I’ve been reading a collection of philosophical essays, titled “Tieto, totuus ja todellisuus”, for some months now (slowly but with certainty. A particular article by Jaakko Hintikka contained a bit of terminology I found useful. It is related to games.
In game theory, rules are what define a game. They tell what one can do within the bounds of the game.
For example, in chess: Turns, moving different pieces, winning, stalemate.
The interesting part was strategic rules, which essentially tell what moves one should make in order to win (winning, in game theory, means maximising utility, and utility functions are something beyond the scope of rules; see, for example, playing against/with young kids, where you are likely to have different goals than you have in normal play). E.g. in chess, you generally don’t want your queen to be eaten.
As a contrast to (most) roleplaying games, take a competitive game that has a winner. Assuming it is a good game, players will be making (strategic) choices, which will to some extent determine who wins the game. In my experience, it usually takes a bit of play to really understand these games, which is the same thing as learning some strategic rules. Simply playing the game may be sufficient, but maybe being taught by someone or reading books is more convenient or efficient. Be that as it may, once certain level of competency is achieved, then the intricate and interesting parts of the gameplay open.
Sometimes the learning process outlined above is interesting in and of itself, someties a nuisance. Personally, I only find gameplay meaningful after understanding what the game is about, in a sense.
This is far less true of roleplaying games (again in my experience); most of them are fundamentally the same game with different defined rules. There are two major exceptions: Intricate subsystems (combat and character creation are the most common) and the more divergent Forgey games.
The lesson here is that mechanical rules, in and of themselves, do not matter a whole lot. Maybe I roll 2d6 and add skill, or maybe I compare an attribute to value indicated by a table. The difference is minor, unless the way the game is played changes significantly. For example: If the way to solve problems is to have a character with suitable skill or spell, then the art of character building is important, but if the way the player approaches the problem is what determines the success of a given action, then wits and reading the GM’s/game desiger’s mind are more important, and the actual character played matters less.
Forge wisdom sayeth: System matters. The best way to investigate this claim is to play different systems and see if there is a difference. Here’s my refinement of the phrase above:
Take two games. Between these two, system matters to the extent that a different set of strategic rules is necessary for enjoying the different games.
The above has little to do with system as defined in Forge glossary (as it encompasses defining and strategic rules actually used in play) and even less to do with the content of the system does matter essay, which is focused on GNS and so on.
The first article, by Sami, is about thematic roleplaying. Main point that I remember still: Thematic roleplay is unlikely if players only care about the success of their characters, so make (potentially) conflicted characters. Every player should know the themes of a game to some extent and make characters accordingly. A setting with thematic content or social commentary is not a sufficient condition for thematic play. Characters must have a measure of depth to be engaging. Rules can be used to focus a game around specific theme, but are by no means necessary.
Notes: Sami’s bias is evident here; he clearly likes story games, uses such as examples and recommends some. There is a small sidebar about GNS (most relevantly, about the sim/nar divide). Given this point of view the text is pretty sensible material.
For me, the contents of this article are not news. One idea I did get from reading: Build rules such as the player can clearly designate which qualities of a character are there to be challenged and which to be reinforced. Overall, I consider this the weakest article in the publication.
Shinobi no mono, again by Sami Koponen, is a description of several roleplaying techniques. There is a narrative about Japanese students of roleplaying written as if they were studying martial arts or such. There is a total of eleven techniques. Personally, I found the article useful; I had not considered some of the techniques as that. The narrative was occasionally useful, occasionally awkward to read. I’d say this is the second most useful article.
Author is Wille Routsalainen, article is called Building adventures. For me, this is mostly a useless article, not because it is poor, but because it is not relevant to my playing style (any of them). Overall, third in usefulness.
One good idea I did pick up: Ghost sheets for player characters. Such a sheet contains goals of the PC, what NPCs want of her, the contacts the PC has and things the player does not know about the character. This is likely to be very useful tool in longer games with several NPCs and no forced overarching story.
Designing campaigns by Eero Tuovinen is the absolutely strongest article in the collection. It connects such diverse resources as 1st. edition D&D’s DMG, fruitful void by Vincent Baker and social footprint by Tony Lower-Basch.
A particularly noteworthy part of the text is elaboration on the difference of campaign and scenario (and scene). Building an entire campaign simply to bring a particular scene or situation to play is a waste of resources that leads to railroading; better take what makes that particular scene or situation so interesting and apply that more generally.
Eero Tuovinen’s method of campaign construction is to first take a conflict, then make it nontrivial (merely talking won’t solve it unless one side sacrifices something), make characters as persons, define arenas of conflict, don’t build an end; solving the big conflict is ending the campaign.
Arenas of conflict are a smart idea: They are essentially the means to change the outcome of the campaign. Combat is the traditional arena. In my current BW game the sympathy of the people and summonings and lizardfolk and what they symbolise are also arenas of conflict.
All in all, the big insight this article gave to me is that designing a campaign is like designing a game, and many same principles apply.