Rules Versus Rulings: Failing Forward, Difficulty and Gaming Theory in Mechanics

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve recently been running Apocalypse World (and have also run several sessions now of its derivative Dungeon World). Meanwhile, I’ve been (re-)reading the 7th Sea 2nd Edition rules, and this has got me to thinking, as I’m wont to do, about RPG game theory and design in general and what sorts of selections and conceits I might use myself in designing my own ruleset (particularly for Avar Narn).

The first pen and paper RPG I played was the old West End d6 Star Wars RPG. This was in late elementary school—well before I had much thought on system mechanics at all. My later youth was spent with the White Wolf games (Old and New WoD), with my perennial favorite, Shadowrun, and reading through—but never actually playing—Rolemaster. Surprisingly (and this is another story for another time), I didn’t play Dungeons and Dragons until college (aside from one abortive attempt at a game of AD&D during a Boy Scout campout).

Most of the games I played or was familiar with growing up were heavy on the crunch, with far more rules than were strictly necessary. As I’ve GMed more and more games, I’ve come to look for “Goldilocks” games that have just the right about of rules, erring on the lighter side. I try to read all sorts of rules for design ideas, but there are many I just would not run a game of. I really like Burning Wheel, for example—it has a depth to it that builds genre and atmosphere. At the end of the day, though, I would never run BW—I have too many minor nitpicks with the system (“scripting” combat for example) and don’t want to have to use that many rules.

As I’ve also mentioned in other posts, I’m quite a fan of the Fate ruleset and of Cortex Plus, though, as I’ll explain, I certainly have my concerns and gripes about these rules as well (I can’t say I’m ever completely satisfied by a ruleset, which is probably why I spend the amount of time I do thinking about RPG rules).

But this post is not really about the rules “lightness” or “crunchiness” of gaming systems. Nor is it about the “GNS” debate—which, while a useful construct for thinking about designs, probably shouldn’t have the level of concern about it that it does.

What I want to talk about instead is how much the metaphysics of gaming (or, more appropriately, design priorities and theories about rulesets) should be hard-coded into the rules of a game. Which returns us to the Apocalypse World Engine/PbtA games and the second edition of 7th Sea. I’ve heard both John Wick and Vincent Baker called pretentious by gamers for their approach to games, but if they’re pretentious, I’d be happy to be in their company all the same.

Baker’s games (not just Apocalypse World but also the excellent game that I’d never actually play Dogs in the Vineyard) and Wick’s new edition of 7th Sea are emblematic of a late trend in roleplaying games—games that know what they want to be and are unabashed about it. It’s not simply that these games are “rules-lighter” or more narratively focused, it’s that they are built on specific design principles.

I don’t want to confuse (in fact, quite the opposite is the point of this post) the theory of running a game and the theory behind mechanical choices. Baker’s agenda for Apocalypse World (barf forth apocalyptica, view every NPC through crosshairs, etc.) is not the same as his design theory.

Here’s a design principle used by both 7th Sea and AW that has become something of a byword in design lately: “fail forward.” This idea behind fail forward is that every action, success or failure, should move the story forward. Another way to put this is “no whiffs.” A statement that “you fail,” by itself doesn’t progress the story and just isn’t interesting. Adding a complication as a consequence of failure, or interpreting failure on the dice as “success at a cost” does and is.

Mechanically, this is hard-wired in both Apocalypse World and 7th Sea. The very resolution mechanic of AW provides various costs for failure and presents a result range that is specifically “success at a cost.” 7th Sea has a sidebar about the lack of a Dodge skill—because simply dodging and being missed isn’t fun or exciting (by the theory of the game). In 7th Sea, your approach is to use obstacles, climb the walls, defend yourself with your weapon, throw sand in the enemy’s eyes and otherwise create exciting and innovative maneuvers to avoid being struck—maneuvers that likely manipulate the environment in addition to stopping an attack, thus pulling double duty.

Having run AW and Dungeon World, I will say that the system’s mechanics do push the story inexorably forward, giving the GM a chance to complicate the story without having to prepare this in advance. My reading of 7th Sea seems to indicate a similar drive, with the additional qualifier that the generation and spending of Raises in that system creates a sort of bargaining system where failure and its consequences are not accidental. As an aside, I strongly suspect but cannot confirm that the Raise system used by 7th Sea drew heavily on Vincent Baker’s dice-bidding in Dogs in the Vineyard.

While some form of “fail forward” mechanic could be converted into use with any RPG’s core mechanic, the question I ask myself is whether this is necessary. In a Dungeons and Dragons game, a skilled GM can do the same thing without needing a mechanic for it—“Your sword strikes true but shatters against the mail of your enemy. Roll your damage and count your sword as a dagger from now on.” Success at cost. On a bad lockpicking test: “You manage to pick the lock, but the time it takes you to do so means that you’re exposed for too long—a guard notices you just as you slip through the door.” If you look, this idea, this reluctance to mechanically codify the theory of roleplaying into hard rules is at the heart of the OSR—you’ll see many OSR players say something like “Yeah, that’s the way we’ve always done it. That’s why 3rd, 4th and 5th edition move in the wrong direction—too many rules and not enough flexibility for the players and GM.”

To add to this, Apocalypse World reverses this pattern with the difficulty of tasks. In “traditional” games, like D&D, there are rules to modify the probability of success by shifting the target number for a skill roll—a mechanical effect for the narrative difficulty of a task. In Apocalypse World (and derivative games), the GM is supposed to narrate the outcome of the roll based on the narrative difficulty of the task without ever changing the percentage chance of success. The GM simply determines that a success means less for a difficult action than it would for an easier one, or, conversely, that failure means more for a difficult action than for an easier one.

It’s in this reversal, I think, that we find something we can latch onto in this discussion. Either approach (with either “fail forward” or difficulty) works; even though there’s something that intuitively bothers me about static difficulty numbers, I have to admit that I don’t think either me or my players notice it when running a game. At the same time, I’m wholeheartedly unwilling to admit that system doesn’t matter; it most certainly does, and this discussion is probably, more than anything, my argument for that fact.

That’s because the choice of mechanics you include in an RPG ruleset tells players and GMs what’s important about the game and establishes that ever-intangible “feel” of a system. This goes well beyond, “a game about pirates without any ship rules has a problem,” though the scope of the rules you include in the ruleset and the areas you leave to GM interpretation is part of the same equation.

Let’s look at editions of D&D, for instance. Early editions of Dungeons and Dragons were, in many ways, closer to Dungeon World than later ones. Admittedly, with only that one attempt at pre-3rd edition D&D I’m relying on “scholarly understanding” instead of experience, but the whole “rulings not rules” idea that we hear about—particularly from the OSR diehards (no aspersions cast)—is based in the idea that the rules provided a framework to support the narrative, allowing for creative problem-solving. As D&D “matured,” the agglutination of rules brought about a focus on knowing the ruleset to exploit it and on complex character-planning (mechanically) rather than the creative and explorative wonder of the early game. 5th edition has attempted to go back toward the beginning, but with competitors like 13th Age, 7th Sea, Dungeon World, the entire OSR, Shadows of the Demon Lord, Barbarians of Lemuria and even more “universal games” like Fate and Cortex Plus, I’m not sure that there’s any going back—for me, at least.

Of course, there will always be a place for players who want massive libraries of rules like Pathfinder has constructed (aspersions cast this time). I’ll admit that I enjoy reading Pathfinder rulebooks because they are full of interesting ideas shoved into rules, but I’m sure that, if I’d ever run Pathfinder, I ignore 95% of the rules, probably throwing out some of the baby with the bathwater (not my best analogy). So, what’s the point?

But I’ve diverged from point here, rambling again about rules-heaviness rather than design choices (this, I fear, is representative of many of the gaming theory discussions I’ve seen lately—they’re about how “crunchy” a system should be overall—or how much it should cater to each aspect of GNS theory—rather than what the point of this or that particular rule is).

Again, this allows me to circle back to 7th Sea and PbtA. These are systems that know what they want to be and the mechanics push the game to fit the niche the designer(s) had in mind. Agree with those design choices or not, I have to have a lot of respect for that. The static difficulty system in Apocalypse World tells players and GM that consequences and results are more important than difficulties—we’re telling collective stories that are exciting and fast-paced rather than attempting to simulate a fantasy world in excessive detail. This merges well with the PbtA position that the GM should be playing “to find out what happens” as much as the players are—if the GM doesn’t have influence over difficulty numbers, the GM has less narrative control for railroading players and is therefore freer to play “to find out.” Here, the rules influence the style of the game.

Similarly, the (new) 7th Sea system, with its generating and spending Raises for narrative effects (whether in scenes of action or drama) supports the narrative feel of the game. Having been watching the BBC Musketeers (why so much leather?) at the same time as reading 7th Sea, I can’t but conclude that the RPG does an excellent job of capturing the feel of the show, which itself is of course drawing upon the tide of swashbuckling adventure in the works of Dumas and others. The rules support the game the designer wants you to play. I cannot wait to run a 7th Sea game. One question remains for me, though: could the new 7th Sea rules just as effectively run a game in the style of Black Sails? I think so, but I’m not quite sure.

Not to rag too much on D&D, but the major problem I have with that game—the conglomerate of my distaste for Vancian magic, classes, levels, etc.—is that the rules become the setting of Dungeons and Dragons, rather than the setting influencing the rules. We can talk about gamer nostalgia or market demand as causes of these things, and I’ll concede there’s some truth to that, but in the end I’m just of the opinion that a good RPG ruleset facilitates the underlying (and overarching—it’s that important) narrative rather than forcing a narrative to conform.

To make clear that this is not about the “rules heaviness” of D&D (whatever your position on that might be), let me look at a “crunchier” game that accomplishes something similar to 7th Sea and PbtA: The One Ring.

Having run a small set of adventures in The One Ring, I’m impressed by the thoughtfulness of the rules in evoking the feel of Tolkien’s world rather than adding Tolkienesque elements to a setting that’s really higher fantasy. The Journey rules in TOR are probably the best I’ve ever seen—a brilliant mix of zooming in and out of the narrative to make journeys important and exciting rather than tedious or the entire focus of the game. As I’ve said before, I think the aspect of journeying in the wilderness is vastly underrated in both roleplaying games and the fantasy genre as a whole.

Additionally, the battle mechanics for TOR require players to work as a team—an archer can’t be an archer without front-line fighters to protect him; the positioning of player characters, while abstract enough to not require tokens, minis or a map, still has a tangible tactical influence on a fight (since the difficulty to hit or be hit is determined by position within the party). This is not the careless, reckless heroics of other games (7th Sea and Dungeon World perhaps included), this evokes the sense of a dangerous world where people survive through teamwork and fellowship.

Here’s the insight I glean from the long thinking-out-loud above: those concepts that are core to the principles of design adopted for a roleplaying game probably ought to be hard-wired into the mechanics themselves. At the same time, some concepts—fail forward, for instance—are just good advice for how GMs run their games. Do they need to be incorporated into the rules? No. Does it say something specific about the game when they are? Absolutely.

If, like me, you’d really like to create a marketable RPG, whether independent of or in conjunction with a setting you intend to write fiction in, I’d suggest you start with these questions: “What is this game about? What is it trying to be? How should it make players and GM feel?”

The answers to those questions may help answer what kinds of rules your game needs, how they should work, and—most important—why they work the way they do. This sense of purpose is the only way I know of to cut through the analysis paralysis of the infinite possibilities of game design and to avoid simply stealing concepts that worked for other games.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s