Worlds of Design: You're Playing it Wrong!

Does it matter if you play a game “wrong”?

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Getting it Wrong in Two Parts​

The question of possibly playing a game “wrong” has at least two separate parts: first, how much must you adhere to the game rules and second, what should the spirit of the game be?

Board Games vs. RPGs​

The “inviolability” of rules is different for board games than for RPGs because there’s no GM in board games. In effect, the board game rules are the GM. There should be no room for interpretation of board game rules, but because they’re written by humans, and read by humans, doubts arise - even the designer may not be sure. RPG rules are much more like miniatures rules, partly a matter for negotiation. The lack of GM or other arbitrator/interpreter of rules is why board game rules must be much more carefully constructed and written than RPG rules.

I don’t play my board games after they’re published, except when I change the rules to try different things for variants or new editions. I design games for other people to play, not for me to play. And when someone asks me about the rules for my games I say “you have to play according to what’s written in the rules” and “I’m not the best person to ask about the right way to play.” Because people who play the game regularly sometimes know the rules better than I do.

Rules as Written (RAW)​

Nonetheless, if you spend much time on social media, you might run into comments from a group of people who are very sure that AD&D must be played exactly as AD&D was written (sometimes called RAW, Rules As Written).

There is no assurance that the game’s rules as written are going to be the best way to play for some players. Here’s the reality of writing rules for boardgame or role-playing games: sometimes you playtest a game and have a choice between two rules, and one seems to be just as good as the other. Which rule you use becomes an arbitrary choice. Some people prefer your choice, some might prefer the one you rejected.

Keep in mind, when someone publishes your game, rather than you publishing it, changes can be made either accidentally or without your knowledge (as my Britannia) or even against your will.

I first watched a published version of my board game Britannia being played in 2004 (it was published in 1986 and 1987, but I took 20 years out from the game industry and only played D&D). I remember exclaiming “no way!” when I saw Jutes floating at sea long after they were required to have landed, in the prototype. But owing to a misunderstanding (I was not sufficiently clear in my rules), Gibsons (the original publisher) had changed the rules so that interminable floating at sea was allowed.

I told people to play the game the way the rules were written, even though I didn’t write those incorrect rules, which were nonsensical historically. But the 1st edition was and is pretty popular even though the Avalon Hill version incorrectly changed several rules from the original Gibsons version (both are regarded as first edition).

Rules as Intended (RAI)​

I think RPGs are written to accommodate many different styles of play, different preferences. As Justin Arman of WotC put it, "The game [D&D] was designed to be house-ruled." That’s certainly true of most if not all role-playing games.

Some boardgame designers have been known to tell people that something that’s legal within the rules is nonetheless wrong because “that’s not what I meant” or “that’s not the right way to play.” - as though even the rules are not enough. This is nonsense.

Consider also, because RPGs are responsible for everything in the entire game world, creators typically don't have or take the time to playtest all the rules, not even once! When Gary Gygax was writing the AD&D rules he had a lot of experience from play of the earlier versions of D&D. Nonetheless, he was adding rules for a lot more situations to the game. IIRC he was also in a hurry.

When a designer changes a rule in a game, this can cause unintended consequences as it meshes with other rules. That’s also true when players change a rule. Even Gygax said he regretted certain rules (e.g. grappling).

Nowadays you can organize massive playtesting for a new edition of very popular games, but that’s the exception to the norm.

RAW vs. RAI​

In the light of many years of play experience it certainly could occur that the rules as written ought to be superseded by changes to make the game work better. (Or at least better according to the preferences of the person doing the revision.) For example, I think the AD&D training rules are nonsense both from a game design point of view and how people actually learn. But others think they’re sacred. House ruling is inevitable, quite apart from the many rules that are open to multiple interpretations.

Speaking as a game designer, I don't mind if people want to play my game not according to the rules; but they must recognize it probably won’t work as well as they expect, and won’t work as the original game works. But they bought the game, they can play however they choose.

Your Turn: Do you adhere strictly to every rule in the RPGs you play?
 

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Thomas Shey

Legend
Most of the rules are broad, yes. I'm not entirely clear on what "schematic" means in this context. Individual class playbooks, however, tend to have pretty specific rules, and usually do have some degree of mechanical teeth.

I consider rules that are broad but filled out by the end user--which is what most Moves do--"schematic" in that they set up a structure that's filled in by the user, in contrast to rules sets that when you do X you will get a specific range of results that are mostly predefined, not by declaration but by the rules structure.

I'd give a specific example but the couple of PbtA games I have are on another hard drive that I can't immediately access. As broad example, though, consider the way you have to playtest a typical (I'm using the term advisedly because there's clearly enough variation in PbtA derived games that there's bound to be something out on the penumbra where this isn't true) PbtA based game and something like the Hero System or Rolemaster; the latter two simply have a lot more specific bits and bobs that require looks because the mechanics are far more likely to produce far more baked-in results.
 

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clearstream

(He, Him)
I consider rules that are broad but filled out by the end user--which is what most Moves do--"schematic" in that they set up a structure that's filled in by the user, in contrast to rules sets that when you do X you will get a specific range of results that are mostly predefined, not by declaration but by the rules structure.

I'd give a specific example but the couple of PbtA games I have are on another hard drive that I can't immediately access. As broad example, though, consider the way you have to playtest a typical (I'm using the term advisedly because there's clearly enough variation in PbtA derived games that there's bound to be something out on the penumbra where this isn't true) PbtA based game and something like the Hero System or Rolemaster; the latter two simply have a lot more specific bits and bobs that require looks because the mechanics are far more likely to produce far more baked-in results.
That reminds me of what @Lanefan wrote. Contemporary designs like DW seem to me to benefit from more recent design philosophies that mitigate complexity through avoiding unnecessary interdependencies. So a move like Hack and Slash is quite well encapsulated, fetching few parameters from other places. As @Lanefan pointed out, one of the design characteristics of WotC-era D&D has been heavily interdependent rules: it can take a lot of play to notice all the cases a change impacts. And then the general DW move structure is reused for almost all mechanised character actions (with some degree of heterogeneity, such as in various spells).

When you talk about "declaration" I think about both detail and greater heterogeneity. Both sides of that can be worthwhile. If one wants a highly-detailed treatment of subject then often rules that use common patterns and easy-to-manage parameters will miss some detail you care about. Hack and Slash is an equally good example of this. You could argue that no let's-pretend can really capture melee combat, but I certainly felt like I was engaging in one far more viscerally in ICE than DW. That's not a criticism of the latter: it just a different focus. A very broad range of things worth handling are far easier to handle using PbtA methods. But a benefit of greater heterogenity of the design patterns (perhaps that's what you have in mind with schematic?) is the ability to give specific activities a distinctive feel. I recall playing a Greater Summoner in DragonQuest, and my stuff just worked so differently mechanically from everyone else's that it made the experience distinctive. (Also, hopelessly OP, but that is another matter.) When Book of Nine Swords appeared for 3.5e it introduced an entirely new mechanical take on fighting (which would go on to inform the design of 4e.)

Additionally, challenge in games often correlates to the count and complexity of the available combinations. The list of strategies required for mastery is dependent to some extent on mechanics diversity, but count isn't the same as depth. It's probably a wash in terms of opportunity for challenge; but it certainly has a higher playtest cost to resolve more distinct, and more complexly interconnected, mechanics. A strong motive for publishers like Evil Hat to favour Fate, FitD and PbtA designs. WotC have been able to afford the cost of playtesting a design like D&D.
 
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EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
I consider rules that are broad but filled out by the end user--which is what most Moves do--"schematic" in that they set up a structure that's filled in by the user, in contrast to rules sets that when you do X you will get a specific range of results that are mostly predefined, not by declaration but by the rules structure.

I'd give a specific example but the couple of PbtA games I have are on another hard drive that I can't immediately access. As broad example, though, consider the way you have to playtest a typical (I'm using the term advisedly because there's clearly enough variation in PbtA derived games that there's bound to be something out on the penumbra where this isn't true) PbtA based game and something like the Hero System or Rolemaster; the latter two simply have a lot more specific bits and bobs that require looks because the mechanics are far more likely to produce far more baked-in results.
Oh, sure, Paladin for example has the Quest move which is definitely schematic. But others, like Undertake a Perilous Journey, or (say) the Fighter's Bend Bars, Lift Gates are far less so. Arguably, Discern Realities as well. You do make choices as to how things happen, but the list is fixed.
 

aramis erak

Legend
I try to use RAW, and like others, I eventually hit spots that break. I track my house rules, and my notes are very clear about where I've knowingly altered things.
If I've got to make too many or too deep a change, I quit that system.
I don't consider Rules as Intended to be readily doable most of the time - few authors are verbose enough to actually discuss their intent.
I'll note that Rules as interpreted are often out of line with As Intended and sometimes As Written.
 

Hussar

Legend
I'll usually try to follow the rules (or at least my understanding of them) before I'll start messing with them. I've often found that the biggest table problems I have stem from players (or DM's) ignoring the rules for various reasons and then insisting that the result is superior even in the face of contrary evidence.

I've become really careful now to actually track stuff over time to make sure that if I want to make a change to the rules, it's actually necessary.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
My two favorite quotes about games and rules.

“The D&D game has neither losers nor winners, it has only gamers who relish exercising their imagination. The players and the DM share in creating adventures in fantastic lands where heroes abound and magic really works. In a sense, the D&D game has no rules, only rule suggestions. No rule is inviolate, particularly if a new or altered rule will encourage creativity and imagination. The important thing is to enjoy the adventure.” —Tom Moldvay

“And why the simple mechanics? Two reasons: First, complex mechanics invariably channel and limit the imagination; second, my neurons have better things to do than calculate numbers and refer to charts all evening. Complex mechanics, in their effort to tell you what you can do, generally do a fair job of implying what you cannot do.” —Over the Edge 2E, but very probably Robin Laws
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
Oh, sure, Paladin for example has the Quest move which is definitely schematic. But others, like Undertake a Perilous Journey, or (say) the Fighter's Bend Bars, Lift Gates are far less so. Arguably, Discern Realities as well. You do make choices as to how things happen, but the list is fixed.

That's why I was being cautious in my phrasing; I got the impression from discussion that DW might lean into the broad approach less than the PbtA games I was familiar with.
 

piou

Explorer
This doesn't seem right to me. My copy of AW is the original, and it has a chapter called "Advanced F*****y" which is full of example hacks, including moves that "cross the line" (to use John Harper's phrase), and changing genre to parkour and to D&D (the earliest iteration of Dungeon World). And all of this is accompanied by extensive commentary.

The idea that AW is hard to hack doesn't seem right to me.
I should clarify that. I find it easy to add or modify things to PbtA games (and Apocalypse World in particular). What I find difficult is to do a good hack. I find that good PbtA games rely on a subtle balance focusing on a specific atmosphere and theme and writting a hack that meshes with it properly and enhances the theme rather than pulling it down is difficult.
 

4. Agenda and Principles - this is the 'what are we doing and how' in the sense of what is the game about and how do apply the rest of the rules in order to get that.
I think agenda and principles are brilliant and at the same time I'll never think of them as "rules," per se. The interpretive latitude that one has with "be a fan of the pcs" or "think offscreen" or what-have-you is of a extremely different order than the other three categories you list. Yet, I often see claims of "you're not following the rules" applied to a (necessarily) qualitative interpretation of what a specific principle might look like in a particular context. Granted, these sort of claims might be intentionally blithe and sarcastic, a way to call attention to the existence of specific GM advice and give that advice weight by calling it "rules." But then other people (like one of the co-creators of dungeon world) tend to take principles-as-rules very literally, so I don't know.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
I think agenda and principles are brilliant and at the same time I'll never think of them as "rules," per se. The interpretive latitude that one has with "be a fan of the pcs" or "think offscreen" or what-have-you is of a extremely different order than the other three categories you list. Yet, I often see claims of "you're not following the rules" applied to a (necessarily) qualitative interpretation of what a specific principle might look like in a particular context. Granted, these sort of claims might be intentionally blithe and sarcastic, a way to call attention to the existence of specific GM advice and give that advice weight by calling it "rules." But then other people (like one of the co-creators of dungeon world) tend to take principles-as-rules very literally, so I don't know.
That last is such a weird trend. Most of the principles and agenda items are so wildly open to interpretation that trying to call them rules, or treat them as such, is doomed to failure.
 

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