How To Learn A Game 2

Technique #2: Reading Tea Leaves

I have this unformed notion in my head of eventually documenting all my various methods of learning RPGs. One of those steps, I think, will have to be how I deal with the fundamental incompleteness of RPG rules. My previous post in this series is here.

In my last Derpening of Mirkwood thread, there was a minor kerfuffle (which I really don’t feel like re-litigating so please don’t) regarding whether you can treat RPG rules like boardgame rules. So let me say a couple things about that:

1) Of course not, duh, they’re different things.

2) I don’t do that, and if you think I do, you’re misreading my approach.

It’s a truism that the basic transaction of roleplaying — folks talking about and agreeing to what is established truth within a collaborative fiction — makes it hard, maybe impossible, to write rules that cover every contingency.

One way this has been addressed — the most terrible way — is when you see traddy physics-type games that create tiny little special case rules for every tiny special-case thing: rules for being poisoned while on fire in zero gravity, rules for feeding your livestock during downtime broken down by seasons, whatever.

Another way it’s been addressed is through consistent approaches that treat all uncertainty as basically the same: Fate’s roll + aspects vs target, Burning Wheel’s versus tests.

And yet another way is by constraining the kinds of uncertainty that can exist in the game: PbtA moves.

I mean, I think it’s great when a game solves the problem in a more consistently applied way! The downside is that it means the players need to use a lot of discretion in deciding just what is being rolled for and why. It also means, for some players, they have to stop being immersed in their characters and think more like an author, or an impartial observer.

I’m not actually advocating for any particular approach, just pointing out that it’s a standing challenge with many solutions. There are entirely legitimate and functional reasons why a game works how it does. There are also lots of unexamined assumptions, even by major writers, designers and developers.

Necessarily Imperfect

So moving on to part two: Once you understand that rules are necessarily imperfect, how do you fill in the gaps?

1) Play lots of different games. Pay attention to the gaps that tend to repeat themselves: that’s where you know the designers are working with an unexploded view of game design. Common gaps: When to roll dice, how to interpret failure, explicit orders of operations. If you see those in your game, you’re dealing with designers with deep assumptions about how RPGs work. So the best you can do is roll with those assumptions.

2) Look for cues in the design as to what the intention of the design is. This one is tough! I’m the first to acknowledge that. And it requires you do lots of #1 up there above. And since everyone’s experiences will be different, that means everyone’s going to bring different interpretations. But for heaven’s sake, arm yourself with knowledge so you can make informed guesses.

I look for:

  • The kinds of uncertainty the game wants to address (Will you succeed or fail? What does failure cost? How will the fiction change if you express this or that? Can you ensure success? Can you mitigate risk? Can you fail forward or be stopped?)
  • Economies that encourage particular behavior cycles (do this > earn that > spend on blah)
  • Assertions the designer has made about a game’s themes or source material. This one is huge! It also means you understand what a “theme” is, and how to critically evaluate source material. Is The Hobbit about sneaking past dragons, or is it about working through hardship with friends? Is Dogs in the Vineyard about smoking demons, or is it about dealing with the fallout from violence? And so on. You don’t even have to agree as to what any given “theme” is! But by golly you’d better acknowledge it exists at all. This gets you in the designer’s groove, hopefully.

2a) Ask the designers. Yay internet. But hey, be ready to deal with the fact that their intentions might not have been well expressed through their own rules. It happens.

3) Use whatever method has worked for you in the past. This is not my personal preferred method, because I think it’s really, really easy to trammel all over the designer’s intent, which very well may require you deal with uncomfortable stuff.

4) Be okay with the deliberate gaps (if your best informed guess is that a gap is deliberate). For example: All the rules dealing with social interactions in The One Ring are written with NPCs in mind — it’s not unusual. Mutant: Year Zero is another notable example. In fact it’s one of the great assumed gaps in trad design!

In the case of The One Ring, I settled on that being a deliberate gap. What I look at is the company rules (the company must agree to a goal every session) and the experience point rules (you only earn if the company is pursuing the agreed-upon goal). The game feels like it’s about cooperation, not personal striving. Compare to say Burning Wheel, which is very much about personal striving (as expressed through its advancement and Artha rules).

But in MYZ I decided it wasn’t at all deliberate (cues: relationship map questions during character creation aim adversity both outward and inward), and had to come up with ways for the system to work fairly with everyone.

The tl;dr of this whole ridiculous post comes down to this:

  • Be sensitive to what the game is trying to accomplish
  • Be educated as to the scope of things that RPGs generally have tried to accomplish
  • Be open to what’s actually on the page and pay attention to what’s not on the page
  • Always question what you’re bringing to your interpretation.

Just my take. YMMV, the artist is dead, etc etc.

27 thoughts on “How To Learn A Game 2”

  1. Don’t ever talk to designers. You can’t trust them. If one of them tries to give you advice about their game you should stand up suddenly and glare at them, unblinking, until they slowly fall silent again.

  2. Jason Corley That also works.

    If the designer isn’t dead, you can just kill them.

    I actually meant to mention something up there about designers actually being wrong sometimes, maybe a lot of the time, but I still think it’s worth hearing their input.

  3. Possibly, but is it really worth the risk?

    (slowly shakes head no as he backs out of the office, then walks suddenly back in, still shaking head)

  4. This clear statement of philosophy and intent makes it easier, in retrospect, to understand what you were doing before (which I always felt was legitimate, just not what I probably would have done).

    It’s interesting how that approach will span out in the long-term, too. Your “constitutional intent” approach likely will create long-term consistency based on expressible principles, but may cause short-term confusion. What I probably would have done, which is #3, and its corollary “do whatever minimizes fuss in the moment, and then make a more definitive rule later if needed” is much more likely to result in slow drift from a core ruleset over time.

  5. Adam D that’s the idea! But man, it makes bad/non functional games collapse in a hurry. Which I guess is a good thing! Rather than trudging along, drifting and fixing and accumulating so much crap that you collapse under the weight of it. Which of course folks don’t actually do: rpgs have a long established history of house ruling.

    Really this has worked for me because I’m allergic to house rules. It’s completely meaningless if you’re just going to hash out your own thing anyway.

  6. Paul Beakley I definitely have the makings of an essay on the impacts of Constitutional originalism vs. “Living Tree” doctrine on the interpretation of games rules bubbling around now. I just wish I had the time to write it!

  7. I’m super trad. I basically run Braunsteins, and my last game is more or less Organized Crime Braunstein with NPCs, and that is the kind of game I enjoy. Said that, I feel I can contribute to only one way: the dreaded subsystem might be fun.

    Often they happen because people feel the need to make rules because of the gaps. But sometimes they happen because a player wants a toy, and the Referee obliges. If the result is more fun and more engaged players, I can’t see any negatives.

    As example Paul brought up livestock. I’ve done it with horses for a player that was really keen, for this specific PC, to breed amazing horses during downtime. So I wrote some horsebreeding rules and put them on the blog.As a result the player is satisfied, the other players have a rooster of horses to choose from, and everything seems better off. Done this way it’s only upsides.

    Any other way, unless the game is about that (g&bs has a heist subsystem and threaten mechanics) i find it mostly cringeworthy. The rules have no reason to be there if they are not used.

  8. “If you see those in your game, you’re dealing with designers with deep assumptions about how RPGs work.” Hadn’t really thought of this before, except in the context of “Please don’t give me a ‘What is an RPG?’ section in the text.” But if we don’t step things back that far, then we are getting into some assumptions. And the really tricky thing is knowing which assumptions are deep! The whole Apocalypse World thing of “roleplaying is a conversation” could very easily be put in that section I loathe.

  9. Is this really Part X? I wanna make sure I didn’t miss the first nine! (I know you’ve posted about it before.) This is such a wonderfully unexamined topic.

    Regarding the gaps, the first game that came to mind for me was DitV, in which something is either a conflict, or else you “Say yes”. Is this simply the consistent philosophical approach?(Maybe even the paradigm for it?)

    I guess I’m wondering if there is still a gap there, or if it’s venturing into Fruitful Void™ territory. Is the gap that sometimes we don’t know for sure if something is a conflict?

  10. Adam D I should maybe clarify that I don’t take this approach into real life. If I discover that an RPG, as written, can’t handle long-term play I can always just change games. 🙂

  11. Mark Delsing it’s Part . I have shittons of other Opinions about how to learn an RPG. I’ll write them all someday.

    Roll the dice or say yes: Well, it is at the very least telling you when to roll dice, and introducing the idea that rolling or not-rolling is an evaluation that every point of tension has to pass through. So, yeah, at the very least it’s telegraphing that only certain kinds of tension require uncertainty.

    I think my “deliberate gap” thing is basically the Fruitful Void thing. The place you don’t put rules, but on purpose. Lots of unfruitful voids out there as well.

  12. Another great post! Not only did Paul Beakley​ get me to pull TOR from the absolute bottom of the “oldest” of five 12-16″ book obelisks, but bring up this interesting point about how TOR rewards collective goal setting and achievement – which could make it a goodish fit for out leftie game group!

  13. 💕

    I have one to add, though I think it might be baked into your assumed stance for playing games. But here goes: Be ready to admit that you might be wrong. Often times seeing our own baggage wrt a design is next to impossible. And so the deep friction you experience with a design might originate there — with you the player. If you’re stuck in this situation, try to remove your preferences from the equation and read the rules as simple procedure.

    I say this not just as the designer of arcane games, but having witnessed it first hand through the Basic D&D play. Lots of emotional assumptions of those rules out there!

  14. luke crane thanks, man, yeah. That one is hard and maybe the most important. I kind of dance around this my entire post but it’s really the thesis: are you sure the rules say what you think?

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