D&D General Rules, Rulings and Second Order Design: D&D and AD&D Examined

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Supporter
I was just reading the excellent posting by M.T. Black about Dragon Magazine number 67, mentioning Gary "Jake" Jaquet, and it reminded me of an interview Jaquet did some time ago. In an effort to avoid finishing my series of posts about dice mechanics, I've been writing about some issues with "second-order design," and I realized that this early interview, from 1982, actually touched on it. I thought writing about this would achieve two goals- first, honoring Jake Jaquet, who is one of the forgotten important figures in early TSR and RPG history. Second, it would allow me to continue stalling on finishing my posts about dice mechanics. Done and done! As Mama Snarf always told me, "Snarf, never put off until tomorrow what you can put off until next week."

First, a brief refresher on terms-
One constant tension we see in RPGs is the distinction between first-order design and second-order design. While the game designer can exert direct control over the rules of the game, the actual gameplay depends on the processes that emerge at the table. This gameplay, this "second-order design" can be glimpsed through extensive playtesting, and can be addressed through the rules (the first order), but will always be, to some extent, beyond the ability of the game designer to dictate.

In other words, when you're thinking about designing an RPG, first-order design is the rules of the game. Second-order design is the actual gameplay.

A. Jaquet on D&D and AD&D.

A brief primer for those not familiar.
Jake Jaquet was an influential, albeit mostly "behind the scenes" figure, at TSR from 1977 until the end of 1982- corresponding with the dramatic rise of TSR and the RPG hobby. He left TSR at the end of 1982 to launch a new periodical (Gameplay) in 1983. Gameplay folded in 1984, and appears to have left the industry after that. At the time of the interview, Jaquet was credited with being the publisher of Dragon Magazine

Polyhedron was a magazine put out by TSR for the Role Playing Gamers Association.

This article (an interview) is from Vol. 2, No. 3, #6 of The Polyhedron (as it was called then) from 1982. So the references to "AD&D" are to what we call "1e" and the references to "D&D" are to what we call "OD&D". While you might think from the timing that he talking about B/X (Basic), you can see from his reference to playing it for years that he still is referring to the "old rules" (OD&D) as D&D.

So, without further verbiage or explanation, the relevant parts of the interview-

HQ: Strictly as a gamer, and not as a TSR employee, do you think that the DUNGEONS & DRAGONS or ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS game (whichever you prefer) is a better fantasy role playing system than any other available?
JJ: II's a difficult question to answer on a strictly objective level, because of my association with the DUNGEONS &DRAGONS game from its beginning, and also because it was in existence before anything else. First of all, I find it more appealing than others simply because it WAS first, because it carries the concepts down to the wording of the thing (although it's been rewritten several times now) that puts it above the other fantasy role playing games. They're trying to say the same things without using exactly the same words, since the DUNGEONS & DRAGONS game was out first, all the meaningful game terms were used. It's the flavor of the rules that appeals to me first, more so than the others.
I like the DUNGEONS & DRAGONS and ADVANCED DUNGEONS &DRAGONS games lots better than some, and just mildly better than others. There are some other good systems out there. I like it better in some respects because it does NOT attempt to say "This is away to handle every circumstance in a realistic fashion." It does NOT attempt to say, "There are no arbitrary rules to make the game playable in this system." This is what I hear from so many of the other systems, in both the wording of their rules and in their advertising.
The one thing we see more often than not, in comparing role playing systems, is "This one is more real; this one simulates reality better," blah, blah, blah. Well. how can you more realistically simulate the casting of a fireball? It's fantasy, you have to imagine it. Someone may say, "Well, the D&D game system uses the Vancean system to simulate magic, whereas this system uses the Johnson-Whitfield system of magic, and Johnson-Whitfield is obviously a far more realistic way for magic to work, because it involves the temporal energies flowing from six planes," and blah, blah, blah. Well, BUNK. I mean, fantasy is fantasy; the fireball is either cast, or it's not. And if it's your bag to have that rationalization behind it, if it somehow makes you feel better and more secure, or if somehow things are more playable or more enjoyable in the game, well that's fine, go ahead and play that way. But I really see no need for it. The D&D game system says a fireball works. In game terms, it has this effect, and that's all I need.
The D&D game rules say, basically, "This is a game, and it operates in this fashion." They admit that some of the mechanics in it are arbitrary, placed there to make the game work . Now, it may not be realistic to assume that a giant 30 feet tall exists. I've seen lots of scholarly works saying, "Well, a creature this large can't exist, because its muscles and flesh and blood would crack ..." well, okay, maybe it would. I'm not too concerned about that. If a 30 foot giant makes the game playable, that's what I require from the game, and that's what makes the game enjoyable.
I consider one game better than another because of playability and enjoyability. If I were doing a comparison of every game ever put out, I would have an "Enjoyability over Playability" quotient that I would rank them all by. Obviously you have to make some distinction; you can't compare OTHELLO against the TRAVELLER system, for instance.
There's another system for fantasy role playing that has characteristics in such detail that you wouldn't believe it. Maybe D&D game characteristics are a little arbitrary, to place a person's entire persona into 6 different characteristics, but how is having 57 characteristics any different? If we're going to try and simulate reality, we're going to have to carry that out to a couple of million different characteristics, and EVEN THEN it'll still only be a close simulation. It won't be real, because a human personality is infinite in its variability. But, okay, it's arbitrary, and if you, as a gamer, can't function without having a lot more detail in the game to make it more enjoyable for you -
HQ: Appearance, to add a simple one?
JJ: Right, right, exactly - then you can't enjoy D&D and AD&D games more than some other systems which claim to be more real, or more detailed, or whatever.
HQ: You're saying D&D and AD&D games; do you have a preference between the two, strictly personally?
JJ: Personally I like D&D game rules better than the AD&D game system. The AD&D system is sort of a concession to people that find the D&D system a little too free-form. But it's not really a concession, because it was an evolution; it's distinctly different from the D&D game rules. In D&D games, I don't have to worry about being constrained by an author's point or rule or chart, about making a judgement as a referee, or player within the D&D system. When I run a D&D game, the stuff I've put into the game myself is in my head. In an AD&D game, though, I can be called upon by the player and just pullout the DMG, and say "Right here on page 157 it says you can't do that"; yet in D&D games you CAN do that. because that rule doesn't exist. I mean, there's nothing that substitutes, or that's different, it's just that it doesn't exist; it's up to the DM to make that determination.

At this point, it is probably necessary to include the famous quote from Gary Gygax about why he is making AD&D as a counterpoint-
Because D&D allowed such freedom, because the work itself said so, because the initial batch of DMs were so imaginative and creative, because the rules were incomplete, vague and often ambiguous, D&D has turned into a non-game. That is, there is so much variation between the way the game is played from region to region, state to state, area to area, and even from group to group within a metropolitan district, there is no continuity and little agreement as to just what the game is and how best to play it. Without destroying the imagination and individual creativity which go into a campaign, AD&D rectifies the shortcomings of D&D.


B. All of this has happened before. All of this will happen again.

One theme that I have consistently returned to in my various posts is the push-pull between the desire for more rules, and the desire for less rules. In games, as in almost any sphere, new issues that arise almost invariably cause people to clamor for rules- "There should be a rule for that!" On the other hand, additional rules inevitably come with a cost- added complexity, added issues of interpretation, added issues of how different rules will intersect, and even just the cost associated with people learning more rules. Here, we see the same pattern repeated- on the one hand, we had a new system (OD&D) that allowed experimentation and variation and an explosion of new games; it is a practically a truism to say that the vast majority of RPGs in the 1970s were created as either the publication of DM's notes of OD&D campaigns, or as reactions to OD&D. On the other hand, you have a desire for standardization, for ORDER.

Which gets to the issue of second-order design. Second-order design is normally not that big of an issue in, say, board games. Yes, there can be house rules or misunderstandings (many people play Monopoly "incorrectly"), but generally the rules will prescribe exactly how to play; you can choose to put money under Free Parking in Monopoly, but you know, just by looking at the actual rules, that you have chosen to play something different.

On the other hand, second-order design is a much larger issue in RPGs, to the extent that in conversations about it, we try to ensure that we don't castigate variation as "badwrongfun." In the history of D&D, many people will refer to this distinction as "rules" (the first-order design) and "rulings" (the second-order design). More rules means more standardization. More rulings means more variation between tables.

Of course, it's not always that simple; many people played AD&D in a fast and loose manner, ignoring the multiplicity of rules for various reasons- sometimes because it added unneeded complexity (weapon v. AC), sometimes because it didn't make much sense (the full surprise and initiative rules), and sometimes because the rules were buried in dense verbiage (what do you do with a dead elf?). On the other hand, many people played OD&D and just codified their rulings over time in writing until they had their own notes that exceeded in depth and scope anything put out as AD&D. Just like Hasbro can't tell you what to do with Free Parking, Hasbro can't tell you how to play D&D.

The other interesting thing to note about the interview excerpt (other than the weird aside about appearance ... a preview of the late and not-lamented seventh ability score!) is Jaquet's insistence, which was common, that D&D was a game.
I consider one game better than another because of playability and enjoyability.


There are those that look askance when people say that what they are looking for in the hobby is ... fun. To a certain extent, I can understand the objection; fun, after all, is certainly a difficult-to-measure metric. Still, isn't that the only one that truly matters? Isn't fun ... playability and enjoyability ... what people look for in a hobby? Different people have different approaches to fun; but I would still say that Jaquet was entirely correct. The true measure of a game in the RPG field is not how it works in theory, nor how it slots into a given construct (even FKR!), but simply whether it is playable, and whether it is enjoyable.


Hope you found this brief detour interesting. Please feel to discuss any of the above issues!
 

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My own pet elephant to this discussion is: I don't think people make a big enough distinction between well-written rules and poorly written rules. How much written rules provide clarity and consistency (and therefore agency) is not a function of the number of rules or the thickness of the rulebook. Likewise for how much they add confusion and arguments and burden of learning (although an overly thick rulebook can scare people off before they even try).

So it's not just a tug-of-war between rules and rulings, there's a whole second axis of good-vs-bad rules and rulings.
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
Nice!

I have nothing to add to the discussion, but will note that I never died while setting up a game of Othello (a game I haven't thought of in quite a while). Also, it took me forever to figure out what the name Jaquet reminded me of (different spelling, but great character in R.Stout's "Death of a Doxy").
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Supporter
Nice!

I have nothing to add to the discussion, but will note that I never died while setting up a game of Othello (a game I haven't thought of in quite a while). Also, it took me forever to figure out what the name Jaquet reminded me of (different spelling, but great character in R.Stout's "Death of a Doxy").

you can't compare OTHELLO against the TRAVELLER system, for instance.

Now I'm thinking of doing a multi-part comparison of Othello and Traveller, except I'll do it as Othello (the game) v. Traveller (the game) v. Othello (the play) v. Traveller (the 1997 Marky Mark movie ... WORD TO YOUR MOTHER!).

Can't tell me what to do!
 


Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Supporter
My own pet elephant to this discussion is: I don't think people make a big enough distinction between well-written rules and poorly written rules. How much written rules provide clarity and consistency (and therefore agency) is not a function of the number of rules or the thickness of the rulebook. Likewise for how much they add confusion and arguments and burden of learning (although an overly thick rulebook can scare people off before they even try).

So it's not just a tug-of-war between rules and rulings, there's a whole second axis of good-vs-bad rules and rulings.

So, on this, I think we just have a fundamental disagreement. I am, for lack of a better term, simply not interested in the "good rules" v. "bad rules" divide, and don't think it's actually germane to the topic.

Think of it in two steps.
1. Should there be a rule?
2. Is the rule a good rule?

My thoughts are usually focused on the first step. I assume that the rule will be a good rule. Much like I assume that the DM (and the players) are good at playing the game. But for that reason, the issue of "good rules" and "bad rules" is fundamentally uninteresting to me in this conversation. What makes rules "good" and "not good" can be a great conversation to have, but it's also a completely different conversation.

Because ... and this is what I keep getting at ... even the bestest awesomest more clarifyingest rules ever still come with a cost. As I wrote- On the other hand, additional rules inevitably come with a cost- added complexity, added issues of interpretation, added issues of how different rules will intersect, and even just the cost associated with people learning more rules.

This is always true! ALWAYS. Now, a lot of the time, those rules justify the costs. And when you're doing that, the quality of the rule does matter - if you're doing a cost/benefit analysis of a particular rule, you want the lowest cost and the highest benefit possible.

I always assume (despite ample evidence to the contrary in the field) for purposes of these conversations that new rules are the best possible examples. And that's the point.

Fundamentally, the issue of whether a rule is "good" or "bad" or "OMG I can't even parse it" is a conversation to have after you've decided to have the rule.
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
There are those that look askance when people say that what they are looking for in the hobby is ... fun. To a certain extent, I can understand the objection; fun, after all, is certainly a difficult-to-measure metric. Still, isn't that the only one that truly matters? Isn't fun ... playability and enjoyability ... what people look for in a hobby?
It's not that it's "difficult to measure"--most metrics of quality are going to be difficult to measure, but "fun," or especially "enjoyability," actually can be. The problem is much deeper than mere measurability.

It's that it's a meaningless term. It's the same problem I have with a number of arguments in philosophy that attempt to assert that any degree of commensurability (=the ability to measure two things against each other) in ethical values means that there must be one, and only one, "good" that everything else is measured by and which contains all relevant information for moral/ethical decision-making. Pick the thing with more "good" in it, whatever "good" is. Or, to use a pretty widely-known example these days, "happiness." It's borderline common knowledge at this point that you're nearly guaranteed to fail to live a happy life if the goal you set is "become happy," yet if you instead set some other, specific goal or goals (any of the multitude you could pick), surprisingly often, you will get whatever that goal is and happiness at the same time!

The problem with each of these things is, they go too far. They're too reductive, condensing out critical details. They try to capture the entire possible space with a single, perfect catch-all...and that's just not feasible nor realistic. It's like asking what the average color of the rainbow is in order to know what you should paint every surface to produce the most colorful possible room, and end up painting everything a uniform slightly yellowish-green. "Fun," like "playability" (any game that is truly unplayable is either simply incomprehensible, or a potent psychological weapon), is genuinely useless, not because you can't define ways to measure it (because, in fact, you can!), but because "just design your game to be more fun" doesn't actually lead to better game design.

This is why I advocate strongly for defining the goals of your game design, the specific things you're shooting for. I'm reminded of something Jesse Cox once described, when talking about how thrilling but also how exhausting it was to get into video game design. TL;DR: He said something to the effect of, "We had this really awesome-sounding idea for a game. But every time it came up, I asked how we would do it, how we could make that fun idea become a fun mechanic, and every time, we came up empty." That's the issue with designing for "fun" and "playability": far too many concepts are "awesome but impractical" (thank you TVtropes) or just more interesting to talk about than to actually work through.

Of course, none of this should be taken to mean that fun is irrelevant. It's just that you cannot set that as your destination. If you find that things aren't working out, if people aren't having fun, you listen to their complaints or criticism and make corrections, but setting sail for "fun" is an excellent way to doom the project from the start. "Fun" is thus...more of a heuristic than a design principle. In seeking your design goal, try to make that goal as fun as possible, and try to remove as many barriers to fun as possible, while still seeking the goal. That heuristic becomes uselessly tautological if you try to insert fun as your design goal.

========================

Separately from the above, and I know I've said this before so I apologize if I'm coming across as a broken record, but...

I still don't get how "second-order design" is, well, design. It is by definition unplanned. It is by definition the opposite of arranged--it is haphazard, ad hoc, undefined, malleable. Frequently, it isn't even self-consistent. It is not "fashioned artistically or skillfully," because it isn't fashioned at all, it simply happens. It is like cutting the end off the roast because it doesn't fit your pan, not because it has anything to do with cooking it.

So, why is it called "design"?
 
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Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Supporter
It's not that it's "difficult to measure"--most metrics of quality are going to be difficult to measure, but "fun," or especially "enjoyability," actually can be. The problem is much deeper than mere measurability.

It's that it's a meaningless term..... That heuristic becomes uselessly tautological if you try to insert fun as your design goal.

And yet, it isn't! One can argue that it's subjective (as are most things in design!) but I can tell you something....

If I didn't have fun when I played an RPG, I'm unlikely to play it again. It's not like I'm getting paid to do it. It's why we differentiate work and, um, fun.

So I would probably put fun as pretty much the top priority.

Now, if you have a different priority when playing, like pain, then that's cool. I'm not here to kink shame! But most people, when spending free time playing recreational games, are trying to have fun!


Separately from the above, and I know I've said this before so I apologize if I'm coming across as a broken record, but...

I still don't get how "second-order design" is, well, design. It is by definition unplanned. It is by definition the opposite of arranged--it is haphazard, ad hoc, undefined, malleable. Frequently, it isn't even self-consistent. It is not "fashioned artistically or skillfully," because it isn't fashioned at all, it simply happens. It is like cutting the end off the roast because it doesn't fit your pan, not because you need to for your recipe.

So, why is it called "design"?

Because first-order design influence second-order design? Otherwise, why bother?

It's a lot like saying, "Why do Boeing and the FAA care about how planes are actually flown? They don't need to think about how pilots actually use them. After all, they just design the planes, right?"
 


Pedantic

Legend
So, on this, I think we just have a fundamental disagreement. I am, for lack of a better term, simply not interested in the "good rules" v. "bad rules" divide, and don't think it's actually germane to the topic.

Think of it in two steps.
1. Should there be a rule?
2. Is the rule a good rule?
Oh, I could not disagree more here. It is very difficult to discuss design in TTRPGs precisely because there is this divide to begin with. We get trapped in generalities very quickly because we can't settle on the necessary commonplaces for discussion. Routinely, a rule is held up as synecdoche for the concept of rules, "feats are bad, because now you can't take an action with the specific ability allowing you to take it" vs. "the Brachiation feat is bad, because that ability should be better handled via the skill system."

It is very hard to push any discussion of design forward, when you're struggling against "why is there design?" as a question every time. Bad design goes unexamined, either because the rule zero tradition sees no problem pushing, as you put it, first order mistakes out to seek second order solutions, or because some subset of users don't support a particular design goal (or, often, that a game should have design goals).

I often wish there was some way to subdivide the hobby into more discrete, specific hobbies as a result. I'm jealous of what board games have done over the last 20 years, when comparatively what we've seen in TTRPGs is deeply stagnant from a design perspective, precisely because a chunk of the audience is hostile to the very idea. It's an exclusionary impulse I think is probably unworthy, but it can be deeply frustrating.
My thoughts are usually focused on the first step. I assume that the rule will be a good rule. Much like I assume that the DM (and the players) are good at playing the game. But for that reason, the issue of "good rules" and "bad rules" is fundamentally uninteresting to me in this conversation. What makes rules "good" and "not good" can be a great conversation to have, but it's also a completely different conversation.

Because ... and this is what I keep getting at ... even the bestest awesomest more clarifyingest rules ever still come with a cost. As I wrote- On the other hand, additional rules inevitably come with a cost- added complexity, added issues of interpretation, added issues of how different rules will intersect, and even just the cost associated with people learning more rules.
This is precisely that reduction I was talking about. Not having a rule is equally expensive, the costs are just born elsewhere: either as a second order design work, which is done live and under different, potentially less flexible and/or rigorous conditions than the first kind, or on the player side, as they make decisions without clarity. Every rule is balancing factors on both sides of that equation, but it's not a perfectly balanced scenario before you start introducing them.
This is always true! ALWAYS. Now, a lot of the time, those rules justify the costs. And when you're doing that, the quality of the rule does matter - if you're doing a cost/benefit analysis of a particular rule, you want the lowest cost and the highest benefit possible.

I always assume (despite ample evidence to the contrary in the field) for purposes of these conversations that new rules are the best possible examples. And that's the point.
We certainly agree here that there isn't a solid narrative of progressive improvement in TTRPG design, I just think the focus on second-order design considerations really limits the potential there ever will be. :p
 

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