4e, where there are a large array of action which have specific mechanical meaning.  If you want to knock one opponent into another one, then you need to have the power that does that - there are no rules for that activity outside of the power.[1]  That would make is crazy difficult to run rules-blind because if the player doesn't know his powers, he's got no real means to engage the game.

This applies similarly to Apocalypse World and its variants, though perhaps to a lesser extent.  Most actions are explicitly framed as moves, with specific mechanical limitations on what can be accomplished within their bounds.  There's a bit more leeway here - a GM could internalize some of the more common rolls and just ask the player for a number - but that won't work in every situation.

Now, please note this is not a criticism. In both cases, there are tradeoffs being made that are quite valuable.  4e's explicit menu of choices makes combat paralysis less overwhelming, and Apocalypse World's moves subtly (or not so subtly) drive play towards drama.   In fact, these represent useful advances in game design - in both cases the rules are very explicitly engaged to drive play in an intended direction rather than just being presented as something neutral which depends on the GM to drive things.

Unfortunately, they also take things in a direction that's not to my taste. 

Now, it would be easy to frame my taste as "fiction first", but that would be a little passive aggressively self-aggrandizing, and not entirely true.  If I were really fiction first, I'd be much more engaged by games like Primetime Adventures (a game which, like 4e and AW is brilliant and fun, but not my sweet spot), but the reality is that the fiction, to me, is more place than story.  I seek the limitations and interactions more than any narrative.

And that's where rules-blind comes in for me.  It's a litmus test for the things I like in a game for the simple reason that if a player engages the setting and tries interesting stuff, I want him to be supported by the system, and I want it to feel like an organic extension of the sensibilities of the table.

And that's why this is not quite a "system doesn't matter" argument, though it's certainly in the family.  I could run Feng Shui or Rolemaster rules-blind, and the outcomes would be VERY different. Problematically so if player's expectations differ from what those the system provides.[2]  Lining up a system to expectations is still super duper important (but playing rules blind can also provide an interesting window into what those expectations actually are).

None of this is really guidance for how someone else should run or play a game, but it's working through my mind as I think about the kind of game I want to run (and a bit as I slowly write ICT).  And I'm mostly thanking Jared for the extra club in my bag.



1 - There's nothing that says the 4e framework couldn't be expanded to handle such things, but by its vanilla rules, that's the shape of it. 

[2] - Which is, I should add, one of the great reasons for players to learn the rules - shared rules are a fast route to shared expectations. 


  1. So, here's the thing for me: I, personally, want a system to help the people at the table reach and maintain a consensus about what the genre demands. That's my sweet-spot.

    It sounds to me like the rules-blind sort of game you're describing assumes that that consensus is real and present already. Perhaps through a GM, perhaps through a great gestalt understanding.

    Crucially, it's this: "engages the setting and tries interesting stuff". I think that you can do this, in as much as you know what the genre's shape is.

    1. The really interesting question this raises is exactly how much common ground needs to be established to create a solid-enough foundation. My instinct is that it requires a shared understanding of risk. Almost everything else is negotiable (if only because you can try again), but if there's a disconnect over risks (and consequences) that's where things go crazy.

    2. So, I've been toying and playing with the relationship between pacing and escalation, and I think that we're touching on that now. Risk and action and escalation and consequences are all tied together, and I think you're right, they're the core of genre.

  2. So, you've said a lot about what games aren't rules-blind, and why, and why you like rules-blind games. But there isn't a lot here about games that ARE rules-blind, nor an examination of how to write rules that support rules-blind play. Could you say a little about that?

    1. So, most older games are at least reasonably rules blind. There are some issues with complexity or specific gotchas (playing RIFTS without understanding MDC will probably go badly) and that makes it a little bit of a sliding scale. That in turn makes it hard to say that there's a specific set of things that make a game transparent. But the good news is, it's easy to test for.

      The simplest test is this: if you, as the GM, describe a situation to them and ask what they do, then what do you need to do (assuming you have their character sheet and all relevant information on hand).

      In many games (let's say Risus, Over the Edge, Unisystem, GURPS, HERO and many many more) you could simply ask the player to roll some number of dice, tell you what they rolled, and carry on. If anything needs to get noted on the sheet, you just mark it off and carry on. So, if you're running a game of 3e, and a player is jumping over a chasm to get away from pursuing kobolds, you call for them to roll a d20 for the jump, and determine if they make it (and, in fact, you can even answer questions of likely success in human terms of certainty), and maybe roll some attack sin the background, so you add in a description the hero getting clipped by an arrow as they jump.

      This holds up for as long as the player is engaging the fiction, and a few things can break it.

      First, magic is a problem. Unless you can concisely express the rules of magic (as is often the case for supers), then it's easy to get bogged down in it. Not insurmountable, but definitely takes a little work.

      Second, meta-rules are tough. To pick an example, it's very hard to run FATE rules blind because of the role of aspects and fate points. The players decision to make spend at fate point is a different type of decision than one made within the fiction. It's not always insurmountable - in the case of FATE, you can generalize fate points as "Spend these to help you" and not explain how they're earned. But the more explicit the player engagement with the system is, the harder it gets. And when you get to games which are almost purely rules engagement (think something like PTA) then it's nearly impossible.[1]

      Which comes down to the real truth - the vast majority of games have elements which can be run rules blind. The trick is figuring out how much of the game can be run this way, and how representative is is of the game as a whole.

      1 - Though in an interesting twist, those games which most hinge on rule engagement (PTA, Fiasco) often have the most streamlined and easily digestible rules.

    2. This is an interesting point. Marvel Heroic seems to be a game that's heavily engaged with the rules because any roll made by a player involves a meta-game choice as to which die to use as effect.

      Post was longer, but can be summed up by saying that I'm beginning to think rules complexity can interrupt pacing, which interrupts game engagement, moreso than does what you call rules engagement. Stat+Skill = result can be very lightly engaged, but once you have special rules for, say, grapple, lookups get disruptive. Having to choose an effect die may be very meta, but as long as it doesn't involve long pauses, it seems to break mood/pace less.

      This in turn may be why the (to me) strange method of resolution at the Cthulhu Masters game at Gencon when I was there in 2002 (It was pretty much a series of LARPS. The rules were the CoC rules. ie roll d100) worked far better than the rock-scissors-paper contests that seem pervasive in LARPS and other so-called immersive games. "Tie. Tie. Tie. You cheated!" can really ruin drama.

  3. "And that's why this is not quite a "system doesn't matter" argument, though it's certainly in the family."

    I disagree, Rob, and the only reason I'm noting that disagreement is because I think you're making an extremely strong "system matters" argument.

    If running Rolemaster rules-blind gives you a different game from Feng Shui, that doesn't lessen the impact of those rules - it just means that in your system, a very large pile of authority about how events shake out falls on the GM, and there's an implicit (if not explicit) trust that the GM is using some sort of consistent guideline to make those calls. Call that trust into question, or get enough mismatch in your shared expectations, and the opera falls apart. That looks a whole lot like system mattering to me.

    Now, if where you're going with this is, "I could run a high-octane action game with Feng Shui and an OTE variant where I change the weapon damage multipliers, and if they were both rules-blind and used the same tropes, I'm not sure how much the players would register the difference," then that's maybe a thing to poke at.

    But even then, all that tells me is that the way you're using the rules to exercise your GM authority is a very specific part of your system, and whether your players notice it or not, it still matters to you, and thus matters.


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