Why do RPGs have rules?

clearstream

(He, Him)
In philosophy of law, the contrast between rules and principles is sometimes (maybe "often" would be better) understood as being between being amenable to all or nothing application (rules are like this) vs having weight but not, in themselves, being determinative (principles are like this).

An example of a rule: do not drive faster than the marked speed limit.

An example of a principle: those who create risk should bear the cost of harm that results from that risk crystallising.
That's a helpful definition and pair of examples to have, and I can preface what I will add with a confession that I see the line between principles and rules as irreparably permeable... not found in any fixed place. With that said...

In games, rules seem like basic tools of play. They typically exert an effect upon players (procedural rules) or game state (mediating rules) at such moments as circumstances prompt and justify invoking them. As your definition lays out, often they have their all-or-nothing effect and then fall silent again. Players use rules to constitute and enact their playful intentions. A rule can feel external to them: they follow its instructions and do the thing, but so could another.

But what playful intentions are the right sort? That is defined by principles, which outline ideal behaviour. They typically exert their effect upon players; not in a transient all-or-nothing way, but as a constant conditioning while within the magic circle. Players accept principles to use rules as intended and avoid using them not as intended. They must internalise principles, forming intentions of their own in accord with them.

Some legal requirements can be stated with the syntax of a rule - eg a person who causes harm by negligent action, to someone to whom they owe a duty of care, will be liable to compensate that harm - but may be better analysed as complexes of principle (eg the negligence "rule" combines the principle I stated just above, with other principles about remoteness, foreseeability, community and professional standards and expectations, etc).
I see that as connected with the notion that agreement to a rule is not found in that rule. Implying that in some sense all rules must be complexes or control-surfaces wrapping other things. Principles are good candidates for such "other things."

I'm not sure what's at stake, in the context of RPG design and play, in the distinction between rules and principles. In Apocalypse World, a distinction is drawn between principles and moves. Player-side moves are particular mechanical "widgets" and processes that either affect other moves, or else mediate changes in the fiction (as per Vincent Baker's work on clouds and boxes). GM-side moves are particular patterns of fiction-introduction, that help discipline and direct the GM's introduction of fiction.
An illustrative example is the "PERSUADE (vs PCs)" move in Stonetop. Taken literally with no regard for principles, it is exploitable as an XP pump. One thing at stake is seeing that rules have the result on play that their designer intended.

I don't see what utility there is in denying that the AW principles are not rules. They set normative standards for the GM to comply with. Sometimes they might need to be "balanced" or "weighed" against one another - eg Look through crosshairs and Be a fan of the players' characters might sometimes come into tension (suppose a NPC is very precious to a PC) - but this is not true of all of them. Make your move, but never speak its name and Make your move, but misdirect, are particularly clear examples here: there is no reason that the GM should not comply with these in every moment of play.
I perceive a virtuous layering effect that has utility to designers, which is that the conditioning by shared principles can lead to more apt, accurate and forceful employment of the rules.

Having constructed a ruleset, designer can observe playtests and figure out which principles will most accurately and powerfully drive the use of the rules that they intend. Consciously laying out the conditions within which their rules will thrive. (Albeit, as @Manbearcat observes, that's still rather a work in progress for the field overall.)
 

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clearstream

(He, Him)
As a side thought, when I think about Wittgenstein's "form of life" which in the Philosophical Investigations on at least one reading he grounds rule-following in, I feel one could possibly say that principles are our way of transmitting "form of life" so that we have a more completely shared sense of what it means to follow the rule.
 


Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
I feel like if you are including every instance that requires some form of judgement, including the baseline process of play (of how moves work) then you are basically saying that everything is a principle instead of a rule. That flattens the discussion of how games work to make it effectively meaningless because nothing is a rule then. Like you cannot even make sense of a Stonetop basic move outside the context of how moves work (which requires establishing fictional positioning).
 

clearstream

(He, Him)
I feel like if you are including every instance that requires some form of judgement, including the baseline process of play (of how moves work) then you are basically saying that everything is a principle instead of a rule. That flattens the discussion of how games work to make it effectively meaningless because nothing is a rule then.
That may be true (if someone is saying that.) What I have been proposing maintains a strong distinction between principles and rules.

Principles illuminate the meaning and ideal use of rules​
Rules reify, extend and override norms in specific ways (e.g. constitutive, regulatory, procedural, mediating)​
Either can be written or unwritten. Rules have greater normative force for a number of reasons (that I can list if it becomes important), but they don't have that force in the absence of principles, and differing principles will lead that force to be applied in differing ways.

Like you cannot even make sense of a Stonetop basic move outside the context of how moves work (which requires establishing fictional positioning).
That gets at the related point of how we know what a rule means. While I think that rules are not principles, we will not agree on what rules mean without principles. So it would be right to say that one cannot make sense of a Stonetop basic move outside of the context of how moves work. That doesn't seem to me very controversial. Equally, however, one cannot know exactly what behaviour amounts to fulfilment of the move, without the rule. Principles imply the desirability or suitability of rules - encouraging and justifying their coalescene into the game design and how they are used in play. But only the rule tells us specifically what to do, and only that specificity allows construction of the web of rules forming a coherent game text such as Blades in the Dark.

As an analogy, I cannot understand an English language edition of The Old Man and the Sea without knowing English, but knowing English doesn't mean I know the story of The Old Man and the Sea. Another analogy might be to say that Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night could not have the power it does without English words and the poetic form of the villanelle, but English words and the villanelle are not that poem and it takes nothing away from it to say that it is written in English.
 
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clearstream

(He, Him)
It's not clear how these are consistent.
The boundary between principles and rules is permeable, so that there are entities along it that are ambiguous. Views are likely to vary widely as to whether to count such entities principles or rules. There are also entities far from the boundary. Views will more often accord on identifying those as either principles or rules.

So I do not say that my "strong distinction" is as to the clear identification of entities along the boundary as principles or rules; rather it is as to the features of those away from the boundaries. I'm not sure what tells us when an entity along the boundary goes one way or another. I assume that's down to some other sort of norm, and thus cohort-specific.

I can say what to count as the game of Chess, what to count as Chess-like, and what to count as not-Chess. I can list game properties associated with Chess and get far enough away from them to feel confident of agreement. But I can't say exactly where games stop being Chess-like and start being something else for all cohorts. And even if I think I can identify a TTRPG, I'm reminded of Baker's observation that "TTRPGs are no more fundamentally alike than video games, sports, or any other arbitrary game category."
 
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That may be true (if someone is saying that.) What I have been proposing maintains a strong distinction between principles and rules.

Principles illuminate the meaning and ideal use of rules​
Rules reify, extend and override norms in specific ways (e.g. constitutive, regulatory, procedural, mediating)​
Either can be written or unwritten. Rules have greater normative force for a number of reasons (that I can list if it becomes important), but they don't have that force in the absence of principles, and differing principles will lead that force to be applied in differing ways.


That gets at the related point of how we know what a rule means. While I think that rules are not principles, we will not agree on what rules mean without principles. So it would be right to say that one cannot make sense of a Stonetop basic move outside of the context of how moves work. That doesn't seem to me very controversial. Equally, however, one cannot know exactly what behaviour amounts to fulfilment of the move, without the rule. Principles imply the desirability or suitability of rules - encouraging and justifying their coalescene into the game design and how they are used in play. But only the rule tells us specifically what to do, and only that specificity allows construction of the web of rules forming a coherent game text such as Blades in the Dark.

As an analogy, I cannot understand an English language edition of The Old Man and the Sea without knowing English, but knowing English doesn't mean I know the story of The Old Man and the Sea. Another analogy might be to say that Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night could not have the power it does without English words and the poetic form of the villanelle, but English words and the villanelle are not that poem and it takes nothing away from it to say that it is written in English.
I don't think too much of the analogy, but putting that aside... Rules are at heart constitutive of a game in a mechanical sense. They may have 'arrows to the left and right' as Baker puts it, but fundamentally they delineate the procedures and process of play, and define the elements of play. Principles, in PbtA terms, are then effectively rules because they define what kinds of things to say, and thus the content of the fiction, or what the fiction aught to be, and that feeds DIRECTLY into resolution. So IMHO when you are running Apocalypse World, Dungeon World, or Stonetop (the three PbtAs I have significant experience with) those principles are just as ironclad and defining of play as any of the 'other' rules. I mean, I don't think they are all literally 'just rules' in every respect, but any attempt to analyze anything about a game like AW without considering those principles at the center of it, will not produce meaning in terms of what AW is.
 

clearstream

(He, Him)
I don't think they are all literally 'just rules' in every respect, but any attempt to analyze anything about a game like AW without considering those principles at the center of it, will not produce meaning in terms of what AW is.
I agree with that. Even if one knows what the rules are, without the given set of principles the play of those rules will as you say "not produce meaning in terms of what AW is." The two work together. One can make similar observations about other games.
 

I agree with that. Even if one knows what the rules are, without the given set of principles the play of those rules will as you say "not produce meaning in terms of what AW is." The two work together. One can make similar observations about other games.
Right, so mostly I just look at how play happens. We did a one-shot the other day where 2 of us ran a couple of NPCs that are now about to figure in our regular Stonetop game. So we just quick did them up and ran a kind of kicker scenario for them, like 'how did they start out?' kind of thing.

Now, given what we already know about these NPCs (not too much, they've never been on screen, but one of them has been a behind-the-scenes character, so we know at least what role she's playing in the setting now) we kind of know what sorts of characters they are. Maeve is being portrayed as a 'heavy', her role in our story is as a kind of a menacing thug leader. The other character is her right hand, a mysterious person who may be a sort of priest or hetman, 'The Eye'.

So, we start out located in our original tribe in an area called Manmarch. The GM posses a situation, following general DW/ST GMing principles, though the setup is not quite bog standard Stonetop. Our food supply has up and disappeared, the big elk some hunters brought in is GONE! The Eye starts doing spirit stuff to try to figure out what happened, Maeve takes on her role as a 'heavy' and lends assistance. We meet with some success, we're able to determine that the animal was spirited away by some sort of druidic magic, and we can track it.

Now, The Eye gets a vision of a monstrous cave bear and the message that if we don't stop the bear from eating this elk it will become a real threat, gaining uncanny sustenance. We set off and track the thing down, still mostly getting some decent rolls for tracking and seeing what the situation is.

Eventually we get to a steep drop in front of the bear's cave. Maeve now kicks into full heavy mode (the heavy is a bad-assed fighter) and drops down in front of the cave, a torch in one hand, armor equipped, with a big iron warhammer in the other fist. At this point the magic opposing us picks rolls a wave of icy river water into the cave, and extinguishes Maeve's torch, threatening to drag her under. The Eye tries some magic, canceling half of the effect (I rolled badly for my defy danger move to get into this situation). Now I'm in the dark again, taking cold damage, and slowed down by the water. The bear attacks, I'm now at 1 hit point, and my counter attack, though it works, doesn't kill the bear. Once again the water pulls me back and I go under, and now I'm at 0 hit points!

At this point Maeve gets a 14 on her Death's Door, I tell Death to take a hike and I'm going to kick this druid magic in the arse! I come leaping back out of the water, with my 1 hit point back, and The Eye drops into the cave from above to help me. I kill the bear with a mighty blow, and the people feast on bear meat, while I take the pelt.

So, we have a pretty standard narrative here, in a sense. I mean, you could describe a game using B/X D&D pretty close to the same way, though magic works a bit differently here... Anyway, the point is, consider the DW-esque principles at play here. The scenario was fun, and hazardous for the characters, but interesting. We learned that Maeve is an iron-willed sort of character who gets what she wants. The Eye has some sort of mysterious connection to the spirit world and an agenda of his own. Maybe he's just using Maeve! We will play to find out, even though these are going to be NPCs in the rest of our play.
 

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