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.
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.