Do or Do Not: The Rule of Rules Creation

Today, we’re going to cut to the heart of the matter of rules design. This is going to be fast and brutal, like that time you did that one thing you’d like to forget–you know the thing where you still have that scar? Right. Moving on.

The tip? Don’t do half measures. I’m strictly speaking mechanics here. If you want to wander half way around the mountain sprinkling adventure hooks and character allusions, I’m all for that. I know I do it. But rules? Those are a different animal–beastly and dangerous with gnashing teeth and crunching jaws. So say it with me now, out loud:

Don’t do half measures. Commit this to memory. Hear it echo about your room half-laden with reference books, graphic novels, and RPG paraphernalia? Good. Now here’s the heart of the heart, the essence of what I’m conveying.

If you are writing rules, make sure they are complete the first time round–or at least as complete as they can be. And when I say first time round, I am saying the first time you present them to your patient public in published form (be it electronic or ink is neither here no there). Be as comprehensive as you can be, but don’t waste my time and your words presenting something ill-equipped for play. The first published form is, in all likelihood, the result of much forethought, testing, and mistrials tweaking it to get it right. And you must get it right. People deserve it.  Moving on.

What I don’t want to see–and I’m sure a lot of you agree–are half-formed rules or bits and pieces of things thrown into something out of a perceived necessity.

Case in point: Agents of Oblivion when first submitted for the True20 Contest Search could’ve used a chase system. You know how spies are always bandying about in their cars chasing each other? For secret agents, a lot of folks sure seem to know about ’em. Right? Well, I fiddled with a way to get the chase rules I wanted, but the limitations of space made it nigh impossible to give them the treatment they deserved. So what did I do? Rather than distill them down to keep them within the word count, I dropped them. Would they have been good to have in there? Sure, in their unabridged form. The shorthand version was a bit fuzzy for me, even though I drafted them up and had playtested them rigorously. What was more important was to present the character builds, nifty spy tech, and the sanity system. (Yes, I have a thing for sanity systems.)  The world did not come to an end. The material was well received. And the chase rules never saw the light of day, but that’s another story.

While gamers can be kind  and benevolent on a lot of things, we are an unforgiving lot when it comes to mechanics, and rightly so.

This is not to say we need a lot of rules. We need the right amount of rules to play the game you want us to play how you want us to play it. Let’s take the most excellent example of Fiasco. I’ve long been a fan of Jason Morningstar’s work, but have never had the right group to play his games–be it The Roach or Grey Ranks, but I’ve been gaming with a different group of guys who are willing to try out most anything and I’d heard nothing but good stuff about Fiasco. It probably cinched it when I ran into Will Hindmarch at Gen Con late one night on the way back to the hotel who had just gotten out of a game with Robin Laws and Ken Hite, and he said it played wonderfully. I snagged it. Read through it. And I was confused at first. These rules were deceptively simple and elegant and promised to deliver a Cohen Brothers style movie experience? Despite the buzz, I was reticent to believe (though I really wanted to). It was kinda like seeing those things on television underscoring the truth there is really no proof in advertising, but we gave it a go. And it was fun. The rules were concise, and worked exactly as they should. Fiasco is the perfect storm of style and substance. In short, an adrenaline shot into the heart of gaming.  It was one of those things I wished I had written.

So, do yourself a favor, give your mechanics the full measure. Treat them with due consideration, and never, never break our hearts with poorly formed rules. I will add one caveat in the defense of designers. Just because a game can be broken through pregen, doesn’t mean it should. Any RPG has exploits in the character design phase or, at least, during character progression.  A design is not inherently flawed if there is some permutation allowing imbalanced builds. Certainly, good design seeks to eliminate such potentialities, but they can creep into any project. While the designer should be diligent, the group enters into a social contract with his GM to craft an appropriate character, and not look for ways to break the game. By the way, folks who can find exploits or break your game can make for good QC (Quality Control) folks. I’ll admit, I look for exploits in systems to this day, which has served me in good stead. Training yourself in this manner is never a bad thing.

Now, go create and remember, the full measure or none at all. No one wants a half-baked cookie. Now, I must turn my attention to other matters, and bid you, dear readers, adieu!

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