Last Saturday morning as part of the proceedings of Conflux I attended the game design workshop run by Steve Jackson in the executive lounge at Rydges Lakeside. It was apparently a version of a talk he gave at Conclave over in New Zealand, but scaled down from six hours to two. It contained about 45 minutes of RPG design, 45 minutes of boardgame design, and a half hour or so of questions.
"I would rather be dragged through a knothole sideways than play one of my own games using all the crunchy bits."
- Steve Jackson, creator of GURPS
Steve Jackson is, of course, the founder of Steve Jackson Games, and the creator of GURPS, the Generic Universal Role Playing System. GURPS was created in 1986 as a system promising adaptable rules to allow you to roleplay in virtually any setting in time or space, and it's one of the few RPGs to ever give D&D/D20 a serious run for its money. The system is still in print today, has literally hundreds of source books, and maintains an active player base and fan community.
I hate the damn system, but that's beside the point. 8-)
One of the points Steve made was that, early in designing a new tabletop RPG, you'll be faced with a decision - do you want to design a narrativist RPG (where the story and the experience takes priority), or a simulationist RPG (where the rules intend to provide as realistic a simulation as possible of the relevant systems of the setting)? Steve's answer: "The answer is narrativist - now let's move on."
This may seem an odd answer, coming from the creator of the game that could arguably be considered to have the widest range of rulesets, tables, and stats in print out of any RPG, ever. Certainly GURPS is rule-heavy on a scale that even modern cases of source-book diarrohea such as White Wolf can still only dream of. Steve calls this plethora of situation-specific miscellanea the "crunchy bits" of GURPS.
Most modern tabletop gamers have moved well past the idea of using all the rules all the time. It's easy to move on from - it's literally impossible to run a game of D20 or GURPS with slavish attention to every published mechanic. For many, myself included, the realisation that the rules are getting in the way of gameplay leads to a gradual move away from the concept of game rules entirely.
But Steve's talk, I think almost by accident, made a connection in my mind that I've never made before. In my thinking on games, I've got into the habit of talking about two sorts of mechanics. The first, which I called rules, were the structures that were in place to control, limit, and arbitrate the players, to constrain and challenge them, and to ultimately define the "fail state" of the game (usually death). I've largely abandoned rules when running games of my own design. The other side I've been thinking of as gimmicks, which are rules which enhance the flavour and atmosphere of the game. A rule is the limit of the game; a gimmick is the uniqueness of the game and the reason to play it.
It's a largely artificial distinction, and not always easy to draw, which is why I've never spoken much about it before. But it may be more useful than I thought. I think all of the above is a long way of saying that there are fair rules, and there are fun rules. They can meet, and they can overlap, but they don't have to.
The conventional wisdom of gaming rules suggests that they're much like a combination of laws and identification badges; they exist to make sure that no character has an "unfair advantage" over either the other players or the gameworld at large, and to define the nature of characters and other game entities. This is just rubbish thinking, of course. Statistics have to be the least useful way of defining a character ever; I imagine there'd be very few characters in literature who'd be recognisable through a numerical evaluation of their abilities, and that's certainly not what makes them memorable.
Rather, rules are like the craft of film. Rules are your camera angles, your lighting, your editing. Much as a standard shot of a person entering a room can be turned into a shot of horror and suspense through the use of an extremely low angle, dutch tilt, and backlighting, so too can a scene in a game be imbued with terror through a punishing system of tracking damage. Hits come often, a character can only survive a couple, and there's virtually no defence. Instant slasher flick.
Should we use that damage system all the time? Of course not. Should we even use it consistantly throughout the session? No. It's applicable to that scene. If we're running a slasher flick or survival horror game, it's probably the thing to use in the first scene to establish the threat as credible, and maybe bring out again for the final battle, but if we don't back off for the meat of the game we'll have a group of players so terrified and traumatised that they'll be cowering in the corner for fear of sudden, unavoidable death.
And so if we're going to use rules, maybe this is the way to use them. To approach rules based on the atmosphere they convey, on the gameplay they engender, rather than on the basis of what they claim to simulate. Have "scary rules" and "romantic rules" and "time pressure" rules and so forth, and take another step towards real storytelling in tabletop roleplaying.
Thanks to Steve for the workshop and for giving permission to use the quote at the top of the post.