Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Are we playing what I think we're playing?

Jeffro has once again written an excellent post that spawned a blog post of my own in return.

Nothing Sacred: Separation of Concerns in Role Playing Games

This isn't so much a response or argument with Jeffro's post. It's something that has been percolating in my brain for a while. When I tried to comment on his rule #1, it finally emerged in text form.

Jeffro's post postulates an interesting "Rule #1" for playing at his table:

"1) Play the game I’m running, not the game you think I’m playing. If something goes wrong or else something doesn’t work out quite like you expected, you will feel a strong temptation to blame it on the rules. Don’t do that. You’re probably focusing on what other systems emphasize anyway."

I think this is a place where people - including myself - have some real difficulty in a new game with a different GM. It's really because the game the person is trying to play is the game they think you are playing. If you say, I'm running B/X D&D and I know the rules and suddenly they aren't the rules, okay, sure, the thing to do is to just roll with it.

But I'm sure as hell going to be surprised that the game isn't the one I thought I was playing. I think a way to avoid this is to make it clear at the outset that you're using a rules X as a basis of the game, but you're going to play fast and loose with them sometimes so expect differences to crop up and just roll with them. Then I'm buying into the idea.

Even then, if there are big changes, the earlier they are made clear the better.

This is why I am always hesitant to join a group for a game. I have an image in my head from reading the books of what the game is like, and what the fun part of the game is. That's what I am agreeing to play when I say "I'm in." But the GM doesn't have that same vision, and the GM's vision may in fact clash considerably with it.

I'd love to play in a B/X D&D game, but I really want to play in the game I remember from when I just got started back in '81, and the game I've read about in the books. I want someone to run the game in my head.

That's not likely to happen, but the closer the GM players it to what's written down, the better the odds that it's the game I wanted to try to play.

Imagine if I said to someone, "I always wanted to get to play AD&D, it always sounded so cool when I read it." And they said "I'll run a game and you can play." Then we start and I find out that experience doesn't come from treasure, there are no clerics or thieves or paladins, spells aren't memorized but use a spell point system, there is no resurrection magic, etc. I might be a wee bit disappointed. If I'd said, "I always wanted to get to play in an old-school fantasy game" then I'm not tying it to a set of rules assumptions and neither is the GM. It's the difference between "I want to play a card game" and "I want to play Hearts." I'm going to be sorely upset when I say Hearts and you pull out playing cards and proceed to start playing Poker.

Some people will read that and say, it's the GM's game. Yes and no. If it's the GM's game, why do I get a character to play and get to make decisions? Because it's my game too. It's the game of everyone at the table. And if we're agreeing on the ruleset at the outset, even in a cooperative game/non-competitive game, finding out we mean different things by the words we're using is a great chance for awkwardness and surprise to come in where entertainment and fun should be. The sooner it's cleared up, the better. "I'll run GURPS" tells you a lot less than "I use GURPS, but with some house rules and a lot of the optional rules turned off. Are there any rules you're banking on being in play with the guy you have in mind? If so, let's talk about them first."

This isn't a question of the rules protecting the player from the GM, or vice-versa. Or even of settling arguments. The rules are there to give a consistent basis to the rulings you make in play. It's that consistent basis, and a set of assumptions about how the game is expected to run for things that haven't happened in play yet,

When I play a game, I tend to be pretty easy - whatever the GM says goes, even if it violates the rules (although I may stop and ask if it was intentional). Even so, there is a solid basic agreement with the expectations of the game.

Still, I am a big fan of making a ruling and checking the rules later, and sticking with the effects and results of in-play decisions for the duration of the game.

At my own table, I think the first rule reads more like this:

1) If the game you observe clashes with the game you read, then play the game you observe. What happens in play - by accident or design, due to rulings or rules or chance, is the game we're playing. What happens then and what happens going forward is based on that more so than anything written down in the books. The books are there to help us make that happen, not change anything that did happen. If something seems flat-out wrong, we'll check it after the game and go with what seems best going forward.

Rule Zero, of course, is "The GM has the last word." To quote the GURPS Line Editor, "GURPS is a strong Rule Zero game" (you can read Sean "Dr. Kromm" Punch say so here, if you use Find.)

But it all works better if we're all thinking we're playing the same game in the first place.


  1. I think your statement of rule 1 is common in wargaming. With large, complex, long lasting battles... you've got no choice but to agree on something, flip a coin, and keep moving.

    Of course... the groups that don't abide by that style of play tend to just sit around and argue about history and the realism levels of the rules.

    It comes down to... either make allowances for that or else don't play at all. There's plenty of time to resolve what the new house rule should be after the game is over.

    1. You mean the second part, about looking stuff up later?

      When I played a lot of wargames, it was always "stop and look it up right now." There was never anything about making a ruling and then moving on, because there was no GM to make one.

      The bit about playing what you observe, not what you read, is pure RPGing. I can't see how it would even work in a wargame.

    2. This:


    3. Oh no... I don't mean "looking stuff up later."

      I mean hashing things out that aren't specifically covered by the rules. That should explain the disconnect.

    4. When I say wargame, I am talking about a wargame - the stuff I played, like Ogre, Third World War, Assault, Sixth Fleet, etc. - not RPGs. There isn't any wiggle room for rulings in most of those games, and there is no GM to settle it.

      So while I understand what they're saying in that blog post, that's not the usage I am making of the word. I understand there is a history of refereed wargames, but I didn't play them. We simply never had a situation where one person was saying, pay attention to how I run things, not how you think the books say things will run. Not in a wargame. In an RPG, we did. In an RPG, I think that's a critical skill to have as a player. That's what I am saying, and why I re-worded your rule 1 for my own purposes.


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