The Many Utilities of Rules

I was chatting with a friend the other day about how strict adherence to the rules-as-written (RAW) might be a male-socialized thing. Yes, this is typical game chat in my universe! I don’t want to speculate too deeply on that bit (yet). But it unlocked a whole other set of thoughts around the many utilities of rules, and how there are entire cultures and paradigms of play around the uses we have chosen.

So just for fun, setting aside tribal nonsense about storygames or OSR or indie or whatever else, here are some of my thoughts on the utility of rules* — that is, how we use rules, not why they exist or what their purpose “should” be. This is not a manifesto! It’s a way to think about what happens when you and I use rules for different, maybe incompatible, reasons.

* But wait, what do I mean by “rules?” I know you want to ask. Let’s say it’s any material where you might hear the phrase “rules as written” invoked. So: obviously the procedural stuff, but — for me at least — also in-fiction material that carries authoritative weight: known conflicts between factions, fictional social strata and who defers to whom, cultural or religious strictures, things like that. I suppose that could even extend to art but that feels theoretical.

Fairness

Disagreement resolution is the use that decades of trad RPGs assert, arguably the default utility. You know, the “roleplaying games are just like cops and robbers, but when one of you shoots the other and they say you missed!, that’s when the rules come into play.”

Which, sure. Generations of mediated make-believe rely on documented procedures to resolve disagreements. We can thank our wargaming roots for that.

I find that folks who use rules for disagreement resolution are looking for reasonable, bounded outcomes. Assuming you touch the system often enough to perceive patterns, the system is handing back a bell curve of outcomes, with occasional outliers. There’s a clear cap to how great your effort can be, and a clear floor to how bad failure might be. This utility says rules exist to provide a fair, level playing field.

Using the rules primarily to ensure fairness means fairness is the main pain point for you. I wouldn’t want to speculate as to why that would be! But that’s the utility most needed by these folks.

Learning

This is where we use rules* to help understand the subject matter of the game. It’s using rules to model and deconstruct: What are the key elements of a genre? How did these aspects of history affect each other? What’s the storytelling function of a common trope?

Rules can be a way to understand genre, history, setting. Lots of PbtA is designed around this: Impulse Drive deconstructs small-ship-crew sci-fi, Night Witches models the social pressures of being a Russian woman pilot in WW2, and so on. RPG rules are a legit way to understand how a genre “works,” or to explore the dynamics at play in history.

Rules that emulate authorial type decision-making invite us to model and deconstruct. So the strict scene economy of Burning Empires, for example, or the mission focus of Blades in the Dark with the deferral of “downtime” activities to a few quick rolls. These rules ask the player to engage with the subject matter as an author rather than as a participant. Authorship style rules aren’t necessary to the model-and-deconstruction utility! It’s just something I’ve seen a lot, and it’s a distinction of the RPG form.

Rather than focusing on outcomes (like resolution rules), players that want rules to model and teach focus on inputs. We look for interlocking abstract incentives: if I do X then I get Y which makes Z easier, which helps me understand why some historical event played out the way it did (for example), if we understand human behavior to be driven by incentives. But also, this explains why players are often not incentivized by the incentives a system offers them. They just don’t care about the model, they care about some other aspect of play (which may exist outside the rules altogether: see “facilitating experience” next!).

Modeling and deconstruction utility frequently look for the next step of the model, ie snowballs, moves that trigger moves, etc.It’s all about engagement that flows from system to system, each system describing an aspect of the subject matter.

Presentation, even, can help walk you through the model proposed by the designer. The campaign for Night Witches, for example, displays the clear march of events from base to base through time in the war. The game is teaching you, and it’s up to you to decide whether you want to be taught or not.

Facilitating Experience

And finally: this is where we want the rules* to facilitate an experience, to generate excitement, or an emotional state, or a creative challenge. When we use rules* to facilitate experience, we want surprising or perhaps even unwanted outcomes. To force discomfort as part of the experience. We want the game material itself to engage us and make our imaginations run wild.

I can think of quite a few experiences that rules can facilitate: emotional/internal experiences, tactical/achievement experiences, aesthetic pleasure in the form of big elaborate patterns to complete. And just a reminder: I’m talking why we engage with rules* here, not how. Rules + humans = actual play, right?

It is, in my experience, a very common point of displeasure for folks who want rules to provide bounded, reasonable outcomes when they run into rules designed to facilitate experience. See, for example, the old Murphy’s Rules comics that would pedantically make fun of rules that never intended to model reasonable outcomes. Those two uses for rules are so divergent as to be irreconcilable in a lot of cases. I’ve seen groups break down over it.

Other examples of using rules for engagement: glomming onto economic cycles that help the player empathize with decision cycles. That feeling of empathy is the experience! Related: engaging with abstract economies that model diegetic incentives, rather than incentives for non-diegetic stuff (mechanical advancement, success/failure, etc.) For example, Glory in King Arthur Pendragon: you can’t touch it in the fiction, it’s abstract, but it is the thing we’re told to pursue because it will grant us material benefits in our relationship with our Lord. In other words, not “diegetic incentives,” like money or magic items.

Another example: lists that seed your imagination. A list might also, or only, be educational. That’s gonna be in the eye of the beholder and all that. But think about the colorful random tables you see in lots of OSR stuff: zero shits are given about those results being reasonable. Unreasonable outcomes are the point.

There’s a good bit of crossover here, between experience facilitation and modeling/deconstruction. I know I drift back and forth a lot with my use of rules that do either of these things. Sometimes the model produces delight and challenge, and sometimes the model explains and teaches. Sometimes learning is itself delightful, right? So of course we do both all the time.

But sometimes the utility disagreement is more stark: players who don’t want to grind through a detailed simulation, like Book of the Manor for King Arthur Pendragon for example, because detailed manor management is just not an experience they want even while it models the complexity of the job. Or folks who are excited to move through the cards in For the Queen because answering questions is fun, but it isn’t really teaching them anything at all while other players want to slow down and chew on those answers.

A Few Takeaways

Obviously there are lots of crossovers between these approaches, both on the design side and the player-utility side. What’s the space between “model” and “deconstruction,” after all? Mostly a matter of editorial voice, I think: for the most part, I don’t gain any greater understanding of genre or history from physics-type modeling.

In my own game design efforts, I regularly screw up thinking about my rules. Reasonable outcomes might not engage and delight. Delightful experiences might not teach what I want. A cycle of play might be educational but both unreasonable and unfun. And of course my control-freak impulses are awful, since I can’t really control how any given player will engage the rules. You can drag a gamer to a lesson but you can’t make them learn.

As a practical matter, thinking about the utility of rules this way allows me to completely set aside whatever style of game I’m thinking about. There are OSR games that facilitate experiences well but do little to proceduralize disagreements. There are storygames that are smart and interesting deconstructions but don’t do much to facilitate a particular experience for me. Keepsake games, like A Field Guide to Memory? Almost entirely about producing an experience and nothing else.

Back to that chat I mentioned at the start, the thing about how playing by the rules seems male-coded? I can see the shape of that argument, viewed through this utilitarian lens, but I think it’s a sliding scale: expecting or demanding deferral to rules in a parliamentarian sense is just different than a kind of deist engagement with rules to show us how things work, or eager engagement with rules that help get us to a specific experience. Some of us want a referee making calls, some of us want a judge bound by the law, some of us want an event planner.

This also helps me, at least, drill down into why folks get so confrontational about games. Like, if you need a game to resolve disagreements, a thoughtful model of medieval life isn’t gonna help you much. But if you played Pendragon and really enjoyed how it helped you understand medieval life, playing a tactics-oriented fantasy game is gonna come up short for you. And so on.

Consider also: PbtA GMs/MCs who chafe at moves as a constraint (that is, rules that model) versus those who look to their moves for inspiration (that is, rules that delight). It doesn’t take but a small shift in perception and the whole “MC moves” thing changes from straightjacket to a fun bit of help. But if you use rules as a model — in the case of most PbtA, “how does this game model its genre?” — the list can feel like a validation gate. Am I making a move that’s in-genre? Am I playing it “right?” Honestly, no wonder folks bounce off this sometimes.

Another thought: there are tons of issues that come up when how we use rules conflicts with why rules were written that way. A gamer who’s looking forward to delight but is handed an elaborate fairness engine? Boring! A GM who’s excited to share their knowledge and has to work with a bunch of inspirational-but-goofy tables? Ugh! And so on. Pick any mismatch, you’ve probably seen it play out in the world.

What do you think? How are you using rules? How has that conflicted with others at the table?

PS: Yes, this does bear some surface similarities to Big Model/GNS talk. But trying to directly map agenda to utility (narrativism = model, etc.) is a category error for both. So try real hard not to do that, they’re different things.

Liked it? Take a second to support The Indie Game Reading Club on Patreon!

4 thoughts on “The Many Utilities of Rules”

  1. I think “Fairness” might be a poor term for the first category, since you expressly include the use of rules to provide reasonable outcomes, even though such outcomes can very quickly become unfair. As to the use of them: I find the enjoyment in RPGs as a player to be in making moment-to-moment decisions as the character and seeing the effects, and having an engine that spits out reasonable outcomes is an easy way to make those decisions informed and meaningful.

Leave a Reply