Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Underlying Assumptions

Interesting forum-conversation with Jesse Heinig of White Wolf. Jesse had expressed that when writing the new powers for the Scion Companion, he had a couple of default assumptions in mind. To paraphrase:
  • Unless otherwise specified, powers don't stack. So you can't use the same power again and again to boost up further than you'd get from one die roll of it.
  • Unless otherwise specified, all powers last till the end of the scene. The exception to this is a power that implies it's effect is instantaneous.
  • Just because the rules don't say "ninjas can't fly" we shouldn't assume ninjas can fly.
I kinda argued with him a little, which wasn't really how I meant to come across. Basically, I think his points there are great, but I questioned why the published White Wolf rulebooks never state such clear simple rules. These are the underlying assumptions of all the White Wolf RPGs, but to learn them you had to read page 59 of one particular forum thread for their smallest game line.

Among other things, I said:
Jesse seems to be of the opinion that this stuff is just common sense, but I gotta say, in my 25+ years of gaming, not everyone automatically arrives at those same assumptions. I'm not trying to pick a fight. I'm saying that sort of advice and "rules of thumb" / "underlying assumptions" that he shared there would be immensely helpful to have in an official WW book.

I ran a LARP for a few years, with 40+ players for most of that time, and we had rules lawyers trying all kinds of crap (against which I generally stood firm). One argument I often had to disprove or over-rule was based on the fact that some powers don't specify exact limitations (such as duration) while others do - this can give the incorrect impression the ones that don't specify anything have no such limitations.

For example, if 3 die-adder powers state they last till the end of the scene and the 4th one doesn't mention duration at all, there's at least 3 ways to interpret it. Most players/readers/STs would conclude it also lasts for a scene, but some may think it lasts for just one action, and a few folks might even expect it was permanent.

Having a page in a book that I could have flipped to and pointed out that "any power that doesn't specify a duration is assumed to wear off at the end of the scene" would have saved me several cumulative hours over the years.

I thought this was revelatory enough of my "philosophy" and practice of how I game that I should mirror it here on my blog. It'll save me from having to right this all over again someday.

Me again, 'cause I'm unnecessarily verbose:

Thank you for answering those questions. There's some very useful observations contained in what you wrote.

It'd be sweet if future editions of core rulebooks included statements to the affect of "Unless specified otherwise, powers last till end of scene, and multiple uses of the same power don't stack." Having such assumptions actually printed out where STs can point at it could save a lot of new players (and groups with rules lawyers) from confusion and frustration.

Interestingly, when I tried to do that in Mage Revised back in the day I was accused of "coddling" or "over-complicating" the rules.
It's nice for novice Storytellers, who may not yet understand that they have the authority to argue with the players and to set down their own rules. For experienced groups, it's usually easy for the ST to decide for himself. Of course, if your group has a bully who tries to make up weird justifications and argues with the ST, it can be nice to have a printed page to fall back upon . . . but that really falls into:


Whoever said that to you wasn't thinking clearly. Having a general rule like "unless otherwise specified, all powers last till end of scene" doesn't complicate the rules, it simplifies them.

Speaking as someone who spends a fair amount of his time bitching, please don't let that type of criticism get under your skin. The vocal minority are going to be the ones who are fairly confident about what makes the game fun (or not fun) for them - they'll bitch and rant up a storm, because they're invested fully and understand it well.

The people who need "all powers last till end of scene" are predominantly the newer gamers who aren't so confident about how to interpret it. For every one guy complaining that he's being "coddled" there's two guys silently thinking "wow, that rule just cleared some things up for me." Those newer players need the guidance, but they won't tell you that because they're self-conscious about their gaming experience. And since new players are vital to growing the hobby, IMHO they need to be taken into consideration when rulebooks are being written.

I hate to plug another companies product on your site, but there's this other game, involving medieval basements and winged lizards. I think it's relevant that they have, for about 8 years now, included really clear rules about what does and doesn't stack, and exact determinations for things like range and duration. Now I'm not saying you should try to emulate them. I am however, saying that the world has changed a lot since Mage: Revised released, and I doubt you'd get many accusations of "coddling" these days. IIRC, Mage Revised came out before 3.0 of that other game, right? The world has changed a lot since then. You could tighten up your rules a bit, and still be far less "boardgamey" or "over-complicated" than the competition.

More importantly, since not all RPGs under the sun function with the default assumption of "powers don't stack, and always last until end of scene", how is a player supposed to know that's how it works in White Wolf games if the books don't ever tell them as much?

Jesse Heinig wrote:
It's nice for novice Storytellers, who may not yet understand that they have the authority to argue with the players and to set down their own rules. For experienced groups, it's usually easy for the ST to decide for himself. Of course, if your group has a bully who tries to make up weird justifications and argues with the ST, it can be nice to have a printed page to fall back upon . . . but that really falls into:

Shocked With all due respect to you and Mr Wick, that kinda over-simplifies the situation. I'm all for dropping a cheater, rules-lawyer, or jerk from your gaming circle (or even social circle). But sometimes it's not practical to do so at the first sign of trouble.

At a LARP, for example, if you've got 20 or 50 players (or more), the ST doesn't always get much face time with the players. As such, they can't always know if the person who's causing a problem today is going to be a continual hassle, or just having a bad day, or just new to gaming and needs to be reigned in once or twice so they learn the way the world works. There's a certain temptation to be draconian, since "if I lose this jerk I'll still have 49 players", but if you just start giving people the boot there's a good chance you'll turn away someone who just needed a 5 minute lesson on how things run in your game.

Another example would be an open game at a convention or a game store. In those situations you might not have the option to kick someone out, nor the time to teach them to be a better player.

If you game in a small town, the prospect of finding new gamers could be daunting or unrealistic.

I've also met couples that gamed together, where one was a great gamer and the other an idiot. You can't just drop one of them without running the risk of it souring the table for the other.

In all those cases, having simple concise floor rules and stated underlying assumptions helps the GM/ST defuse a bad situation and make the right rules call.

So, sure, it's great to encourage people to drop the dead weight, and raise the bar as far as expectations go. I know I'm a lot pickier these days about who I'll game with. But in the meantime, making the rules clear helps a lot, and as I said before, those newer gamers just establishing themselves are the ones who need the rulebooks and the GMing advice. Crabby old grognards like me are just gonna make up our own damn rules anyway.

Today, parts of what I said seemed a wee bit harsh, so I added / replied:

Rereading that with the clarity of a 24 hours to think about it, I realize I came off a little more aggressive than I intended. I'd hate for my real message to get lost there. I didn't mean to be accusatory or argumentative. Please accept my apology for the growly tone.

Here's what I should have written instead:

"I'm really thankful that you shared the insights you did concerning the assumptions you have in mind when designing powers for the game, Jesse. I'm glad you shared them, and they seem like a really good context for game design and GMing.
I'd be even happier if they were spelled out in a book, 'cause I think they'd be reach a larger audience that way and be especially helpful to casual gamers and new STs. Regardless of whether White Wolf publishes such things in a book, I'm grateful to have read them here at least. Thanks again for sharing what you did."


Jesse's response:

Pff. After developing Mage Revised, I can take it.

My point about bad players is, ultimately a line in a rulebook is not a fix-it for the root of the problem. It is handy for novice game groups, but if a group has bad players because they are so desperate for a game that they accept people who are argumentative, abusive, and exploitative, then the only thing that can stop it is a strong hand from the Storyteller. Players of that sort will always find exploits and justifications for their ridiculous actions. The Storyteller must ultimately be the one to say "No," whether it's because a rule supports his interpretation, or because he has decided that his authority is important for the sake of good game play, even if it goes against the published rules.

Yeah, I said it - sometimes the ST will make a ruling that goes against the rules, just to preserve the game. (Witness the many house rules of UO.)

It sucks to live somewhere with no good gaming, but sometimes you have to ask yourself "Is putting up with the grief of a dysfunctional group better than just not playing a game?" My buddy Brandon just returned from a small town in Ohio, where he was in school for several years. He didn't have any game groups there because he didn't fit in with or enjoy the styles of any of the people he met at the local campus game store. For him, the decision was no gaming over bad gaming. Sad, but true.

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