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Rule making of roleplaying

by Michael A. Hartman (Aristotle@Threshold)

At the core of any game are its rules. Even the most wonderfully creative and masterfully designed game can be ruined by a set of rules that are poorly thought out, insufficient in scope, or inadequately enforced. This is especially true for MUDs or other online games, since they often involve hundreds or thousands of players who play without direct supervision the vast majority of the time. On a roleplaying game, the rules become even more crucial. Without them, a game wishing to have a roleplaying focus can quickly degenerate into a pure hack-n-slash game where the social fare includes chatting about sports and movies rather than quests and the latest decree of the local magistrate.

For the would-be-roleplaying-game-administrator, the following suggestions and tips for creating a system of rules may be instructive or helpful:

    Here is the recipt for your husband.  Just sign here.
    Image from Brazil, a movie by Terry Gilliam.
  1. Names - Names have enormous effect on your game, as they are one of the first things someone sees when they interact with other players. You can be sure that your roleplaying environment will suffer if "Streakybacon" the Psion waltzes into a tavern filled with players who are otherwise acting in character. The strictness of your naming policy is up to you, but keep in mind that the stricter it is, the more time and effort you will have to put into policing, explaining, and justifying it. Also, when you reject someone's name, there is a high probability that this person will insist on arguing its merit no matter how many people tell him/her the name is ridiculous and no matter how calmly and reasonably you explain why the name has been turned down. Even if your creation instructions say "ABSOLUTELY NO MODERN STYLE NAMES", you will argue more than once with someone named "John" who insists his name should be allowed since there have been people named John for thousands of years. The most important thing to do here is try to be consistent in your rulings, be firm in your decisions, and try to be as calm as possible when informing someone their name has been declined. If they insist on arguing, the best thing to do is just let them vent, remind them that you have made your decision, and they will either make a new name or leave. Either way, the problem is solved and the rest of your players do not have to suffer dealing with a name that disturbs your roleplaying environment.

  2. Communication - Obviously, in any roleplaying game communication is one of the most important elements of the game. It is absolutely vital that you keep IC (in character) and OOC (out of character) communication completely separate from each other. It will drive your players crazy if their otherwise exciting and very entertaining roleplaying situation gets disturbed by some jerk who walks into the room asking who won the latest football game or whether or not they think Monica Lewinsky makes for a good cigar humidor.

    OOC communication should be outright banned within the game. This means people should not be walking around talking OOC within the actual "rooms" or locations of the game. When people are inside your world, they should be acting like their character. It may not seem like much, but every departure from being in character chips away at the overall "feel" of your world. If an administrator is not firm on this rule, communication can slowly degenerate to the point that the players who do stay in character will no longer feel comfortable in your game. Eventually, they may seek another game where they do not have to endure the annoyance of people who speak OOC at their every whim.

    Since MUDs are social games, it is understandable that players will want to chat and get to know the other people they are gaming with. This is certainly not a bad thing, and in fact it actually helps your players feel like more a part of your game community. A purely OOC chat channel is a good way of allowing people this type of activity, while protecting your roleplaying environment. Another good solution is to have a special section or set of rooms in your game where people can talk OOC. You should take steps to make sure these rooms cannot be abused to escape or be protected from any possible dangers or threats that the player may currently face within the actual "game".

    If you create an OOC channel, there are a few things you should keep in mind. First, people should not be allowed to discuss game issues on that channel. The game should exist IC, and talking about it OOC has too much potential for spoiling the mystery of interesting IC situations. Game issues are best dealt with within the confines of the game. If a player has important questions or concerns about the game, the administrators should have other avenues of reporting them (mail, special commands, etc.). An OOC channel designed for chit chat is not the place for such things. Second, players should be able to easily tune out or avoid this channel. Many people will not be interested in hearing OOC chat, and often people will feel it distracts them from their roleplaying. They should be able to tune out, squelch, etc. any OOC channels whenever they wish. Furthermore, you might want to start new players *NOT* tuned into this channel, thus making the default condition IC communication only.

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    Image from Brazil, a movie by Terry Gilliam.

  3. Numerical Information - Some aspects of this rule fall under the explanation of rules on communication, but this topic is important enough to warrant specific discussion. Players will feel more at ease in immersing themselves in a role if the world around them feels sufficiently real and engaging. Giving them too much numerical data can have a significant negative effect on the necessary mystery that ensures surprise and excitement in playing the game. Players should not know things like combat formulas, their exact to hit chance or damage in battle, the exact statistics of a foe, friend, weapon, or armor. In "real life", we rarely have access to such explicit, absolute information, and in many cases, there is no way to make such whole number determinations. There may be some situations where the only way to adequately represent something to your players is to provide it in numerical form. There may also be situations where you feel the game benefit of a certain piece of information far outweighs any possible dilution of the "realness" of the game. These determinations can be very tricky, and as a game designer you will face many of them. The important question to ask is: Does the benefit gained by this piece of information far outweigh the ever present threat that unrealistic, pure numerical information provides to the feel of the game.

    As a corollary to this, players should not walk around discussing any numerical information that they are able to obtain. If you do allow your players access to a few pieces of numerical data, you should make sure they are aware that this information is for their OOC edification, and not for use IC. They should endeavor to find in character ways to speak about such matters (for example: "After the battle, I felt as if half my health had been drained" is preferable to "Ouch! I lost half my hit points!").

    Some purists feel all numerical information should be removed from the game. This may not always be necessary, but it seems wise to start from the position that "all numerical information is bad", and only allow exceptions if there are enough positive benefits to outweigh the basic standard.

  4. Consistency - Any system of rules, whether they are written for a roleplaying game or anything else, should be consistent both in design and application. Arbitrarily crafted or enforced rules can create an environment that is worse than one with no rules at all. In the United States legal system, precedent and predictability are well-known and important concepts. They were built into the legal system so people would be able to act without fear of being punished for any little thing they might do. Without predictability, people can become afraid to do anything without fear of harsh, sudden reprisals. Rules that make sense together and are applied consistently will allow your players to act without fearing punishment for things they thought were permissible. Explaining your rules (especially when chastising someone for breaking them) can also go a long way towards making your players feel your rules are fair and rationally applied.

  5. Flexibility - This is also crucial to any system of rules, and this requirement is mainly for the protection of the game designer. The more players you encounter, the more "rules lawyers" you will have the displeasure of dealing with. Rules lawyers are players who are obsessed with the rules and in particular obsessed with finding ways to bend them to obtain personal advantage. If your rules are too narrow, rules lawyers will have a field day finding ways to exploit them. The United States and similar legal systems make frequent use of terms like "reasonable", "commonly accepted", "generally understood", "clear and convincing", "preponderance of the evidence", and similar vague language. The reason for this is that individual cases can sometimes be more complicated or convoluted than anyone could predict at the time a law or rule was crafted. A wisely created rule provides adequate "wiggle-room" for the game administrator to ensure that the intent of the rule is what carries the day, and not the overly strict interpretation of an annoying player who is working only to abuse your rules for the purpose of personal gain.

Bear in mind that in creating a high quality roleplaying game there are a lot of very important design issues you must address. This article has only sought to examine some of the types of rules that are important or helpful to create and preserve your roleplaying environment. Of course, the rules that will work best for your game depend *heavily* on the type of players in your game world, and the personality of the administrators who run it. Take care in designing your rules, as their importance cannot be underestimated. Simply allowing them to develop over time would be tantamount to playing Russian roulette with your game. A wise administrator and game designer will spend a great deal of time thinking about and planning the rules to his or her game. Surely, they will change and evolve with the rest of your game, but only with a foundation of well made rules can you hope to achieve a final result that is fun for all and protective of your game's delicate roleplaying environment.

Michael A. Hartman is the main administrator and author of Threshold.