Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Spirit of the Rules

No game has ever been able to define every single rule and every possible outcome using any combination of rules. There's always some grey area that has to be interpreted.

LARPs, being absolutely fluid games with immeasurable possible outcomes, tend to utilize the "Spirit" of the rules more often than tabletop games. We have to get an idea of the goals of certain rules to see what the intended outcome is, despite the fact that it's not actually defined.

Unfortunately, I believe that we have had far too many people make terrible calls for the game under the guise of this "Spirit of the Rules" clause. I think it's important to understand that Spirit of the Rules is not actually intended for the average player. It's a clause intended for use by judges or game masters.

I am a person who prides himself on knowing the rules for games. I have read game design books focusing on goal-oriented design and designing for fun. I have spent the time in the trenches as a staffer, plot person, player, and marshal in two different LARPs. And from my experience, knowing the rules simply is not enough when it comes to interpreting them and making rules calls. In fact, knowing the rules isn't even the most important thing.

The most important trait of a judge or marshal is the ability to admit that you were wrong.

I have seen too many people make a call on something, and when told that they were wrong they would start defending their call like it was a dissertation. Chances are, if everyone is telling you that you're wrong, you are probably wrong. Being able to process input and change your decisions is a necessary skill. Inability to change your mind identifies you as being a biased individual.

There was a big thing about enslavement in NERO. I was a big opponent based on the way it was originally worded as it appeared to benefit cheaters. There was a lot of back and forth, and I gave my reasons for my feelings on the call. After hearing a more descriptive ruling than was posted, I 100% back the decision made in regards to truth.

Mickey was right, I was wrong. I admit that. Whenever players bring up that call to me (since I was staunchly opposed), I calmly explain that I support the ruling and, most importantly, why.

This is a little disjointed, but there is a point to all of this. "Spirit of the Rules" is in a game so that an educated and qualified person, like a marshal or a GM, can make a call on the grey area of the game. It's not intended so that the average player can make rules calls.

The other side point I have to this is that all rulings, not just major ones, should be published, including the methods that led to that decision. Not only does this full disclosure make the game seem like a more professional and tighter community. It also provides precedents and examples that marshals and would-be-marshals can use to help them become better at interpreting the grey areas of the rules.


  1. Hmm. I think I have to disagree on two points. One, I do not agree that the most important attribute of a marshal/staff is to admit they were wrong. While this is certainly an admirable trait, and that being open to discussion is necessary, imo it's not the most important. I think it's far more important to, if you're in the position to make these calls, have an active awareness of the situation. This means knowing the rules, but also knowing what is going on around you. What is the debate? How does it impact the game? How does it impact the current situation? Will you be ruining the PC's game? I think the bottom line in a spirit of the rules call is making a ruling in that moment that is fair and also makes people have fun. LATER, when you have time to research and debate, you figure out what the ruling should be, and then if needed you can admit you're wrong then. :) Maybe that's what you meant, is being able to see other points of view during the discussion phase, in which case, please ignore ;) Since at that point, if you can't admit you're wrong, all people are doing is shouting at each other - so I agree.

    The second point I might disagree on is that you should publicly post up your reasoning behind every rules call. I think a summary is a good idea, but as you said, spirit of the rules calls are for people to make who are aware of the game on a higher level. Once you post up your debate for everyone, it leaves it open to be nitpicked by every fairweather player under the sun. Much like the internetz :) If you're posting a rules clarification, I'm thinking it should probably just be a clear statement for the normal playerbase. Then you can let your staff and marshals know the reasoning behind the call (if they weren't already involved). That way if the discussion comes up, they can tell people. But I've far too often seen people who have no good understanding of the rules, or the game balance, or who just want to look cool, nitpicking your ruling to death. That undermines the "authority" of the people making the ruling in the first place, and makes it a lot harder to make a field call in the future without getting shouted down.

    I'm not a rules lawyer type, so I could be wrong, but that's what I'm thinking. :)

  2. You make a lot of excellent points in both cases. I believe all those traits are more important than just knowing the rules. However, I feel like those traits can be learned through experience, but would never be learned unless that individual can learn from their mistakes. We are fallible. In games like this, everything can be given back. The best marshals, like you said, will make the call knowing that if it is wrong, you can fix it after the fact.

    As to putting rulings on the boards, that would require a paradigm shift. Trolls gotta troll, but over time nitpicking drops considerably, but feedback and average involvement increases. A good example of this is Amtgard. They publish almost everything rules related (save alpha testing) and their community has embraced this process. I don't know if that is due to the free and open nature of Amtgard itself, but it's worth investigating.

  3. In my draft of the 9th edition rules, I had numerous sidebars wherein I described the general reasoning behind many of the rules. In the 8th edition book (and all previous versions,) the rationale behind the rules is seamlessly integrated into the body text of the definitions. This leads to endless amounts of confusion and controversy (see: "should" versus "must" in the barbarian debate.)

    Here's an example of what I mean: In the weapon combat rules, it describes the minimum and maximum arc of a legal weapon swing, as well as the rules for wielding a shield. This section of the book is rife with non-technical "this is why this rule is written this way" text that, rather than clarifying, mostly confuses the actual mechanical requirements of the system. We don't really NEED to know WHY the shield rules are the way they are - what we NEED to know is what the exact definition of turtle'ing is, and how to determine if a player is doing so.

    I would rather have each rule entry be completely sterile and technical, with a few "developer's corner" siderbars to explain why certain rules are the way they are.

    That said, knowing the developer's reasoning can be really helpful, especially while you're learning and internalizing the rules. I'd say that it's even more important for rulings that occur between major revisions, since inevitably some people will have to adjust their gameplay based on the new (or newly adjusted) rule.

  4. I love the idea of a sidebar to explain the rules. I think most of the issues we run into rules wise have to do with the conversational format of the 8th edition rulebook.

  5. Uh, wow, thanks. That is not something I often see posted so I'm a bit at a loss on how to reply.

    Thank you.