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


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In effect, the success of D&D as a mass market game is because it is not just a product of rules, but a comingling of the rules, norms, community, and history. In effect, the success of D&D is that it implicitly allows for a multitude of gameplay; that it does not speak to (or constrain) second-order design, and, moreover, explicitly allows a diversity of play in fundamental ways, even to the level of whether you play ToTM or grid.
This is what made D&D the #1 role playing game, and kept it there for a long time. Though maybe Hasbro/WotC will knock D&D down with "not 6E", but we will have to see.

Nearly Everyone that sat down to play D&D did so for the "out of the rules", "beyond the rules" or "outside the box" experience. Sure there are some die hards that play the game of "my character moves forward two squares and does the attack action". But most everyone else role plays beyond the rules.

And people started playing D&D beyond the rules back in the 70's, and in 50 years and many editions D&D has never added rules to cover all that stuff in the beyond. The best D&D has ever done is offer a tiny bit of helpfull suggestions. Like 5E has back grounds. You can pick the "criminal background" and get a "+1 when you do criminal stuff". But that is nothing. There are no "rules" for "acting like a criminal". There is no "I want my character to take Official Criminal Action One: Robbery on page 44".

The D&D rules don't even tell you what to do in the game. Sure, there are some vague suggestions....but that is it. The best the rules ever say on "what" to do in a game is "buy the offical WotC products". Say a dragon? Ok, sure. Explore a Dungeon? Go ahead. Fight a Kraken under the sea? Yup. Fight Dark Star Pirates in a Dark Matter Nebula? Yup. Tame a wild frontier and build a kingdom? Yup. Forge a peaceful alliance between men, elves and dwarves? Yup. Set up and run a Thieves guild? Yup.

And on and on and on to infinity.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I feel like I'm missing something about the "second-order" design principle that's being brought up here regularly. Is there something unique about it conceptually aside from when and where it occurs that makes it different from designing rules?

My immediate view of not designing a system, and then making decisions about it as an individual in the moment, is just that you're moving the design task to a different place/time and setting some constraints on the tools and time available to the designer (they must come up with a solution rapidly, they can't test their solution before deploying it, etc.), but I feel like I'm missing something unique that proponents are seeing in that.

The obvious benefit I'm seeing is that when you build the plane as you're flying it, you can ensure the design covers the exact situations/needs of the game as they arise, but I don't necessarily believe that's unique, particularly given that you can also use design as a tool to shape what will come up at a table to begin with.

The thing about rules is that they are descriptive as much as proscriptive. You can go from a transcript of play to writing a set of rules that would have (or are likely to have) produced that transcript. I'm struggling to conceptualize how not to do design work; it's a bit like being asked to look at a text and see the letters without reading it.

It's actually not that complicated.

You're a game designer. You make the rules and procedures for the game. You write them. That's the first-order design.

However, once the game is released, once people play it, they will play it in different ways. This is the second-order design.

Or, to put it more simply- the game designer make the rulebook, but can't dictate the player's behavior.

That said, there are various ways that a game designer can influence second-order design. The most obvious is extensive playtesting. See how disparate groups interact with the rules, and tweak accordingly.

Another is to try and create rules that you think will have an impact on second-order design. For example, on thing that is popular is to have "principles" and "procedures" that are written down that the table should follow- things like "The GM Should Be a Fan of the Players" and have examples of that, as opposed to leaving this as an assumed heuristic.

A final way would be to make the rules fit more tightly to the assumed gameplay; an example of this would be if, for example, D&D didn't leave it open as to whether or not you played ToTM or grid, but instead insisted you played one way and made all the rules with the understanding you were playing that way.

Better?
 

Oofta

Legend
I'd be rolling my eyes at the use of that metaphor for this discussion too, LOL.
Military wargames are not games in the sense that we discuss on this forum. Game can also refer to prey, it can refer to gaming the system, to have a fighting spirit. So your comment that military wargames are not fun, while true, was also completely and totally irrelevant.
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
So, I totally get what you're saying here. I have appreciated different approached to rules. Heck, there are many times that I ponder the difference between the TSR-era and WoTC-era saving throws.

But I guess my question was a little more narrow. There have been times I have purchased RPGs solely because of the art, or the lore, or because it "looked cool" (the materials). But I can't think of a time I bought an RPG because of an aesthetic appreciation of the rules. I can appreciate good rules, of course, but I can't think of a time when that was the selling point of the RPG.
Oh, rules-design choices that are purely driven by rules aesthetics are a huge 2000s thing; that's like 90% of the design of 3e, particularly the problematic design.

The idea of building all enemies with identical rules to what you use to build a player character? That is driven by rules aesthetics, not by other concerns. Specifically, it is the rules aesthetic of symmetry. All entities--player or non-player--function exactly the same way (up to differences that would already potentially exist between any two PCs, I mean.)

The idea of à la carte multiclassing is another rule used for is aesthetic value, not its mechanical value, because mechanically it's a nightmare and I've never seen it work properly. Likewise, most "skill point" systems have similar issues and share the same rules-aesthetic motive. Different people will probably refer to this by different terms, but the rules-aesthetic going on there is (more or less) "growth realism": the idea that real people do not rigidly adhere to one track/pursuing absolute mastery/etc., but instead grow in diverse and sprawling ways that shift and change over time. This aesthetic is extremely compelling for a lot of people, despite frequently leading to both reduced fun (see: how many people hate the fact that you need to plan out builds in 3e super far in advance or else you'll probably suck) and reduced practical effectiveness of the rules (it takes forever to build characters, you have to be a precise bean-counter for tons of things, etc.)

But there are many others. Parsimony, for example. I have seen many, many posters on this forum explicitly advocate for doing fewer things, not because doing fewer things is necessarily more fun, but because it is simply seen as better design to make fewer things. Fewer classes, fewer races, fewer spells, etc., etc. "Less is more" is a practical concern, in that it claims (rightly or wrongly) that a smaller commitment/smaller toolset not only covers everything the larger one can, but gives additional benefits besides. But "less is more" is not the reason why many folks advocate cutting D&D down to only 4 classes or whatever, because they openly recognize that it would in fact be "less is less" in many cases. Instead, they see "less" as inherently valuable in its own right, which is clearly a design aesthetic motivation, irrespective of entertainment value or practical function.

@Pedantic here is an excellent example of someone I would consider driven very heavily by rules aesthetic concerns, and who would (rightly!) take the preceding paragraphs to task for conflating the specific 3e attempt at those aesthetics for the fundamental aesthetic itself. That's a disagreement I believe the two of us have had for several years now and I doubt we're going to come to a neat agreement in this thread, but I can at least recognize that there is a vital difference between the reason why something is done and the actual attempt to do that something.

Another example of a hybrid aesthetic-practical concern is "make it usable." One of the criticisms I've long levied at 3e is that it just wastes a ton of design space and time on things almost no one will ever use. Scads of planes with little to no value other than the knowledge that they exist--purely aesthetic there (in this case, symmetry applied to cosmology/locations, rather than to classes/races/etc.) So-called "NPC classes," combat stats for completely ordinary housecats, reams of garbage feats, etc. A huge amount of both 3e and its descendants (e.g. PF1e) is about making a ruleset that reads beautifully, even if half or more of it will literally never matter at most tables. 4e counters this purely-aesthetic motivation with a mixed aesthetic-practical one, "make it usable." If you describe a location as part of the cosmology, you'd better make sure that it could, in fact, actually support adventure in some way, because adventure is what the game is about (with a reasonably broad definition of "adventure.") If you include combat stats for a creature, it better be because combat with that creature is actually plausible, even if it might not necessarily actually happen (e.g., stats for combat against angels)--and for creatures that are less-likely but plausible, it's okay to put them on a lower priority than ones that are very likely to get into fights with player characters. Etc.

This "make it usable" thing is in part aesthetic, because it is passing judgment on things like the infinite Plane of Fire that doesn't actually contain any landmarks or points of interest or anything other than infinite fire and more fire and also some fire, and all of that fire is also on fire. But it's also practical, because...that's kind of the point, you're trying to ensure that there's a clear, definite use for the things you put in.

As stated, the 2000s saw the rise of rules-aesthetics as a major motivation for people to buy and play games. Part of the negative reaction to 4e was that it was not designed--in the graphical or writing sense--to appeal to people who love rules-aesthetics. This is partly for reasons I consider good (namely, the 4e team actually put the methods of pursuing various design aesthetics to the test and found them very wanting), but also for reasons I recognize as very poor (too caught up in the sacred barbecue, as it were; not paying enough attention to important aesthetic considerations that weren't affecting mechanics; etc.)
 

Pedantic

Legend
It's actually not that complicated.

You're a game designer. You make the rules and procedures for the game. You write them. That's the first-order design.

However, once the game is released, once people play it, they will play it in different ways. This is the second-order design.

Or, to put it more simply- the game designer make the rulebook, but can't dictate the player's behavior.

That said, there are various ways that a game designer can influence second-order design. The most obvious is extensive playtesting. See how disparate groups interact with the rules, and tweak accordingly.

Another is to try and create rules that you think will have an impact on second-order design. For example, on thing that is popular is to have "principles" and "procedures" that are written down that the table should follow- things like "The GM Should Be a Fan of the Players" and have examples of that, as opposed to leaving this as an assumed heuristic.

A final way would be to make the rules fit more tightly to the assumed gameplay; an example of this would be if, for example, D&D didn't leave it open as to whether or not you played ToTM or grid, but instead insisted you played one way and made all the rules with the understanding you were playing that way.

Better?

No, I think we're on the same page here. What I'm asking is, as a GM or other player doing the second-order design, how does what you're doing differ from what a designer does in the first place? Is there some way in which the analysis that's relevant to the first point not relevant, or is there some unique aspect of what you're doing that requires different tools?
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
As stated, the 2000s saw the rise of rules-aesthetics as a major motivation for people to buy and play games. Part of the negative reaction to 4e was that it was not designed--in the graphical or writing sense--to appeal to people who love rules-aesthetics. This is partly for reasons I consider good (namely, the 4e team actually put the methods of pursuing various design aesthetics to the test and found them very wanting), but also for reasons I recognize as very poor (too caught up in the sacred barbecue, as it were; not paying enough attention to important aesthetic considerations that weren't affecting mechanics; etc.)

Fair. Based on this (and the preceding comments) I have to assume that I'm not as in-tune with this concept as others are. I'm still not entirely sure about buying a game for the rules themselves, but now that you've put it this way (and in light of prior comments) I can certainly appreciate people that have bought books because they wanted the "crunch."
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
No, I think we're on the same page here. What I'm asking is, as a GM or other player doing the second-order design, how does what you're doing differ from what a designer does in the first place? Is there some way in which the analysis that's relevant to the first point not relevant, or is there some unique aspect of what you're doing that requires different tools?

Gotcha. So I'm not entirely sure I'd phrase it like that. Not that you're wrong, but ...

So normally the question arises in the context of the actual designer of the game. Think of it in terms of ... oh, how they intend the game to be played. They have to be cognizant of the difference between the first-order and second-order design. This isn't even specific to TTRPGs, although other fields might use different names. A good UI Engineer, for example, is always cognizant of how people will actually use something.

Personally, I think the question isn't really about GMs and/or players doing second-order design- at that point, they are just doing "first-order design" but for their individual table! Instead, it's about the level of concern that a given designer has with second-order design.

To use 5e as an example, I would argue that it deliberately eschewed an approach that dictated second-order design. In other words, while there are a fair amount of rules that people tend to agree on (how many hit points does a first level fighter get?), there is also a lot of area where the game doesn't dictate how tables play ... I would say that this is deliberate. In fact, one of the things that I think frustrates people about the DMG .... if they ever read it! ... is that it can be frustratingly "It's all good, do what you want!" when it comes to providing DM's advice, which is great when you telling people that what they are doing is great, but less good when you are trying to teach new DMs how to do it.
 

Pedantic

Legend
Interesting. I feel like you're drawing a distinction here that I'm not totally sure I'd have considered relevant before, and maybe this goes back to that point about the "aesthetics of rules" from a few posts back. Fundamentally, I don't really care whether the rules of the game I'm playing come from a manual, an instruction booklet, the imagination of my classmate on the bus next to me (I recall a fascinating combat arena game about elementally powered stick figures we used to play on field trips), but I am pretty invested in what the rules do in action, both literally, but also meta-textually. I want to use the rules, and I want to understand them. Part of that might be the board gaming background, where finding a rule that doesn't quite make sense or flow smoothly from established processes usually means there's something I don't yet understand about the game's strategy, or a weird and potentially degenerate board state that needed to be solved for I can try to go unpick.

It seems to me though, that you're drawing a line between the territory of "rules" and "gameplay at the table" that I'm finding unintuitive. Houserules are still rules by other means, a DM telling me "we'll do the called shot like this" is a rule I've just learned about right now, and so on. The same processes I'd use to evaluate rules outside that context, still seem to apply.

Perhaps it's inconsistency that's really the point of variance? Not just table to table, but rule to rule. You might use that called shot rule once, and a different approach the next time, and while that does retroactively establish a conditional on which rule is used, it's not a commitment to uphold that each time.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Interesting. I feel like you're drawing a distinction here that I'm not totally sure I'd have considered relevant before, and maybe this goes back to that point about the "aesthetics of rules" from a few posts back. Fundamentally, I don't really care whether the rules of the game I'm playing come from a manual, an instruction booklet, the imagination of my classmate on the bus next to me (I recall a fascinating combat arena game about elementally powered stick figures we used to play on field trips), but I am pretty invested in what the rules do in action, both literally, but also meta-textually. I want to use the rules, and I want to understand them. Part of that might be the board gaming background, where finding a rule that doesn't quite make sense or flow smoothly from established processes usually means there's something I don't yet understand about the game's strategy, or a weird and potentially degenerate board state that needed to be solved for I can try to go unpick.

It seems to me though, that you're drawing a line between the territory of "rules" and "gameplay at the table" that I'm finding unintuitive. Houserules are still rules by other means, a DM telling me "we'll do the called shot like this" is a rule I've just learned about right now, and so on. The same processes I'd use to evaluate rules outside that context, still seem to apply.

Perhaps it's inconsistency that's really the point of variance? Not just table to table, but rule to rule. You might use that called shot rule once, and a different approach the next time, and while that does retroactively establish a conditional on which rule is used, it's not a commitment to uphold that each time.

Kinda. Let me go back and use a few different examples that might help make this more easy-to-understand.

Going back to the FKR idea, imagine the most free-wheeling FKR game ever. Say, Perfected.
We both roll dice. If you roll high, your view of reality prevails. If I roll high, my view of reality prevails. If we're close, we negotiate.

Those are the rules of the game. That's it. I would say that this game has almost nothing to say about the second-order design, and, in fact, the diversity of play that would spring forth from the rules (the first-order design) is pretty obvious.

On other hand, take D&D. As I keep noting, there are areas in which D&D has explicitly not required a given approach. ToTM or Theater of the Mind (or hybrid) is the easiest example. There, the designers of the game are punting on something that, for most games, would be fundamental to the play.

But I wouldn't say that there is anything inconsistent about it. Most games from the 70s, as I've noted before, arose out of consistent second-order design as applied to OD&D. Even the earliest superhero game was just the DM's notes from an OD&D campaign that travelled between worlds.
 

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