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Mike Sugarbaker

But what do the rules have to say about the story?

8 min read

It might not be clear to some readers of my series on defining story games (in three parts!) just how it is that the rules of a game, of all things, are supposed to interact with an ongoing fiction. I mean, what do you do? Do you just flip a coin and say, “heads, my guy beats your guy, and tails, your guy beats my guy”? And that doesn’t even answer anything, because when do you do that, and under what circumstances? Finally, just: what’s the point of using this rule, on this story, when we could just freely make stuff up instead?

Starting with the first question: every game does it differently, that’s part of the point of having different ones. And while not all games are structured in a way that makes this plain, you could think of a story game’s rules as a set of inputs and outputs – and indeed we already have, in our loop diagrams. In the fat-green-loop variant of the diagram, input comes from the fiction-y bits, into the rules, and the rules put some specific addition or restriction back out into the fiction. (This is leaving aside a certain level of rules, implicit for long-time roleplayers, that govern the way we make stuff up: players say what their characters do, one player per character in most games, et cetera. Those rules and other implicit rules are always on. When I talk about made-up stuff and rules being separate, assume for now that I mean the diegetic content of the game versus explicit, procedural mechanical interactions.)

Helpfully for the purpose of giving you an example, a recent design trend has been back towards rules interactions that are brief, focused, and very specific about when to apply them and what goes back into the story. This trend was crystallized neatly by Apocalypse World, a game by Vincent Baker, which puts the bulk of the rule interactions players make into what it calls Moves. Here’s a sample move, from the Gunlugger character’s playbook:

Fuck this shit: name your escape route and roll+hard. On a 10+, sweet, you’re gone. On a 7–9, you can go or stay, but if you go it costs you: leave something behind, or take something with you, the MC will tell you what. On a miss, you’re caught vulnerable, half in and half out.

Now, if your game’s loop is more black than green, you want rules that let made-up stuff change play-by-the-rules in such a way that your experience of play-by-the-rules is enhanced, not diminished. This opens all sorts of questions of balance and fairness that remain challenging for designers to this day. Our primary interest here, though, in case you haven’t noticed, is fat-green-loop games. In mostly-making-stuff-up games, you (predictably) want rules that let play-by-the-rules change made-up stuff in such a way that your experience of made-up stuff is enhanced, not diminished. That’s what the above is an example of. It triggers when the character is in a specific situation (in this case, wanting out of somewhere dangerous), and it complicates that situation in certain known but flexible ways.

However, in making-stuff-up-oriented games we face the challenge that our own process of collaboration, the just-talking-to-each-other part, is in competition with the rules. More rules-oriented games don’t have this problem; when they get more and more rules-y, they just trend towards not being story games anymore. They remain story games because no matter how small the green loop gets, it’s still there; the things you get from it can’t be gotten any other way. In a fat-green-loop game, you can similarly argue that at least one tacit rule will always remain (the one that says “we’re making up a story”), but every rule that actually makes one designed story game different from another could conceivably fall away. To put it Vincent Baker’s way, if a given rule doesn’t get a given group better results for their story than “vigorous creative agreement” does, then there’s no reason for that group to use that rule. Story games have to keep justifying their existence by bringing players things that they didn’t already know they wanted.

The trick to that – that is, the aesthetic value in a given piece of game design – lies in when you decide to make the input, what the rules put back out, and in how it feels to use the rules to make that transformation. All three of those things should support the goal of play – there’s that weaselly phrase again! – to the satisfaction of the designer and the players.

So can we put this together into a nice, concise package? Here’s Baker again, who along with fellow habitual-RPG-theorist Ben Lehman has lately been doing it like this:

  1. A rule is something, spoken or unspoken, that serves to bring about and structure your play.
  2. Good rules encourage players to make interesting changes to the game’s state.
  3. “Interesting” is locally defined by play groups.

This is a bit of a change to the way RPG theory is heading. Some of you may have heard, or read, about a little thing called “GNS,” and its birthplace, a web forum called The Forge. It’s hard to separate the two, perhaps because GNS stands for three different families of “creative agenda” in RPGs that have been “observed to conflict with one another at the table,” and throughout its recently-concluded life, The Forge tended to cause conflict.

For most of the last decade-and-change, GNS – nevermind what it even stands for – has been the nearest thing story games have had to a theory of aesthetics. As it turns out, though, conflict isn’t a great basis for an aesthetic theory: conflict is complicated, divisive, and utterly subject to accumulated historical accident. When you try to make it a part of your answer to “what should rules have to say to the story?” you end up getting an argument about something else most of the time. On top of that, all this theoretical work was being done on web forums, which are notoriously poor at keeping arguments under control.

(It should be said, though, that when the seeds of GNS theory were planted, the fight was kinda necessary. It was 1995 or so, and the state of the roleplaying art was a muddle. There was a new 800-pound gorilla on the block, a game called Vampire: The Masquerade, that had a bell-clear stylistic vision and did the rare trick of actually, for-reals having an effect on the larger culture outside of gaming. It produced, and its progeny continue to produce, a ton of fun play. But… its actual rules-bits did little or nothing to reinforce its style and themes, and it came right out and admitted this, pushing and popularizing the notion that satisfying story-play and the use of rules were mutually exclusive things. To get away with this trick, it had to lend weight to some long-standing fallacies like the socially suspect notion of the gamemaster as master-Svengali-storyteller. All of that was theory that needed to be destroyed for the art to move forward, and GNS helped to destroy a lot of it. So, good. GNS served its purpose, and now we have a different job, that needs different tools.)

The new orientation around “interesting” is a much better foundation. In some ways, it’s a cheat – not coincidentally, the same cheat that we made in our definition of story gaming. It allows the same necessary flexibility in terms. In the name of “interesting,” you can bring in anything that shapes human attention – and if you wanted to fully understand roleplaying, you might have to bring in everything.

But as of now, we have a definition and a basic aesthetic theory. Once you have those, what do you do? You might start by making a few more specific aesthetic sub-theories, such as the one I promised you last time. After that, though, there’s also some of the more structural stuff in the Big Model, the GNS-associated theory that we should be careful not to throw out with the bathwater. So we might talk about that next. And of course, you can go play.