Day 14: What’s the most play-disruptive discovery you’ve made when you insist on playing by the actual printed rules?

Such a harsh, bright line drawn between the poles on this; I’m not surprised it’s triggered a lot of talk this morning. Is it because we judge each other and ourselves on the correctness of our engagement with the activity? Like, you’re a fake gamer if your practices include X or Y? That’s disturbingly close to sectarian talk for my comfort.

I do think it’s a huge indiegamer cliche to worship the text of the rules. The Rules As Written. The RAW. Is worship too strong a word? I don’t think it is. Failure to follow RAW is an easy go-to when folks talk about not having fun with a game. And yet nobody seems to be asking okay but why did they fail to follow RAW? And yes, oh yes, you get a lot of “because that’s not how an RPG works” or “I couldn’t see the point of it.”

Most players and GMs are, IMO, not skilled designers or analysts. They’re not good at seeing the gears working. They don’t really understand why a game works the way it does. And yet any experienced GM is very much an expedient and frequent designer in practice. We come up with solutions because we feel that gap, that missing tooth where you expect or need or feel comfort when there’s a rule in place. It’s completely normal and expected that we’d have go-to tools in our kit.

The place where I think the indie cult of RAW gets it wrong is not seeing the rules text in a larger context. What are the themes of the game? What’s the designer’s intent? What do your players like and dislike about playing? How are my own strengths and weaknesses filtering my understanding of the RAW?

The other end of the spectrum is no picnic either: the designer is dead, there is no intent but the GM’s intent, the RAW is there to be ignored at your pleasure, it’s your game. All that stuff is just as absolutist.

There’s gotta be a more functional place.

My actual answer: discovering that “roll the dice or say yes” doesn’t work in PbtA, and in fact is antithetical to the system. You don’t get to ignore move triggers; there is no MC authority to do so. And wowowow that realization went bone-deep into how the games run. Lots of advancement relies on moves being made. The snowballing of moves relies entirely on moves happening whether you want them or not. The entire feeling of momentum through the session means you absolutely, positively must ignore that (otherwise super-healthy and functional) urge to just say yes to things. To anything.

This happened more recently than I’d like to admit. First go through Sagas of the Icelanders I think. The details are hazy but the realization was powerful.

Anyway, a thing I wanted to share here at the end: I’ve been cultivating this approach to gaming which is to remain as agnostic and open as possible to what I think the game is going to do. I try very, very hard to just set aside expectations and let the game do whatever it’s going to do. And then observe it dispassionately, trying to empathize as closely as possible to each player’s reaction as it happens.

I don’t know that it makes for more fun/rewarding games but this approach has greatly improved my understanding of games. More often than not, that means understanding that the game isn’t designed to deliver an experience we find fun or rewarding. Following the RAW is no guarantee of a good time.

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29 thoughts on “Day 14: What’s the most play-disruptive discovery you’ve made when you insist on playing by the actual printed rules?”

  1. Oh hell yes, on the AW example. I remember having that discussion a few years back with folks and being like “No, no, you can’t do that. Really not. Dogs is not AW is not Dogs.”

    Also, hell yes on the “can’t we look at the wide middle ground between absolutes.”

    So… shockingly, brain twins again.

  2. Also, to be an asshole, or reveal that I was an asshole when that discussion went around the first time, I told a lot of folks off for importing rules from one game into another, in exactly the manner they always accused “trad gamers” of doing. Because as it turns out we all make communities of play, and most communities tend to fall into similar patterns based on structural understandings.

    It was just endlessly hilarious to be like “no, no, don’t do that — it’s as bad as when Vampire players use D&D heroics, which I remember you mocking on Storygames.”

    And by endlessly hilarious, I mean insufferable and arrogant.

  3. Mick Bradley right? I mean it’s on you and yours to decide if, yeah, it works fine anyway. I decided here that it disabled the connected systems too much for us. YPBTAMV and all that.

  4. Mick Bradley depends on the AW implementation, too, I think.

    Like, even going for pretty hard “you did the move, now roll the dice” style play, for example, my Urban Shadows groups usually only roll a couple times a scene — at most. (Unless shit goes sideways, combat always ends up with too much rolling.) And we tend to have a good number of interpersonal scenes with no rolling at all (unless an intimacy move gets triggered and has a roll attached).

    So really, it’s about how often you’re doing direct things that directly trigger a move and how to the nose your group is about it. If your group wants you to roll Read a Person every time you talk to someone, sure, lots of rolling. If you only have to roll when you specifically start digging in and trying to read the truth behind their words, that may get rolled a lot less.

  5. OTOH I can’t tell you how frequently I’ve had scenes like:

    Player: “I really need to talk my way past this cop. I mean he’ll let me by when I show him my own badge, right?”

    Me: “So you’re persuading an npc. Make the roll.”

    Player: “No! My +Heart is terrible!”

    Me: “Sighhh…fine, rewind your scene, do the thing you’re actually good at.” Because I just don’t have the energy sometimes to duke it out and “force” a roll. In fact I have a player who flat refuses to roll; like it’s somehow not in our social contract to submit to my judgement about what’s going on in the scene.

    That’s a whole other PbtA-specific conversation for another time. But my point is, especially when it comes to interaction scenes, my players stumble into moves all the time. Intimacy in Urban Shadows also, although there’s a validation gate on that one, i.e. “did that feel like an intimate moment?”

  6. > You don’t get to ignore move triggers; there is no MC authority to do so.

    The caveat being that some triggers are so vague that there is authority to say it doesn’t trigger – but that authority rests on the table as a whole and not the MC (though, to be fair, a lot of players in my experience want the MC to make these decisions for them)

  7. Paul Beakley also, from my limited experience playing with you, you tend to drive more directly to action than I do.

    Which would shift the number of moves you’re doing per scene. If your characters are always accomplishing a thing or seeking a task/goal, that’ll probably (if they’re doing the thing the game is about) trigger more moves than if they’re all damn larpers who want to talk about their feelings and shit all the fucking time.

  8. Yeah, I had a similar experience with a couple of players. The whole idea of being downright bad at something is hard to get back to after you play games where you’re average at most things and superlative at others.

  9. Brand Robins I was going to make a joke about writing a game that triggers off feels and talking about feels, but I think it’s called Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish Granting Engine.

  10. I think that “Following the RAW is no guarantee of a good time.” is a red herring.

    99% of published rpgs, from D&D onward, have terrible rules that would guarantee that you DON’T have fun if you would not change, ignore or drift them all the time. Most Indie players know this. Most traditional players know this. The authors know this, and the fill their books with exhortations to GMs to use the rules they like, not the one written on the book.

    The point of RAW is not “being sure to have a good time”, it’s about “being sure to play THIS game, and not another one that I just made up”

    To put it simply: to understand how a game works (and to understand even if you like it or not), you have to play it RAW.

    If you don’t do that….   there is no middle point, if you don’t do that, you are one of two things, depending on your appreciation of your drifted rules: “this game is awesome, because if you don’t like a rule you can always change it”, or the “I tried baseball and it didn’t work”  (if you don’t know that hilarious article, search it on google, it will be worth it)

    What if you simply don’t care about knowing how a game play, really? No problem, there is no RAW-police, but I would really, really like if people who didn’t care stopped posting reviews and comments about games they have really not played, ever.

    (obviously there are rules so minor that ignoring them don’t change a game a lot. But I don’t trust most of the GMs to be able to separate them from important rules. Do you know how many posting about DitV are from people who thought that the town creation rules were minor and optional, and played it like a whodunnit?)

  11. Changing a game without understanding it is indeed a bad move. And there are many bad changes you can make even when you DO understand a game, people being fallible, all of us living surrounded by sin and error on this fallen Earth. But the goal of most RPG play isn’t “to understand the game”; I would say that the goal of most play of any sort is not “to understand the game”.

    So it is that any logic which reaches the conclusion that it’s better to play a game accurately and be miserable than to play a game inaccurately and be happy will always seem unsound to me. Like, by what standard?

  12. Moreno Roncucci ‘s comment did, at least to me. “To put it simply: to understand how a game works (and to understand even if you like it or not), you have to play it RAW. If you don’t do that…. there is no middle point, if you don’t do that, you are one of two things, depending on your appreciation of your drifted rules..”

  13. Yeah that’s the sectarian talk I have no patience for.

    But! I totally welcome Moreno to yes please start your own post about it! I’m loving the huge variety of replies, even the ones I stridently disagree with.

  14. Paul Beakley most people don’t play a game to understand how it works. But most people don’t post about games every day on the web, either.
    People who wants to talk about games all the time posturing as if they understand how they work… should at least TRY to understand how they work. At least IMHO.

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