Thursday, May 15, 2014

Socratic Design Anthology #9

Heya Guys,

Summer is fast approaching and that's when I usually take break from blogging.  I hope the first half of the year has been a productive one for you.  Before I go, I'm doing my annual anthology.  For those who may be new to Socratic Design, every year I post links to all the articles I've done in the last 12 months or so as well as links to previous anthologies.  This way, people can easily catch up if they recently discovered my blog.  Enjoy! :)


What is Creative Agenda?
What is an Endgame?
What is Chopping the World in Two?
Does Setting Still Matter? part 5
What is Rule Zero?


Equipment Lists - A Lament

Design Journal Entries:

Design Journal #1: Envisioning Play
Design Journal #2: Brainstorming
Design Journal #3: Distractions
Design Journal #4: Breaking Up My Game

Previous Anthologies:

Socratic Design Anthology #1
Socratic Design Anthology #2
Socratic Design Anthology #3
Socratic Design Anthology #4
Socratic Design Anthology #5
Socratic Design Anthology #6
Socratic Design Anthology #7
Socratic Design Anthology #8

Topical Index:

SD Topical Index #1



Friday, May 02, 2014

What is Rule Zero?


Today I’m looking at a topic that became a really hot-button issue in the early 2000’s.  And even to this day, arguments over it will arise on one online forum or another.  It’s called “Rule Zero.”  If you don’t know what that is, it’s probably a good thing, but more than likely, you’ve had some experience with it whether you know it or not.

Rule Zero basically states, “If you don’t like something about the rules [provided for you in this game’s text], change it!”  Well, that’s the nice way to put it.  I’ve sometimes seen it also called “The Golden Rule” which basically says, “The GM may ignore or change any rule at any time.”  If that looks like a Social Contract disaster filled with GM Fiat punts, then you are right.

I wish I knew who coined the phrase “Rule Zero” in this usage.  My first contact with it was in the Amber Diceless Roleplaying System, where it comes right out and says that the GM can change any rule he or she wants.  I know the White Wolf Games used the “Golden Rule” terminology in its texts.  I suspect, whether this empowerment of the GM and/or players to just change the rules on a whim was officially termed early or late in RPG history, people were doing it from the beginning.    I don’t know who first recognized this was going on, but the point is, once the idea took hold, designers started incorporating it into their games and RPGs have suffered ever since.

Why was Rule Zero/The Golden Rule invented?

Rule Zero/The Golden Rule came about because the early RPG texts that set the template for all RPGs to follow did a horrible, awful job of communicating how to play.  You don’t have to take my word for it.  Listen to what the man himself, Gary Gygax, had to say about his own game in his introduction to AD&D1e, “D&D hasturned into a non-game.  There is so much variation between the way the game is played [that] there is no continuity and little agreement as to just what the game is and how best to play it.” 

This could only happen if the text did not explicitly lay out what the game was about, what the players were supposed to do, and what the characters were supposed to do.  I have my copy of the 1978 AD&D Player’s Handbook right next to me, and there is not one page devoted to what players should be doing at any given moment of play, during a session of play, or for an entire campaign.

As a result, it became necessary for the DMs to improvise, change, and modify the rules at will.  D&D never empowered the group as a whole to make these decisions and since the DM was seen kind of as a replacement for the referee in wargaming, the players looked to him/her for what to do when nothing made sense.

Why is Rule Zero/Golden Rule bad?

There are several reasons why relying Rule Zero is a rotten idea for designers.  If you haven’t read my article on The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast, it’s some good background knowledge to have for this article.

The first reason Rule Zero is awful is that it encourages lazy design.  By including it, often in the introduction to a game, the designer is letting himself/herself off the hook.  Why worry about making all the rules work tightly together when the GM/Players will just change them anyway?  While it’s true that the designer cannot control how people actually play his game, it seems contradictory to in one breath prescribe how to play your game and in the next tell the players to just make it up as they go. 

Second, players are disinclined to actually try playing by the rules.  By including Rule Zero in your game, you give them carte blanche to start changing things before they even play.  Thus, they often try to bend some new game into some old game they are more familiar with.  Consequently, they miss out on a new experience.  Is that what you would want for your design?  Wouldn’t it be best if they were encouraged to at least try to play by the rules?  Isn’t that why your wrote your game in the first place?

Of all the games that have been Rule Zero’ed more than any other, OD&D stands first.  Yet, read this account of a group howfastidiously followed the rules of OD&D (as much as humanly possible) and how much fun they had as a result and how much they learned about the emergent properties of the game.  It’s brilliant!  But I know of very few groups and very few players who’ve stuck by the letter of the OD&D books, or any version of D&D for that matter (with the possible exception of 4th ed. at game shops while playing Tuesday Night Encounters).

Incorporating Rule Zero in a text shows me that the designer has a lack of confidence in his or her game.  Be confident.  As a customer, I am naturally pre-disposed to trusting you to produce a fun game.  I WANT to play the game the way you intended.  If you tell me upfront I don’t have to, then you break that trust.  And I probably won’t play the game the way you envisioned.

Third, incorporating Rule Zero/The Golden Rule overtly into your rules can often lead to heavy use of force by the GM or players to “keep things on track.”  This could be an entire article on its own (again see my entry on TITB4B).  Force is basically covert, social manipulation used by the GM to nullify player input in order to form a narrative during play that fits the GM’s vision alone.  How many of you like to be manipulated by other people?  How many of you enjoy having your creative endeavors subverted then negated by someone else?  That’s what the use of force and application of Rule Zero often bring to the table.  And it’s something we’ve hopefully left behind for the most part.

Finally, no other type of game invokes anything like Rule Zero.  One of the things that really bugs me about this is that this sort of behavior would be totally unacceptable in any other format.  Imagine if Pat Sajack suddenly started changing the rules for Wheel of Fortune right in the middle of an episode!  Or what if Dr. Richard Garfield had written into the original rules of Magic: the Gathering- “Eh, if you don’t like the mana system or any of the other rules of the game, just make them up as you go.  It won’t matter.”  It would be a catastrophe.  Now, creating recognized variants of the game (say, Commander or Cube in the case of M:tG) is fine, because everybody is on board with the modified rules set from the beginning.  But imagine if Rule Zero applied to something like Poker at something during a Pro Tour?  If other games don’t tolerate this, why should we?

Wait, you might be wondering, if variants are okay, then is Rule Zero actually a real thing?  What about house rules and hacks?

Good question.  So, after everything I’ve said, I’m going to contradict myself for just one tiny second.  If you take the “you” in my original definition of Rule Zero to mean the play group as a whole, then it’s not really a bad thing at all.  People can play however they want.  Coming to a group consensus on how a game should be played is a very functional thing.  Who hasn’t hacked a game they loved or mashed two great games together to form something new?  We’ve all done it and had a blast!  As far as play goes, the real problem with the rule comes when that “you” is interpreted to mean just one person- usually the GM.  In these cases it is one person coercing the players to play according to a single, non-negotiable vision.  This can very often lead to arguments, disenfranchisement, and a big ‘ole heaping helping of the 20:4 ratio most ESPECIALLY when rules are ignored, modified, or added during play without group consensus.  I don't see this as a particularly desirable design element.  Do you?

So, when making your game, I suggest not even including anything in the text that even remotely resembles Rule Zero/The Golden Rule.  It’s not helpful, since people will ignore/modify your rules anyway if they want.  It’s poor design, because you're letting yourself off the hook instead of working to find a real solution.  And it just obfuscates the real intent of your game, which is why you're writing this thing in the first place, right?



Monday, April 07, 2014

Design Journal #4: Breaking Up My Game

Welcome to my design journal entry # 4.  In case you missed the first three, you can find them HERE, HERE, and HERE.
I’ve brought this up before, but I use a Design Outline when I create a game.  I think about the different aspects of my RPGs very compartmentally.  Chargen is one things.  Resolution is another.  Character Advancement is third.  Equipment is its own thing.  Now, all of these different aspects are tied together thematically in my current RPG, but I work on them separately.  So I got to thinking: If each of these are separate in my mind, why I am I putting them all in the same book?
Now clearly, separating the core rules of a game into separate books is as old as RPGs themselves, right?  So I’m not breaking any new ground by doing this, but I have noticed that games which are not following in D&D’s footsteps (and even many games that are) have gone away from a multi-book approach.  This just was not working for me.
I want a character creation (Chargen) process that is more elaborate than what I currently get out there.  Therefore, I am pulling that entire process out into its on manual.  All the combat, resolution, spell casting, and character advancement stuff runs off very similar mechanics.  So that’s going in its own book.  The player options, equipment lists, spells, powers, feats, etc. have their own book.  So will the GM stuff.  And finally the setting books will be separate from all the rules. 
The reason I’m doing this is because is, I want these concepts to be digestible.  Packing all this into a 200+ page tome just seems ridiculous to me.  I wouldn’t want to read that from cover to cover.  I know I’d skip a lot, or just make assumptions.  I want to present my game in bite-size chunks that are an easy read while you eat at the dinner table or ride the train to work. 
So that means I’ll probably have some saddle-stitched, kinda homely looking books when I get done.  That’s fine with me.  I am so over having a pretty cover.  For me, the game needs to work.  Then it will sell itself.  My goals for this game are modest atthis point anyway.
Anyway, the lesson from today’s entry is this: don’t lock yourself into producing everyone in a single volume because it looks like it will save costs or because that’s what your favorite author did.  Evaluate the needs of your game and the needs of your target audience.  If splitting everything up into their component parts works for you, then embrace that.  You’ll be glad you did.


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Does Setting Still Matter? part 5


I haven’t written about Setting since2006, and that entry wasn’t very good.  I’m going to update my thoughts on Setting very briefly here today.

Why is Setting important?  Yes, it’s an integral part of design.  Yes, it’s one of the five areas (according to Forge Theory) of exploration.  Yes, it sells lots of supplements.  But that’s not what I’m talking about.

Setting is important because it serves two primary functions: (1) it gives the players some creative restraints with which they can build their stories and (2) it keeps out useless, conflicting, and often counter-productive Setting elements that creep in when there’s a vacuum.

Let’s break down #1.  Creative constraints (i.e. hard boundaries for play) actually breed creativity, not quash it.  People need some sort of hand-holds, or “hooks” as the term is commonly used in RPGs, to give them a foundation.  There have to be certain things that everyone agrees are true before we can start making up stuff that might or might not be true (roleplaying).  

Creating a rich setting sparks the readers’ imaginations.  If the Setting is designed well and communicated clearly, the players can instantly see where their characters should fit in and have a myriad of ideas about what their characters can do.  A good example of this is Hero Wars.  Set in Glorantha, the setting is this game is all about the oncoming apocalypse.  The PCs know the world is doomed, but they are to be heroes none-the-less.  Anyone familiar with Norse mythology should easily be able to relate to that scenario.  It’s easy to image what a hero fighting for a doomed cause might look like, act like, and die like.  It’s beautiful.  And it makes the games memorable.

As mentioned, the second purpose of Setting in an RPG is to keep out counter-productive Setting elements.  By this, I mean unfocussed, player-created Setting elements.  If no Setting is provided in the rules, the players will start adding their own.  If five people start trying to guide the exploration of the Setting in five different directions all at once, you’re going to get a pretty incoherent story.   Even worse, people will fall back on crappy entertainment tropes they’ve learned from watching TV, movies, or reading Twilight novels (shudder).

Let’s look at GURPS.  GURPS prides itself on being totally Setting agnostic.  “You can play anything anywhere!” it likes to brag.  The problem with this is everyone might not be on the same page.  We might have a mystery campaign on our hands and one person has Sherlock Holmes in his mind, while another is channeling Dr. Who, and another is introducing plot elements from MacGyver, and still another thought that this was a caper campaign like Leverage.  These things are not compatible and will very likely lead to arguments, wasted moments of play, unfulfilled expectations, and big ‘ole dose of the 20:4 ratio.

So, okay, we should at least state that the game is a fantasy, science fiction, gothic horror, or some other sort of genre, right?  That’s enough of a Setting to get play rolling, isn’t it?

Let’s look at D&D.  Since 1978-or thereabouts-D&D has had three core books: The Player’s Handbook, The Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the Monster Manual.  From these games it’s clear we’re playing fantasy.  But what kind of fantasy?  Are we playing a lower-power fantasy like the Lord of Rings?  High powered like the Silmarilion?  Same author.  Totally different themes.  Do animals talk and do whimsical things like in Lewis?  Is it a high-powered magic-filled campaign like Vance?  Just saying something is “fantasy” or “horror” doesn’t help.  It certainly doesn’t establish what conflicts might exist between the NPCs and whether or not they’ll be relevant to the players.  It doesn’t establish group expectations as to what type of play is in-bounds or out-of-bounds.  It doesn’t give the GM much to go on other than all the books, comics, and movies he’s familiar with.  In short, it doesn’t help keep out all the crappy motifs Hollywood and New York have pushed on us their various media over the last century.  

I’m not saying that you need to produce a Setting on the scale of Forgotten Realms or Ptolus.  In fact, my personal feelings on massive settings like that is they reduce creative freedom rather than support it.  

What I am saying is that your game needs a setting.  If only to keep out disruptive content that you never intended to be part of play.  Mass media is not the friend of RPG designers.  Often, it is the enemy.  And giving your players something to work with will when it comes to your Setting will increase enjoyment of your designs.



Addendum:  There are exceptions of course.  Prime Time Adventures and Universalis do not have default Settings.  However, Setting is an integral part of play in those games, so by the time the story starts, everyone actually is on the same page WRT when and where the action will take place.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Happy Holidays 2013!

Just wanted to wish everyone a very safe and joyful holiday season. May you find mercy, relief, and happiness with those whom you spend your time over the next week!

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Design Journal #3: Distractions


So last time I talked about brainstorming and the time before that about initial concept.  Today, I’m going to talk about “Cook Time.”  Cook Time is when you leave a design alone for a while and let it stew, steam, and simmer in your imagination. 

Sometimes cook time is intentional.  Take Vincent Baker’s In a Wicked Age.  It started out as the Cheap and CheeseyAdventure Generator.  But Vincent gave it time to cook and it turned into a really fun and challenging RPG. 

In other cases, cook time is thrust upon the designer.  This is the case for me.  My mother-in-law was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer just as I was beginning to write this game.  She’s still fighting it to this day.  As you can well imagine, it’s been tough on the family, and naturally I’ve had to take over a lot of the chores and responsibilities my wife and I used to share.  That’s fine and that’s the way it should be.

Consequently, I’ve not been able to work on my game.  But this is not a bad thing!  And if you find yourself in this sort of situation, do not dismay!  The time off will give you a chance to reflect on your initial work, rethink it, and come back to it some time later to see if it’s still the game you want.  Delays like this can give you clarity and help you see where your ignorance, biases, or sacred cows got in the way of what you really wanted to do.

This is a short entry aimed at those of you who want to be RPG designers but have come up against something that blocks your progress.  Whether it’s a design that’s “just not right” for some reason or it’s personal matters that eat up all your time, I want to encourage you.  It’s an okay thing.  Rushing a game to the finish line so you can have it by GenCon is not the way to create a quality piece.  Don’t be afraid of cook time.  If your game is truly close to your heart, like mine is to me, then your patience and courage will be rewarded.  You can get it done.  You will get it done.  I have faith in you!



Late Edit: for another example of how a designer deals with this sort of thing, check out this link:

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Equipment Lists - A Lament


How boring is an equipment list?  Ugh, it’s got to be the most tedious yet necessary thing in a fantasy or science fiction RPG.  Everyone (or close to everyone) loves the little fiddly bits you get with a new supplement: new weapons, new electronics, new armor types.  Each new thing is just a sight modification of the old stuff, but it’s still cool, right?  Well, it’s not cool enough for me.

You know what I would like to see?  Answer: an equipment list that sparks the players’ imaginations and prompts new avenues of play.

For instance, how cool would it be if an equipment list had five entries for Long Sword or Laser Pistol?  What if each entry showed how the weapon or item could be improved using different components or techniques for making it?  Even better, what if the equipment list rules gave hints about how the characters had to quest to find the right material, the right tinkerer, the right artisan, or whatever to make the weapon something beyond its mundane, default entry?

So, take a laser pistol for instance.  A pistol might have 5 attributes: weight, hitting power, accuracy, durability, and other.  The default material on the equipment list would be the cheapest and least reliable material- you know, the kind of laser pistol you would buy at the Wal-Marts of the future.  Then, elsewhere in the equipment section, the rules would give a list of materials that would reduce the weight of the gun, increase its hitting power and accuracy, make it more durable, and the “other” category in this case would be # of shots per battery pack.

In addition to the improved materials, the rules would tell the players how they could fabricate the materials or how to purchase/find the materials.

In a fantasy world, it would give names of weaponsmiths, artists, alchemists, etc. where they could get the blade sharpened to a keen edge, the pommel weight reduced to balance the weapon, or magical enchantments to make it more powerful.

Equipment lists are so mundane in most games, but I think they can add a lot of depth to a campaign if the designer just takes the time to think about how awesome weapons are in the first place and the different ways heroes in the stories we love to read have tried to make them awesomer.