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The Last Dark Art

Six: Beating the System, or The First Thing We Do, Let's Kill All the Rules Lawyers

by Dan Layman-Kennedy
Apr 23,2003


The Last Dark Art: Exploring the Gaming Aesthetic

Six: Beating the System, or The First Thing We Do, Let's Kill All the Rules Lawyers

by Dan Layman-Kennedy

The balance between law and chaos is a delicate thing, as any Moorcock reader or neophyte dungeon-crawler can tell you, and walking the line between them can indeed be a champion's task. Literary inspirations aside, it's easy to see why that particular polarity must have been on the minds of the first RPG designers; roleplaying is, on the one hand, a game as well as a narrative, both of which require certain rules in order to work at all. On the other hand, roleplaying is also improvisational, which lends itself to the breaking of boundaries and the movements of players outside of set confines. In some ways, achieving this balance is probably the biggest "trick" of successful game design: finding the right amount of the right kind of rules to keep the game reigned in while still allowing the players to, well, play.

But, for good or ill, human beings are awfully fond of rules, possibly because we're afraid that loosening up any of them is the first step towards dissolution into total chaos. It's perhaps this mindset that has put so many gamers so unfortunately far into the camp of the Lawful Absurd when it comes to treating rulebooks as holy writ. Or maybe it's only that, in the face of an unpredictable phenomenon like a game session, it's just human nature to want to have intimate knowledge of anything that can be controlled; maybe you can't keep the new guy from doing something outrageous to derail the adventure, but you can know exactly what the book says on page 44 about the limitations on Gate spells.

Now, it's probably obvious enough that I am an unabashed narrativist, but I don't think you have to be to have a philosophy that rulebooks should be adhered to for exactly as long as the game is fun doing so. And, to be fair, any fool can tell that; you certainly don't need one of my rambling and too-clever columns to tell you how to engineer a kludge or a house rule. What I'd like to do instead, this time around, is to present a philosophy of systems that might point the way towards knowing what will work to drop and what to keep for your particular group, in the context of your particular adventure or campaign. It's easy enough to say that the rulebook should be a guide and not gospel, but it's probably more constructive to know where it is you want it to guide you to in the first place.

It helps first off to understand that all games are written to reflect certain preconceptions of their authors, and that these inform certain (possibly unspoken) assumptions in the text about how a game is "meant" to be played. This is inevitable, and it isn't even really a bad thing, except that it can give those inclined to rules-lawyering one more thing to carp about when someone strays from this intent. But it bears mentioning that those who choose to depart from the themes and ideas in the canonical text of a game -- what might be called its mode - are not "missing the point" or doing things "wrong." What such a departure does present is a very particular challenge, and the nature of that challenge is one of (and I use the word quite deliberately) translation.

A couple of columns back, I suggested that system and setting are two halves of the equation that builds a paradigm, an overriding world-metaphor for a game's story. Let me now say almost the same thing again, from a slightly different angle: a set of game rules is a language of story.

From this perspective, it's not terribly useful to describe systems in terms of "good" or "bad." The question is rather how well the language of the game system conveys certain concepts pertinent to playing in the game-world. As with spoken languages, certain systems are better at communicating particular ideas than others, but each has about equal potential to be "legitimate" within a certain context. Shifting the context from the canonical version presented in the rulebook may require a shift in the language as well, depending on how flexible the mechanics are in accomodating new or altered concepts. Games can accomplish this shift in the same way languages do: by either inventing new words and grammar out of whole cloth (read: new rules) or by borrowing terms and concepts from other languages.

Those who are interested in linguistic "purity" are probably going to be just as unsettled by all of this when applied to games as speech, but it's worth pointing out here that a bastard-child tongue like English stays viable and dynamic by just this process of assimilation. The idea of purity is well and good, but often not terribly practical, especially when a healthy dose of syncretism can produce "dialects" with enormous potential to be poetic and colorful. To be sure, an understanding of the unadulterated mechanics of a game is very useful when deciding what knobs need to be twiddled on it, and where -- much as a solid grasp of the rules of English is invaluable when deciding when those rules need to be bent or broken to express an idea that can't be conveyed otherwise. There are a lot of things perfect English does very well, and also a lot of other cases where, for sheer expressiveness, it ain't all that.

The key, then, to seeing what changes are appropriate in a game is to decipher what's being implied by its intended mode -- its "native tongue." However, I should make one clarification before going any farther: I'm talking here as though game and system are the same thing, but that's a terribly big oversimplification, because what I mean by mode encompasses system and setting and style and theme and a host of other things that the text of a game book can state or imply. It's easy to focus on system rules because they're the crunchy bits, the easiest to quantify solidly and the most like a "grammar" in the language-parallel I've set up here. That doesn't mean the rest of the above list can't be given the same treatment. Style may be a harder thing to quantify than mechanics, but that doesn't mean it can't be tweaked just as much -- certainly nothing has stopped rules lawyers from being just as pedantic about matters of correct style as any other aspect of games.

An admonition in a rulebook that, for instance, certain powerful character types are "inappropriate as PCs" (an all-too-familiar phrase to most of us) may be a sign of any number of things. It may mean that the game system wasn't designed with high-powered gaming in mind (a matter of rules); alternatively, it may simply reflect a distaste on the writers' part for high-powered PCs, or it may be attempting, with the best of intentions, to discourage munchkinism (both matters of style). Deciphering what's behind a given rule can take a bit of detective work, but getting the feel for a game's mode is really invaluable in finding a standpoint from which to "translate" it into another mode. GURPS, for example, tends to operate in a mode that might be called "literary realism," which is one reason GURPS needs a bit of tweaking to work well in especially high-powered or cinematic settings. Though there are a couple of instances of books within the GURPS canon straying into this territory, the results tend to be either uneven (Supers) or they consciously drop many of the balancing "realistic" rules (Black Ops). In any case, folks who like the mechanics of GURPS but want to translate it to a tongue other than "literary realism" are well advised to keep in mind the prejudices of its "native" mode and twiddle it accordingly, keeping an eye out for rules that support that mode and eighty-sixing them according to taste. If more adjustments are needed, injections from another system may be in order; a cinematic GURPS game could do worse than to graft on some of the high-action rules from, say, Feng Shui.

Obviously, this last is not the sort of thing to be entered into lightly, and gamers can save themselves a lot of muddying of the semiotic waters by considering carefully whether or not to import a "vocabulary" from another system. The deciding factor, of course, is whether or not the game already has a language that accomodates the concepts in question; some games are built flexibly enough that adding on to them from outside systems feels like gilding the lily. (One of the things that the latest incarnation of Dungeons & Dragons has over its predecessors is a flexible language, at least in terms of game mechanics. Even though the "default" D&D setting still makes a lot of assumptions about the way it's going to be played, it's based on a vocabulary of rules that's several orders of magnitude less limited than either previous edition -- witness the ubiquitous d20 emblazoning everything from religious apocalyptica to space opera to cosmic horror.) On the other hand, some things simply come down to matters of style and flavor. Call of Cthulhu, Unknown Armies, and Vampire all have mechanics for representing loss of sanity that cover the same concepts -- sort of. The truth is that each of them "says" something subtly different from the others about what it means to have a normal and stable human psyche, and replacing any of them with one of the others is going to produce a game of a decidedly different flavor than the original.

The obvious counter-argument to all of this, of course, is that if a particular game's system or mode or whatever doesn't work for you, play some other game. This is fine advice as far as it goes, and it's certainly a viable alternative to keep in mind if all this rules-tweaking and system cross-pollination starts to feel like too much work. But the idea that you shouldn't bother with a game if you don't like the out-of-the-box version is simply nonsense. Roleplaying offers some of the most interesting opportunities for real creativity of any art form; it seems more than a little ridiculous to encourage the creative exploration of every aspect of gaming except for the games themselves. Many people who enter the hobby bring to it a love of communication and language; why not apply this directly to seeing what can be done with games outside of what was originally intended? I'm reminded here of the approach some experimental musicians took to synthesizers back when electronic music was becoming a force to be reckoned with: they immediately threw out the instructions, because they wanted to discover what could be done rather than play the way the manufacturers thought they should play. RPGs don't quite give us that luxury, and between the necessity of rules and the sheer utility (not to mention coolness) of rulebooks as idea-mines, they're unlikely to become obsolete any time soon. But the lesson is well-learned: sometimes it's good to toss the manual aside and start pushing buttons to find out what kind of noise you can make.

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