Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Rules, Rules, Rules

One thing that continually astounds me is the reverence people give to playing a game "by the rules".

Recalling many of the earliest Dragon magazines, I can recall issue after issue of Gary Gygax imploring, and then threatening, his readers about the dangers of changing the rules of D&D. "You will not be playing real D&D!" he warned. When it wasn't about D&D, it was about going to the "right" convention. "Origins is not Gen-con!" Each month it was something else.

Maybe it's me. I am just not the sort of person who has even been able to comfortably conform to all of society's expectation. I need to hack. I need to know why rules are the way they are and push them to their inconsistent limits. It could be because I grew up Jewish in a non-Jewish world. Or it could be that I like attention. Maybe both.

Despite a strict belief in reasonably acting civilized and trying not to hurt other people, however, I am a very strong individualist. I don't like arbitrary restrictions imposed on my liberties, and I don't like codes of behavior best handled by etiquette and manners being enforced by law. If for no other reason than that law is going to muck it up pretty badly.

When I buy music, I like to play it how I like it, sing it how I like it, harmonize with it, maybe even change the words while I'm singing it. This doesn't mean that I don't want to know what the original is, or that I will wreck the tune if singing with a group. But once I know the tune, it is mine. My thoughts, my singing, mine to do what I want with. Sometimes I can come up with better lyrics or even a slightly better tune than the original singer. That is, of course, my opinion.

The same thing happens when I buy games. A game is mine when I buy it. OK, the copyright holder can enforce a very limited restriction on my ownership: I can't create carbon copies and sell them, or create derivative works and sell those without compensation.

But that's it. Once I know how the game works, I am free to change the rules, make variations for private use, play it how I like it. And I do.

Why does that frighten so many people? I so often read people saying "But if you change X it will change the entire game!" Yeah, so what? Or "That's not how the game designer made it!" Again, yeah, so what?

I can tell you that several mechanics work together in my Menorah game; disrupting them will create some imbalances. Some of these may be negative, and some may be positive. Other mechanics I chose totally arbitrarily. If you change them, it may have little or no impact on the overall game play. Again, so what? Do what you want. Experiment, try it out. Be creative!

The mechanics and rules of our games are a cultural heritage that we must sieze as our own, like the lyrics and music of old folk songs. Take them and change them to your heart's content. Mind copyrights and so forth, but build something new. Don't let games devolve into stagnation just because the designer or publisher made some arbitrary decision.

Rip it. Mix it. Burn it. Just play fair.



Yehuda Berlinger said...

I will try to find some relevant issues.


Pawnstar said...

I totally agree with tailoring games to suit one's tastes; indeed when I had fewer good games I used to do that frequently with older titles I wished were as good as the games available today.

As I'm sure you're aware, this is very time-consuming. I now find it difficult to find time to play games I purchased two years ago, so I will probably never "fix" anything else.

Occasionally I manage to introduce variants, but most people I play with will say they would rather play the basic game so when they do get played they barely pass the first play.

Despite all these costraints, most gamers I know manage to add variants where it becomes necessary, rather than blindly struggling with what they get. But I suppose games that need tweaking are another matter.

ekted said...

Even if you decide to play with house rules, you should always know and understand the original rules. That way when you get together with different people to play, everyone should be in agreement. This is why it is so critical for the rules to be clear and complete.

Pawnstar said...

I agree with Jim; particularly because in order to change the rules, there is a requirement to know the original ones. Otherwise you're just throwing a set of arbitrary rules that use the game equipment to play something else, aren't you?

Yehuda Berlinger said...

Knowing the original rules is important for at least two reasons:

1) To ensure that you have not done a disservice to the game designer by finding fault with the rules, when your knowledge is incorrect.

2) As mentioned; so that you know what to tell people when they come to play with you, since noone should have an assumption about what the rules are that others don't. Hence: "play fair".


Shannon Appelcline said...

I often play with different groups of people, and varying the rules of a game just makes that that much tougher, because different people will have different ideas about how the game works, let alone the fact that you'll be sending new gamers out into the world with a version of the rules that's going to get them in trouble next time they play with someone else.

Heck, I've gotten into more than version of Carcassonne, only to discover that everyone had a different version of how the field rules were going to work, and those are *official* variants.

Beyond that, I just don't see much point in varying the rules for a broken game when I could just go play a well-designed game instead.

Anonymous said...

I typically play by the rules as written, because -- hey! -- those are the ones that were playtested. I'm fearful that someone's I-have-an-idea will result in a half-baked game experience. I like all my gaming fully baked.

Coldfoot said...

Interesting, although no one has mentioned the "living rules" associated with wargames.

Wargamers expect the designer to make numerous rules changes as players add their input. There are often so many official rules changes and rule flip-flops that even the most dedicated player has trouble keeping up.

Pawnstar said...

Introducing another angle, Struggle of Empires, Goa, Time Pirates, Union Pacific, Samurai and Silverton are all examples of good (or great) games which are (or were) not at their best with the rules (or translation of the rules - to be fair) as written. Of course in some cases it is the interpretation of these rules that is wrong; that's a different story.

Kimbo said...

The rules are the rules are the rules... they are there for a reason and I don't understand the urge to immediately attempt to change/tweak or re-write them when a game doesn't play they way one might expect... Give the rules a chance I say. Play the game half a dozen times to see what the intent behind the rules are before trying to reshape the game into an image of your choosing... Living rules and official errata are acceptable as it is the (usually) the designer or developer making the change.