Harsh truth time: just because you create a thing, that doesn’t make you an expert in that thing.
Let me tell you a story. Once upon, there was this sci-fi author. Let’s call him I. Asimov. No. Let’s call him Isaac A. Whatever. Anyway, Isaac is at a convention or in a classroom or something. And someone is going on and on about a sci-fi story and what the story means and what it’s really about. You know: imagery, allegories, and all that crap. Isaac listens to this bulls$&% for a while, but he doesn’t buy it. Because the story that the professor is talking about? Isaac wrote that story. And he knows it isn’t about any of that crap. It’s just a story Isaac wrote because he was bored or wanted to make money or something. Finally, Isaac stands up and says something like, “look, dude, the story is just a story: it isn’t ABOUT anything.” And the professor says, “man, I’m an English professor, and I’ve been teaching this s$&% for 20 years and I know literary analysis. What makes YOU more of an expert than ME?” And Isaac is all like, “check the cover the book, dude. Isaac A. is me. I wrote the story.” And the professor smirks and says, “so what? Look, just because you wrote this doesn’t mean you know anything about it.”
That is basically the heart of a theory called the death of the author. And it comes from an essay called The Death of the Author by this French dude. And the title is a totally funny play on a very famous book called The Death of Arthur, about King Arthur. In French, it’s even funnier. La Mort de l’Auteur vs. Le Morte d’Arthur. Get it? The essay was written in 1967 by this critic Roland Barthes. And he was trying to make a point about how critics get totally wrapped up in trying to figure out what the author MEANT to say. They dig into the author’s past, read biographies, and treat the author’s purposeful intent like some kind of goddamned enigma. He basically wanted nothing to do with any of that crap. He said you need to consider the work on its own merits. If you find parallels between a work of art and some stuff in the real world and can make a solid case and it makes you think about things, that’s valuable. In fact, it’s more valuable what some stupid author might have purposely meant.
Now, that might sound silly, but the Death of the Author idea has some merit. First of all, because people have biases and preconceived notions and subconscious ideas. Those aren’t intentional, but they can find their way into creative works all the same. If you worry only about what the author purposely meant to say, you might ignore the weird and wonderful (or terrible) unconscious bits of their brain even they weren’t aware of. Beyond that, though, the death of the author concept is just about the only way any piece of art can endure. See, the world keeps changing. People change, situations change, and things evolve. But art stays the same once it’s done. And yet, lots of classic art manages to remain relevant, to feel timeless. And that’s because we interpret it through the lens of our modern experiences. If the authorial intent was all that mattered, the relevancy of any piece of art would be limited to basically the decade the author wrote it in. If even that long. And, of course, the idea of only caring about authorial intent removes the reader completely from the equation. Or the listener. Or the viewer. Whatever. And that’s absurd. Any work of art is an act of communication between the creator and the consumer.
Now, I’m not saying that the author’s intent never matters. Honestly, good literary analysis should consider both what the author seemed to be trying to say and what can be gleaned from the work in-and-of-itself. What I am saying is that when a creator comes in and tries to analyze their own work, you should treat them with the same degree of skepticism as you treat anyone else. Because whatever YOU found in the work might be far more useful and valuable than what some dumb author thinks they did or did not hide there.
As one of my literature professors – yes, I took some literature courses. And not crappy basic ones either. Good ones, like “sin and sexuality as literary themes” and s$&% like that. I took lots of different courses in lots of different things. Do you want to make something of it?
Anyway, as one of my literature professors said constantly: “trust the tale, not the teller.”
And that’s why I can say that Gary Gygax doesn’t know jack s$&% about RPGs anymore.
Gygax is Dead, Long Live Gygax
Okay, let me start of by saying this: I have nothing but respect for Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson for kickstarting this hobby of ours by evolving small unit, skirmish gameplay in constrained environments from mass combat wargames and then giving the soldiers names. Because, yeah, that’s how all this crap started. It was basically just “what if you could only play one soldier at a time?” And then everything else was just solving the problem of how that could actually work. For example, dungeons as play environments appeared specifically to constrain the game and limit the amount of information groups of players had to work with at any one time.
But here’s the thing. That was 40 years ago. And once they got the initial ideas on paper, a lot of other people started to get involved. And things evolved. And honestly, RPGs evolved from other games. I mean, you can say that Gygax invented the idea of classes, except all he did was put a name to the concept. Units in wargames had different types like infantry, cavalry, artillery, etc. And each class was basically just an outgrowth of that. Honestly, that crap goes all the way back to chess.
We tend to like to think of people as inventing things. There wasn’t this thing and then, one day, this person came along and suddenly, through the magic of their brain, there was this thing. But what actually happens is more like this: there’s this whole soup of stuff and suddenly someone comes along and recognizes how to combine all of those elements and does so and they crystalize a new thing. But then, that new thing is out there and people tinker and change and evolve and reinterpret that thing. And other people build new things out of that thing. And here we are, 40 years later, with a much better understanding of role-playing games and game design than Gygax ever had in the 1970s.
Let me give you an example: Tomb of Horrors is a terrible adventure. And I’m not just saying that because it’s really difficult and kills lots of PCs. There is nothing about challenge and difficulty that makes a thing bad. It’s just that it’s poorly written with a crappy story and it challenges players in all the wrong ways. Now, we can forgive poorly written and crappy story because the idea of complex stories in RPGs wasn’t something that appeared until the mid-to-late eighties. Fine. But that wrong way to challenge thing? That was just poor game design from the beginning.
My point is: I love Gary. He’s the reason I get to spend my days writing this s$&%. But it’s time to stop pretending that he knew anything about modern RPGs. He crystalized the idea, but we’ve been refining and tinkering and building for 40 years. Hell, even he was refining and tinkering and building right up until he retired. And even beyond then, probably, until he passed away. But his ideas and words are no more useful or right than any other gamer or game designer or expert or interested layperson.
And that is why, when @WorldGeekStuff issued this Tweet last week quoting Gary Gygax:
My response was this:
Now, here’s the thing: that quote and one other (“A GM only rolls dice because he enjoys the noise they make”) are often repeated. But no one seems to know when Gygax actually said either of them and why. And that is always HIGHLY suspicious. I mean, Yogi Berra also supposedly SAID a lot of things, but as he once said, “I didn’t say half those things I said.” Which he never said. So who the hell knows? But let’s pretend he probably did say those things. I think he did. I just can’t prove it.
The problem is, there’s a lot of pretentious storyteller GMs out there who actually believe that crap about how the rules are unnecessary. Those GMs who view the rules as an inconvenience they have to deal with, but who break them with abandon for the sake of a “better game” or a “better story.” There are lots of GMs who will tell you that the first time you run a game, it’s not important to worry about getting the rules right. The rules actually serve an important function. Several, actually. Well, one function. But they serve it in several ways. And that’s what I’m getting at: why do the rules exist and what do they do? And what shouldn’t rules do?
The Role of the Rules
Let’s get down to the very basics. A role-playing game is a game of making decisions and dealing with the consequences. Each player assumes the role of a character. The character has goals and motivations. Usually, those goals and motivations are defined by the game. Rescue the princess, kill the dragon, conquer the kingdom, recover the treasure, whatever. It doesn’t matter. All the goals work the same. When the game starts, the players are presented with a situation. They make decisions about how to deal with the situation based on their characters’ goals and motivations. And then there’s an outcome and some consequences. And the outcome and the consequences create a new situation. And the players react with new decisions. And so it continues until all the characters dead. Or until they accomplish their goals. But usually, the characters just end up dead. At least the way I run games.
Now, you might notice that, so far, there’s nothing up there that requires any rules. Honestly, any given player COULD sit there and say “I do this thing and this is the result” and then some other player could take that result and say “okay, now I do this thing and here is the new result” and the players could just make that s$&% up. Hell, one player could do it alone. We call that: WRITING A GODDAMNED NOVEL. If multiple people are working together, we call that: WRITING A S$&%Y NOVEL.
Now, many of you read that last paragraph and instantly balked. “Why would you want to do that terrible thing,” your brain said. You KNOW that’s a crappy way to have a role-playing game. But I’ll bet lots of you can’t say precisely WHY that’s a crappy way to have a role-playing game. If you tried to explain what’s wrong with that, you’d be all vague and “umm” and “uh” a lot and not be entirely sure what you were trying to say.
Here’s the problem: there’s no tension or uncertainty in just deciding the action, the outcome, and the consequences. Nothing unexpected or surprising happens. And unless you specifically want it to, nothing bad happens. Unless you want them to, the characters can’t lose or die or fail.
What makes a game a game is a level of uncertainty. The outcome isn’t clear from the beginning. You have to play it out to see what happens. And sometimes unexpected and bad things happen. And that makes it exciting. And challenging. And engaging.
And so, we add some randomness to the mix. Imagine if you played the “game” above. But whenever you picked an action, you also had to choose a “good outcome” and a “bad outcome.” And then you had to flip a coin to determine which outcome would happen. Better, right? At least that’s kind of a game. But there’s problems with that approach. First of all, there’s nothing that prevents you from specifying amazingly great good outcomes and mildly inconvenient bad outcomes. And since you’re picking both outcomes, there’s still nothing that can happen that you don’t want to happen. So the level of tension is pretty small. And there is still nothing unexpected.
But there’s another problem. The outcomes themselves – that is, whether you get the good outcome or the bad outcome – it’s totally arbitrary. There’s always a straight 50-50 chance. What’s wrong with that? Well, the problem is that there’s nothing that the players can do to influence the outcome. Let’s assume that the player chooses a pair of fair and balanced outcomes, one good and one bad. When we play games – and for that matter, when we make decisions in real life – we can almost always exert some control over the outcome. We can be careful or reckless, we can play to our strengths, we can employ strategies, and our skill and cleverness often come into play. And that’s important. Because, by itself, randomness kind of sucks. There’s a reason why we don’t play “coin toss” on family game night. The outcome is totally arbitrary. In order for a game to feel fair, we need to feel like we have some influence over the outcome.
And THAT is the paradox of a game. In order for the game to feel exciting, we need a sense of tension and we need the risk of the unexpected, but in order for it to feel fair, we need a sense that we have some influence over the outcome. It’s a constant push and pull between those two forces.
Now, the more complicated the game, the more of both we need. And role-playing games are complicated by the fact that they offer more freedom than any other ten games combined. You can literally – as a player – do anything you can imagine doing. Or try to. So, there’s a lot of possible outcomes, and a lot of unexpected things can pop up. But every choice we make should have an impact on the expected outcome.
And so, RPGs have a unique rule: another human brain, a non-player, will arbitrate the game. When actions happen, the human brain will determine all of the possible outcomes and determine which one actually happens. Sounds great, right? For the players, that provides tension and surprise, but it also provides the players for ways to influence the outcome. Perfect.
So I guess Gary was right. The GM – because that’s the human brain I was talking about in case you somehow missed that – the GM doesn’t really need rules. The GM is the rule. The only necessary rule. Right?
Except that, however good the GM’s decision making skills may be, however good he might be at predicting the perfect outcome for any situation, no one could tell the difference between that GM and one who is behaving completely arbitrarily. Because no one sees the possibilities that don’t happen. Because everything happens inside the GM’s head, the players have no idea how to assess their chances or the possible outcomes. And that assumes the GM can communicate things perfectly.
Here’s a for example. Imagine the player wants to try to climb down a cliff. The GM describes the cliff as a rough, rocky, sheer drop of 50 feet to the icy water and sharp rocks below. The player figures that the rough, rocky cliff has lots of hand and foot holds. And the player figures his character is a very skilled climber. He figures he’s probably got an 80% chance of success. And he takes those odds. But the GM has a different assessment. The GM sees the cliff as a rough, rocky sea cliff. Slick, irregular, hard to get a grip on. And the GM doesn’t think the character is as skilled at all. He assumes there’s only a 40% chance of success. And if they player knew that, he’d never have taken that chance.
Worse yet, once the GM assesses the chance at 40%, he presumes failure and tells the player that the character loses his grip, falls, breaks his spine on the sharp rocks, and then the ocean carries his lifeless body away. And while that might be a fair conclusion, the player is going to feel a little shafted. After all, the player had no idea what the chances actually were. And he can’t figure out what criteria the GM used to determine, based on those chances, whether the outcome was success or failure. The game might be tense and unpredictable and consequences might follow from actions logically, but there’s no sense of fairness because everything feels arbitrary.
In that environment, players can’t make good decisions. In real life – which a role-playing game DOES try to emulate, despite what some morons want to claim – in real life, when we make decisions, we weigh lots of factors. We imagine the likely outcomes, the consequences of those outcomes, and we assess the likelihood of those outcomes based on our skills and based on our understanding of the task. That’s how humans make decisions. But hiding all the actions in the GM’s head in a role-playing game, that decision making process gets short-circuited. The players can’t make good, rational decisions in that environment.
And so, that is why RPGs have a GM AND rules. The rules exist as a transparent tool that the GM can use as the basis for determining the outcomes of the players actions. And because the players can understand the rules, they can assess the likely outcomes and consequences.
Well, actually, that’s one of the three things the rules do in an RPG. The most important thing. And I like to call the rules that serve as a tool for determining the outcome of actions…
Rules of Resolution
Rules of Resolution are the most important rules in any RPG. They are the tool the GM uses to determine what happens whenever a character attempts an action. But that’s only half the reason they exist. As noted above, they also help players make rational decisions about what actions to take.
Rules of Resolution exist to simulate a reality. I know that’s not a thing that some idiot GMs want to hear. But those are the idiot GMs who talk about the Gamist-Narrativist-Simulationist break like that’s an actual thing that exists instead of semantical bulls$&% that does no one any good. Rules of Reoslution are the framework for cause and effect inside the game. They tell the players and the GM basically how the universe works. When you do X, the likely outcome is Y. They keep GMs and players on the same page.
Now, that doesn’t mean everything is purely deterministic. Just like in real life, players are making imperfect assessments based on incomplete information. And that comes up in two different ways. First, there’s the random factor. Rules of Resolution involve randomness to simulate the fact that no one’s understanding a situation is perfect: what I think might be an easy climb turns out to be harder than I guessed or I overestimated my skill or whatever. And THAT is why I love fighting with shrieking idiots saying that “telling your players the DC of a check is metagaming because no actual person could perfectly assess both their level of skill and the challenge so perfectly.” Well, no s$&% dumba$&. That’s why the outcome is based on a random die roll instead of a perfectly deterministic physics engine. The random die roll makes up for the completeness of the information.
Second, there’s the fact that the consequences of an action – how the action shapes the ongoing story – ARE hidden in the GM’s head. Or the GM’s notes. Or whatever. Trying to bully the guard might have a 80% chance of success and that means you’re either going to get into the castle or you’re going to get into a fight. But what you can’t foresee – as a player – is that the guard is going to tell his guard buddies about you, whatever the outcome, and suddenly all the guards in town are going to be harassing you.
Rules of Resolution also provide a way of describing the world to limit the potential misunderstandings between players and GMs. I – the GM – and my player might have a completely different assessment of what “skilled climber” means. But if we both agree that the character has a +5 to climb checks, then that’s the end of the discussion. Likewise, we might disagree on the description of a cliff face, but a DC 15 is a DC 15, no matter what flowery words we attach to it.
Ultimately, Rules of Resolution, therefore, are there to simulate the reality that the characters inhabit and to describe it in concrete terms so that both the players and the GM have the same basic understanding of reality. They are there to translate the rules of cause and effect that we understand in the real world into the game world.
But Rules of Resolution aren’t the only rules in the game. Because sometimes, translating one reality into another isn’t enough.
Rules of the Impossible
Underlying the Rules of Resolution is this assumption that the world that the characters inhabit is pretty much the same as the real world. It works the same way. The laws of physics are basically the same. The laws of human interactions are basically the same. People are a mixture of logic and emotion just like they are in the real world. And so on. And, frankly, if that weren’t the case, the Rules of Resolution would have to be a LOT longer. Imagine if water didn’t work in Dungeons & Dragons the way it worked in the real world? You’d need a whole goddamned chapter on the differences.
That said, there are some things that work differently in D&D than in the real world. For example, magic. There’s just no real-world analogue for D&D magic.
Rules of the Impossible exist to describe things in the imaginary world that don’t have analogues in the real world OR to provide a basis for things that do have an analogue in the real world but, for whatever reason, that can’t be translated reliably. For example, astronauts in the real world have zero-gravity training. They train in swimming pools and in free-falling airplanes. And after they’ve been into space a few times, they understand how to function in a zero-gravity environment. But most players and GMs don’t have that experience. So, even though zero-gravity is something that does exist in the real world, science-fiction role-playing games usually have a pile of rules to handle it.
See, Rules of the Impossible exist to tell the players what ELSE is possible. We know what people are capable of in normal and even some extraordinary circumstances. And that’s based on our day to day experiences as real-world human beings. But role-playing games offer all sorts of other possibilities: from exotic, unusual scenarios to outright impossible possibilities. In order to even consider those things as possibilities, players need to understand how they work and GMs need to be able to resolve them.
Rules of the Impossible are very similar to Rules of Resolution, but they tend to be more detailed because they can’t rely on a real world understanding of things. See, I don’t need to explain what breaking down a door is. People understand that because we understand what doors are what it means to break things. But when it comes to a knock spell, there’s a lot more that needs to be said. Like what the hell is a spell anyway? What is magic? How does it function? What are the limits of a knock spell? And so on.
Together, Rules of Resolution and Rules of the Impossible create a complete simulation of a fictional world and provide a language for describing that world. They allow the players and the GM to understand the world they inhabit. And, if your goal is JUST to simulate reality, those are all the rules you need. But they aren’t. And that brings us to the final ruleset.
Rules of Structure
Rules of Structure exist because an RPG isn’t just an attempt to simulate an imaginary reality. That’s because there’s a ‘G’ after the ‘R’ and the ‘P.’ An RPG is also trying to be a fun, challenging, engaging, satisfying, rewarding GAME. And, unfortunately, reality makes a pretty s$&% game. Even if you add neat impossible things like magical powers and warp engines and dragons.
Rules of Structure are the rules necessary to make the game a fun, rewarding, fair, satisfying experience. They don’t simulate reality. They don’t even try. In fact, most of the Rules of Structure make no f$&%ing sense if you try to imagine them as part of the world. For example, think about taking turns in combat. In a real battle, a lot of s$&% pretty much just happens at once. It isn’t neat and orderly. But to create a challenging, fun, and manageable gameplay experience, most RPGs turn battle situations into orderly, turn-based, tactical affairs.
Oh, speaking of battle? You know all those rules about how to create fair and balanced encounters for a group of five 3rd-level characters? The ones that people are always complaining are dumb because “the real world doesn’t level up with the characters and the idiot players should be just as likely to encounter some giant rats as to encounter an ancient volcano dragon when they go exploring random caves?” You know why those exist? Because ending up dead because you randomly tripped over a combat encounter that you don’t have a Smurf’s chance in a blender of surviving isn’t actually fun. Rules of Structure.
Rules of Structure exist because, in the end, a role-playing game is a game. And it should be a satisfying experience. They make the game approachable by adding useful abstractions. In most RPGs, for example, hit points are more about a Rule of Structure than a Rule of Resolution. They gloss over a whole bunch of overly complicated crap about injuries and also make it possible to take six or seven hits during a battle without being critically injured or killed. They have no basis in reality. They just make the game fun.
Well, in theory. See, it IS possible to go a little overboard. For example, a lot of people – like me – felt that D&D 4E had a little TOO MUCH abstraction. It replaced too many Rules of Resolution with Rules of Structure. And while that is arguable – except I’m right because I’m always right so don’t argue with me – while you can argue whether 4E really was TOO abstract, the fact that the argument existed shows an important truth: Rules of Structure and Rules of Resolution work at cross purposes. Rules of Resolution exist to translate reality into the fictional game world. Rules of Structure exist to translate the fictional game world into a fun game. And that is why some people refer to Rules of Structure as “Acceptable Breaks from Reality.”
Erring on the Side of Reality
Ultimately, there’s always a balancing act between simulating a reality that makes sense using Rules of Resolution and creating a satisfying gameplay experience using Rules of Structure. You can almost never have it both ways. The trouble is, every player has a different preference for where the balance point should be. And every player has different limits as to how far off the balance point IN EITHER DIRECTION a game can be before it becomes unplayable. But the thing is, role-playing gamers, especially players – as opposed to GMs – the players of role-playing games will tend to want things balanced more toward creating an understandable and consistent reality.
If you think about board games, for a moment, some of them can get very abstract. And no one cares. No one complains that Settlers of Catan is not really an accurate simulation of settling a foreign land. Not at all. It’s mostly a set of rules that RESEMBLES the idea of building, settling, and claiming land, but the game could equally be about bread mold competing with other mold colonies to eat the most bread. Same difference. That’s because board games are mainly about being satisfying game experiences.
But role-playing games are trying to present a story about a fictional world and a group of imaginary characters that behave as if it were all real. Thus, the world needs to be consistent and comprehensible. It needs to fit inside the human imagination wthout breaking. And it needs to work well enough that six completely different imaginations can make informed and rational decisions about the goings-on of that imaginary world and arrive at pretty much the same conclusions. And that means the world has to work, to some extent, as a world.
Thus, as much as role-players like to tout their great imaginations and the absolute freedom of their medium, too much abstraction breaks the whole medium. And this, role-playing gamers will always prefer to err on the side of a reality. Even when they claim they don’t. And I’ve seen lots of players and GMs CLAIM they are okay with abstraction in service of the “narrative” (whatever the f$&% that actually means) and then find themselves complaining that their game has become too arbitrarily reliant on the whims of the GM and a pile of nonsensical rules with no basis in a reality. Well, no s$&%.
But the larger point is to understand WHY the rules exist and to understand why Gygax was being an utter dumba$& when he said that the rules are unnecessary. Moreover, all of this crap will also help you understand what you’re f$&%ing with when you ignore, change, rewrite, or enhance the rules. Or design your own rules. And then you can be smarter than Gygax too. Just like me.