Closed vs. Evolving rulesets

October 10, 2007

RPGs have a pretty fascinating history of design – until CCGs, this is the only hobby where many/most of the games have the expectation that further rules will be added to change the game in the future.

Most games you might play, of any type, are closed rulesets- the rules are designed and that’s the game.  Even if you add houserules, that’s your personal choice and not a design choice.  Chess is chess- you don’t get a yearly or quarterly “update” to supplement chess.

Most people expect the rules to a game to be the same and the idea of evolving or open rules that will see regular updates or have so many optional rules that they outnumber the basic rules is pretty foreign.

Not only that, but it’s a thousand times easier to build a workable set of rules that are closed than it is to build a set of rules that are modular and open enough to accept future designs.

From a gamist standpoint, it generally holds true that a successful game should be able to work as a fun core design, a closed one, if it’s also going to work as a fun evolving rule set.  That is, Magic the Gathering works well as a basic game, before you even add the millions of extra sets.  If the closed game is not fun, and you -have- to turn to the supplemental material for the fun part, you’ve got a fundamentally flawed design.

Another major point is that the difficulty is not just in the core game, but in making sure that the supplemental rules do not displace the core rules.  Many games suffer from “power creep”, in which new rules displace previous rules, often times rendering them completely ineffective or useless.   For CCGs, this isn’t -as bad-, since part of the game is building decks to meet these strategies.

For RPGs, though, it can be completely disasterous as a) players have to completely relearn new mechanics, b) long term strategic commitments (such as a character build) become useless and need to be replaced.  It’s not as easy as swapping some cards for a 30 minute game.

Historically though, few rpgs have been designed with explicit gamism in mind.  Most have a mixture of other goals in mind, which tends to lead to a mish-mash of rules that do not necesesarily balance from a gamist standpoint.   This is the area where you find communities of gamers sharply divided over what rules they will or will not use, seeing how some completely kick out other rules as viable options.

The onus falls upon each group to play the role of the designer by picking and choosing what rules actually function for their game goals.  This often involves weeks, months, or even years of playtime to hone this to a set they find fun.  Much of this becomes unspoken lessons picked up by the players, about which character builds to avoid, which play strategies work or don’t work, etc.

And then they get to do this over again when they choose to add a new set of rules…

At this point, though, this kind of design is legacy as opposed to well thought out.  Great strides have been made in design in the last few years, and I’m looking forward to seeing how evolving rule sets improve in the future, especially between the amount of play experiences we can pull from CCGs, MMO’s alone.

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