Cinemechanix Design Journal 25: Rearranging The Pieces

Category: Cussin' In Tongues
Created on Friday, 23 September 2016 Written by Steve

Last time around, I talked about a problem I was running into with a disconnect between intent and interpretation when it comes to rules. Basically, since we usually think of games as "systems" where all different rules concepts are interconnected, some players assume that anything not clearly marked "optional" is essential. The truth is that most systems aren't as interdependent and finely-tuned as game designers like to pretend (or at least they don't have to be; a lot of the interdependence that does exist is wrapped up in the myth of game balance). A good system uses a set of core mechanical concepts to handle different aspects of the game, but each of those individual subsystems is mostly independent. Changing the target number for pickpocket rolls or giving fighters a higher damage bonus for specialization isn't going to change how the game plays. Ultimately, I realized that my challenge was one of presentation: I needed to organize a rules in a way that clarified where different rules concepts fell on the spectrum between "core rules" and "random ideas I thought were neat." 

Looking over the rules, I came up with a few general categories of rules that needed to be dealt with:

Core Rules: These are the central mechanics that you need for just about any game you decide to run: the basic rolling mechanic, character trait definitions, basic combat rules, using Acclaim, etc.

Options: These aren't so much specific rules as things that you define (or ignore) to fit the specific game you're playing: game-specific concept traits, allowable Tropes, starting Hero Factor, some details about how leveling up works, that kind of thing.

Non-Core Rules Concepts: These are basically the crunchy rules concepts like extended rolls or teamwork rules. They can provide more detail when you need it, but you should only use them when that level of detail is actually necessary. These (along with the core rules) are the "toolbox" concepts I've mentioned in a few posts and often they're used to create the rules or subsystems you need for a particular game.

Specific Sub-Systems: These are kind of the things you build with the stuff in the toolbox: a description of which rules concepts to use for a specific kind of character action along with target numbers, what different results mean, and any additional rules that are added on. I've written up sub-systems for things like investigation, persuasion, and research, but for most of them you can easily use the core rules unless that particular activity is central to the game premise or story. The only specific sub-system that almost every game needs is a combat system. The necessity of others depends on what kind of game you're running.

Pet Rules: These aren't so much rules concepts or sub-systems as a case where I've noticed a way a rules idea could be used and crammed it into the game. There were a lot of these in some of the early versions of the combat chapter. 

It took some trial and error and a lot of cutting and pasting, but eventually I think I worked out the organization. It follows a set of guidelines that I probably could have saved a lot of time by working out ahead of time instead of as I went along. Here they are:

  • The core rules chapters are for core rules. Anything else should only be referenced briefly or used as an example for how to use particular rules. Those examples should be clearly marked as such.
  • Some options (like the idea of game-specific traits) need to be introduced in a general way in the core rules chapters, but detailed discussion should be saved for the section on adapting the rules to your game. 
  • The non-core concepts go into a new chapter, which I decided to call "Auxiliary Rules." I didn't want to use "Advanced" because that almost sounds like a challenge to game nerds to use them whether they're needed or not. I also didn't like "Optional" because these aren't really something like psionics or exceptional strength that you take or leave at a game level. You use them when you need them and ignore them when you don't. 
  • I looked through the sub-systems and pet rules to see if there were any auxiliary rules concepts hiding in them. In a couple of cases, reframing the basic mechanics behind subsystems or pet rules as generic rules all but eliminated the need for the subsystem or pet rule. Those that are left will be used as examples, either in rules chapters (especially the adaptation section) or in specific game set-ups. 

Going through this also made me realize that the chapter I had about adapting the rules to your game isn't nearly enough. The idea of using the rules to create the exact game you want to play has become more and more central to the system's purpose, so I need to really tell players how to do that rather than giving a general chapter and trying to show the possibilities mostly by example. So now organized into 3 sections (4 if you count appendices): the basic rules section, the section on adapting the rules to your game, and the GM's section. Part 1 is basically revised, part 3 doesn't need a whole lot of changes, but Part 2 is going to require a lot of new material. I should probably get to work. 

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