A Column about roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
Many moons ago I encountered a phenomenon I later termed an unrule.
A rule, as goes without saying, is text the designer includes into a game to explain how it is played.
An unrule is text you have to include to prevent players from making a mistaken assumption about your game, based on their experience of other games.
This first cropped up during playtesting for the Shadowfist card game. Players were tripping themselves by expecting its characters to act just like Magic: the Gathering creatures.
If you came to Shadowfist cold without having played MtG, it would never occur to you to expect characters to act in this way.
But if you had already learned Magic, as of course many potential Shadowfist players had, you might have assumed this. Or you might see that we didn’t use same rule, but ask rules support just to be sure.
So we had to include an unrule–a piece of rules text telling you not to do the thing you would do if this was Magic you were playing.
Unrules needn’t arise from comparison to a specific equivalent rule in another game. They can come about simply by substituting general familiarity with a game form–roleplaying let’s say–to general familiarity for a close reading of the rules.
We all do this. Roleplaying games are full of rules, and we learn by analogy. The more previous RPG books we’ve read, the greater the chance that we let our eyes dart quickly over a section that seems to be saying the standard thing we’re used to seeing that section say. Missing out how a given part of the system works is absolutely par for the course.
For example, Simon recently spoke to a GM who was having trouble with GUMSHOE because you can run out of points in an investigative ability, and therefore can’t continue to use it, stopping you from solving the mystery.
Which would in fact be a terrible flaw in the game, given that the whole point of the system is to ensure that investigators always get the information they need.
The rules directly explain, in clear and explicit detail, that investigative points are never required to get the crucial clues you need to move through the mystery.
You are never required to spend to get pivotal information–especially what we call core clues, the ones that signal the appearance of brand new leads and avenues of investigation. If there’s a new person you need to talk to, place you need to poke around in, or area of research you must embark on, you always get that info, period. No point spend required.
Instead point expenditures give you special extra spiffy benefits above and beyond access to vital clues. In early GUMSHOE scenarios you sometimes got especially impressive information that didn’t directly impact the case, or gained the standard clue in a particularly impressive way. Over the years we’ve put that thought aside in favor of practical benefits to the character. You might learn how to kill a creature more easily, cement an alliance with a helpful GMC, convince an angry bystander not to slug you, and so forth.
Spending every single investigative point on your character sheet never stymies you. You can always continue to gather the clues the scenario provides, just as before. Assuming your character looks in the right place and has the needed ability, you get the info. If you look in the right place but don’t have the ability, another PC will have it. Is that player not present this week? We have workarounds for that, too.
Since you don’t need to spend investigative points to gather key clues, running out of investigative points is extremely rare in practice, when playing the rules as they appear on the page. Spending them all means that you’ve accrued a bunch of benefits, and can’t garner any more of them. It never stops you from proceeding.
Likewise if you have a general ability, used to overcome practical problems and dangesrs, and spend all of your points in it, you continue to use it. You have less of a chance of succeeding, as you can no longer spend points to add a positive modifier to your result. But you will still succeed at least half the time against the most common difficulty number.
Mistaken assumptions like this are hard to head off. Where players are reading a rule into the text that doesn’t exist, you can write a rule telling them not to do that. Though it may be odd to explain what a game doesn’t do, implicitly heading off a comparison to another game can be done.
Reaching players who assume Y when you explicitly write X is a tougher conundrum.
Misperceived rules prove particularly thorny during playtest. Playtest draft documents are a mess, littered with bits to be written later, sections not yet optimally placed, and no index or graphic elements to help one’s saintly playtesters find the references they’re looking for.
You may get an account of a failed game session but never realize that the results were based on misunderstood versions of the rules. Ideally you get enough context to see what has gone wrong and take action. Depending on the misperception, you might flag the existing rule with more insistent visual cues, add redundant text to hammer the point harder, or emphasize it through repetition in various sections of the book. The best way to have this problem is to find out you genuinely wrote an unclear rule, because then you can simply fix it by rewriting for clarity.
The real headscratcher comes long after playtest, when most everyone gets the rule as written and you discover a surprising misinterpretation standing between a pocket of players and enjoyment of your game. Simon has been investigating the possibilities of a squirrel-based system, where his favorite urban rodents fan out from Clapham and across the world, watching Pelgrane’s games play at the tabletop and then reporting back in their distinctive angry shriek when they see rules misunderstandings in action.
Until we get that up and running, GUMSHOE fans, we’re going to have to rely on you to keep watch for misperceptions preventing unfortunate others from enjoying a rules system that works perfectly well for you. Show them the light with the gentility our readers are known for. Remind them GUMSHOE always wants them to get the information. It always wants them to have what they need to solve the mystery. When it comes to clue-gathering, GUMSHOE says yes.