This post is, in part inspired by Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse.
There is an oft overlooked rule underlying the way war games have worked dating back even before Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson printed the very first rules for a Fantasy War Game in 1974. I’m not sure how far back this rule goes, but it surely dates to a time when war games where used for training and battle simulation rather than pure entertainment. If I had to distill this rule down to it’s essence I might write something like this:
The referee serves as the sole arbiter of the game scenario and rules.
For those who’ve been playing traditional “adventuring party + referee games” for a long time, this may not even seem like a rule. In fact I’ve often heard it referred to as a meta-rule officially it’s been referred to as Rule Zero. But I insist that it is not just a very real rule, it is the rule. This rule is so fundamental to the nature of traditional war, adventure, and role-playing games that any deviation away from it is nothing short of revolutionary, and many such fascinating and revolutionary games have been made.
There are also two very important parts of that rule, it defines the referee as arbiter of both the scenario and the rules. For scenario, lets turn to the subtitle of the original role-playing game released in 1974:
Rules for Fantastic Medieval wargamesG. Gygax, D. Arneson Dungeons & Dragons, 1973
This is an important distinction, if anything, the subtitle for D&D is way more important than the title. Using the 0e D&D rule set you may be able to play an infinite variety of games, but they must all have one thing in common, they must be “fantastic medieval” games.
That isn’t to say that a few small tweaks can turn it into something that’s not fantastic and medieval, but by definition any game that is not fantastic medieval, is not D&D. In fact many such tweaks exist, and we need look no further than the subtitle of D&D‘s cousin Metamorphosis Alpha:
Fantastic Role-Playing Game of Science Fiction AdventureJames Ward Metamorphosis Alpha 1st Edtion, 1976
Thus, we see that games can restrict setting, or scenario. So what about rules?
This time, let’s turn to the combat rules of a more modern iteration of inspired by D&D, the much-loved Black Hack:
When a character attacks a creature they must roll below their STR stat for a Melee Attack or DEX for a Ranged Attack. Likewise, when a creature attacks, the character must roll below its STR against a Melee Attack and DEX against a Ranged Attack to avoid taking damage. A GM will often give the stat required for the test.The damage an attack deals is based on the character’s class or the number of HD a monster has.David Black Black Hack v1.2 – 2016-04-03
I think it’s fair to say that if you ignore these rules, or exchange them for something else, you are no longer playing The Black Hack. You may be playing something very close, but you are playing your very own hack. So games can restrict the way in which things are done as well, or the rules. In fact even the first rule on this page restricts the way things are done, it restricts rule arbitration to the referee, and only the referee.
This finally brings me to my main point. If you consider Rule Zero to be a complete game by itself (I do), then it can be said to have an abundance of a property that I am now calling Ludic Multiplicity. That is, the property of a game being able to contain within itself many more rules and scenarios then are defined by the game that can be taken up and abandoned in a spontaneous and playful manner.
A fantasy game may contain within it an infinite number of fantasy worlds with accompanying rules, but Rule Zero contains within it all those same fantasy worlds and rules, as well as an infinite number of science fiction worlds and rules and many others. In a single course of play, an adventuring party might jump dimensions across these worlds and rules picking up each and abandoning them, all without abandoning the confines of Rule Zero.
A game with low ludic multiplicity is one that can be played only in very specific ways and that contains within itself very few games that can be spontaneously taken up and abandoned. Chess for example, or any role-playing game which contains laundry-lists of damage types, and very specific defined rules about how the world behaves.
There is of course nothing special about games with high or low ludic multiplicity, all games after all can be spontaneous and playful, that is the nature of gaming. A kind of serious non-seriousness where we try very hard to win or to accomplish some goal, but in the end we know that if we fail nothing very bad happens to us. Personally though I much prefer the vast ludic multiplicity of such simple rules like Rule Zero. It allows me to spontaneously create, modify, and prune rules as simple or as complex as I like to simulate a living world. I can use dice, cards, my imagination, whatever strikes my fancy. And of course when all else fails I can turn to the perfected rules of Norbert Matausch for guidance: