the rulebender and some convergences
on the role of rules in games
on the role of rules in games
Earlier this week, lucidiot1 asked me what I thought of a “rulebender” class for some hypothetical tabletop role-playing game. A character who could alter the rules of the game itself, much like how the players of nomic2 play at the rules of that game.
Attempting to answer this question quickly gets theoretical for me because it forces me to consider what is the point of a role-playing game. And what role do rules play to that end?
To me, the point of the game is to try out some novel experiences and situations through some collaborative storytelling. And to that end, I feel as though the rules of the game, the mechanics by which you accomplish things through the rolling of dice or what have you, should be mostly invisible. By which I mean they should be simple enough to understand and keep in your head, and they should be consistent and reliable enough that they do not interrupt the game.
I know people who would disagree with that. A good friend of mine in fact is a min-maxing, number-crunching, power-gaming munchkin. That’s the way he enjoys playing the game. Most of the time we can play together very happily because he also enjoys stories and plot and intrigue. But he favors crunchy systems that I do not enjoy because they require frequently stopping the game to look up a procedure or process. And I favor systems with minimal rules and simple character creation.
My intuition is that the rulebender wouldn’t be much at home in the kinds of games I like to run, which are games in which the rules are few and already flexible to begin with.
Which suggests that the rulebender might be better suited to a system that is more “rulesy” to begin with. Indeed, my first thought was of the sorcerer class from D&D 5e, which has access to “metamagic”, which allows it to bend the rules and push the limits of what magic can do.
But I don’t think this really satisfies the spirit of the question. The sorcerer isn’t really actually changing the rules of the game. They are still following very strict and carefully written rules governing the manipulation of magic. It’s no more changing the rules of the game than is any other feature that, for example, allows a player to reroll a dice.
And I don’t think you can call a class that strictly adheres to the rules a “rulebender”.
So where does that leave us? I think that rulesy games are off the table. So let’s go as far as we can in the opposite direction and throw out all the rules we can, and play a game of make-believe. The only rule is “agree what happens3”.
We’re off on an adventure. There’s an obstacle. We have no rules for overcoming challenges, what do we do? Let’s make a new rule, and determine our success by rolling the dice.
I think in this example, the rulebender is either the game’s referee, or “rulebender” is a community exercise in creating a role-playing experience from scratch.
So I don’t think the rulebender can easily exist within a pre-existing ruleset. And I don’t think they can exist as imagined without one. And so I think that the tabletop role-playing game might be the incorrect medium for this character.
This play style already exists though, and is successful, in a family of card games, my first exposure to which was Fluxx4, a game that starts with an extremely simple “draw and discard” ruleset, and which during the course of play allows players to create new rules and new win conditions.
There are multiple Fluxx decks out there including Pirate Fluxx and “The Wizard of Oz” Fluxx, which suggests the underlying framework: you can easily create your own themed deck by inventing new rules (e.g. your hand can never exceed five cards, draw three discard two, etc.), new “things” (Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, etc.), and new goals (e.g., first player to collect 3 jedi win).
Fluxx draws inspiration from One Thousand Blank White Cards56 (1kBWC) which is a free-form game in which the creating of these rules, things, and goals during gameplay is the point of the game. And I think this is as close as we’re going to get to the rulebender as originally imagined.
Play starts with maybe a couple of premade cards. And maybe a ruleset of, Every player gets five cards. On your turn, draw one card and discard or play one card. Play passes to the left.
The gimmick is that the majority of the cards in the deck are blank. The real stuff of the game is players drawing and creating their own cards to change the rules of the game. Maybe introducing conditions in which a player’s turn is skipped. Or, now the player with the lowest score wins. Or, this card, when played, allows the player to exchange their hand with another player of their choice. Etc, etc.
This is Rulebender: The Game. And it works because whereas ttrpg requires some trust and consistency in order to create an immersive exprience, no such trust is required of 1kBWC because there is no such risk: the players are not trying to feel feelings or have those kind of experiences. The goal is to simply embrace and enjoy the chaos of a game that constantly shifts, changes, and evolves.
Now, as a divergence, some convergences.
The wikipedia page for 1kBWC has a link under “See Also” to Discordianism7, a “for pretend but also for real” cult based on the worship of Eris, the embodiment of chaos. I myself am a pretend but also for real card-carrying Discordian. My own discordian cabal, The Society for Putting Things On Top Of Things8, explores entropy and potential energy in systems.
As far as I can tell, the original wikipedia article linked to some game instructions on a geocities discordian website9, and after geocities went dark and the original link was removed, the association remained.
Another game in this family of games is called Dvorak10. Conceptually similar, its wiki page says that it has been played via a MUSH (aka MUD, MUCK, MOO, etc.).
The creation of rules and objects in this context (on a MUCK) is interesting to me. I’m not sure what the scripting experience would be like.
MUCKs and MUDs are in general an area of interest to me. I’ve been playing one certain hack-and-slash mud11 for most of my adult life, and some of my oldest friends are from there.
I’m slowly writing my own toy MUD12 for a group of friends from the Commonhealth of Casakhstan13 as an excuse to learn golang, and as an excuse to make something fun with my friends.
So thanks to Dvorak and its being played on a MUSH, I started down this rabbit hole reading about TinyMUCK14, which has its own scripting language, a forth15 called MUF (Multi-User Forth).
I definitely intend to have creation through scripting be part of the MUD I’m writing, and I and my friends are really into Forth, so I now plan to have our scripting language be heavily insprired by MUF. As soon as I learn how to write an interpreter in Go.
Finally, I found a MUF tutorial in a github repo for a descendant of TinyMUCK that has, for whatever reason, become very popular in the furry community16. And the tutorial is titled, “Zen and the Art of Putting Things on Top of Other Things.”17
What a big tangled ball of discordian forth furry MUD ttrpg card game chaos!
Hail Eris! All hail Discordia!