Musings on rules

Once, at the dawn of my roleplaying career, I had convinced a friend to try DMing, letting me be a player for once. It was, naturally, D&D. We had ourselves a decent enough adventure, and fought some robotic wolves at some point. An enjoyable experience. Later, I asked him what stats he used for the monsters. He said he used regular wolves, but wanted to make them tougher, so he didn’t track their hit points. Instead, they died after a few rounds, when he felt like the fight had gone on long enough.

The fight was a lie. The fight was exactly the same. We still stabbed the wolves, were bit in return and prevailed in the end. What changed? While individual rolls were a waste of time, the decision to fight did matter: we could have, perhaps, found a way to sneak past them. The starting point (decision to fight) and the destination (wolves dead) stayed the same, it’s the actual journey in the middle that turned out to have been meaningless. Except even that is not quite true. We still enjoyed rolling the dice, and imagining the hits and misses.

Don’t get me wrong, that was a terrible thing to do, but mainly because it violated the rules of the game that we thought we understood. One can easily imagine a system where a fight (or any other scene) only goes on as long as it’s interesting. In fact, that’s a backup rule or suggestion in many games: wrap things up and move on if players start getting bored. And in systems without such rules, people have invented tools like Combat Out for D&D 4e, ways to end a combat once the victor is determined or a specific condition is met.

Generalizing, many if not most games have the so-called rule zero: ignore the rules if that makes your game better. And on the flip side of that is the illusionism approach: the belief that the GM cannot cheat, and should be free to lie about the dice rolls and other mechanical elements to make the game better. This may involve helping a recurring villain get away, saving the party from an unlucky TPK or engineering one.

Then why even have rules? Why do we bother with mechanics if they inevitably get in the way of the experience we wish to have? Some people quite happily play freeform, after all. Others avoid using any rules for the majority of their game time, e.g. playing a social intrigue D&D game. In no particular order, and not necessarily exhaustively, rules provide impartiality, surprise, structure, and fun.

The fun part is the easiest to explain: by most definitions, you can’t have a game without rules. And we like games. We like to roll dice, to demonstrate our mastery of the rules and be rewarded for it. Then again, I already mentioned freeform games here, and I’m not particularly interested in declaring something Not A Roleplaying Game. A different kind of enjoyment can undoubtedly be had even without rules.

Rules allow players and GM alike to anticipate likely outcomes of their actions. They make it harder for a GM to play favorites with their players, and make it easier to be consistent. Rules also take on the blame. It wasn’t the GM that killed you, it were the dice. Rules make sure the game is fair. This is where the desire for game balance comes from: it is a problem if the players perceive, whether correctly or not, the game itself to not be fair.

Then again, there are entire playstyles dedicated to the idea of GM knowing best, like the aforementioned illusionism. “Rulings, not rules.” Indeed, some players reject the idea of rules governing some of their activities, such as social interactions or exploration.

By and large, the impartiality of rules is an illusion anyway, though a useful one. In all but the most restrictive games, the GM has leeway to interpret an event in a variety of ways, and to decide whether to apply mechanics at all. Fate is particularly noteworthy here: its rules govern narrative circumstances rather than the in-game situation. Meaning the GM (hopefully with cooperation of the players) chooses which rules to apply. Not to mention the ability to set up any kind of situation in the first place. It’s not against the rules to throw a tarrasque against a 1st level party, just not advised. Declaring that Rocks Fall, Everyone Die is legit, too.

Related to impartiality is the capacity of a game to surprise us, to choose the outcome for us. More than that, true surprise comes from unexpected outcomes rules can provide. Not just path A or B, but an entirely unforeseen path C opened up by a (un)lucky critical hit. 13th Age’s owlbear exemplifies this: most of the time it’s just a monster to be fought, but it could rip your arm off, forcing the story in a new, bloody, direction. Then again, the GM can certainly surprise players without any rules, and players are notorious for doing the same to the GM.

So far, everything the rules do, we can achieve otherwise. The last element left is structure, and this is, I believe, the main benefit mechanics provide. Roleplaying games are an interactive medium. A group creates their own game every time they sit down to play. We breathe life into it, use our imagination to create and live out stories of our characters. And while we do so, we have the rules, the mechanics, to fall back on. Any time we don’t know what to do, what to choose, we can lean on them. If you’ll forgive me waxing metaphorical for a moment, if a roleplaying game is a plant, its rules are the structure around which it entwines as it grows, as we play it. And just as a structure can offer support, it can be stifling.

We don’t need the rules. But with them, we can reach higher, go to places we wouldn’t have imagined otherwise. Constraints breed creativity, being forced to grow in a certain direction gives the plant a shape. Just be sure you picked the right rules for the game you wish to play.

Musings on the Apocalypse

Catchy title, if not entirely accurate. You see, I want to ramble about Apocalypse World Engine games, but I haven’t actually played AW itself, only tremulus, its lovecraftian horror offspring. Still, I’m under the impression the games are mechanically similar enough (sharing the engine and whatnot) that this is a reasonable basis.

At its most basic, the mechanics of AWE can be described as “when you do something you may not succeed at, roll 2d6 plus an appropriate stat; on 10+ you do it, on 7-9 you’re going to have to compromise with the GM, and on 6- something interesting, usually bad, happens.” Player moves provide some constraints and mechanics for specific outcomes, and GM moves provide a slate of options to choose from. It’s not entirely accurate either, but we’ll keep this definition for now.

The issue many critics of the system have is that there’s no mechanical connection between what the PC do and what the GM can spring on them as the result of their failure. Something interesting happens. If a PC is trying to lock-pick a door into a seemingly abandoned mansion without being detected and rolls 6- on an Act Under Pressure roll, anything could occur. The lock could get jammed. A groundskeeper could come round a corner. Or a maniac swinging an axe. Or a distant wolf howl could send shivers down their spine. Or a bullet could hit them. Or… You get the idea. It should make sense, naturally, but that’s left entirely up to GM.

That’s not the way a straightforward game like D&D would handle it. In it, you fail – you do nothing. Maybe you get to try again, maybe something occurs to prevent you – but not because you made the roll. The same groundskeeper could show up. The same maniac, the same bullet. But not because of the roll. Even in games which embrace the “fail forward” ethos like Fate (and 7-9 is failing forward in AWE), the outcome of a failed Overcome roll like trying to open a door could be either simply failing or succeeding at a major cost. Such as “if you stick around long enough to get it right, you will be spotted by the groundskeeper whose footsteps you now hear.” It would be quite odd for a Fate GM to offer an axe-swinging maniac as the cost for success.

And this trips people up. Sometimes, it trips me up. I’m quite happy to see an axe-swinging maniac appear in a horror game, but why should my Reason stat impact the probability of it happening? How does failing to open a lock make the maniac come out? It’s entirely possible to avoid making such moves, to only have events occur that logically follow from the action itself, but the system doesn’t demand you do so, and I believe that’s purposeful.

That’s because AWE doesn’t have a task resolution system. It has a narrative rhythm system that masquerades as a task resolution system. It doesn’t tell you whether you succeed or fail, it tells you whether a good or a bad thing happens.

There are no difficulties in AWE, you always roll the same dice against the same numbers. There’s close to nothing players can do to stack the odds in their favor, they can only try and make some outcomes narratively inappropriate. Whatever PCs do, whatever happens, roughly the same proportion of good and bad/interesting outcomes will occur across every game.

But what about stats, you may ask, wouldn’t they affect this? And indeed they do. But once you start to consider AWE from this point of view, stats take on a different role too. Rather than helping or hindering characters in their tasks, they encourage players to match their actions to their characters’ capabilities. It’s not that having a low Reason score means you’re more likely to meet an axe maniac while you pick locks. It’s that you shouldn’t be trying to pick locks if you have low Reason. And if you’re desperate enough to try, the tension is already high and bad things will be happening to you. It’s narrative logic of tension and drama, not of skill and consequences.

We’ve started with a definition of the core mechanic of AWE, and I warned you it wasn’t quite right. That’s because you don’t roll dice when something may go wrong. You roll them when a move is triggered. The rules encourage you to not think of the moves or mechanics at all, until you need them. To never go “I use Act Under Pressure to pick the lock,” but “I pick the lock and, oh, looks like I’m Acting Under Pressure.” The rules act like an impartial observer, sometimes interfering to introduce a new direction in the story. In a way, AWE may work better if the players didn’t know the rules at all. Without the tangible link between lock-picking and axe-swinging maniacs, there’s no contradiction.

Is this the intended interpretation of the way the mechanics are meant to function? Probably not. But that’s what I get after squinting, turning my head just so, and staring at AWE for a while. The deeper, almost subconscious workings of the system. The narrative truth behind the mechanical lie. But perhaps we need the lie of actions and consequences to get us to follow along, to fool us into thinking we’re in control while the narrative rhythm does its thing behind the scenes.

Musings on Hit Points

This is going to be a little bit different. I don’t really have a point I want to make, nor am I attempting an exhaustive analysis of the topic. Rather, it’s a bunch of thoughts on it, which may or may not lead somewhere. Expect such posts to be shorter and (more) rambling than usual. 

Some of my players have admitted recently that they didn’t enjoy the combat in Fate that much. They felt that often there was little threat to their character, and while the narrative side of it was fun enough, the actual mechanical impact of a turn in which they inflicted one stress upon the enemy, and would need to do so several more times to finish the fight, was lackluster. They had contrasted it with D&D 4e, in which the mechanics were interesting to them (to one more than to another), and so they didn’t mind the long fights.

It makes sense: the fun part of Fate is the narrative, and all its mechanics merely help to move it along. The actual rolling dice and inflicting damage part is plain – it’s how you inflict the damage that’s interesting. And it’s my fault for failing to make all fights exciting in their own right, not just because they’re a fight. 4e had a reverse problem, that I had more or less solved for myself: while the fights were interesting, their outcomes were not. The solution was to offer different outcomes, not just the predetermined victory of PCs.

But back to the topic at hand. A conclusion one can draw for the stated complaint is that hit points (stress boxes, in this case) make a round of combat matter less. Indeed, had each roll posed a risk of inflicting lasting consequences, there would be no boring rounds of hit point attrition. Why do we even have hit points? In a way, hit points are only interesting when they run out – that’s when something changes. Note that when talking about hit points, we also talk about variously varying damage they ablate, so I won’t mention it specifically.

Mechanical element

Hit points are a piece of the mechanical puzzle, along with attack and defense skills or parameters, dice sizes and pools, position on the map, etc. By manipulating these elements we play the game. They offer us a chance to demonstrate a mastery of mechanics, take risks for a chance of rewards, make mechanically meaningful decisions.

In games like D&D 4e where mechanics are a source of fun, it is obviously an important role. The more elements there are, the more interactions between them the designers can come up with, the more varied the abilities and resulting experience will be.

In games like Fate where mechanics offer the backbone on which the fun parts rely, this is somewhat less relevant. You may not care about taking some damage as that has no bearing on the plot… unless you take a few more points of damage and receive a consequence, or get defeated, or don’t attempt something dangerous you would have otherwise.

Protection from Goblin Dice

Hit points are a buffer against a random bad roll or three that would cause an unexpected and, presumably, undesirable result. Swingy, dangerous combat could be a goal of the system, of course. In that case the hit points would be set low relative to damage (see low levels of earlier editions of D&D), or there would be some alternative side-effect of fighting, like crippling critical hits. In most modern games, though, it’s unfashionable to have a character die from a stray bullet.

It’s a question of just how much of an impact random chance should have on the game. The more hit points, the more time there is for statistical averages to reassert themselves.

Verisimilitude

It’s got to feel “right”. A barbarian should have more hit points than a wizard, and a bazooka should do more damage than a rock. Hit points are one of the easy ways to signify and communicate the relative potency of weapons, characters or events. How hot is that fire? 5 damage hot.

Time to be cool

Related to the previous two items, hit points determine how many rounds a fight takes, and that determines how many actions players get to make. Again, it’s got to feel right. It’d likely feel anticlimactic if you were to defeat your archenemy with one punch. You want the time to exchange insults and blows. To use your abilities and prove you are better, not just luckier. Unless, of course, abrupt death is part of your game’s genre.

The reverse is also true: time afforded by hit points becomes unwelcome if there’s not enough interesting stuff to fill it, narrative or mechanical. If your fight is 5 rounds of going “I attack” while standing immobile in front of your enemy, you can probably do with a few less.

The journey, not just the destination

It’s not just who wins, but how they win. By focusing only on the final outcome of a scene, which side runs out of hit points first, you lose what makes the scene interesting. It’s no better than replacing a social encounter with a single Diplomacy check. Yes, the NPC we’re talking to will either agree to help us or not. But ideally we actually enjoy the act of talking to them. Similarly, ideally we enjoy the action not just for its outcome. Ideally, each hit point lost is a single step on a journey. It’s up to us, players and GMs alike, to make that journey exciting.