Shining Dodecahedron

One geek's views on role-playing and games in general.

This place is all about discussing paper-and-pencil roleplaying games. I'm Jay, and I run this joint, but that doesn't make me smarter than you. This will all work best if I say things, and you say what you think about them, lather, rinse, repeat. With luck we can all understand the hobby a little better. If you have a topic that you would like me to start a thread about, post a comment here. If you've got something to say about characters (my ongoing topic du jour), post a comment here.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Rules Granularity = Creativity Vacuum?

Some games have very broad and general rules. Others have very granular rules--by which I mean that there are specific little rules for lots of different things. This applies also (and maybe particularly) to character definition, i.e. what's written on the character sheet.

The level of granularity that you prefer is a matter of personal choice, and isn't the only factor determining whether you like a game (not by a long shot). However, I think that the extremes of the spectrum can be bad.

Overly granular rules systems can, in my experience, kill creativity. How? Well, if there is a specific rule or character element that is defined for a particular action and your character doesn't qualify, you can take the action. Also, if lots of specific rules exist in a system and you don't see the one for what you want to do, you might be discouraged from trying.

Overly general rules systems can stymie creativity too. If the rules or character elements are very generic, you may find yourself struggling to decide what to do. I've often had players get stuck when the rules say to pick any descriptor for something. The players want a list or something to help get the creativity going.

So a game must have rules and character elements that are specific enough to spark the creativity of the players without being so narrow that they stifle it. There is actually a fairly wide range of possible rules systems in this range. The preference of the designer should dictate where in that range a given system falls.


Anonymous Judd said...

I'm just trying to get a grip on this granularity concept.

So on one side of the spectrum, in my mind, is Dogs in the Vineyard. In which, a gunfight is played out with the dice in the same manner as a vicious verbal fight.

But then we've got Burning Wheel, that has different rules for a verbal and a physical fight, but it is rooted in the same mechanics, just slightly tweaked resolution.

Could you name a system in which the granularity messes up your creativity?

Monday, May 16, 2005 3:14:00 PM  
Blogger Jay Loomis said...

Here's some clarification.

The least granular hypothetical system that I can think of has a single stat, let's call it potency or something. Rate it 1-5. Whenever you want to do anything roll 1d6. If the result is less than or equal to your potency, you succeed--if not, you fail. When there is resistance to your action, both parties roll and the one that makes the roll by the most wins. Ties mean nobody wins, and you can try again. You can be any type of character that you want.

The most granular system that I can conceive of is one in which every skill/talent/ability that exists in reality or fiction is a stat. And every action that you can take has rules that define it.

In the first extreme, you have no guidance to help you figure out things, and everyone's character is essentially the same in game terms. This sort of thing leads to people not identifying with their characters and not knowing how to have the characters behave.

In the second example, if you want to do anything creative, there's an obscure rule for it that you have to look up and engage. This stifles creativity because players are either a. unable to do the creative stuff because their characters don't qualify for the mechanic (don't have skill X) or b. discouraged from being creative because there is a large handling time in looking up the obscure rule and putting it into action.

In actual play, I have found D&D (in it's various incarnations) to be a problem because of too much granularity. I have been in situations where I wanted to do something unusual only to be told that there is a special rule (or special skill) that governs that action and I don't have it. I have also been in situations where play ground to a halt (losing the grip on the players) while we look up the obscure rules.

By the definition that I'm using, Dogs is in the happy middle ground because the core mechanics are definted in such a way that there is not confusion over how to handle off the wall situations. If you say you do it, and back it up with dice, the game works.

Burning Wheel suffers a little from too much granularity in the skill system (this is really just my point from the previous skill-based systems post). However, I can't speak to the various applications of the core mechanic for different actions, because I haven't had the opportunity to play a game yet.

Monday, May 16, 2005 3:59:00 PM  
Anonymous John Kim said...

I believe that everyone has a personal range of granularity which they are comfortable with. However, I don't believe that this is objective -- i.e. that D&D is objectively bad because it is too granular.

For example, some people may feel that poetic forms like haiku or iambic pentameter are stifling to creativity because they are too restrictive. I don't see that's the case. There still room for infinite possibilities within the D&D system.

You can have tight restrictions on actions. Heck, you can have games where no physical actions are allowed at all -- only dialogue. There's still room for enormous creativity.

Monday, May 16, 2005 9:45:00 PM  
Blogger Jay Loomis said...

Thanks for the post, John, and welcome.

I am not trying to say that there is an objective minimum or maximum for granularity, as such. I have observed games being too granular in my play experience, but I should qualify that by saying too granular for the players involved.

What I'm trying to say is that I think designers should be aware that if they go to one extreme or the other they are potentially stifling the creative input of some players. Not all players by any means.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005 9:00:00 AM  
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