RPG Design Philosophy # 001: Design Informs Trends, Trends Inform Play

Montaigne for Montaigne’s sake.
(This week we return to role playing philosophy and design). 

There is a prevailing idea that no style of playing a game is wrong. While this may or may not be necessarily true, the general result is that a game is likely to be played as is, or not at all. Though there are industrious individuals that are prone to change a system to their liking, and few groups truly play by the rules with no adjustments, the large majority of people playing a given game will follow the rules without much question.
It hasn’t been until recently that a tendency has leaned towards house rules _being_ a part of the rules, outside of an occasional guideline of “change it if you don’t like it”. Many more core rules are packaged with a variety of optional rules, partially to promote the system’s modularity, and partially to promote examples of how new rules can be employed to interlock.

The latest edition of Dungeons and Dragons (5th edition at the time of this writing) is an excellent example of this new mode of thinking, given that there are at this point 4 different tiers of rule clusters (e.g. the Starter Set, Basic Rules, Player’s Handbook, and the Dungeon Master Guide options). Even within those rules, much is presented to either excise the unnecessary or inspire the complex, which I think is a wonderful implementation.

However, what cannot be ignored is that most groups are not going to bother with options, and will primarily default to the rules as written, which brings me to my main point.

Design will inspire trends, which then persuade the players. And while a given individual might not like rolling for stats at character creation (as an example), they have no recourse if they are looking for a gaming group and the GM decides that rolling is the one true method. This becomes especially apparent once you begin to realize that these trends, ephemeral though they are, begin to affect play even if the individual is not in agreement with said trend.

The preference of the many definitely outweigh the preference of the few, Until those few start writing the rules. Consider that Kirk totally house-ruled the Kobayashi Maru.
Going back to the stat rolling example, the industry at large has come away from its Gygaxian roots and embraced something called fairness. Supposing you were of the old school, or somehow were mentored by the old school, and you wanted to roll your dice for stats. As time went on, you would find fewer and fewer groups that would enjoy or even accept this, whether you be the GM or a player.

Ultimately, we must realize that no amount of disclaimer will change minds or move groups that have decided to play a certain way. Entering those groups then puts you under those rule sets, and as trends progress, finding those groups that go against the grain will be more difficult.

Why am I saying any of this? Well, as designers, it is important to realize that you have the especially difficult job of making rules that are at once functional, fun, and omissible. There are those that enjoy it as is and will use it without alteration. There are those that can adjust and adapt to your rule set, changing it to their likes.  Then there are those that may simply decide not to use the rules, ignoring that aspect of the game, or coming up with something new altogether. The group that uses the rules with no compunction will be in the majority, and will influence play along the way.

Will these remnant rogues make a mark on your rules? Yes, of course they will, as these house rules trend away and inform play for a new crop of players, as is the case with new editions of each game (i.e. Pathfinder, D&D 5e). But these rules will then be adopted by the new crop.

As a designer, understand that this cycle will affect the player base. You may be influenced at some future time by the rogues that have subtly changed your rules. But even these rogues will likely be subject to that otherwise silent majority. There is no sidebar for this situation, so your rules should stand on their own, whether they are optional or not.

What I do enjoy is that designers are making attempts in training readers to think differently, which I will always support. If a designer can get more people to play the game they want, and not the game they have, then all shall be happier in the end. With luck, this will not be so much a trend as an evolution of informed gaming.

With luck, I have presented a perspective that I think may not have been considered, though I could just be late to the party. Perhaps I will find out someday.

Of course, I am always eager to promote an otherwise novel perspective.

You could even say that I’m hungry for perspective.

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