Ruminations on Rules

Wherein I waste time trying to model things in a very abstract, hand-wavey, non-mathematical way and come to no real conclusions.

In my last post on Ludic Multiplicity, I set something kind of odd and vague about how games and rules interact with freedom:

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 sounds an awful lot like saying “more rules = less freedom” this sounds intuitive enough, so why didn’t I just say that outright? Well it turns out figuring out whether or not rules restrict freedom isn’t quite so easy, it’s also difficult to quantify and think about how rules can reduce the number of options available to players, especially in contexts of open-choice making like wargames and role-playing games.

There has to be somewhere we can start to wrap our heads around rules and choice-making. I was always taught to start simple and think about things where I can control all the variables. So here’s an attempt:

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Imagine a 5×5 black and white checkered board where each of the 4 corners is black. Now, suppose we have a game piece in the center of the board.

Right off the bat, there are an infinity of choices available to us. We haven’t specified that the game piece has to move from square-to-square, as-is we can put the piece halfway between squares or a quarter-way etc. We haven’t even specified the piece has to stay on the board, it could go anywhere! So let’s make our first rules so that we can make more sense of things.

  1. The piece must be placed within a square on the board.
  2. On each turn, the piece may be moved to another square.

That’s better, now we can at least count things which is important if we want to know whether rules really do restrict options or not. As it stands, each turn we pick up the piece, it has 25 possible places to go: Any of the 25 squares on the board. Let’s make another rule:

  1. The piece may only be moved to an adjacent square each turn.

Now, whenever we pick the piece up we have exactly 9 places we can put it, any adjacent square plus the one we’re already on. Unless we’re on an edge, then we have 6 squares we can but the piece on, and in a corner we are limited to just 4.

So clearly, rules limit options, we went from being to put the piece literally anywhere we could think of, to any of the 25 squares on the board, to as little as having just four options in one turn.

Not so fast! What if we add a new rule?

  1. Whenever the piece is in a corner, it may move diagonally to the opposing corner or any square in between.

Now, instead of having 4 possible options, we have 7 options when we’re in a corner. We’ve managed to write a rule that increased our options by 3.

I have to be honest at this point, I don’t really know where any of this was going. I guess I was hoping to try to find out if my intuition that “more rules means less options” had an validity to it. Not only was I not able to think up a way to figure that out, but even worse, wargames and role-playing games aren’t at as confined as chess.

That said, some games to confine players to things like “moves” or “actions” and combat quickly becomes turned into a meta-game of picking between a finite set of special abilities and spells to maximize damage or something along those lines. There’s nothing at all wrong with this kind of game, but personally I prefer to having anything I can think of available to me, even if it does rely on the good graces of the referee.

I guess for now I’ll say that I have no real evidence to support my concept of Ludic Multiplicity, but at the end of the day I just don’t like rules that much when it comes to wargaming.

2 Comments

  1. I think the insight is that there’s 2 classes of rules:

    1. Rules that limit freedom by excluding moves you can’t make
    2. Rules that appear to enhance freedom by identifying moves you can

    The trick is the latter also implies you can’t make moves not in the rules. RPGs are unique because they explicitly allow this, subject to the approval of the Game Master. However, “moves” that come in the form of feats, special abilities, or PC build options must be carefully balanced against each other and exclude PCs without that special ability from attempting the move. So adding special moves is sort of an illusion of freedom in the same way that asking a child if they want to brush their teeth or put on their pajamas first before bed is “freedom” – you’ve excluded all other options.

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    1. “ The trick is the latter also implies you can’t make moves not in the rules”

      Yes! That’s exactly it. If a rule says that a pawn can move diagonally when they attack an enemy, it means that a pawn can NOT in fact move diagonally any other time.
      In fact, if I had to pick I’d prefer a game with a small handful of rules that define what I can’t do than a game with several rules that define what I can.
      This gives me a better way to think about this in terms of numbers too! “Pick any number besides 5” lives you with an infinite number of choices from 5.00000001 to 9 billion and beyond. Whereas “you can pick any number between 1 and 10 still gives you infinite choices (you could pick any tiny decimal point such as 1.001 or 2.9999999) but you are limited within a range.
      Thanks for the comment!

      Like

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