Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Origins 2011: Part 4 - "Rules of the Game"

First of all, today I learned that John, the owner of one of the local game stores, read my previous posts. He didn't agree with my contention that necromancers are environmentally friendly, because "rather than letting the corpses return to the earth, they're just going to send out [the undead] to do more harm" and "no necromancer is going to raise skeletons to clean your house or something."

Second of all, another thing I did at Origins is the following. Last time, I mentioned that I didn't get a chance to tell the author of the Hero System books about what I thought about the quality of his writing, but this time, I did. Of course, he said that he "disagreed completely" that the writing was too wordy, and said that the reason for the wordy writing was that his customers demand detailed rules. I am under the opinion that the same information could have been provided in a more concise way.

Rather then talk more about the details of the Hero System, the rest of this post will be about a more general topic - how the differences of opinion between me and some of the other people I play with about the rules of various games reflect fundamentally different ways of looking at game rules.

Consider the following conversation that I had with another Amtgard player. (This was a long time ago, so some of the details like the names of the spells are probably incorrect, but the general idea was the same.)

Him: "There's a gray area in the rules with the 'Dimensional Portal' spell. If two people are both under its effects, can they cast spells at each other?"

Me: "Why? What's unclear about it? The spell says that it takes a player out of game. Under the definition of out of game, it says you can't be affected by anything. So it seems obvious that they can't affect each other."

Him: "Yes, but it's the same out-of-game area."

Me: "What do you mean, out-of-game area? The rules don't say anything about out-of-game areas. You're either out-of-game, or you're not."

Him: "But in Dungeons & Dragons, the 'Dimensional Portal' spell does work that way."

Me: "This game is not Dungeons & Dragons. The rules of Dungeons & Dragons have no force in Amtgard."

The cause of our disagreement was that I was looking at the rules as a self-contained set of information, while he was thinking of the rules as codifying some pre-existing conception of how he thought the game should operate (if you're both transported to the same other dimension, you should both be able to affect each other).

A similar thing happened when the new 4th edition of Dungeons and Dragons came out a few years ago. I was reading some articles online discussing the new system and comparing it to the previous editions, and one of the most common complaints was that the new system "didn't make sense." For example, in the previous edition, fighters generally had only one or a few attacks that they had to keep using, while wizards had lots of spells that they could each use only a couple times per day and after those were done their powers were very weak. 4th edition balanced out the two classes by giving all classes some powers that they could use all the time, and some powers that were restricted to once per encounter or once per day. Lots of people didn't think this made sense because why would a fighter not be able to use a specific move once he had used it once earlier in the day? At first, I was really confused about why this would be a problem. I mean, true, maybe it isn't realistic. But I can't think of any criterion of realism that "I can magically throw a fireball, but only once per day" would pass, but "I can stab the dragon with a sword a certain way, but only once per day" would fail. And there are all sorts of physical phenomena that do happen in real life that are counterintuitive (have you ever watched MythBusters?) so I don't see why the fact that it doesn't fit with your intuitions about how fighting should work should be a problem. Again, this was a case where I understood what was going on because I just looked at the rules as a self-contained system, while others got bogged down because they tried to fit how the rules worked with their pre-existing conceptions of whoe combat should work.

Of course, sometimes things work out the other way around and my method of thinking is a hindrance. One example is some problems I was having with archery in Belegarth. There was a rule that you had to draw your bow back only half way when shooting at an opponent within 15 feet. (The issue is that if you shoot a target at full draw at close range, then the arrow will be going very fast, and is likely to hurt.) People were complaining that I was not following this rule, so I brought a tape measure so I could practice judging distance. This didn't completely help, so I came up with the idea like taking video and then going over it afterward so we can see what the distances were, and whether I was judging them correctly. They said that it wouldn't work because "there are too many variables." I was confused - I thought there was only one relevant variable: the distance to the target. At one point one of them tried to help me by asking me to stand in one place, then backing away and saying "okay, this is 15 feet." When I asked to measure to ensure that his judgement was accurate, he said that "it doesn't matter" whether it's accurate or not. This made me even more confused: how can it possibly not matter?

The problem here seemed to be that I was focusing on the particular rule about 15 feet, while what they probably had in mind was a more general concept about how to do Belegarth archery safely, which is why they thought there were "too many variables," and getting the distance right isn't the most important factor. It seems to me, though, that if the 15 foot rule isn't a good proxy for safety, then why is it in there at all? It would make more sense to say something like "The velocity at impact shouldn't be more than X feet per second," with X chosen appropriately. Then you could test to see what combination of draw distance and ranges given you that velocity (this would only need to be done once for each bow, before any battles).

Basically, I tend to interpret things based on what they say. If the game mentions 15 feet, I assume that they mean 15 feet. If they actually mean something else, then they should say something else.

1 comment:

Dan Mont said...

The problem is that some things are just too complex to be codified in a rigid set of rules, and at times discretion has to be used to get at the "spirit of the rules". In football, for example, there are detailed rules on what consitutes a "holding" penalty on an offensive lineman. But there is often a gray area where a call could go either way. In an instance where the gray area incident had a big bearing on the play a referee might be more inclined to call the penalty than if it happened somewhere on the field that really didn't affect the outcome. Or...at times I have seen games where the players are getting angry and starting to fight and play dirty. Then the referees often start enforcing the rules much more strictly as a way trying to reign in overly aggressive or dangerous behaviour. So..same rules, but different enforcement standards because of the situation.

In terms of Amtgard or D&D, I think people like rules that are more consistent with their vision of what combat would really be like, because they enjoy immersing themselves in an imaginary world that makes intuitive sense to them. That also helps them deal with situations that arise where the rules are vague or incomplete, because they can just try to be consistent with their vision of what this alternate reality is like.