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General "Hot" take: Aesthetically-pleasing rules are highly overvalued

EzekielRaiden

Adventurer
This isn't targeted at any specific game, though I'm likely to criticize both 3.x/PF1e and 5e because they are (in some sense) the "old guard" and "new hotness" on this topic.

So, there are a lot of motives when designing a game, and I do not mean to comment on the spectrum of reasons one might consider. That's well above my pay grade. However, something that I don't think is so far above my pay grade is arguments in favor of rules elements, structures, or principles because they make the rules look/feel nice, without regard for the potential costs this can have to designers, DMs, and players. I'm not talking about a desire for good art/presentation, nor for flavorful descriptions or concepts supported by the rules. Rather, I'm referring to a desire for rules because they have satisfying aesthetic features like symmetry, one-stop-shopping reference lists, brevity, and (possibly the most controversial on this list) natural language. The former things are just regular aesthetics, whether aesthetics of the physical materials or aesthetics of the play experience. I'm talking about "meta-aesthetics," for lack of a better term: aesthetic concerns purely at the design level, in some sense "before" the aesthetics of the materials or play-experience.

I see a lot of arguments that, in effect, treat these meta-aesthetics as one of the most important features of game design. Many people trying to "fix" 4e, for example, are incredibly keen on condensing all powers down to either a per-source list, or to even a single list for all classes. The reasons given rarely have much of anything to do with direct design concerns like effectiveness or testable mechanics, and almost always ignore stuff like "what about powers with subclass-based riders?", instead focused almost entirely on the bald assertion that a single, repeatedly-referenced list is always superior.

I don't think I'll surprise anyone by saying that I disagree with this, and with most other meta-aesthetic arguments about the ways we structure our rulesets. Meta-aesthetics are NOT an invalid reason to design something. They can, in fact, be great! My arguments for why it was good that power sources existed in 4e (re: it gave us some really cool classes like Avenger and Shaman) are, at least in part, based on meta-aesthetics. What I find frankly a little disturbing is the axiomatic insistence that (some) meta-aesthetics override effectively all other concerns. This belief, asserted without defense and indeed with an implication that it needs no defense, that sacrifices of balance, at-table experience, design space, and indeed pretty much any other element of game design, are almost always worthwhile if they produce rules that have "better" meta-aesthetics. That it takes a LOT of serious problems for even a small meta-aesthetic gain to be put off the table.

Now, it's entirely possible I'm just not hearing what's actually being said--it wouldn't be the first time. I am, as always, open to having the record set straight. I'm also open to people defending why these meta-aesthetic concerns should have more weight than I've given them up to now. But either way, I think we can benefit from dragging this implicit assumption out into the open and having a talk about what weight "rules that look nice on paper" etc. should be given.
 
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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Maybe I'm just being a bit thick today (hell knows it wouldn't be the first time!) but I'm not quite catching what you're on about. I'm not sure, for example, whether you're talking about specific rules or overarching design principles or a bit of both.

Can you please give an actual example of something done wrong and something (preferably the same thing) done right, as you see it?
 

Undrave

Hero
Maybe I'm just being a bit thick today (hell knows it wouldn't be the first time!) but I'm not quite catching what you're on about. I'm not sure, for example, whether you're talking about specific rules or overarching design principles or a bit of both.

Can you please give an actual example of something done wrong and something (preferably the same thing) done right, as you see it?
Same... I'm not really seeing it at all...
 



EzekielRaiden

Adventurer
Maybe I'm just being a bit thick today (hell knows it wouldn't be the first time!) but I'm not quite catching what you're on about. I'm not sure, for example, whether you're talking about specific rules or overarching design principles or a bit of both.

Can you please give an actual example of something done wrong and something (preferably the same thing) done right, as you see it?
Well, as noted, "natural language" is a thing where I think these meta-aesthetics have got it wrong.

Natural language was favored by 5e's designers because, they claimed, it would make things so much better. There would be no need to learn any special words, no need to check references, because everything would just mean what it says! You could look at it and just know, because you already know how to read English (or whatever language the text was translated into).

Except...it didn't. This decision, driven by the meta-aesthetic desire to have rules that "need no explanation," has resulted in rules...that still need explanation. And rules that, a non-negligible portion of the time, cannot work even in principle unless the DM does actually explain them. It doesn't come up constantly, not even once a session necessarily, but it does come up, and has in actual games I have personally played. (No 5e game I've played in has lasted more than ten sessions, and part of it was this very problem in one of those games.)

By comparison, 4e did the "ugly" choice of having jargon, specifically, keywords. Each keyword had a well-defined meaning--which might not necessarily correspond to its use in "natural language," but which was applied consistently when it was used. Learning the jargon was important--e.g., knowing the difference between the confusingly-similar "burst" and "blast" area keywords--but once you knew it, you had reliable knowledge about the game, a seriously valuable tool. And because the designers knew the keywords, they had clear building blocks for constructing new things. If they happened to find something that had been left out, they could define new keywords for those things.

As I said, this is probably going to be the most controversial example, so I understand if this isn't exactly an example you agree with. But it is relatively convenient to articulate the difference.

A different example would be Prestige Classes vs. Paragon Paths. In both 3e and 4e, these were higher-level features that you had to qualify for, and which unlocked new abilities and (potentially) synergies with your existing ones. The Prestige Class structure sought meta-aesthetics by having precise, and often narrative, requirements for entry...and ended up being a nightmare of design as a result, where mediocre or even awful PrCs had extensive and painful requirements, while extremely powerful options might have no more than "take a shitty feat and pay some guild dues now and then." The meta-aesthetic value of "these things look like something that requires special training" resulted in flat-out BAD game design, even though the underlying idea--taking a small, focused "alternate class" for a few levels--was sound and interesting.

Paragon Paths, by comparison, were extremely easy to qualify for (rarely having more than 1-2 requirements, many of which you could meet by taking a single multiclass feat), were structured so as to give benefits within a consistent overall power level even if individual options were still stronger or weaker, and did not prioritize having the look and feel of something you had to "work for" in order to enter. PPs were this specialization process done right, not massively over-valuing the meta-aesthetic considerations of the concept. PPs focused on ensuring that the overall play experience happened as intended, and not on ensuring that the mechanics for a thing looked like they "should be" mechanics for that thing.

And yes, you're right that this is not something that can be easily assigned to either design philosophy or specific rules. It leans closer to the former, but it's also "practical" in the sense that it gets really hung up on the specific pieces used for achieving one's ends. Digging a little deeper on that: There are (at least) three values one can have when designing a game. One can value effectiveness, asking, "Does this game achieve the experience I designed it for?" One can value message, asking, "Does this game communicate to the player the messages I want to send?" (Consider Monopoly for an almost exclusively message-centric game.) Or one can value these "meta-aesthetics" I'm talking about, asking, "Do the rules of this game have a pleasing appearance and structure?"

I'm asserting that "a pleasing appearance and structure"--such as, for example, 3.x's skill point system, which feels like a great way to handle skills but tends to be super punishing to anyone who likes variety or playing against type--has become a dominant or even hegemonic goal for many in design-discussion places (such as this forum).
 

Undrave

Hero
Except...it didn't. This decision, driven by the meta-aesthetic desire to have rules that "need no explanation," has resulted in rules...that still need explanation. And rules that, a non-negligible portion of the time, cannot work even in principle unless the DM does actually explain them. It doesn't come up constantly, not even once a session necessarily, but it does come up, and has in actual games I have personally played. (No 5e game I've played in has lasted more than ten sessions, and part of it was this very problem in one of those games.)

By comparison, 4e did the "ugly" choice of having jargon, specifically, keywords. Each keyword had a well-defined meaning--which might not necessarily correspond to its use in "natural language," but which was applied consistently when it was used. Learning the jargon was important--e.g., knowing the difference between the confusingly-similar "burst" and "blast" area keywords--but once you knew it, you had reliable knowledge about the game, a seriously valuable tool. And because the designers knew the keywords, they had clear building blocks for constructing new things. If they happened to find something that had been left out, they could define new keywords for those things.

First, I totally agree with you on this. The 'natural language' of 5e could take notes from 4e, M:TG cards, and problem-solving text used in Yu-gi-oh! for simplicity.

But secondly... isn't this whole thread just the same old 'Gameist VS Smiluationist VS Narrativist' approach to RPG design? I think your language is obfuscating a point people have made before. Personally, I much prefer a game that runs WELL first and foremost before one that is a good simulation of a fantasy world. I don't need the game to be a physics engine.
 


EzekielRaiden

Adventurer
First, I totally agree with you on this. The 'natural language' of 5e could take notes from 4e, M:TG cards, and problem-solving text used in Yu-gi-oh! for simplicity.

But secondly... isn't this whole thread just the same old 'Gameist VS Smiluationist VS Narrativist' approach to RPG design? I think your language is obfuscating a point people have made before. Personally, I much prefer a game that runs WELL first and foremost before one that is a good simulation of a fantasy world. I don't need the game to be a physics engine.
Not really? I don't think it has much of anything to do with simulationism. Another example that is completely unrelated to simulationism, which I mentioned in the first post, is the people who insist that a single "one stop shopping" place for character options, is better than individual class lists. In fact, that's what inspired me to write this up in the first place. People in the A5E threads were asking for a single, comprehensive repository of all Knacks, and that similar Knacks from different classes should just be collapsed down into a single Knack that each of those classes is permitted to choose. That's a purely aesthetic desire--"don't make two similar options, when you could make one generic option"--that is completely unrelated to simulation.

I admit, though, that most of my examples tied to 3e will be simulationist, because it is such a deeply simulationist game. But "natural language" isn't simulationist--at least, not as far as I'm concerned. What is "the rules need no explanation" simulating in the world?
 


I can understand the desire for less complex games. I just do not see much value in leaving those complex interactions in place, but burying them more deeply in the text.

I'm not saying 5E gets it totally right. The whole 'melee weapon attack' and 'attack with a melee weapon' being different things for example.

But when read side by side with PF2, I know which version of rules jargon I would prefer.
 

EzekielRaiden

Adventurer
I'm not saying 5E gets it totally right. The whole 'melee weapon attack' and 'attack with a melee weapon' being different things for example.

But when read side by side with PF2, I know which version of rules jargon I would prefer.
Oh, totally. Again, I'm not saying that "meta-aesthetic" considerations are pointless or invalid. They can totally be quite valid, and it is entirely possible for (as you say) keyword-based rules to go WAY overboard. I don't know the first thing about PF2e so I can't really comment on what it's done. As stated though, much of my point centers on 5e and 3.x/PF1e. The former because it is the "new hotness" and it seems like a very substantial majority accept everything it does with completely-uncritical exuberance. The latter because it is the "old guard," the "traditional" thing people keep coming back to and insisting that its ways were right no matter what errors were made. (There's a reason that when PF2e was announced, another company announced they were going to carry on the PF1e torch just as Paizo had done for 3.5e before them. Look up Porphyra sometime.)
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Well, as noted, "natural language" is a thing where I think these meta-aesthetics have got it wrong.

Natural language was favored by 5e's designers because, they claimed, it would make things so much better. There would be no need to learn any special words, no need to check references, because everything would just mean what it says! You could look at it and just know, because you already know how to read English (or whatever language the text was translated into).

Except...it didn't. This decision, driven by the meta-aesthetic desire to have rules that "need no explanation," has resulted in rules...that still need explanation. And rules that, a non-negligible portion of the time, cannot work even in principle unless the DM does actually explain them. It doesn't come up constantly, not even once a session necessarily, but it does come up, and has in actual games I have personally played. (No 5e game I've played in has lasted more than ten sessions, and part of it was this very problem in one of those games.)

By comparison, 4e did the "ugly" choice of having jargon, specifically, keywords. Each keyword had a well-defined meaning--which might not necessarily correspond to its use in "natural language," but which was applied consistently when it was used. Learning the jargon was important--e.g., knowing the difference between the confusingly-similar "burst" and "blast" area keywords--but once you knew it, you had reliable knowledge about the game, a seriously valuable tool. And because the designers knew the keywords, they had clear building blocks for constructing new things. If they happened to find something that had been left out, they could define new keywords for those things.
The choice to employ natural language in wasn’t a particular aesthetic the developers were aiming for, but rather a response to player feedback, both the general critique of 4e’s over-reliance on keywords, and in the playtest surveys. I do agree that it was a poor choice, but I see the problem being more about designing by popular vote instead of by clear and consistent design principles and goals, than about aesthetics. Also, the fact that WotC is really bad at writing natural language. 5e is actually written quite technically, it just tries to appear natural by using natural-sounding words in technical ways.I guess one could argue that in pursuing a natural language aesthetic without sacrificing technical precision they ended up with the worst parts of both approaches.

As I said, this is probably going to be the most controversial example, so I understand if this isn't exactly an example you agree with. But it is relatively convenient to articulate the difference.

A different example would be Prestige Classes vs. Paragon Paths. In both 3e and 4e, these were higher-level features that you had to qualify for, and which unlocked new abilities and (potentially) synergies with your existing ones. The Prestige Class structure sought meta-aesthetics by having precise, and often narrative, requirements for entry...and ended up being a nightmare of design as a result, where mediocre or even awful PrCs had extensive and painful requirements, while extremely powerful options might have no more than "take a shitty feat and pay some guild dues now and then." The meta-aesthetic value of "these things look like something that requires special training" resulted in flat-out BAD game design, even though the underlying idea--taking a small, focused "alternate class" for a few levels--was sound and interesting.

Paragon Paths, by comparison, were extremely easy to qualify for (rarely having more than 1-2 requirements, many of which you could meet by taking a single multiclass feat), were structured so as to give benefits within a consistent overall power level even if individual options were still stronger or weaker, and did not prioritize having the look and feel of something you had to "work for" in order to enter. PPs were this specialization process done right, not massively over-valuing the meta-aesthetic considerations of the concept. PPs focused on ensuring that the overall play experience happened as intended, and not on ensuring that the mechanics for a thing looked like they "should be" mechanics for that thing.

And yes, you're right that this is not something that can be easily assigned to either design philosophy or specific rules. It leans closer to the former, but it's also "practical" in the sense that it gets really hung up on the specific pieces used for achieving one's ends. Digging a little deeper on that: There are (at least) three values one can have when designing a game. One can value effectiveness, asking, "Does this game achieve the experience I designed it for?" One can value message, asking, "Does this game communicate to the player the messages I want to send?" (Consider Monopoly for an almost exclusively message-centric game.) Or one can value these "meta-aesthetics" I'm talking about, asking, "Do the rules of this game have a pleasing appearance and structure?"

I'm asserting that "a pleasing appearance and structure"--such as, for example, 3.x's skill point system, which feels like a great way to handle skills but tends to be super punishing to anyone who likes variety or playing against type--has become a dominant or even hegemonic goal for many in design-discussion places (such as this forum).
I don’t see prestige classes as aesthetically preferable over Paragon Paths at all. Paragon Paths follow a clean, consistent design structure, which is far more aesthetically pleasing than the mess that is Paragon Paths. Likewise, I don’t think the 3e skill rank system is the least bit aesthetically pleasing. It’s a giant pile of fiddly math. It looks ugly and it plays poorly. In contrast, 5e’s system where there’s a unified proficiency bonus that increases with level and applies to all proficient checks is highly aesthetically pleasing.

I struggle to grok your argument because I’m not seeing the consistent thread between the design elements you say are driven by “meta-aesthetics.” It also doesn’t really help that aesthetics are highly subjective. Designs that you find aesthetically pleasing may be aesthetically displeasing to others.
 

Mistwell

Legend
Well, as noted, "natural language" is a thing where I think these meta-aesthetics have got it wrong.

Natural language was favored by 5e's designers because, they claimed, it would make things so much better. There would be no need to learn any special words, no need to check references, because everything would just mean what it says! You could look at it and just know, because you already know how to read English (or whatever language the text was translated into).
That was not the reason for the use of natural language.

The use of natural language was an aesthetic choice, but not that aesthetic choice. If that had been the intent, then they would have taken a more legalistic approach or instruction manual style, with an extensive glossary and high end index with lots of cross referencing and defined terms. Which clearly was not the choices they made.

They made these choices with natural language to intentionally evoke the 1e "magic" where opening a core book feels like you're opening an arcane tomb of knowledge. It was to intersperse story elements into the rules elements, and a bit of meandering to the reading path that the rules take. This was to begin the common experience shared by D&D players of themselves encountering an adventure in the rules themselves. To make it feel like you're not reading a legal document or an instruction manual. Some of the rules are made intentionally vague, to make each table more unique, and put more judgement calls back in the hands of the DM.

Now, these are as you say aesthetic choices. Which means they're not objective, but subjective in nature. So if they rub you the wrong way, I can understand that.

But for me, these were great choices. They returned my interest in the rules, and did bring back some of that "magic" I felt with 1e AD&D.
 

I'm not saying 5E gets it totally right. The whole 'melee weapon attack' and 'attack with a melee weapon' being different things for example.
Overall this is a pretty minor Technical hang up. There are plenty of casual games where the existence of such a fine distinction isn't even known.

Wizard's Punching with Booming Blades, Paladin's Smiting with their fists....I wouldn't reject playing in a game that allowed those. It certainly is not overpowering.

Natural Language is just fine, when backed by a solid mathematical system.
 

Overall this is a pretty minor Technical hang up. There are plenty of casual games where the existence of such a fine distinction isn't even known.

Wizard's Punching with Booming Blades, Paladin's Smiting with their fists....I wouldn't reject playing in a game that allowed those. It certainly is not overpowering.

Natural Language is just fine, when backed by a solid mathematical system.

Im a long ago convert to easy to understand natural language.

Trying to teach someone a game with specialised dice (I hate them) with logos and icons, 'tapping' things 'cool downs' and 'raises' and 'boosts' and keywords everywhere is just a drag.
 

Any game where a player can say "I kick over the cauldron, spilling it towards the ogre, and jump over the Cauldron to attack the Troll" is a game anyone can play.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
By comparison, 4e did the "ugly" choice of having jargon, specifically, keywords. Each keyword had a well-defined meaning--which might not necessarily correspond to its use in "natural language," but which was applied consistently when it was used. Learning the jargon was important--e.g., knowing the difference between the confusingly-similar "burst" and "blast" area keywords--but once you knew it, you had reliable knowledge about the game, a seriously valuable tool. And because the designers knew the keywords, they had clear building blocks for constructing new things. If they happened to find something that had been left out, they could define new keywords for those things.
Ah - OK. Now I see where you're going; this makes way more sense. :)

The problem with things like keywords (or design mechanic) is that once a keyword exists, things tend to get shoehorned into using that keyword or mechanic even when it doesn't 100% suit or when some other term or phrase or mechanic would be better.

My current example of this from a design-level perspective is 5e's advantage-disadvantage mechanic. Great mechanic for some situations. Not the best for others, where something else e.g. a straight + or - or even rollign a different die size would work better. Yet once ad-disad was in the game, everhthing got shoehorned into using it - which does 5e no favours at all.

In 3e it was the d20 mechanic. Everything got shoehorned into it even when d% or d12 worked better.
A different example would be Prestige Classes vs. Paragon Paths. In both 3e and 4e, these were higher-level features that you had to qualify for, and which unlocked new abilities and (potentially) synergies with your existing ones. The Prestige Class structure sought meta-aesthetics by having precise, and often narrative, requirements for entry...and ended up being a nightmare of design as a result, where mediocre or even awful PrCs had extensive and painful requirements, while extremely powerful options might have no more than "take a shitty feat and pay some guild dues now and then." The meta-aesthetic value of "these things look like something that requires special training" resulted in flat-out BAD game design, even though the underlying idea--taking a small, focused "alternate class" for a few levels--was sound and interesting.
I'd disagree about the original idea being sound and interesting - all PrCs ever appeared as from my viewpoint were places where powergamers could make themselves happy.
And yes, you're right that this is not something that can be easily assigned to either design philosophy or specific rules. It leans closer to the former, but it's also "practical" in the sense that it gets really hung up on the specific pieces used for achieving one's ends. Digging a little deeper on that: There are (at least) three values one can have when designing a game. One can value effectiveness, asking, "Does this game achieve the experience I designed it for?" One can value message, asking, "Does this game communicate to the player the messages I want to send?" (Consider Monopoly for an almost exclusively message-centric game.) Or one can value these "meta-aesthetics" I'm talking about, asking, "Do the rules of this game have a pleasing appearance and structure?"
In a mass-market RPG such as D&D there's a fourth value that can't be overlooked: "is the game system as designed flexible enough to be able to handle all the varied and different ways people are likely going to try to play it?" And value 4A would be "how well can the underlying system tolerate kitbashing?". Most games don't have to worry about these - there's really only one way to play chess or monopoly, for example, and rarely if ever do people mess with the rules to any great extent - but RPGs have all kinds of options when it comes to how to play them, and also have a long history of end-users tinkering with the rules.
I'm asserting that "a pleasing appearance and structure"--such as, for example, 3.x's skill point system, which feels like a great way to handle skills but tends to be super punishing to anyone who likes variety or playing against type--has become a dominant or even hegemonic goal for many in design-discussion places (such as this forum).
I go for practicality first (does this particular rule do the job it's supposed to do), appearance second (is it worded in a way that's both a) clear to understand and b) not boring), and structure third (I don't mind using different mechanics to accomplish different things).
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
First, I totally agree with you on this. The 'natural language' of 5e could take notes from 4e, M:TG cards, and problem-solving text used in Yu-gi-oh! for simplicity.
Bleah! Keywords on Magic cards are tolerable if only because there isn't much space to write everything out. But D&D books/modules/etc. have the space, so bang goes that excuse.
But secondly... isn't this whole thread just the same old 'Gameist VS Smiluationist VS Narrativist' approach to RPG design? I think your language is obfuscating a point people have made before. Personally, I much prefer a game that runs WELL first and foremost before one that is a good simulation of a fantasy world. I don't need the game to be a physics engine.
I'm the other way around: I want the game to be a fantasy world simulator that ALSO runs well as a game - and yes it's very possible to do both at once - and to explain the parts of the physics engine that our own reality doesn't have (e.g. I want to know the underlying physics behind magic so I can then use that as a foundation on which to build my worlds; the game doesn't give me this so I've had to dream it up myself).
 

amethal

Adventurer
I'm still not sure I understand the argument of this thread.

3.x skill points, with different rules for first level, different rules for class skills and cross-class skills, and fiddly synergy bonuses, are very much not what I would consider aesthetically pleasing.

Something like the AGE system or 5th Edition, where everything is an ability check, but if you have a specific focus you get a bonus on rolls where it applies (either a fixed bonus like AGE or a bonus that increases by level as per D&D), is much more aesthetically pleasing to me but a lot less flexible than skill points.

What came to mind when I read the OP was 4th edition's idea of having classes with roles and power sources. I'd find it aesthetically pleasing if there was a class for each combination, and it can lead to some interesting questions - e.g. what would a martial controller look like? But I'd also like a class to stand on its own merits - if the only reason for designing a class is "we needed a primal defender to complete the set" then I'd rather they didn't bother.

Aesthetically pleasing is also in the eye of the beholder. Some people apparently find descending AC superior on aesthetic grounds, whilst I very much don't.
 

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