Does a Generic Ruleset Make Sense?

By | August 17, 2013

Hello again on this Gen Con weekend!

We’re not in Indiana this weekend, so to anybody who reads this, thank you!  You mean a lot to us, because just by reading you’re giving us the impetus to keep going with what we’re doing.

Today I’m going to share a couple of anecdotes and what they’ve taught me.  The first comes from a recent discussion with another game designer, of considerably more success and fame (name withheld because I haven’t asked permission to borrow his fame).  We mentioned that we were building a generic ruleset, one which is not tied to a specific setting and one in which the win condition was not explicitly set.  An open-structure ruleset.  He mentioned that there were a lot of great such rulesets already on the market, and that we would be inviting comparisons to those rulesets by releasing such a beast.

And his skepticism mirrored a question I’ve asked myself (and Sarah and Ray) many times: does a generic ruleset in this day and age make sense?  The trend in the roleplaying gaming industry for many years now has been to release rulesets mated with specific settings, to “seal the deal” in that if you want to play in X setting, you must use Y rules.  You can try to hack another system onto that setting, but that’s not what it’s designed for.  I’ve even seen folks say that when they see setting designers try to make a setting cross-rules compatible, they lose a lot of respect for said designers and said settings.

And I can understand that mindset.  Poker doesn’t have the same rules as Go Fish, they’re entirely different games, so why would you have one game setting that’s trying to be two or more different games?

But ultimately I think that’s the difference between the open-structure mindset and the closed-structure mindset.  Closed-structure rulesets (you could also call this a “complete-structure,” if “closed” carries too much connotative baggage), wherein the rules themselves determine the path of the story and how it will end by providing explicit endgame conditions, are great.  They’re usually fast-playing, very structured, and you know when you “win.”  Every board game, card game and video game that I can think of is closed-structure.  They are the games that dominate gaming, because the success condition is clear.  Open-structure rulesets do not provide endgame conditions; this is the traditional roleplaying game.  Open structures provide an adjudication framework but leave the shape and texture of the story up to fiat.

A “Story Game” actually often has a more closed structure, because the game is providing a rules structure for both what players can do and what beats the story must hit.  This could be expressed as Players + Rules = Setting + Story.  Fiasco is one such game, and Fate Core straddles it in a looser, more open fashion.  These rulesets encourage the players to develop significant parts of the setting and story they will be playing in.  And Fiasco structures the story itself, so you know when you’re getting near the end.  In these types of games it is the journey, not the destination, where the gameplay exists.

A more traditional roleplaying game, though (this often comes down to D&D vs. newer-style games, which I do not think is fair to either side), expresses its structure more as Players + Rules + Setting = Story.  That is, the players, using the rules, encounter the setting and from there the story unfolds based upon their actions.  This is a more open, perhaps even a more “emergent”, storytelling structure, because the GM (who controls the setting and the results of player actions) doesn’t necessarily need an endpoint in mind.  In these types of games, the gameplay exists at the next obstacle to overcome, to ensure the best results for your characters.  The destination, not the journey.

Early on, we considered ourselves designers who were trying to emphasize story over action, but we didn’t stop to consider that for many people, emphasizing story meant Infinite Earths was going to be a “story game.”  So let me be clear: it’s not.  Infinite Earths is an open-structure roleplaying game designed to emphasize story-based goals without requiring specific types of encounters, enabling players to freely encounter the game world and determine their place in it.  It is a game of actions and consequences, where the dice determine results and how characters interact with those results determines the story.  It plays a lot like streamlined d20 by way of Fate.

So does it make sense to build another generic ruleset like d20 and Fate, a ruleset that is designed to be plopped into any setting?  I think so, and here’s why:

I get into trouble sometimes, not because I don’t follow the rules.  As has been pointed out before, I’m rather big on rules and I generally try not to break them (well, except for Speed Limits, I’m rather bad about that).  But while I’m fairly good at staying within the boundaries of the rules that I know of, there are all these unwritten rules that govern the way people behave and the way people expect other people to behave.  And you can be sure that if there’s an unwritten rule about something, I’m going to dive headfirst into it and piss somebody off, because I see the rules as the limits and not the extents.

We all come from different backgrounds, have different thoughts and experiences which shape us, and we all have a different perspective on what should and should not be.  That is what makes life rich, entertaining, and really aggravating all at once.  Unwritten rules are the purview of “common sense,” said to be the least common sense of all, and flatly in the realm of (for gaming purposes) GM Fiat.  One of the big trends in gaming right now is rulesets that try to minimize defining the rules, leaving the majority of rules “unwritten” so that the GM can figure it out.

This idea, to my mind, is fundamentally flawed because it does not take into account that 3 different people can have 4 different value judgments of what is “common sense.”  Sure, it works great if everyone has the same perspective on what should and should not be – but not everyone does.  And it strikes me that defining a ruleset by the unwritten rules that leave half of itself up to the players is defining only half a ruleset.

Rules give players and guides guidance.  They give everyone a common framework or physics within which they can operate, allowing them to know what is possible, what is difficult, and what is no sweat.  Rules give players and guides a space in which they can understand how X will react to Y and what consequences that will bring without argument.  Well-defined rules allow a smaller power differential between Guide and Player; less well-defined rules (or too many well-defined rules, as the case may be) means that Rule Zero, “the GM is always right,” must be more strictly enforced and that power differential increases.

So yes, in the end, I think there is still space in the game world for a generic ruleset that exists in the “middle space” between rules-heavy D&D and rules-light Fate.  A ruleset that builds up into the worlds it inhabits, instead of requiring players to hack out bits of it to make it fit into other worlds.  It is that space which we are developing Infinite Earths toward.  This doesn’t really follow the trends of the gaming industry.  That might work out, that might not.

If it does, we’ll likely eventually expand into Pulp and Space Opera rulesets.  We’ve certainly been building the Fantasy ruleset with that in mind.

If it doesn’t, well, we’ll have learned something.

We’re always learning something.

Next week, Ray will get back more into the nuts-and-bolts of the system.  Thank you for reading, and see you then!