Friday, January 4, 2013

"The Game's About What The Game Has Rules About"

There are still people who believe this even though poker doesn't have rules for bluffing.

I could write a thing but Natalie already did it.

That thing Natalie wrote should be required reading for every single person whose ever even pretended to be a game designer ever.

It is so good and so smart and so right and I have to link to it like twice a month because even people who are professional full-time game designers think stuff like "Well if there's 8 pages of rules about cars and only one page about kissing it's a game about cars".

It's so sad.

If those System Matters essays spawned a whole website and then a whole forum and then a whole game design community then this essay deserves a whole continent to itself.

That is all.


Aaron E. Steele said...

Poker has rules?

Justin Alexander said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Justin Alexander said...

This is one of those topics that tends to invite extremism, but the truth actually lies somewhere inbetween.

Or, to put it another way: System does matter and the fact that poker doesn't have rules for bluffing is an excellent example of that.

If system didn't matter, then poker would be just as likely to become a game in which you pretend to own a much better model of car than the other players. But, of course, system does matter and that's why a lot of poker is about pretending to have a better hand of cards than the other players.

The extremist who says that System Doesn't Matter is the guy pretending that poker is a game about pretending you have a better car in the driveway. On the other hand, the extremist who says the System is Everything is the guy pretending that you can't bluff in poker because there aren't any rules for it. They're both self-evidently wrong.

The way this actually works is straight-forward: The play of any game with meaningful choice is the way in which mechanics are used. Neither bluffing in poker nor the King's Gambit in chess are encoded into the rules; but they are very much part of the gameplay.

This can be contrasted to games that don't have meaningful choice: For example, the card game War is entirely rote and mechanical. (Player A flips a card, Player B flips a card, they are compared, a winner is determined.) The lack of meaningful choice in these games means that gameplay is, in fact, constrained entirely to the system.

RPGs, on the other hand, drift off in the other direction: They are loaded up with an abundance of meaningful choice. In fact, we have an expectation that we should be able to propose literally any action and the GM/game should be able to resolve it.

But, despite that, the gameplay in RPG still naturally gravitate towards their mechanics (or, more specifically, the defined game structures -- which is usually established largely by the mechanics). Or, to put it another way: If you're in a dungeon, at some point you're almost certainly going to start dungeoncrawling.

This is something I talk about at much greater length (and utility) in my series on Game Structures.

(As a final note, the linked essay also has another problem insofar as it claims that OD&D has complex rules for combat. This is a pet peeve of mine. The rules for combat in the White Box are actually quite minimalistic and fairly equivalent in their complexity compared to most of the other sub-systems that get detailed. Many of the retro-clones, like subsequent editions of the game, eroded this reality by subtly eliminating the non-combat portions of the game mechanics. But actually playing with the OD&D rulebooks as written can be an eye-opening experience specifically because combat plays such a minor mechanical role in the system.)

Zak Sabbath said...

I believe Natalie was using "complex" as a relative term. If you would like to fight with her about that, take it up with her.

You will lose, though.

Unknown said...

From what I can tell, she's not saying that system "doesn't matter," she's just saying that the game and its rules are not equivalent, and the relationship between them is more complicated than "because there are rules about combat, the game is about combat." Which seems like what you're getting at also. So from where I'm standing, you seem to agree.

And like Zak says, "complex" in this case is relative.

Will B. said...

"if there's 8 pages of rules about cars and only one page about kissing it's a game about cars"

Been reading Car Lesbians, Zak?

Zak Sabbath said...

ssssh, Raggi has me NDAed until it comes out

OtspIII said...

I pretty much agree with this--there are the rules in the rule-book (a straight beats a pair) and then there are the rules in the players' heads (understanding how to bluff successfully). The latter matter way more than the former, but at the same time they're completely created by the former (possibly mixed with the context within which the game is played--the ability to win the pot in a hand of poker by grabbing the money off the table and running is neither stated within the rules or created by the rules but it is a physical possibility).

That said, the whole "Well if there's 8 pages of rules about cars and only one page about kissing it's a game about cars" thing is spot on--rules mixed with players create a gameplay experience, but what the rules look like they're about doesn't matter nearly as much as what the rules actually inspire.

Rafu said...

Sure, poker doesn't have rules *for* bluffing… it's got rules which encourage bluffing as an emergent property. Thus, if you for example want to design a bluffing game, you ought to take a lesson from poker and do the same.
Game "about" X =/= game with rules for X. But still, those other things you have rules for encourage certain behaviors, discourage some others, or otherwise shape the game in such a way that, if you crafted it well, they help players make X emerge. (While rules which point other ways, or no way at all, rules which run counter X, rules which haven't been considered in the light of X during the design process but are only there as an artifact of some other game… I think everybody who's ever been role-playing has suffered a lot of that, and isn't it exactly what our 1990s battle cry or "system doesn't matter" was *actually* about? Getting rid of stupid, sloppily designed rules which got in the way?)
And here's Vincent Baker in a must-read, "system does matter" Forge classic piece (a very short one) from 2005:

Jonas said...

There propably is common ground on this where people can meet on reasonable manner. I have seen too much arguments that have been made in bad faith and are really just flimsy covers for edition warring or other not really funny pastimes. I think rules do matter, I would not tinker with them constantly if they would not and I would not try to find something that works better for the game.

Zak Sabbath said...

You have completely failed to grasp:

1. The point of this essay

2. The fact that we've read Forge stuff and are aware of it and are saying: It is incorrect

3. The fact that most of the work done by smarter people AFTER the forge was patiently explaining how these alleged "artifact" rules served purposes you guys didn't grasp at the time and smugly assumed didn't work because the POV you were going on was limited to your own experiences.

4. That the whole "emergent properties" business is something every 3rd grader knows _and is part of Natalie;s essay_.

Zak Sabbath said...

I have no idea what you are on about.

Zak Sabbath said...

Christ, kid.

Try harder.

Brad said...

Games have rules for the sorts of things they need to have rules for. What constitutes a flush and what constitutes a hit in poker and D&D respectively. There aren't any rules for bluffing, nor creating dramatic intrigue, in poker and D&D because those rules wouldn't serve any purpose. Rules strictly limit certain behaviors, they do not proscribe what behaviors are allowed. If you only focus on what's in the rules to figure out what you can do, you're just fucking boring.

Brad said...

Only one: win as much money as possible.

Aaron E. Steele said...

There's a difference between SYSTEMS and rules. Poker absolutely is a system designed for bluffing. It's called uncertainty. I know what my hidden card or cards are. You don't. The system is designed to create uncertainty in the minds of your opponents. That opens up a space in the game for bluffing.

Zak Sabbath said...

Counting pages devoted to various subjects and deciding that;s what the game is about is stupid.

What's "In the system" is a far more abstract and contentious debate and one I do not address in the post.

Rafu said...

Well, so much for my believing I was basically agreeing, and contributing to the debate. You're probably right I should try harder - or stop trying. Goodbye.

Matthew Adams said...

Munchkin is about what Munchkin has rules about, but then, that is what Munchkin is about. Bloody meta games.

Zak Sabbath said...

Actually Munchkin can be about what it's supposed to be about or it can be about math or it can be about convincing people at the table to like you so they don't screw you.

Matthew Adams said...

Ha, true! So even a game that is about what the game has rules about isn't really about the actual rules of that game. Oh well, case closed.

Chris A. Field said...

Zak, are you a Transformers fan? I noticed the sweet lookin' Quintesson in this post.

Zak Sabbath said...

i remember the Transformers film fondly

Unknown said...

"System does matter" goes with lumpley principle.
"System (including but not limited to 'the rules') is defined as the means by which the group agrees to imagined events during play."

So bluffing is generally part of poker system, though it's not in the rules.

Zak Sabbath said...

This blog entry is not about the inaccurate idea "system matters", it is about a different inaccurate idea "a game is about what the text of the rules says it is about and/or the more pages devoted to a thing in the book, the more it is about that".

I tried to make it as short as possible so people would not be confused, but I guess it didn't work.