Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Editorial: I Like Reading Lots of Rules, But That Doesn't Mean I Use Them All

GURPS Asparagus.
I imagine more GURPS fans than neophytes visit this blog, and so maybe I'm preaching to the choir a bit, but I'm just going to put my thoughts to words, because, why not? Because I could post something useful instead? Oh, you card! So, what thoughts of these am I to encode? That I think having a ton of rules is a good thing. It's a thing that makes GURPS fun and useful and one of my favorite systems. The thing is though, this can be a bit overwhelming to newcomers, so let's clarify a few things while I talk about why I like GURPS.

Rules Are Inspiration

I think I've heard someone say this before, but I'm not sure where... sounds like something that +Mook Wilson would say. But having rules in front of me give me ideas for things I never would have thought to do. I think, for example, about the rules for building infrastructure you find in the Low-Tech Companion books, I believe specifically, volume 3. If I never read about how difficult and expensive it is to lay out a decent road a few tens of miles long at low technology levels, I might have never been inspired to make a campaign about securing funding and providing security for the fastest, safest routes between a mining town and a harbor town. If I hadn't read tens of example afflictions in Dungeon Fantasy 14: PSI, GURPS Powers, and Thaumatology: Sorcery, I wouldn't have been inspired to create something that is similar, but different. If I hadn't read about rules for contracting illnesses in swamps, I might not have run an adventure through them.

Rules Are Lines To Color Inside

If I don't have boundaries, I don't know my limits. If  there are no limits, there is no scale; if I can do anything, you can do anything better, but I can do anything better than you. For some people with the right gifts and aptitudes, being limitless isn't a problem because they are ok with exercising self control and calling shots when needed. For me, a GM that runs fantasy where ridiculously implausible or downright impossible things happen all the time, I am terrified of the prospect of adjudicating whether a person who can "do magic" can throw a fireball, an explosive fireball, and a big fireball, but two fireballs at once is the bridge too far that is just utterly unrealistic. And what if I forget that I arbitrarily said two fireballs is not allowed, and some NPC down the line throws three? I now have a breech of internal inconsistency that I have to solve that explains why my player couldn't do it, but this guy could. Of course, if I had a real good memory, or players with a superb suspension of disbelief, this might be no thing at all. But I er like crazy, like some kinda human, and maybe it is not the most lofty reason to like rules, but having them to point at when someone points out how something weird like a cannonball does less damage than some laser gun is a nice out and liberation from accountability that I can appreciate.
And the lines that rules make to color inside make a framework. This framework means that everything achieves a certain type of cohesion because everything works by itself but also enhances everything else, because GURPS goes a ways to trying to maintain something of a verisimilitude that means that you can make the rules for any specific thing as complex or as simple as you want or the game demands, and things still make sense and the whole thing doesn't come crashing down.

Rules Are Not A Mandate

However, the neat thing about GURPS though, the "big open secret" is that all rules are optional. I call this the big open secret because it is something that people tell even new players, and a lot of new players or people who don't even play will have heard this line. This doesn't actually matter though because the rebuttal to this is that someone needs to know enough of the rules to know which rules they can keep and which they can ignore.
My anecdotal rebuttal to that is that I don't even follow all of the rules in the Lite edition of GURPS. And the Lite version of GURPS is pretty small. I do play with a few favorite rules from here and there and this source and that source, and add things in as I go because I find out some new cool thing. But here's the thing, and it'll sound a bit contradictory to what I said in the previous section - the thing is that I am not beholden to any code of rules.
If I suddenly decide that a rule is not interesting, or even more likely, I can't remember it, I can do whatever makes sense. The framework of all the other rules I do like or do remember makes the things that could make sense more obvious than you'd think. And this was a bit of a journey to get to this point for me as well. When I was a newer GM, if there was ever a rules dispute, or if I ever forgot the exact letter of the law of a rule, I'd stop the game to look it up before continuing. I think that's something everyone has to learn for themselves, so me telling a new GM, "don't worry if you forget the rules, just make things up and keep going," won't sink in, until the new GM realizes it doesn't matter if they forget the rules and they can just make things up and keep going.
But even more mechanically speaking, even if a rule exists, it doesn't mean it needs to be used, and in fact, even in the Basic Set, there are different levels of detail for even the same exact concept, and they aren't always compatible. You have very simple rules for first aid that amount to recovering a few HP for nearly nothing, and very complex rules for using first aid to deal with severe bleeding, and how that makes the situation more stressful, and colors how the mechanical effect of healing might occur. But, you choose one or the other, and that is that.

Other Thoughts and Conclusion

I think this write-up has run away from me, and now I'm not sure what type of point I was originally trying to make. I think maybe that some people like different things, and one type of fun I have that I can get with GURPS but not other systems is that I have a lot of rule books to look through and think about. I can enjoy reading about these ideas even if I never use them. Low-Tech Companion 3 has a lot of fun sounding rules, but they also have nearly nothing to do with the types of games I run, so there is no objective reason for me to like them. But I do anyways. I read lots of rules, but in play, not that many come up, even if they may be particularly relevant to a scene, because I make the executive decision that the players would rather do something else. But having read tons of rules gives me a kind of context and a framework to work off of, and when a particular situation for which the rules could be used is almost eminent, then I can find and use them, or work off of what I can remember as best as I can when it comes up. The fun police haven't found me yet.


  1. Here here!

    Peter Del'Ortho has a similar opinion:

    As do I! I write a lot, even sometimes take things TOO far into the weeds (have you read my body armor posts? Oh boy.), but never consider anything I write as Word of God, even in my own campaigns.

    1. Interesting. I think I remember reading that a few months back. Thanks for linking it!

  2. I've always had a hard time understanding how this works in practice, how to not use a rule if you do know about it.
    If the players are digging a hole, how do I refrain from looking it up in the book to see how long it takes or how tired they get?
    I mean, if there's absolutely no consequence to digging quickly or using up resources, then I don't have to look because it doesn't matter. But, it usually does matter. Time is pretty much always a factor as is resources.

    1. That is an interesting problem, and it is something where rules exist, and it is a niche thing that no one should be expected to memorize unless you are playing GURPS: Minecraft. In the most ideal situation, I'd say if digging is something that I know that is going to happen, I'd research it between sessions and if worse came to worst, and I found it just impossible to get it down, I'd make a cheat sheet for the session.

      The obvious hole is that sometimes "PC Plans" or "spontaneous fun" occurs and someone comes up with an idea on the fly.
      I think in this situation, depending on your group, you either
      1)improvise the rules as much as you think makes sense (For example, I don't know the rules, but I started thinking I'm terrible at digging, so probably a person that is good at digging can go twice as fast as me, and so, I'd say contests against ST, penalties for bad soil or equipment, and margin of success * basic lift dirt moved every ten minutes... divided by ten I guess to find cubed footage.)
      2) Have a short recess to look it up since it sounds like the game is shifting gears so radically anyways for the moment, it might be a good stopping point.
      3) If your group is ok with it, delegate the task of looking up the digging rules to the people that want to dig. I personally would like players to be familiar with rules they intend to exercise, and I would personally ask my players to try to look up rules they want to use before a session. No one person should be an island, and no one GM should be a gaming group.

      There's probably a hundred ways to deal with the problem, and I think my main concern that I originally wanted to address when writing this is the tradeoff of systemic integrity versus pacing and controlling for that, but when you have a big gear shift, it might be an ok place to sacrifice momentum.

    2. I've been thinking about this problem for a while. Ultimately, it's a question of granularity - how much detail do you want to use, and in what parts of the game do you want to use it? I wish that GURPS did a better job of chunking the rules into levels of detail so it's easier for GMs to say "This game will run at this level" rather than making every rule a case-by-case decision. The way that Mook layers the combat options in How To Be A GURPS GM is a great example of the kind of organization & presentation work that I feel should run throughout GURPS.

    3. I love that section from How to be a GURPS GM. I'd kinda like to see... maybe I could write it up myself - a comparison of gadgeteering/enchantment systems and a comparison of negotiation options.


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