Session Zero

rules

An addendum to my previous post on the ascendancy of system in role-playing games, inspired by Travis Miller's recent explanation of the evolution of the genre:

Miller sees the emergence of the RPG format as the creative addition of open system world building to the closed systems of hobbyist wargaming. Role playing proper appeared when wargamers started using the relatively inflexible rule sets of wargames as the basis for collaboratively imagining adventures in fantasy settings.

I've already seen some pushback to Miller's account, and honestly, I'm not versed enough in the history of the scene to adjudicate, but I find it striking that the theoretical division he presents — open vs. closed — maps pretty well to the way system and setting are discussed in the OSR scene. Miller writes:

I can throw down the GURPS, D6 System, Savage Worlds or any other generic system and that will be inadequate. Without the setting in which the game takes place, it’s just rules and die rolls.

But we need not think purely in terms of generic systems. Discussion about taking the system from one game and applying it to the setting from another is common. Free Kriegsspiel Revolution goes a step further, demonstrating to what extent the open system component of Miller's equation can be made to stand on its own.

The implication, whether we like it or not, is that the units we think of as role playing games are chimera, patched together from parts which, more often than not, have no integral connection to one another. The phenomenon we called a role playing game may, in fact, be something occurring at the intersection of other games.

Maybe Miller's account is wrong. I've already seen it argued that early iterations of Dungeons & Dragons hewed close to a simulationist model — wargaming with goblins, in effect — and that may be so. At the very least, it's possible to imagine a fantasy dungeon crawl game constrained by a much more tightly closed system than those used in modern OSR/NSR games, and I'm sure some people would both play and enjoy that. But would we call it a role playing game? If not, then we may still have to reckon with the hybrid nature of the beast.

#system #rules #OSR #NSR #freekriegspiel #FKR #DND

The more time I spend in OSR/NSR conversations on the internet, the more I'm struck by the quietly contested state of system in those communities. On the one hand, there is an absolute welter of rulesets out there, ranging from relatively true-to-model adaptations of various editions of D&D, to radical reinventions of the form. But at the same time, there seems to be a broad consensus that none of these systems are essential to actual play. They're taken more in the spirit of suggestions. At best, each is a tool shed that may be ransacked for parts.

There appears to be a general aversion to playing games “as written.” GMs certainly haven't stopped bringing new games and supplements to the table, but to hear them speak of it, many run those materials using not the printed rules, but rather bespoke systems, hacked together out of elements from here and there. One designer of a well-known horror/sci-fi game is even said to have admitted he doesn't run his own game as written.

This makes conversation tricky. To what extent are we talking about the same activity when we discuss a game we've both modified, each to our own tastes? I'm reminded of the comment sections underneath recipes on food blogs: “Loved this dish, made it with turkey instead of beef, added oregano, and used a different cooking method.” Serve whatever you enjoy at your own table, but those changes complicate how we talk about what the recipe does or does not achieve.

The attitude shapes design as well. New games are routinely presented as hacks, by which I take them to mean a formalization of their own approach to running some other system. Some are written on the assumption that players will pick-and-choose which rules they'll implement. Maybe that's merely realism about the state of the hobby. In some cases, it's almost reads like a moral imperative. For people just cutting their teeth in the hobby, it can pose challenges.

There are, of course, historical reasons for these tensions. GURPS, heartbreakers, the Arneson–Gygax rift, D&D's release of a SRD. Ours is a haunted hobby. Cumulatively, these points along the last half-century of its development have contributed to a conception of system that suggests some underlying game we're all playing, an unattained object toward which this endless proliferation of rules is aimed.

Many paths, one destination. For me, that premise locked into focus a while back when someone on Twitter (I don't recall who) alluded to the “one perfect system” every GM is seeking — a semi-mythical ruleset particular enough to suit your own personal play-style, but flexible enough to accommodate any setting or story you might want to explore.

Deliberately or not, that trope correlates to a certain diminution of the rules. What function does a rule serve if you can change it out for another and ostensibly arrive at the same game? Are they even rules once they've been made interchangeable? At the far end of that trajectory is free kriegspiel, which dispenses with most rules in favor of judgments. All well and good. Your table, your rules. Or no rules, as the case may be. In the middle ground, though? The territory between D&D and FKR? Rules appear to have been replaced by system.

Would it be uncharitable to characterize the OSR as a movement built on devising new systems for playing old games? Perhaps; but it's also true that one standard by which OSR systems are judged is their compatibility with existing modules. That, in itself, exerts a formative pressure on design. It favors rules — or are they methods? — that do what has already been done, or which, at the very least, ensure that past modules, some of them nearly half a century old, don't break at the table.

Which is not to deny that there are innovations in the ever-growing catalog of new games and systems. There are substantive differences between them, even if the changes are sometimes incremental. But the demands of adaptability and modularity ensure that many of them are disposable. New games are made to be functional without any given rule or method because the odds of the system making it to the table intact are low.

I'm painting with a broad brush, but only to highlight a general trend. There are, of course, a great many games that take seriously the constructive power of a clever rule. There are games that daisy-chain a slew of well-crafted rules to foster novel modes of play at the table. There are games with rulesets so carefully calibrated that removing any one rule would undermine how the game as a whole plays. These games sacrifice the ideal of a universal system that can be used to role-play in any world, but in doing so, they make it possible to role-play some worlds and some stories better.

#system #rules #OSR #NSR #GMing

Let's draw another distinction. Rules, let's say, are imperatives. Roll the dice, and abide by the results: that's a rule, one basic to most tabletop role-playing. When they're well-designed, rules give a game the internal coherence that makes it a game.

Not everything you do to make a game work well is necessarily a rule, though. The looser a game is — by which I mean, the less it uses rules to proscribe play — the more inclined we are to lean on methods. By methods, I mean all of those repeatable but optional behaviors that fill the gaps left by the rules. Opting to roll the dice from a cup is a method. So is using a table to generate unplanned elements of the narrative or world.

I'd go so far as to suggest that most of what we find in the guides and rule books are better understood as methods. In practice, role-playing games tend to need fewer hard-and-fast rules than we imagine them having — particularly if we prefer to run our games like a monk. So-called “rules-lite” games demonstrate just how little is truly imperative, but much of what gets carved away the pursuit of lite-ness are the methods that keep play from bogging down in indecision.

Even games that don't present themselves as rules-lite tend to lavish more attention on some methods than others. Most games leave very little to the imagination when it comes to combat. Head into town, though, and it's easy to find yourselves staring at your character sheets while you try to figure out what's worth doing and how to make it not just playable but also interesting. Those lacunae pose less of a problem for long-time GMs than it does for a late bloomer like myself. The long-timers have a stock of methods to draw on, many of them adopted from more elaborately designed games. Me? I'm just trying to keep things from grinding to a halt.

#rules #methods #ruleslite #GMing