Friday, June 3, 2011

The onus of rules

In general, every rule is a burden. Someone has to memorize it, someone has to exercise it, and someone has to mentally apply its impact on the game. In some ways, this article treads similar ground to the cost of rules article, but focuses on a more nuanced concept: who should bear the burden of a rule?

The burden of a rule should predominantly be borne by the person who has the ability to make it occur. That is, if a power lets Player A take action X and action X is really cumbersome to game play, then the rule should be designed such that Player A has to do all the bookkeeping. In this sense, “cumbersome to game play” means either time intensive, complex to adjudicate, or easy to forget. This has two primary benefits: it self-regulates usage and increases the likelihood that it plays as intended.

Self regulation
If the person who makes the decision to use the cumbersome rule also has to pay the cost, then the rule will only be used when the benefit outweighs that cost. If, instead, the target pays the cost, it is double punitive to the target and double beneficial to the player. This is identical to the idea of a negative externality in any economic sense; we want negative externalities to be borne by the party causing them.

A great example of this in 3e is dispel magic. Player A dispels Target’s magic items and Target gets to spend 5 minutes updating all numbers just so Player A can beat the crap out of Target. Player A loves it and uses it every chance possible and Target hates it.

Played as intended
There is little incentive to memorize a rule for how something hurts you but there is a great deal of incentive to master a rule that helps you. Mastered rules play faster. People rarely forget to apply a bonus they earned but it is pretty easy to forget to apply a penalty that someone else put on you. Moreover, the ramifications of, “Oh shoot, I should have hit last turn” are usually easier to ignore or fix than, “Oh shoot, he should still be alive.”

A great example of this in 4e are conditions. Conditions are really elegant and yet because so many of them can apply they get complex. Since the creature generating the condition (i.e. a player) is different that the creature suffering the condition (i.e. a monster), there is less continuity between the rule and it is more likely to be forgotten or given the wrong duration or whatever.

The fix
The easiest fix is to focus on bonuses instead of penalties. That way, there is alignment between the generation of the benefit and the beneficiary. While we can transition somewhat, removing penalties removes about half of the possible rules from the game. Options are good and sometimes a rule is good enough or interesting enough that it is worth the cost even if the burden is inefficiently allocated.

So what else can we do?
  • Temporal fixes. Make penalties one-off events that are applied and immediately resolved.
  • Simplify. Is the rule cumbersome because it is complex? How much of that complexity is necessary to achieve the essence of what the rule was aiming for? Could Dispel Magic just apply a static penalty based on assumptions of magic by level? It certainly isn’t as satisfying, but it would speed up play. You’d have to weigh the pros and cons.
  • Standardize. Even if you can’t fix a particular rule, you can make it easier to master by making the things it relies on less cumbersome. In 4e, conditions (ignoring saving throws) can have durations that terminate at the end of the target’s turn, start of the generating character’s next turn, or end of the generating character’s next turn. At this point, each duration has different implications, but during the design phase it would have been simple to pick a single non-save-duration for conditions and adjust power levels some other way. Now, the person suffering the condition has to confirm with the generator of the condition how long the duration is because knowledge and burden are not aligned.
  • Triggers. If you can’t sync up the timing of a penalty and its resolution, delay the timing with a trigger. Instead of Weakness until end of next turn, the creature suffers a curse that can be discharged to make a successful attack deal half damage (discard if unused end of next turn). If it is forgotten, that means it just wasn’t used. If you’re feeling generous, let it be applied retroactively. Either way, it shifts the onus of the rule onto the party that stands to benefit.

One final neat thing about the last fix, triggers, is that it is actually more rewarding. By letting the character pull the trigger outside their turn when it counts, it feels like they are getting to act again. It encourages them to remain engaged even outside their turn and pays homage to their previous success that generated the trigger-able event. Sort of a win-win, there.


  1. In regards to triggers, let's say Player A puts a curse on Target, like you say.]
    Target, being rational, would never choose to activate a trigger unless the rules force him to take it in a certain timeframe, or there is some ongoing penalty that must be removed.

    You have taken a situation where Target takes a penalty from a curse, that Target has to keep track of and remember to apply... and remember when it expires.
    You have replaced it with a penalty from a curse, that Target has to keep track of and remember to apply... and make a choice between ongoing curse and once-off disadvantage, remembering when the choice expires.

    It puts _more_ onus on Target to spend time on this rule that Player A has invoked. At the same time it increases complexity of the rules and gives Player A less control over the application of his own power.

    I think you have accidentally made things worse by your own standard.

  2. I can see where you'd read it that way, but it was intended a bit differently.

    The idea is that Player A gets to pull the trigger, not Target. Let me give a more explicit example of what I meant with triggers.

    Player A takes some action that allows him to curse Target. Ideally, we want that to just play out and resolve it now so that we don't have to remember it later. But this is a Curse of Weakness and so it really can't apply until Target attacks later.

    What 4e does is just hit Target with a condition (Weakness) and now it is on Target to remember that on his next turn.

    What I am proposing is that Player A would have some latent ability and could pull the trigger later. If Target attacks his buddy with a ton of hit points, Player A could decline to trigger the Curse of Weakness and let his buddy take full damage. If Target instead attacks Player A, he can pull the trigger on the Curse of Weakness and have the attack deal half damage.

    Now, let's say the curse expires after one turn and Player A never pulled the trigger because he forgot about it. Under the rules, there was no foul... he just didn't pull the trigger.

    If we forgot under the 4e version of the same power, we'd be worse off. Forgetting to apply weakness means we dealt too much damage and now have to give HP back. In some scenarios that isn't a big deal, but in others it might have knocked the PC unconscious and now we are in an awkward situation.

    Make more sense?

  3. It does make sense actually... I was assuming before that Target would have to pull the trigger. My bad. :-)