Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Rules? Or Tools? You Decide...

This week, Timothy Brannon wrote an interesting post about Dragonraid, a so-called Christian role-playing system from the 80s.  No, we're not talking about that this week, although I heartily recommend reading Timothy's excellent take.  Instead, his insights got me thinking about the axis of complexity (let's call it Rules) and tailorability (Tools, hereafter), both of which intersect to shape a game's character and usefulness.  Now I'm a sucker for modelling; and I've built an axis on the following terms:       

RULES refers to mechanical complexity or a game's crunch.  The more rules present, and the more work required to execute them, the higher a system ranks here.   

TOOLS means the scope of a game.  Simulations meant to present an entire world rate high, while those focusing on narrow, abstract concepts rank low.  In practical terms, it denotes how easy (or difficult) it is for a GM to tailor a game to other milieus. 

From here it's possible to construct an axis; a mental exercise mostly, but potentially useful when evaluating a game or to designers wishing to better create their own system... 


LOW RULES/LOW TOOLS indicates a rules-lite, if not minimalist system, often heavily abstracted and centered on a narrow range of actions.  My Life with Master, focusing heavily on the dysfunctional relationship between a mad scientist and his or her minions, falls into this category.  With scores for LOVE and a simple core mechanic, the rules deal with nothing beyond the relationship between master, servant, and villagers.  By the time a GM has tailored this to another context, they'd have made a new game altogether.   

HIGH RULES/LOW TOOLS denotes a game with crunchy mechanics that nonetheless exhibits such a narrow scope that tailoring is difficult.  Dragonraid, a Christian-themed RPG from the 1980s, definitely fits the bill.  There's no shortage of rules; but with abilities like LOVE and KINDNESS plus a pretty direct Christian allegory, it would be hard to tailor this to any other genre (with the possible exception of Narnia) without substantial effort. 


LOW RULES/HIGH TOOLS suggests a rules-lite game that exploits simplicity to cover a wide range of in-game situations.  It's a world simulator in simplest terms.  Our own Blood of Pangea allows its players to write their characters into existence and exploits a single core mechanic for literally everything.  Bows?  Blasters?  It's all the same; and although made for sword and sorcery, a GM would have little difficulty tailoring it.  Of course, the Retrospace and Opherian Scrolls supplements do this for you, so check 'em out...   

HIGH RULES/HIGH TOOLS means a system that knows it's really a toolkit.  Anything that potentially could exist in a hypothetical world is offered, with abundant rules for a GM to build their own campaigns.  GURPS (Generic Universal Role-Playing System) is likely the best example of this (the name pretty much says it all), although Hero Games takes a worthy stab at the mantle.  Think of an erector set, only one designed to construct games...

And that's it.  But what value does it have beyond thought experiment?  Setting aside my conviction that thought experiments are worthwhile exercises, the Rules/Tools axis might help designers conceptualize where they want their game to go.  Old House Rules specializes exclusively in LOW RULES/HIGH TOOLS systems, although our Red of Tooth and Monsters Destroy All Cities might push the envelope.  In any case, it's been helpful to actually know where we're going with a design and to somewhat model the experience.

Robyn enjoys actually playing games and brings a practical, this-is-what-the-players want emphasis to things.  Her stable voice of reason has been invaluable. Me, I'm a rules nerd all the way.  Or maybe just a nerd and prone to such indulgences.  But I've long believed that every gamer is necessarily a game designer on the inside, and that none of this is anything people aren't already doing in the privacy of their minds.  Either way, we hope this little detour into design philosophy is at least entertaining.  Rules?  Or tools?  You can decide...

4 comments:

  1. As a game designer myself, I believe we're a rare breed. The vast majority of players don't think like that. Too bad, but there it is.

    Also, I'm guessing that Crimson Dragon Slayer D20 would be low rules / high tools, but not 100% on that...

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