Thursday, August 23, 2007

Rules: The Game World's Physics

Recently, I've been running White Wolf's Scion, and I'm afraid that I'm less than pleased with the results. Now, don't get me wrong. I think this is a wonderful idea for a game. But, man have they burdened this baby with rules.

Combat is probably the worst offender. In Scion, combat involves a complex, cyclic initiative chart. There are a number of specifically described actions. Different actions take differing amounts of time, and inflict various penalties on your defense values. Sure, they've made a nod towards more-story-focused combat by representing minor opponents using stripped-down rules, but that has little real affect on play. Combat still involves a lot of rolling, calculating and tracking. It's slow. It's tedious. And, for me, it does not capture the action-oriented cinematic grandeur that I want from this game.

If something's not working, then I should change it, yes? I'm afraid, in this case, the answer may be no.

Here's the problem. In any game, the rules represent the laws of physics for that game world, they describe how the world works. They also provide a common vocabulary for describing the characters and creatures in the game. Specifically, the players use the language of rules to express their character idea. The character's description/rule pair represents a real contract between everyone at the table.

It would be grossly unfair for me to arbitrarily change the way the world works. I would be violating our unspoken contract.

This became painfully clear to me several years ago. D&D 3rd edition had just come out. Even though D&D was not "our thing", we picked up the books and decided to give it a try for nostalgia's sake. Surprisingly, it was more fun than any of us expected. However, I played somewhat fast and loose with the combat rules. I abstracted away the exact positioning and movement rules. In my mind, this made the game faster, more cinematic and more fun.

However, after a few sessions, one of my players blew a gasket. He had built a fighter using feats that depended on the positioning rules. These feats represented, in his mind, his character's signature moves--but, since I did not use those rules, he never had a chance to show them off. Here, the solution was simple. We found a way to let him use his abilities within the abstract-combat framework. Still, the situation really opened my eyes. I never thought that changing the rules would negatively affect any of my players' ability to have fun.

Some people argue that you should never modify a game's rules. They claim that games are built with a given purpose in mind. The game rules, if well designed, should fit the desired style of play. If you want a different style of play, it's better to look for a different game, then to make ad hoc changes.

I'm not sure I buy this argument. First, it assumes that all games are well designed. I'd argue that many games imply one style of play through the descriptive sections of the game (flavor text, the background, game fiction, etc.) but the rules themselves suggest a very different style of play. White Wolf has, in my mind, often fallen into this trap. Their games typically describe a very story-centric style of play--but the actual rules lean heavily towards the tactical.

Also, if you bought the game, why shouldn't you change it. After all, the whole point is to have fun. If changing the game means more fun, go for it. However, everyone should be involved in (or at least explicitly informed of) any changes to the system. As long as everyone is on the same page, there should be no problem.

Story games represent a somewhat different challenge. Many narrative games have "soft" rules. These guidelines do not attempt to tie down and describe every last detail. Instead, they give everyone a bit of wiggle room. They use fuzzy descriptions like, "Get a +2 dice bonus on any actions that further your defined goals." So, when does this modifier apply? Whenever we agree that it applies. Yeah, that's never going to cause arguments.

In general, I agree with the narrative approach. The world is far to complex to model in any serious way. Therefor any attempt at fully defining a world (whether real or fictional) is doomed to fail. A better approach is to make quick, flexible guidelines that can be easily adapted to any situation.

I feel that hard and fast rules are really an illusion. They give you the impression that everything is explicitly and cleanly defined--but when dice hit the table, people are still making judgement calls.

But it's true, softer rules can create greater opportunities for miscommunication between players. In any game, when I write down my character, I have a strong view of what he can and cannot do in the game. However, that view is based on my assumptions over how the rules will be applied. When you look at my character sheet, you will get a different view based on your own assumptions. The softer the rules are, the greater the assumptions and the greater these differences can become. If left unchecked, this can be a real problem.

In my mind, there are three main solutions:

1) Explicitly communicate expectations. If there's a cool move that you want your character to perform, talk it over with the GM and make sure you're both on the same page. It's best to do this before the game starts, but don't be afraid of making mid-course corrections when necessary.

2) Trust your fellow players. Often times we use the rules as a security blanket, as a way to protect our character from the whims of the GM or the other players. However, if you're all there for the same purpose (in my case, creating outstanding stories), then you don't need the rules (or the illusion of rules) to protect you.

3) Focus on story, not tactics. The more you focus on the tactical side of the game, the more important rules are. If you're playing a story-centric game, don't fall into the tactics trap. Remember, combat is not necessarily conflict. Combat must serve a greater role within the story. It must reveal something about the characters, or there's no point. Focus on the real questions: why did this combat occurs? what effects will this combat have on the character's world? Don't focus on the results.

So, having said all that, what am I going to do about my Scion game? Unfortunately some of the players are real rules-lawers. Good role-players, but they also like to engineer their characters. So, unfortunately, changing the rules is probably out.

Instead, I'll try to engineer the situation. I'll try to distribute the job of running the combat among the players at the table. Someone can run the initiative wheel. Someone else can track legend expenditures and the corresponding rolls. If a player's character isn't involved in the fight, I might let them take control over some of the NPCs.

It's not a perfect solution, but it should let me focus more on the story and less on combat.

Do you have any other suggestions? If so, leave a comment. Thanks.



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