Saturday, May 14, 2011

The cost of rules

Rules aren’t cheap. Someone spent time to develop every rule and that was time they couldn’t spend elsewhere. Rules have to be tested, they have to be learned, and they take up space in the book. If there were half as many rules, everything else would be twice as play tested and the game would be easier to learn. As the number of rules increases, the likelihood that you have to look something up increases and the longer it takes to find as you flip past all those rules that aren’t the one you’re looking for.

But a good rule is a good thing. Good rules can capture the imagination and create incentives that make the game more fun. It is probably worth bearing the weight of a few bad rules to make sure that we don’t accidentally cut a good one. The game needs good rules.

This article focuses on identifying bad rules and deciding what, if anything, should be done to fix them. Even simpler than that, this article focuses on identifying the low-hanging fruit of bad rules; stuff that, for the most part, you could change or cut without much effort and without much impact.

Before we can gauge a rule we have to determine if the rule is “interesting.”Interesting in this article is sort of a fudge term that lets each person account for preference. Folks are different and they value things differently. In general, though, interesting means that the rule presents an option that has a noticeable impact on the game. An option doesn’t necessarily have to be a good option and “noticeable impact” can be anything from increasing a chance to hit to increasing overall fun. Interesting is definitely a spectrum and nothing can technically be “not interesting.” Think of “not interesting” as short hand for “not interesting enough” or “the level of interestingness this addition provides is not commensurate with the totality of the costs associated therewith.”

Rubric for analyzing bad rules

Rule is interesting
Rule is not interesting
Rule is frequently
used in game
Quadrant A
Not low-hanging fruit
Quadrant B
Rule is not frequently used in game
Quadrant C
Quadrant D
Easy to remove

Quadrant A: Rules that are interesting and frequently used
A lot of bad rules fall into this category, but they are not low-hanging fruit. Changing or removing these rules will have consequences and should be done cautiously. These rules are beyond the scope of this article.

Quadrant B: Rules that are not interesting but frequently used
These rules are best described as clunky. You cannot avoid them and they do come up, but the play experience would be largely the same if they were not there. Non-standard range increments fall into this quadrant for my game. The likelihood that a character tossing a shuriken is within six squares but couldn’t have easily been within five is not very high.

Clunky rules are the hardest to define as interesting (or rather “not interesting”) because personal preference plays such a significant part. Maybe you run an incredibly tactical game and that extra square of range increases your total threat zone from 120 squares to 168 or a 40% increase. But standardizing the shuriken to 5/10 doesn’t remove the tactics, it just makes it tactically different. Chess is largely the same game even if you remove castling. So the ultimate analysis is whether or not the shuriken’s need for that extra square outweighs the added complexity of non-standardized ranges. For a lot of games, I imagine that it does not.

Removing clunky rules takes some work and can cause ire. The player of the rogue will probably insist that he finds that sixth square very interesting and has successfully committed the range to memory so you needn’t worry about looking it up. It is easy to make arguments for why this particular rule that benefits me isn’t clunky. But that is because the cost of a clunky rule is paid for by everyone but the player using it. We can demonstrate this with a quick thought experiment. Imagine if every weapon had a really unique range. We’re talking different base ranges, sometimes a max range that is x2 but x3 or any difference is possible, and with some weapons even allowing for a third or fourth range increment. Now imagine 10 characters that all use a different ranged weapon that would have at least one aspect diminished if the system were standardized. Each player would probably recognize the benefit of not having to break out the book anytime a new weapon is found, but they would probably also feel that their uniqueness is not the straw that broke the camel’s back. But whether it is the first straw or the last straw, we messed up our camel.

Quadrant C: Rules that are interesting but not frequently used
These rules are best described as clutter. They take up space, they draw away your attention, but ultimately go unused. Clutter comes in two formats: too weak and too complex.

Most clutter is game content that no one wants to use because it is inferior to other options. The club (as I recently argued) is a great example of this; it is just worse than the mace in every regard. (I guess if you really can’t scrounge up the extra 4 gp my argument falls apart).  The club is not even the free/improvised weapon it used to be because there is a different entry for improvising a melee weapon. So the club is technically interesting in that it is a different option that plays differently than the mace (its nearest analogue) but it is unlikely anyone would ever bother. It just sits there cluttering up the book.

Again, there is room for personal preference. Maybe you appreciate the verisimilitude the club adds to a world by acknowledging that some things are just worse than others and that makes it worth the cost of having it around. Fair enough. But the club is a token example. Think of all the feats and powers that are sufficiently weak enough that they’ll never be taken. That significantly raises the cost of entry to the game for new players and taxes veteran players by making them wade through excess material before they can build their character. For casual players that just want to build a fun character, clutter is a trap that makes them less likely to succeed and since most people find succeeding more fun that is a real issue.

The second type of clutter is interesting rules that are just too complex to see much use during a game. A lot of 3e rules fell into this category for me with my favorite example being the weather rules. Different penalties for ranged versus melee attacks, the potential for small characters to be blown away unless they clung to size medium allies, and ability checks to move against the gusts; so much awesome potential that so rarely got used because it was hard to remember and a bit too harsh.

This second type of clutter is the most dangerous of all bad rules because it poorly fills a space that could have been filled by a good rule. Someone at some point recognized that we needed a rule there because it had the potential to be fun and exciting. Unfortunately, we missed the mark and killed the fun before it ever had a chance to show up.

Removing the first type of clutter is easy because it doesn’t come up and so no one really cares. But since most of it tends to be stuff we wish didn’t exist, there aren’t a lot of options. This is where the owner of the game ought to step up as a good steward and trim the fat. The second type of clutter is probably the most fun to replace and is where most house rules are born. The trick is to not just replace the rule, but figure out why the original rule didn’t work for you and make sure not to make the same mistakes.  

Quadrant D: Rules that are not interesting and are not frequently used
There are not too many rules that fit in this quadrant (or maybe I just can’t think of any because they weren’t interesting and don’t come up that often) but it is obvious that they are easy to just cut. The type of game content that most often fits into this category is home-brew campaign material. If you ask players to read a short treatise on the twelve human subraces, none of which are mechanically different, this might raise a red flag. For some folks, this stuff is what brings them back to the table and they know that these are worthwhile additions to their game. For other folks the end conclusion of that treatise is the DM saying that “despite the fact that is an awesome character portrait, the only people in my world that have red hair have shunned armor for the last century, so…”

If written out, the rule in question is probably something like, “everybody must read and comply with what I wrote.” Obviously that is a bad rule, but it probably shows up in more games than you’d expect. The mismatch is that players care about the rule while the DM cared about the content. The content is fine, it is the delivery mechanism that is flawed, so build it into your narration and story instead of dumping it into a word document.  Ultimately, if a rule is not mechanically interesting and a player is not motivated by it on the role side of the equation, we should not allow it to be a barrier to getting to the fun. Limiting a player’s vision of their own character or setting yourself up to feel a little hurt when people don’t appreciate your work makes it harder to get to the fun.


  1. I see this is the 2nd time you mention non-standard ranged weapons. One of the benefits of a 6/12 weapon is that the user can stay outside the range of a target's ranged 5 powers unless the target wants to spend a move action. It's similar to a reach melee weapon in that it forces the target to move to engage you, which is much more valuable if your goal is to either be more "striking" and not get hit, or more "controlling" and force movement. Admittedly, the number of creatures with range 5 powers is definitely a smaller subset, but it presents a nice option for when you do encounter one. And, as an old school player used to carrying around a golf bag of different weapons, this suits my play style.

  2. For sure. In fact, I imagine the range 6 was picked to let the rogue skirt around auras with a range of 5 and have that sense of danger which is pretty decent game design.

    I don't want to imply that there is no use and I certainly don't want that one example to be taken as my entire argument against clunky rules. It is a useful example, though, for beginning to think about rules that don't make a difference very often but complicate the game.

    Thanks for posting!