Friday, May 15, 2009

Bonus Post: Rules As Written

This is an edited version of one of my own comments to my post on Rules Lawyering. Commenter Alex suggested I post it in its own right, so here it is. If you enjoy, great. If not, look forward to a real post tomorrow.


In discussing D&D 4th Edition on the official forums and elsewhere, there's a lot of importance placed on the concept of Rules As Written (RAW). It's something that can be difficult to understand for those who've made the transition from previous editions.

Prior to 3.0, large tracts of the D&D rules were skeletal. Not only did the rules envisage you creating your own rules to resolve many conflicts, but the Rules As Written were in many places contradictory and unplayable. As a result, the tradition of homebrew is so deeply embedded in the D&D community that playing 100% by-the-book is psychologically repellent.

It's an attitude we need to change, though. D&D has evolved, and the design philosophy behind it has sharpened. 4th Edition specifically intends to be a comprehensive ruleset, at least in so far as it applies to combat, and for better or for worse it's not content to leave lacunae, loopholes and handwaving

As such, Rules As Written is an essential concept for use in discussion. Everyone homebrews, but there's only limited utility in discussing everyone's homebrew. If you take homebrew as the default state of play, you never end up with better core rules. Your game becomes increasingly self-customised and the value you're getting from your purchased official material becomes progressively less.

To design and develop a better game it's essential that the discussion engages with the rules as written. Having a vague dissatisfaction with a game mechanic and ignoring it in your home game is great for one group but it's much better to precisely identify why the rules as written do or not work to improve the game for everyone.

I, for example, don't use the lighting rules. They're just too much trouble. But I understand how they work, and if a future expansion ever does something that makes them attractive again I'll revisit them.

The RPGA (Wizards' official organised play organisation) confines itself strictly to rules as written. And I think that's good for the game. Knowing that there's a place where the literal interpretation of rules will be viciously exploited in any way possible provides a spur to the developers to make better and more robust rules.

I've spoken before about how the philosophy of game design in videogaming is decades ahead of where RPGs are at, and I think this is one reason why - there's no "homebrew" in that medium. You have to get it right.


Anonymous said...

There's plenty of homebrew in computer games. Games like Oblivion have thousands of modifications available that many players use to customise their experience and increase the replay value.

Hell games like Counter-Strike and Defense of the Ancients are essentially home-brew. However I'm not sure if they count in this discussion as they are games in their own right.

I think the major reason that homebrew in computer games is less frequent is because of the technical and time overhead involved in modding.

I would say the major reason computer games are more advanced is because of the sheer magnitude of technical details that can be handled behind the scenes and end up seeming simple to the player. An example of this would be the auto-atttack and attack power mechanics in world of warcraft. That level of detail alone would slow a tabletop game down far too much, but on a computer it just happens.


Greg Tannahill said...

Yes, but homebrew only happens in computer games once you have an essentially solid game. You don't get out the door unless you already have a class A product. And mods are clearly delineated and relatively small in number.

People need to make a decision about how a videogame is, as printed, before they engage with it on any deeper level. No one gets into modding a videoame without a thorough understanding of the experience the game offers straight out of the box.

By contrast, it's not unusual to see people modding roleplaying games before they've ever tried the printed rules. You see it on the D&D forums all the time - "New to D&D, here's my homebrew Kalashtar".

We can instinctively grasp that some ideas are bad - but because it's so easy to ignore them, to not engage with them, we never have the discussion about WHY they're bad, and we never end up with better rules.

Anonymous said...

Just as an aside, what's your beef with the light rules? I halve the ranges in my game, that's about it.

Greg Tannahill said...

Tracking light is a pain. On a battlemap working out which squares are in light and in which in shadow is disproportionately time-consuming compared to the slight increase in tactical complexity and atmosphere you get back (particularly with multiple light sources).

When someone gives me an easy way to track lighting I'll use the rules.

Anonymous said...

I fully agree on light for tabletop. However, my group has been enjoying using Maptool on a big screen TV as our "tabletop". We're going to be trying the light rules for the first time this weekend, and I'll be interested to see if the computer assistance makes them run smoothly.

Fauxreigner said...

Since my players are scattered all around the country, we've been using maptool, and the lighting system there has worked to great effect. Combined with the fog of war system it's very easy to send the players into a dark part of the dungeon and figure out exactly where they can or can't see. So good, in fact, that it prompted me to severely reduce the effective range of sunrods, because the lighting system actually matters now. As a side benefit it also makes it easy to determine line of sight/effect when there are corners/pillars involved.

Depending on how complex you wanted to make your tabletop experience, you could always model the lighting system on a laptop and just match player token movement to what they're doing on the table. It's probably not worth it for every game, but hearing my players scramble in terror because they can't see the elite lurker that's sniping them has been fantastic.

Greg Tannahill said...

I haven't yet managed to make lighting in MapTool work satisfactorily. Setting up the vision blockers seems to be still more effort than I get back by way of reward.

GregT said...

Nix that; I got lighting running in MapTool today, it's fine.
Still wouldn't touch it on a tabletop though.