Rules & Fiction Part 2February 19, 2010
Design vs. Play
Rules that declare are the ones people most consciously throw on the chopping block. Often for one of the following reasons:
1) Violates the group’s sense of the fiction (“We ‘randomly encounter’ a wyvern in the town? No way!”)
2) Goes against the group’s goals for the game (“Dying at 0 hitpoints means everyone is dying all the time… we’re changing it to -10”)
3) Simply has no purpose for the group and their goals for the game (Basically, Vincent’s “Don’t use it? You’ll lose it” thing)
Of course, all the above also get changed or chopped via GM Fiat and fudging, without anyone noticing or thinking anything about it. (In which case, maybe instead of group’s goals, you can substitute GM’s goals, in more problematic instances of play).
Rules that delegate usually get altered, ignored or removed in a different way.
The classic method is the game group trying out a new game and simply ignoring the delegative rules and instituting an end-run around them to reproduce the sort of play they always do. This is usually unconscious – they’re so used to playing a particular way that it never even occurs to them that they’re skipping or going directly against rules in the book.
This also applies in cases of Illusionism, railroading and GM Fiat- many games and roleplaying advice have normalized the idea of running roughshod over delegative rules about who controls characters that it’s rare for many gamers to even recognize that rules actually matter in this regard.
Rules and Responsibility
So, when we’re talking about this, we’re really just talking about where the fiction is created, right? Either the rules added something or someone at the table did.
That kind of responsibility rolls two ways for both designers and game groups.
Declarative rules are a great way to assign the responsibility to no player in particular – it removes the issues of the social weight of adding to the fiction by leaving it a mechanical aspect- “When should a character die?”, “What kind of bizarre antics should my character engage in while possessed by a Sumerian Age Cthonian Roach God?”
Delegative rules, on the other hand, are a great way to let players know exactly what their responsibility in play is: “Decide if the scene was Trust building or Intimacy building”, “Withhold dice when someone has broken their promise!” etc.
Declarative rules free players to a degree- you can be frustrated at the situation, or the events in the fiction, but you understand it’s like getting dealt a bad hand- it’s not a judgment or choice made by any other player – you don’t have to look at anyone and consider their motives or choices in it.
And, that lets the players focus on where they are responsible- where delegative rules ask them to input into the fiction and take responsibility for those choices. If you know your character is doomed at the end of the game, then there is no space to feel as if you “failed” or “lost” when that happens – the goalposts of successful play, of meaningful input, shift.
So first, a word on Zilchplay. I see Zilchplay happen mostly because a group gets together and, basically cannot agree on an actual direction of play AND also is afraid to deal with it. So everyone does nothing and hopes direction will magically “appear”.
With that in mind, Zilchplay requires the group to cut down both types of rules left and right; any declarative rules that might push play in a direction or force players to make choices must be cut out or fudged into impotency; all declarative rules get subsumed into the overall play requirement to not “unbalance” the game by pushing things in an actual direction.