On the Social Component of Rules

A bit ago, I had someone tell me that they threw out Bonds in Mythender because they didn’t see it as having any value in a one-shot environment[1], and that the rules only exist for PvP. Naturally, my reaction was “if that’s what you see, then you d0n’t understand what that rule does at the table.” Shortly afterward, I began to talk about the social component of that rule, in order to illustrate that rules have effects far beyond their direct mechanics.

Directives in games tell us what we should pay attention to with regards to other players and characters, and the custom language we should use to speak with each other.

In this case, the directive states to write down a statement about why your Mythender hesitates to murder the others  at the table. And while this is only mechanized in PvP, the core effect was to deliberately get each player to look at the other characters and consider why they would travel together — especially in a game where the conceit is that you’re vastly powerful beings who can slaughter cities at will.

The mechanics for Mythender’s Bonds — that you get bonus dice in PvP — came a little bit later, when I found a hook for them. But they started out as just a directive in the beginning for the reason stated above. I needed a deliberate moment to get people to stop making their characters in a silo.

That’s the same service that Hx in Apocalypse World has, as well as Smallville/Cortex+ Drama’s Relationship dice. The Crossing Paths part of Fate character creation was always about this. The mechanic where you take or give back tokens in The Quiet Year to indicate your dissatisfaction is entirely about this, and unlike the above rules mentioned has no “mechanical impact.”

Many rules exist primarily for the social impact. Fan Mail from Primetime Adventures shows another example, where players reward each other from a limited pool of resources for whatever they consider awesome or dramatic (and the game is built to expect them to, so nothing is “broken”). It says “I am interested in you. Thank you for being awesome.” Games like A Penny for my Thoughts are built entirely around such social components.

Removing these rules has a far more massive impact on gameplay than many realize. Putting aside games that are entirely built around these rules (like Penny), games that use this construct fracture when removed. Bonds in Mythender work to keep the game from devolving into contests of assholism, which happens when people cling to the idea of playing damned god-slayers and no one puts effort into defining redeemable qualities. Apocalypse World breaks when you don’t have a tight and interwoven relationship map, as it’s fundamentally more a drama-game than an adventure-game. You could remove Relationships from Smallville…and turn it into Cortex+ Action, which is a totally different game and has a more solipsistic serial action dynamic. Primetime Adventures needs its fan mail mechanic to sing, because it gets everyone on a similar wavelength.

I could go on and on, but hopefully this illustrates my point: when a rule involves caring about someone else to the point of writing something down about them or the handling of a token, don’t blindly remove that rule. It turns out that roleplaying games are social experiences, and those rules exist to guide those experiences — which can often be fragile in new environments or situations.

Also keep this in mind as a design solution. When you’re running into a problem with a game you’re working on where people are slipping into solipsism or antagonism, look toward making constructs with social components to get people interested in each other rather than just themselves. Note that this isn’t an asshole-solver — these rules are geared toward breaking patterns of looking inward, not correcting actual toxic behavior.

(Sadly, saying “Don’t be a dick” isn’t a replacement rule. That would be nice, but it doesn’t really work because what the above rules do involves cementing a social component in word or in play. Turns out that such actions are a big deal to the mind and social dynamic.)

What other RPGs have you played with such players-keeping-each-other-in-mind components?

– Ryan

[1] That sets aside that Mythender was built for one-shots, so everything there exists for the one-shot environment.


3 Responses to On the Social Component of Rules

  1. Monsterhearts has its own backstory section rules, but they aren’t hugely different from Hx an Apoc. World. I guess stat highlight in both Apoc. World and MH serves that role, although it is a subtler mechanic.

    In years before I started going indie, I regularly tried to connect with other players about back stories and design. Time and again, this failed despite playing with great role players and friends. As a result, I do love these sort of rules to force the issue.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I hear you. I was fairly successful at it pre-indie, but that’s entirely because I learned how to make those moments focused and filled with agency…which is what those mechanics do as well. And that was a skill taught to me by someone else, not by a game book.

      I say that to say: keep watch on my feed in April. Something interesting will drop then perhaps quite relevant to this topic. :D

      – Ryan

  2. Fnorder says:

    I’ve actually hacked “social elements” into games that didn’t include such, mainly inspired by Fate-SotC which was the first settings where this kind of idea *clicked* for me and my groups.

    For example, in my latest CoC campaign I’ve given the following option: if a player describes their relation with another character, that would tell us something new about that character and the other player agrees upon, they would both get a minor mechanical or narrative boost from that – for example giving a second native language (“We both grew up in British Hong Kong, I was your illegitimiate half-sister”). This facilitated a more involved initial outset for the campaign, which was helpful for a very diverse group of characters

    On the other side in my L5R campaign I gave no such incentives at character creation, since I wanted the young samurai to build their friendship from ground up. Since I’ve set up a campaign of four adventures, each for one season, there was much downtime during which the characters were active. So in addition to regular advancement, I tried to give them mechanical benefits of the decisions they made for their “downtime activities” including incentives to build relations with both NPCs and each other; among which treating the other PC as Allies was a part of, leading to direct mechanical cosequences of developing that relation via the Honour mechanics. Also, at the end of each session I reserve a point or two of experience to be given by popular vote.

    I’ve always considered gaming a primary social experience. When I get a group together I try choosing people who I know would go along fine in a non-gaming setting, and I actually dislike playing with total strangers. And while social elements in the game help to reconcile differing approaches to the narrative and are a great tool to encourage genre-specific behaviour, the “don’t-be-a-dick” sometimes boils down to what is considered dickish at one table and what at another I guess.