Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Rigid or Free?

 A key issue from the outset was whether it was better to codify the game system within comprehensive rules and charts or to base the modelling of movement and combat on the wisdom and experience of an umpire.”

Philip Sabin, Simulating War

Early wargame rules established two acceptable play formats: rigid and free. When military personnel started creating wargames in the early 19th century, an umpire or even a team of referees adjudicated wargame conflicts. Those in the “rigid” style adhered to carefully crafted rules governing many, if not all, possible actions and contests within a game scenario. The referee served as a knowledgeable intermediary, someone so immersed in the rules as to function as a reference when applying them consistently during play. This allowed players to focus on the action depicted on the wargaming table from the perspective of officers commanding troops in the field, much as they’d been trained. Those in the “free” style relied on their own military expertise and judgment to interpret the situations on the board, possibly also with some institutional doctrine and perhaps loose guidelines regarding conflicts on the battlefield. Free kriegspiel relied on an expert’s informed yet subjective opinion rather than established, comprehensive rules. As wargames evolved they branched in several directions, including professional and hobby as well as rigid and free. Free games continued to exist — especially in the military sphere or exercises like matrix games — but most games, especially in the growing hobby, skewed toward rigid. We can look at games in our own time through the lens of rigid and free play...but they primarily sustain the trend toward the rigid end of the spectrum.

Examining game genres across the broad adventure gaming hobby I find a reliance on the rigid format. Most games without any kind of “referee” fall into the rigid category by necessity; without an experienced judge, players must rely on documented procedures that govern how they interact with the game. Board games have long relied on rigid rules so everyone — even in asymmetrical games — understands the processes through which they may influence the game state, usually eliminating any need for subjective judgment or interpretation. Card games and many miniatures games also rely on rigid rules to govern player actions in the absence of a referee. Games played in tournaments rely heavily on notoriously rigid formats because — despite the presence of judges who help organize the contests — players are generally on their own to rely on codified procedures, interpretations, examples, and constantly updating errata when interpreting extremely specific game conditions in their or their opponent’s favor...often with high-stakes prizes on the line. Board wargames employ rigid rules much like any other board game; but many miniature wargames, which evolved from the kriegspiel tradition, still rely heavily on detailed rules, enabling two opponents to play without the participation of a referee.

One might find these rigid practices democratizing: everyone has access to the rules, a responsibility to learn them, a duty to help others learn them, and an interest working together to make sure everyone follows them to help ensure an entertaining game experience (though I believe a few see this understanding as a Puritanical entitlement to police the rules during play because, obviously, if you’re not playing correctly you’re cheating...). Rigid rules help make sure everyone has an equal understanding of how a game works and how they can work within those rules to achieve some degree of victory.

Perhaps roleplaying games come the closest to incorporating more elements of the “free” play style, though still reliant on actual, codified rules governing specific actions within the game. Gamemasters have great freedom in presenting situations for characters and challenges for them to overcome in the course of an epic and imaginative story. Players remain free to develop and explore their characters, sending them on their own courses through the setting and overarching storylines. Many elements rely on their judgment and perception of the game world. Such games heap great responsibilities on the gamemaster’s shoulders as the “referee” charged with interpreting events. Gamemasters might seem like referees in a “free” game, but they often function as a player running the adversaries. While a gamemaster possesses a great degree of freedom to describe the setting and act for enemies, the adjudication of conflicts often defaults to established, detailed rules. Ultimately everyone still remains shackled in some degree to procedures of varying rigidity. They provide some guidelines — often very specific ones — on how to resolve conflicts, determine success or failure, and even develop character capabilities through experience. Ultimately the purpose remains the same: to ensure everyone has a common understanding how they can affect the game play through allowed actions with a fair and consistent interpretation.

Human society relies on established procedures and regulations for how we engage in many common activities. We like everything neatly defined, with knowable quantities and predictable results given known variables. Humans expect a certain level of consistency in life, especially given how often we must adapt to adversity. Rigid game rules provide this even in our interactive entertainment, when other players’ actions can often disrupt this level of consistency. Exhaustively codified rules help enforce fairness in disputes and some semblance of game balance; absent a third-party referee, rules represent an established standard by which we can adjudicate our own in-game conflicts.

Yours truly contemplates house-ruling
rules for a Civil War skirmish.
Examining all this it might seem we’re mired in the rigid play format, but degrees of rigidity exist. How many times have we adjusted established game rules to our own liking? Some game genres allow for this more than others. Board and card games don’t leave much room for adjustment. But miniature wargamers constantly tinker with rules, often to the point of creating their own game. Roleplaying gamers have an infamous reputation for “house-ruling” their favorite game; as with miniature wargamers, many revise and enhance existing rules so much it becomes a new game. Everyone has their particular vision for a game, how it satisfies and entertains them, and how it might do those things better. I myself have adjusted games to suit my own play style, house-ruling my favorite roleplaying games to reflect what I enjoy most from the experience they offer. I’ve stripped down wargame rules to the bare essentials to introduce them to newcomers or younger players. Sometimes teaching a game we allow do-overs, play with open hands of cards, and otherwise adjust the rules to better enable learning the full game.

Rigid rules have their place. They ensure everyone stands on equal footing within the game. They provide consistency in our expectations in how a game works...tempered, of course, by our often unpredictable interaction with other players operating within that game environment. They form the baseline for our shared game experience from which we can make our own adjustments to hone the rules to better satisfy our entertainment expectations. The adventure gaming hobby might stand on the shoulders of the “rigid” play format, but it also allows us the freedom to influence our experience directly with our own creative vision for how we best enjoy our favorite games.

Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”

Albert Einstein


  1. [ Does a general wave as if to say "you already know where I stand on all of this." 😁 ]

    1. [Waves back.] I started going down a path discussing presentation of games at the table (the difference between rules as published and rules as practiced), that, regardless of how rigid the rules might seem, their interpretation at the table by a referee or gamemaster has potential to seem more like the "free" style. Fodder for a future missive, I suppose.


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