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