Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Gaming, Rules and Natural Language

LARP, Tabletop

Gaming, Rules and Natural Language

(Writer's Caveat: I discuss some tidbits about specific LARPs in this article. All the LARPs I mention by name are fine games that I attended and provided enjoyment. If I seem to pick on these games it is only because they had specific mechanics that happen to make good example of concepts I am trying to get across. Although I might state my personal preference for alternates to specific mechanics, I want to make it clear that I played these games and found them to have many redeeming qualities and fun times.)

As a gamer, the term "rules" always had a definition, as least for me, that the systems defined by those rules were intended as a simulation. When you are playing a war game like Squad Leader, for example, the rules are intended as a simulation of the battlefield, not in so far as to make the game realistic, but instead to create an artificial environment where the actual strategies to win the game are as close as possible to the strategies that the game writers understand are needed to win a real life battle. The goal of the game, in other words, is to validate decisions that mirror real life strategic concepts. If a war game is consider broken or unbalanced, sometimes it is because the win conditions for the possible sides are unbalanced, but many times it is because the strategies for winning are actions that would not work in real life.

As tabletop gaming has its roots in wargaming, a lot of the stigma of "simulation" was carried over. It took a long time for tabletop rules to expand upon simulation and begin to have goals that are customized to the social aspect of gaming. The goals for tabletop rules slowly changed away from rules that reward tactics and into rules that reward storytelling in addition to simulating fantasy combat.


Before I continue, indulge me in a tangent about simulation. In the tabletop space many gaming groups have experimented with or adopted systems that have moved away from or abandoned simulation rules. The groups have essentially moved away from rules heavy systems and in many cases they have moved towards styles that focus more on storytelling and game master fiat. I don't prefer these systems.

One thing I have found that leads to unsatisfying gaming, at least for me, is when it becomes increasingly clear that success in a game is based too much on game master fiat. It's not that I am concerned with the game master having too much power or abusing that power; in that case I'd just eventually walk away from the game. The bigger problem is when I have the distinct impression that I can succeed at goals and do well in combat based entirely on my ability to convince the game master that my strategy is sound. I don't find games where my ability to be persuasive has a lot of sway on combat to be compelling. Worse is when I become familiar enough with a game master that I already know before I attempt something what will work with that game master and what won't based on experience at their table.

Instead, I enjoy a system of rules where the game master is responsible for setting the stage and creating balanced and fun encounters, but once the combat starts the rules simulation provides a buffer between the player decisions and game master fiat. The players (and the game master) can make tactical decisions based on a rich set of rules that act as a neutral party. On other words, once the minis are down the game master is just as much along for the ride as the players, other than officiating rules questions and disputes. The game drifts at this point into a state not unlike a war game, except the scenario is (hopefully) balanced so that the PCs who make sound tactical choices will likely win.

In this way the tactical aspects of the game are once removed from game master fiat. I feel this strengthens the player and game master bond and helps retain a healthy balance of a game where the success does not come entirely from game master fiat. Player can have a healthy sense of accomplishment from successes in the game because they are not entirely based on convincing the game master strategy is sound, and a level of tension remains because the dice can still make the story veer into success or tragedy that was unexpected.


As games involve storytelling, social interaction and community the rules of those games begin to change over time to have multiple roles. Once a high level of social interaction is present the game rules not only provide a simulation to resolve conflict, or even to determine a "winner" but also to act as a way of communicating about the game itself. Each activity and the rules surrounding that activity naturally evolve from strictly tools of simulation to become tools of communication. In other words, the rules of the game evolve into the language of the game.

As games add more and more community and social aspects the rules set becomes more ingrained in the language of those participants. There is a language used when masters talk about chess that might sound unfamiliar to people unaccustomed to that crowd. There is a language used by fencers and people who follow that sport. There is a language used by football fans, golf fans, and any sport that develops a social following that incorporates the rules and the language of the rules into the language. Basketball fans talk about dunks and rebounds and triple doubles. To someone who didn't follow the sport at all listening to fans talk about a game might be baffling.

No where is this more prevalent than LARPs. The more I develop LARP rules and work with those rules, the more I am seeing them not as a set of rule that simulate combat, but instead as a language which players use to describe their interactions during the game, and a language to tell war stories after the game. I think the strongest systems recognize that they need to evolve into a language.

As such, the rules should evolve to support these interactions. As games mature and players have more and more reason to talk about the games, it is important for game designers to design games to use a flow of terminology that is closer to natural language to support this function of the rules. This is not only true of LARPing, but of tabletop as well. The people who design rules for continued games are well served by designing those rules both as a simulation and as a language that those involved can use to talk about the game in a natural way.

When looking at a tabletop game, one reason I like to see a character sheet when deciding whether I am interested in the game is that I like to see how well authors use natural language. While there are aspects of White Wolf games I don't love, one thing I admire them for is they generally have a very good ability to adopt names and terminology that not only flow like natural language, but the terms themselves inspire a certain flavor and in that way supports the game.

One reason I feel Champions, on the other hand, fell out of use is because while the rules might have a certain mathematical charm to them, the language of the that game is arcane at best. Rather than using names that evoke flavor the entire game relies on a slew of acronyms that are terrible for natural language. The system might appeal to math types, but the reinforcement of that aspect of the game through the game's language invites the players to think of the gameplay as a simulation and awkwardly reinforces the game's heavy use of math. It also makes the character sheets readable only to people who have mastered the system since everything uses blocks of somewhat obscure acronyms to describe statistics and powers.


One thing I have tried to do when designing both the Accelerant system and games that use that system is to design those rules to have verbals that sound more like natural language. Not only does this feel more intuitive to players, but it allows players to talk about the game in a language that can be understood and it helps new players more quickly grasp the language the players use both in and out of game.

I have played games, for example, that impart additional information to attacks by tacking on traits to the verbal. LIONE Rampant, for example, was a fine game and the balance was no unlike my own Accelerant games but their rules tended to steer away from natural language flow and instead used verbals that relied on straight trait and effect stacking.They also tended to stack those traits in a reverse order from what I would naturally expect.

Here is an excerpt from their rules:

Here are some examples of game calls using this form:
"Aura" "Magic" "Lesser" "Slow"
"Skill" "2"
"Voice" "to Realm of Seasons" "Magic" "Greater" "Resist"
"Sun" "2 Healing"

I've participated as a PC and as an NPC and mechanically, once you get used to them, these calls work fine. They are perfectly acceptable in rules intended as a simulation. In games I play, however, I prefer verbals that flow like natural language even if it adds a bit to the length. In Accelerant, for example, the wording of similar verbals would sound more like a phrase or natural language snippet.

"Short Reflect by Magic"
"2 Damage by Skill"
"By My Voice, Grant Defense to Elf: Resist Magic"
"Heal 2 by Sun"

The intention of the Accelerant verbals and the way they are formatted is to make the rules sound as much like natural language snippets as possible. While I am sure that the Accelerant rules calls would sound strange to hard core LIONE fans, and that some people used to LIONE calls might prefer them, I still think it's valuable to approach either rules set as a language and write the rules to serve that purpose.

One of the reasons that Accelerant is a "rich" rules system (and by rich I mean in a nice way that it has a larger set of verbals and effects) is that I want the system to sound like a natural language. I also want to leverage that language to impart both flavor to the game and to impart information to help make the characters make better decisions in combat. This is because I did not develop the rules as a simulation, but rather a language which itself tells a story about the game.

Back in the day I played another great game called Legends. I could go on about the many wonderful advances the game made and encounters the game ran, but one philosophical difference I had with the people who wrote the game is they valued simplicity over flavor and over the ability to impart strategical information. As such, I found some encounters frustrating because the language of the game was not sophisticated enough to impart to me strategic information, nor did it evoke flavor.

As an example, in Legends you only had two real defense calls. Parry only blocked certain weapon delivered skills. Resist simply indicated that the attack was negated. That was the extent of their defense calls, and the only language tools they had to respond to combat. In theory this greatly simplified rule set, was intended to make the game flow more smoothly, and allowed new players to more readily grasp the rules. In my opinion, however, the system failed as a game language because the staff could not impart flavor or strategic information to the players.

In the simplest example, there was no differentiation between the ability to resist one or two attacks, and a creature that was simply immune to that entire range of attacks. Both resulted in the creature calling Resist. If I throw a spell at a NERO creature and it calls "No Effect" I know that whatever specific spell I threw will *never* effect it so I won't waste any more game skills throwing that spell at the creature. That's a pretty important strategic bit of information to know. In Legends, on the other hand, the creature would simply call Resist. Maybe the creature was immune to lightning. Maybe the creature could resist spells one time before succumbing to the effect. I had no information with which to make a tactical decision on how to use my skills. For me, the language of their rules was too simplistic to provide satisfying feedback so I could make tactical decisions.

As another example, Legends had three effective spell levels when it came to damage. Magic Missile did one point of damage, Lightning Bolt did three points of damage, and Death simply killed the enemy. It sounds simple, but the progression was not rich enough to support a higher level combat heavy game. Once Vitality rose above 5 the most cost effective thing to do was throw Death. In response, the plot staff responded by making creatures that were immune to Death, or highly resistant to Death so the lower level spells were still relevant. Of course those creatures could only call "Resist" to impart that information, and the system complexity began to creep into their monster stats.

The same thing happened with the Slay skill which was supposed to kill whatever got hit in the chest with the skill. It became quickly apparent that the plot staff needed enemies that weren't instantly killed in one hit to challenge the PCs, so behind the scenes the plot staff had hidden rules to allow creatures to Resist this skill at the cost of Vitality. Then this hidden skill creeped into the players hands since going down to a single hit is something the players don't enjoy either. This skill caused all sorts of confusion among the players about how it worked, what it did and who had it.

In all these cases the language of the rules that Legends created was too simple to describe that game, both during combat and between games. It was also too simple to provide satisfying combat encounters without rules hackery. The game combat lacked flavor and the game wasn't really any easier for me or my group to pick up than a game with an intuitive set of rules that used a richer language to describe actions.


In summary, any successful game will see the rules it uses to simulate the game play eventually become used as a language to describe the game. The designers I prefer recognize this and write rules that use natural language as much as possible to describe game conditions, effects, attributes, and other aspects of their game. This seems to help the community draw in new participants and help new players understand that language, yet also allows the rule set to inspire players who know it well.


  1. "The more I develop LARP rules and work with those rules, the more I am seeing them not as a set of rule that simulate combat, but instead as a language which players use to describe their interactions during the game, and a language to tell war stories after the game. I think the strongest systems recognize that they need to evolve into a language."

    This is really interesting-- it's a great point that enables me to understand why the Accelerant rules are designed as such. I love the flavor texts in the games you run-- for instance, in a desert world in Mirror, Mirror, I believe there was some sort of ambient "Agony by Sand." I think it was actually issued to warn players away from treacherous spots, however, it was far more effective than that: rather than just serving as a caution, it really created the IG environment. That was one of the first time I really appreciated the Accelerant verbal system.

    When I first started in Accelerant, I was frustrated by the verbal system: on top of stats and IG intricacies, it seemed like one more thing I had to remember. However, I've grown to really, really like it. It took me awhile to figure out that it can be used strategically. Moreover, the verbals function as powerful roleplay indices that add to both the game's structural integrity and the immersion. One of my favorite parts of new Accelerant games is watching how the verbals develop and interact with the flavor of the universe.

  2. Hehe. I loved Champions - but I'm definitely one of those aforementioned math types, and I'd be the first to admit that it's a terrible game system for all but the most hardcore.

    Any game where the character sheet could be more readily interpreted as computer code is pressing its luck in terms of garnering a broad audience.

  3. What I loved about Champions was the ability to have a common, "unnatural" language to describe the game impact that underlay a "natural" language description of the effect. "Blue lightning that I generate from movement and store in my sweat (8d6 EB, NND, No Range)" It's great for a table-top, but more "transparent" language for LARPS is certainly more preferred. In NERO, I want to have a critter so strong he rips limbs off - so I give him "physical strike Wither Limb". But the effect isn't divorced from the spell in people's minds, and the spell is Necromantic (evil) so the effect isn't seen as a ripped off limb, but as a Necromantic effect. In Accelerant, I could "Maim" or "Maim by Necromancy" and be more transparent my intent.

    1. Try "articulate" for transparent...that's probably closer to what I mean.

  4. Hrm, I'm a bit conflicted on this. Having a random element to combat that isn't directly subject to GM whims is important for good dynamics. At the same time, I would imagine most adult gamers would find it rather unsatisfying for instance if a long and complex RP (and when you're trying to convince an NPC, you're trying to convince with the GM) sequence was ultimately decided with a diplomacy roll. I know it doesn't work for me in those games where such things are decided that way. And, if we wouldn't want RP handled that way, why would we want combat handled that way?

    I guess it depends on what exactly you're trying to get out of a combat sequence. I think there is a happy medium somewhere between an entirely story-tell based system such as Amber, and the often burdensome combat rules of a game like D&D. Where that medium is will depend on what you like as a player (or GM), but at least for me, I lean more towards less rules and more immediacy to what's going on.

  5. I handle combat and RP completely differently.

    1. I've been in some games where they were run exactly the same on the other end of the scale, with pretty much every social action culminating in dice. I don't think it worked particularly well.