Thursday, April 5, 2012

E is for Exegesis

Roleplaying gamers have a sometimes contentious relationship with the rules of our games.

The rules for a roleplaying game may only number a handful of paragraphs, or run to literally thousands of pages across scores of books. Gamers refer to games as 'light' or 'heavy' depending on their perceived complexity. We draw distinctions between 'crunch' - the rules that determine how actions are resolved - and 'fluff - the descriptive text of the game and the game-world.

Even with all of this attention to the rules, roleplaying games, particularly complex games with many pages of rules, frequently require judgement calls in how the rules are applied. For example, the third edition of Dungeons and Dragons offered players the opportunity to play a magically awakened (intelligent) animal as a character. Years ago, I posed a question based on the idea of playing a knight's awakened warhorse. What happens if the warhouse character tries to climb a sheer cliff? Is the action resolved by rolling a Climb skill check for the hourse as with any other character? Does the horse suffer a penalty to climbing because of his equine body? Or is it simply impossible for the horse to climb a cliff at all?

The answer, according to the rules, was all of the above.

The precursor to roleplaying games was the wargame, and since the 19th century wargames often included a referee or umpire, a neutral third party whose role is to determine the success or failure of moves made by the players and resolve conflicts that arise from the application of the rules to the players' moves. This concept was adopted for roleplaying games very early in their history, of a referee or judge or game master - or more fancifully Dungeon Master, Administrator, Watcher, or Hollyhock God - as, among other things, the final arbiter of questions that arose from the rules.

This is not the only solution to the often-fractious question of WHO DECIDES? in roleplaying games. Early games like En Garde! and Boot Hill could be played without a referee, relying on consensus among the players over questions that arose during the game; later games expanded on this consensus approach by adding specific rules about how consensus would be acheived, or, if interpretation of the rules was vested in an individual, how that person's judgement could be reviewed and overridden.

But the traditional method, of a referee or game master as final arbiter, remains the most common.

So referees necessarily become familiar with the rules.

I found myself poring over the rules of Flashing Blades following our last game-day, for a hole I discovered in the rules some time ago came up in play. In FB, characters in combat may take two normal actions or one long action each turn; for example, a character might choose to thrust and parry (two normal actions) or lunge (one long action). If a character is stunned, then in the following round the character loses one normal action and may not take a long action.

With me so far?

So during our last game-day, one of the non-player characters in a duel was stunned by an attack - I determined in the following round that his one action would be to parry the likely attacks from the player character. The player, seeing the opportunity to take advantage of the stun, decided to attack and counter; a counter is akin to a riposte, turning a parry into an attack.

Except there was no attack for the player to counter, so per the rules this was a wasted action. According to the rules, the only way to get two fencing attacks per round is to attack and counter, regardless if an opponent is stunned or not. Despite the fact that the non-player character was stunned, the player's character could not gain an advantage.

As the referee for the game, my ruling at the time was to let the rules as-written stand, with the promise that I would revisit the subject. Sitting down with the rules, I searched to discern the intent behind the rule as-written. Was this really a hole, or was I just failing to understand the design intent? What aspect of fencing was this intended to simulate? How could I explain this in terms of what the characters would experience in the game-world?

The big question in my mind, is, does allowing a second attack against a stunned opponnent confer too much of an advantage? For example, a character can fire two pistols in a round, so two fencing attacks didn't seem unreasonable when limited to stunned opponents. A character can parry more than one attack in a round with the parry action, and it takes two stuns to make a character helpless in the following round.

Putting all of this together, it makes sense that a character can attack a stunned character twice, and thus another house rule - a rule specific to our campaign - gets added to the lexicon.

Years ago I listend to a rabbi explaining midrash, the interpretation of Torah, to understand the motivations and meaning behind the stories told in the sacred texts, and I was struck by the secular similarity to referees interpreting the sometimes Byzantine rules of tabletop roleplaying games. Specifically, midrash reminded me of that example of that horse trying to get up the cliff, where three different answers found in the rules were all correct, subject to the referee making the interpretation. In one campaign, the horse is able to surge up the cliff, sparks flying from its hooves, while in another, a horse would be forced to find another way around like a horse that we would expect in our own mudane world.

It may seem like having multiple interpretations of the same text is a failure on the part of the system, and their are many games who argue exactly that when asked. But each of those answers gives the campaign played by the referee and the players a distinctive feel, in the same way that rabbis have written different midrashim to understand the implications of a particular passage of Torah.

Exegesis is the search for the truth of a text, but referees may arrive at multiple truths from the text of the game's rules.

And that's a good thing.


  1. Rules of the game, rules of life... yup. lots of interpretations. We used to play early D&D. I liked being dungeonmaster and even made up several games we played with friends.

  2. also meant to say I'm trying to visit all the A-Z Challenge Blogs this month.

  3. I really enjoy the idea that we, those who accumulated extra-textual canon, are like the Latin Fathers or the great judicial commentators of the Talmud.

    1. It sounds so much better than rules lawyers, in any case.

  4. Aha. We're not gamers at all. We're closet rabbis.

    1. I can live with that, as long as I'm not called on to referee a bris.