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A Lesson in Absolutes

(Originally written in January 2021)

This comes from the pandemic but can be applied to game design as well. In the pandemic the general advice from medical people is that you need to wear a suitable mask and stay at least 6 feet away from other people, and that will go a long way to keeping you safe from the coronavirus. This is where the absolutes come in. People seem to think of these as absolute limits, but they're not.

Somebody somewhere decided that 6 feet was good enough. And maybe the risk there was 95% risk free or 99% or even much better. But somebody had to decide that this was good enough. Because you can be much farther away and still get the virus, or you can be closer and not get it.

In the same way masks are quite variable. There are masks that are a certain standard that we hope medical people are able to wear, that is supposed to protect them very well, whereas some homemade masks are not going protect people well at all. As I understand it the coronavirus has very small airborne elements and if a mask isn't good enough the airborne elements can get right through the mask. But instead we get this absolute idea that it’s perfect. No, it’s not certain protection, it's just that a mask helps a lot.

Washing hands isn’t perfect either. It's a good thing, but it's not perfect, and of course it depends on how well you wash your hands. Washing hands for five seconds is not as good as if you wash your hand for 20 seconds, using soap in both cases.

Now how do we apply this to games? Games of most types have absolute rules: either you can do it or you can’t do it, although sometimes miniatures seem a bit different. I remember Don Greenwood saying that miniatures rules seem to be negotiable. Role-playing games can be similar. In fact you can see the entire play of RPGs as a negotiation between players and the GM. Of course, poorly written rules aren’t absolute, there’s wiggle room or room for misunderstanding. You want your rules to be absolute, but in practice if 99% of the time they’re understood correctly, you’re doing well.

(I ignore the wannabe rules lawyers who proclaim that if the rules don’t say they cannot do something, then they can do it. Nonsense.)

I've also observed that gamers are much less likely to change game rules (whether via House Rules or formal variants) than they used to be. It used to be very common for people to make variants of games. I made bunches of Diplomacy variants as I learned game design. A lot of the RPG material that is published is variants of existing RPG rules. I believe people today are much more likely than in the past to accept the rules of a game they buy as absolute rather than something that can be changed. In older days a lot of people would change the rules to make a game work better, or at least work more like they liked it. Nowadays they give up on a game and move on to the next game. (This is partly a function of having so many more games to work with than we did 40, 50 years ago.)

I think it's also a broader attitude. For example, there is a notion/habit with toys that you don't make up stories for your toys, you use the stories that have already been created by the publisher or the fiction the toys are based on. Whether it’s G.I. Joe or Barbie or Star Wars or something else, many people expect the corporation that released the toy to provide all the stories. In a sense they believe the corporation is still the owner of the toys. Or look at the attitude toward board game expansions. People won’t change the rules until an expansion comes out, then they expect everyone to play with the expansion. Because the corporation (publisher) says so.

It's a very different attitude to what older people are used to.

Originally, the above is all I had to say, but I’m going to add how this belief in absolutes affects in-person game conventions, as I keep hearing about one intended to take place before the end of February. There seems to be a notion in some quarters that as long as you spread people out and they wear masks they can safely attend an in-person game convention, that is to say spend several days indoors with a lot of people, staying in a hotel, and eating in restaurants (the latter being two of the five best places to catch Covid -19 because there are a lot of people confined in an enclosed space). This notion seems to stem from the absolutes I’ve been talking about, as well as from a mysterious refusal to recognize that more than one in a thousand Americans is dead from this disease.

Getting infected with an airborne disease is not an absolute yes/no proposition, insofar as the more exposure you get, the more risk you take, the more likely you are to get infected. Six feet is not absolute protection, it just reduces risk to a level that someone thought was “sufficient.” The more time you spend even at that 6 foot range, the more likely you are to get infected. Add being enclosed, add being in the convention where a lot of people are moving around, add the poor ventilation of many convention rooms, add playing games where at some point people have to be adjacent to the table in order to make their moves, and you’re just asking to get sick. Even if you are vaccinated, remember that vaccinations are not 100% protection, especially if you only have the first shot. The more risks you take, the more likely that inoculation won’t be sufficient.

We can even make an analogy to Dungeons & Dragons. My view of D&D is that you’re trying to minimize the number of times you have to get lucky with the dice in order to survive. (In a sense life is the same way - see World of Design "RPGs as Microcosms of Life"). When you attend an in-person convention, at least in the first half of 2021 and probably later, you’re rolling the dice a lot more times than is desirable. As Dirty Harry said, “Do you feel lucky, punk?” But at least Dirty Harry knew how many shots he’d fired: you’re not going to know how many people have brought the disease to the convention, how many are foolish enough to refuse vaccination, how many are going to be idiotic enough not to wear masks, how many are wearing poor quality masks or wearing them incorrectly, how many just don't give a shit. Maybe there will even be one who still thinks Covid-19 is a hoax! Good luck.

(Current note: The convention in February was moved to a later date that turned out not to be available (hotel screwup); in the end it was canceled. Even the World Boardgaming Championships in late July at a resort in Pennsylvania have been canceled. Origins and GenCon were moved to September. )


What can I say, some people act stupid...

Nobody is stupid. Sometimes people ACT stupid or ignorant. I think in all of the Events mentioned above, the organizers were SMART and acted accordingly by cancelling or delaying their events to a future time.

As most of the COVID-19 information is GUIDELINES and/or preventative measures but NOTHING is 100%. At the minimum you can order food to be delivered and have contact with the delivery person. That's the minimum amount of contact and there is still a likelihood and/or chance you can contract COVID-19. And that can be 1 person, every 2 to 3 weeks. My food doesn't last me 1 month.

That's the MOST secure you can be. Every time you go out, you put yourself at risk. The more people you come into contact with the higher the chance that you contract the virus.

But good point that everything is relative and there are no exceptions to the rules... Nothing is absolute, you are correct. However it is worthy to note that the former President of the USA didn't wear a MASK into very LATE stages of the US infection. He walked around as if he was God and untouchable. That doesn't help public opinion... People look to HIM as an example (a model to follow)... Not wearing a mask or taking proper precautions was BAD.

Why my OWN Publisher and his entire Family got COVID-19. He suffered from Double-Pneumonia and was seriously ill from side-effects of the virus. That junk (the virus) seriously messed up his body. It's taken him a good 4 months to recover reasonably well... He will return to teaching in Late August... But imagine that... The entire Family (Wife, Daughter, Mother-in-law and Stan) had the virus.

So it's not JOKE and definitely not a HOAX. It did kill a lot of elderly people that were vulnerable to being confined and having weaker immune systems (or having other complications such as other diseases like cancer or heart issues, etc.)

But POTUS set a BAD EXAMPLE. Leaders need to be SMART instead of NOT being in-touch-with-reality. In Quebec all the restaurants are closed to dining services. Some places have Take-Out... But for the most parts the restaurants are "closed" (as I said some open for Take-Out). Stan told me that Florida ... All the restaurants STAYED OPEN even during the Pandemic.

How does that make sense??? We've had curfews (nobody out after 8:00 PM), we've had forced closure of MANY, MANY businesses (Focusing on the Gyms and Restaurants). Why even public places like certain LIBRAIRIES were closed...

As you point out... It's all relative. But with the USA having so many times MORE people... Like in Florida... Restaurants being OPEN is just one EPIDEMIC of making the Pandemic 100x worst. Our government took action to make sure our smaller population was safe.

The USA is one huge melting pot and it is very different that Canada. Here we look to our leaders for guidance and setting rules (I know everything is relative) to ensure a lower risk of spreading the virus. In the USA, it looks like nobody gave a shit (pardon my French). It was up to each and every individual and his/her Family to make informed decision as to how often and where they WENT OUTSIDE.

Anyhow my point being is that the LEADERS dropped the ball and states were not forced to close making it a HIGHER RISK of contracting the virus.


Remarks & Questions

I really can't comment on all the pandemic stuff, at least in specific.

However, I do appreciate the understanding of real-life activity as a balance of risk-taking, and how many encounters or situations boil down to a question you ask yourself: "Do I really want to take my chances?" For example, personally speaking, I relinquished one of my passions - the life of a bicycle commuter in the city - because of this kind of hard questioning in my life. It stopped being "worth the risk."

Regarding rule-writing and absolutes: in my recent experience, it seems like the industry is trending towards the extremes. Either you have a rigid, very tight system that is tightly-constrained, or you have a narrative focus and a flexible rules system that emphasizes collaboration and negotiation in service to the collective story.

I've seen a lot more openness and flexibility embraced in specifically RPGs. If it's a gaming system that's been developed, then it's often very story-based, "rules-lite," and the emphasis is on storytelling. Also in this vein of games, rules can be fudged a lot more often, and poorly-written rules can be accepted as a matter of course simply because these games are frequently within the "indy-sphere," with small teams (sometimes a single individual) and low budgets.

The flip-side consists of long-lasting IP such as Dungeons & Dragons and Shadowrun or intensely-narrowly-focused RPG systems that border on tactical skirmishes. On the first category, I am personally turned-off by the idea that "there is a rule for everything," and "there is a prestige class for every character concept." It seems like the merit of a contemporary, big-budget tabletop RPG is the presence of rulebooks and campaign settings.

Years ago I remember asking a Pathfinder fan about the game and what he liked about it the most. He started thumbing through one of the sourcebooks, and was prattling on and on about a certain prestige class. He would say things like, "Once you get to level 8, you can do this and this and this, and at 14 you get to do this..." I held my tongue, but it was difficult for me to not retort in defense: "Mi hombre, I'd done stuff like that with 2nd Edition D&D with some house rules and non-weapon proficiencies." I had a feeling it would have fallen on deaf ears.

So a question, Dr. Lew: do you think that with the breadth of products out there already, there's little reason for someone to have to work on their own house rules? Drive-Thru RPG being what it is... Do you think there's an OSR sourcebook for enough interesting ideas that it's now a matter of "choosing the mods" for your base game, as opposed to developing ones own adaptations to their given RPG system?

Rules vs. Stories

let-off studios wrote:
...Regarding rule-writing and absolutes: in my recent experience, it seems like the industry is trending towards the extremes. Either you have a rigid, very tight system that is tightly-constrained, or you have a narrative focus and a flexible rules system that emphasizes collaboration and negotiation in service to the collective story...

I think this is a "strict" line between Card & Board Games and RPGs. The difference between playing and story-telling. Granted there are some games with more "elements" of story-telling (like TradeWorlds. There are a bunch of storylines that allow you to immerse yourself in the "lore" of the game). But for the most part focus on a FUN playing experience with innovative use of mechanics and ... yes some story-telling.

However if you compare Board Games to RPGs... Then the difference is rather BIG in that RPGs are all about "story-telling". The mechanics and game elements are "secondary" to the overall playing experience... You're taken on a JOURNEY (or an Adventure) and you want to see what this journey is all about (how is it composed of events and side-quests).

Personally I'm not a big fan of RPGs. TBH most of my interests lie in "Card Games". I currently have two (2) card games in development... one of which is ON-HOLD because I can't afford to divide my time and efforts on TWO (2) games. So I am re-working "Crystal Heroes" (CH) and focusing most of my design efforts on this game. "Monster Keep" (MK) will need to wait until I have more popularity and people interested in MY games.

But even CARD games have a bit of "story-telling" too. We all try to give some kind of "backstories" to our games... Enough to elicit interest in learning MORE about the game...

I don't think this is WRONG to SEPARATE both... Most gamers known how to appreciate the nuances of a Card or Board Game versus something like an RPG experience. In games, it's all about the RULES and STRUCTURE. In RPGs it's all about the STORY-TELLING and the ADVENTURE that is to be taken. Sure there are GAMES that do a bit of BOTH... I have an investigators game which has 27 different story-lines and how the game is resolved in the 2nd phase. It's a bit like Betrayal on House of the Hill.

And yeah there are game EVEN MORE immersed in "story-telling"... Which I would stick away from ATM. I had one TW player who thought the game was all about reading the "story-lines". I explained to him the writing was bonus material for those who want to learn more about the Factions, their Leaders and the type of encounters that are specific to themselves.

That one TW player "Thanked Me"... Because he thought he needed to READ all the stories in order to PLAY the game. So while there is a MARKET for more story-oriented games... There is a bit of reluctance with the gamers to embark on adventures with MORE story and LESS RULES and ultimately more focus on the different "kinds of FUN".

This is of course my take on things. Others may have different experiences or backgrounds which leads them to other conclusions...

From the introduction to

From the introduction to Morschauser's wargame rules, 1962:

"Like all war gamers, you will begin making up your own rules to fit your particular likes and needs. You do not have to go beyond what is in this book to have a lot of fun. But you will want to! It's the nature of the hobby."

I am not old enough to have been around back then. By the time I got into gaming it was all about pre-packaged experiences that you play Rules As Written. Old rulebooks, in particular miniature wargames, are full of statements like the above (that just happened to be the rulebook I had closest to the computer right now... could have been almost any other old rulebook).

Response to comments

Yes, the leaders (especially POTUS) clearly failed, but somehow the fools who still follow Trump forgive him for his myriad failures.

I understand the virus is still very dangerous amongst those foolish enough not to be vaccinated. The overall figures look better as time passes because so many ARE vaccinated.

Florida is governed by an idiot who acts like a (stupid) gangster boss. (I live in FL.)

In RPGs, you have a strong contrast between letting the players create a story through their actions, and the GM telling a story to the players. The former once dominated (because it was wargamers playing), now the latter (because most players are not wargamers and may not even be gamers).

Miniatures rules traditionally involve a lot of interpretation and negotiation. Board and card games should not. RPGs derive from miniatures. I certainly don't want a rule for every situation from an RPG.

I think most RPGers have what amount to house rules, though many might not think of them that way. The plethora of published products out there may make it easier, as you adopt rules rather than make up your own.

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