Jared von Hindeman dropped a phrase in twitter today which struck me as a very good way to describe an idea that’s been running through my mind a lot lately – “Rules Blind.” Running a game rules blind means that the players need not know any of the rules to play. Jared proposes it in the context of getting players interested – run the first session rules-blind, and if the players have fun, they’ll have the interest to then read up on the system and setting themselves. It’s a good idea, but I’m mostly grateful for the term.
It’s useful because certain games are very problematic to run rules blind, and that distinction highlights a point that’s very important to me. In many ways it speaks directly to the role of fiction in the game, and how it interacts with rules. Specifically, it addresses whether fiction or rules drive play.
Howso? Consider a game like 4e, where there are a large array of action which have specific mechanical meaning. If you want to knock one opponent into another one, then you need to have the power that does that – there are no rules for that activity outside of the power. That would make is crazy difficult to run rules-blind because if the player doesn’t know his powers, he’s got no real means to engage the game.
This applies similarly to Apocalypse World and its variants, though perhaps to a lesser extent. Most actions are explicitly framed as moves, with specific mechanical limitations on what can be accomplished within their bounds. There’s a bit more leeway here – a GM could internalize some of the more common rolls and just ask the player for a number – but that won’t work in every situation.
Now, please note this is not a criticism. In both cases, there are tradeoffs being made that are quite valuable. 4e’s explicit menu of choices makes combat paralysis less overwhelming, and Apocalypse World’s moves subtly (or not so subtly) drive play towards drama. In fact, these represent useful advances in game design – in both cases the rules are very explicitly engaged to drive play in an intended direction rather than just being presented as something neutral which depends on the GM to drive things.
Unfortunately, they also take things in a direction that’s not to my taste.
Now, it would be easy to frame my taste as “fiction first”, but that would be a little passive aggressively self-aggrandizing, and not entirely true. If I were really fiction first, I’d be much more engaged by games like Primetime Adventures (a game which, like 4e and AW is brilliant and fun, but not my sweet spot), but the reality is that the fiction, to me, is more place than story. I seek the limitations and interactions more than any narrative.
And that’s where rules-blind comes in for me. It’s a litmus test for the things I like in a game for the simple reason that if a player engages the setting and tries interesting stuff, I want him to be supported by the system, and I want it to feel like an organic extension of the sensibilities of the table.
And that’s why this is not quite a “system doesn’t matter” argument, though it’s certainly in the family. I could run Feng Shui or Rolemaster rules-blind, and the outcomes would be VERY different. Problematically so if player’s expectations differ from what those the system provides. Lining up a system to expectations is still super duper important (but playing rules blind can also provide an interesting window into what those expectations actually are).
None of this is really guidance for how someone else should run or play a game, but it’s working through my mind as I think about the kind of game I want to run (and a bit as I slowly write ICT). And I’m mostly thanking Jared for the extra club in my bag.
1 – There’s nothing that says the 4e framework couldn’t be expanded to handle such things, but by its vanilla rules, that’s the shape of it.
 – Which is, I should add, one of the great reasons for players to learn the rules – shared rules are a fast route to shared expectations.