Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Game Isn't In The Books

The map is not the territory.

The rules are not the game play.

Rules analysis isn't game play.

And the rules are not what went into building the rules.

The game is not what's in the books. The game is what's happening on the table.

Reading RPGs, it's easy to get fooled by this. You've got these big books (or little brown books, whatever) of rules. But they aren't complete - they aren't complete until you play with them. And then what happens in play is the thing, not what led you there.

It's easy to get led astray. This is where I think a lot of rules lawyering comes from, this is where accusations of unfair GMing can come from, this is where bickering and arguing can start. It's the idea that what's in the books (or not in the books) is the game. The idea that if the books say X or Y, that's what they say and how it goes and it's unfair if it doesn't happen that way. And if the books don't say you can't do Z, you can do Z, because they don't forbid it so it's unfair if the GM does. The books aren't the game.

The game is what's going on at the table. Don't look in the books for your fun - the fun is right there in front of you. The books, to paraphrase Enter the Dragon, are the finger pointing towards the moon. The play is the moon.

Even when the GM contradicts the books or the books contradict the GM, that's not something to stop play over. Keep going, have your fun, and if it's a big issue for you talk about it before next time. There will be a next time, if you don't ruin it focusing on the books, the rules, and the arguments.

Don't conflate game analysis with game play.

Whether it's Len Lakofka's mathematical analysis of weapon specialization effects on combat in AD&D or a per-trove look at treasure in D&D or exploring an optimum GURPS Dungeon Fantasy delving group - it's just analysis. It tells you something about the results you can expect over lots of iterations of play. But it's not play. It's not how the game works. D&D isn't about number-crunching ("I need 1.2 more delves to get to level 3, boys! Let's go!") GURPS isn't about point optimization. You can do these things, but they aren't what the game is about.

It's fun and useful to do analysis. But it's not how the game plays. Those are the win-loss statistics, not the championship game.

This is especially important to keep in mind when reading about a game you haven't played. You'll learn something about it, maybe something important or useful, but you won't really learn what it's like to play it out with your friends. Until you do that thing, which is where the hobby happens.

You Don't Have to Get Under the Hood

Complexity under the hood can stay there. I drive a hybrid car, but I couldn't make one (or really explain how it does all the stuff it does). Games are like this, too - if someone does hard core analysis and game design and playtesting to make sure the game works as intended and encourages rather than impedes fun play, that's enough. You don't really ever have to get into those numbers if you don't want to.

Doug Cole's "The Deadly Spring" was fairly accurately described as " the most infamous Pyramid article of all time." It could be - over 11,000 words and complex mathematics to determine the particulars of any kind of bow, from its constructions and draw strength to its game statistics. Pretty complex stuff. Serious work and serious research went into it.

But you could play in a game with it and not even know. If I used it to make a list of bows and then handed it to you and said "pick one for your guy," you could, without knowing why I settled on a set of stats. It's "I did all this work so you don't have to" combined with "and because I thought it would make the game more fun when we play." I could have just made stuff up, too, and you could be happy with that ("Bows do 1d6 damage," say), if I was sure it would be just as satisfying to all. But once done, you don't really need to do all that work again - or interact with it on the same level of complexity that it took to do the work.

This ties back into the article I wrote about GURPS and gearheads. There are a lot of knobs and dials you can fidget with, but once they're all set you can just play without paying much attention to them. That's another reason I harp so much on actual play - what looks like tremendously intricate detail that will grind play to a halt might be that . . . but it might just be details under the surface you can just ignore.

What's under the hood can usually stay there. Not always - if poorly done, or obtrusive, or with the wrong kind of group, they can become the game. They can get some important in people's minds, or so intrusive in use, that they get in the way. But that's where the first thing I mentioned is important - you have to learn to separate out what's in the books (or on your sheet) with what's going on the spoken space above and around the table. That's where the real fun happens, if you can peel your eyes away from that pointing finger.


  1. While I agree with everything in this article, presentation can matter. One of the issues with most versions of 4E GURPS is that it throws a wall of options at you and it is not immediately clear that you can screen the options and, in fact, that you should.

    Not that I dislike the game (absolutely the contrary) but the Gearhead reputation isn't by accident. . .

    1. Absolutely. This is why I aggressively push people to stuff like Dungeon Fantasy, Action, and Monster Hunters. They're fully worked example, to the extent that they totally ignore parts of the rulebook you don't need to play.

      And also why I usually point to GURPS Lite, since it's got enough to play without hitting you with too many choices.

  2. So basically, don't miss the forest for the dead trees?


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