Organic Rule Components: Design Philosophy

From a post to Burn Immediately.
I’d like to talk a little bit about the philosophy behind the ORC rules. I don’t expect anyone to agree with the philosophy, but I’d rather have people who don’t like the rules to think that it was because I have a different philosophy than because I have no philosophy.
My goal was to support a sort of gameplay that people over on the Forge would call “simulationist.” Probably most game designer’s rule systems are a reaction to early game experiences they had. Some of my un-favorite game experiences were times when I wanted to try to solve a problem using my real world problem solving skills (e.g. “I know! I take a coat hanger, unfold it, stick it in the hole and try to catch the mechanism.”) but was told that all that mattered was my dice pools (e.g. “Okay, roll your Trap Disarming skill. You don’t have that? Then roll straight INT. You only got 15? This is a 40 difficulty trap, you don’t even come close.”) I’ve always thought most rule systems interfere too much in gameplay. So I tried to make a rule system that would hang back and would mostly only be used to answer physics questions (e.g. “I want to pick him up and throw him out the window, can I do that?”) or biology questions (e.g. “I just got stabbed again, can I still stand?”). I did see the need to add in a skill system (you just can’t have good character creation without skills, in my opinion, because what a person knows how to do is a major defining factor of what they are) but I specifically said that people can try to do things without using a skill, at which point it just falls back to dice-less narration.
I wanted ORC to be enough like reality that it would be intuitive to people who are familiar with how things work in the real world. I don’t want people to have to know the rules to know what the results of their actions are going to be. That’s another thing that bugged me in my formative roleplaying experiences: I would do something, and something completely unrealistic would happen, and the GM would defend it as “that’s just the rules.” So I tried to mimic the real world rules of physics, biology, etc. as closely as possible. Of course, I quickly found that trying to mimic reality with game rules is like trying to draw a circle using only straight lines and right angles: the more intricate and complex you get, the closer you get to doing it, but you will never get there. So I tried to create what I thought was the best balance between perfect realism and the rules not being too complex. My general pattern was to create a horrendously complex way to simulate a certain action (e.g. breaking cryptography) and then go back and try to simplify and streamline it. Another concern was the “aesthetics,” what programmers would call the “elegance” of the rules, but that was a distant third, which is why many of the rules, although they work well and aren’t too complex, are kind of ugly.
I know some people believe that game rules should be so simple that one should never have to look up a rule in the course of play. I disagree. I see the rules as more of a court of final review. The first judge is the GM using dice-less narration (e.g. “I do this.” “Well this happens.”), but if the GM doesn’t trust his or her ability to judge the outcome or something, then he or she turns to the basic mechanics (e.g. “Can you lift that thing? I don’t know, roll STH + 1d20”), and finally, if something is so complex and important to the game outcome that the GM doesn’t want to base it on just an attribute + 1d20 roll, then a more complex procedure can be looked up in the book. E.g. overcoming an addiction may be a seminal moment in a PC’s game-life, and a GM might not want to have it be just a plain WIL+1d20 roll, he or she might want it to be a long ordeal, possibly the central drama of a whole game session, where several factors are taken into account. So, in short, I believe it’s okay to have a rule so complex it needs to be looked up, but I think that should only happen rarely, e.g. you should only have to look in your book once a game session, or less.
I realize, the more I play ORC games, and the more feedback I get, that I could have done a lot better job of meeting my goals. One big mistake was scattering rules through the book so that people have to flip to different parts of the book to remember how to do things (e.g. “now how does a Freak’s psychological shock attack work again?”). Another mistake was having the “look and feel” of the mechanic vary too much across situations. It would have been better if readers got the feeling there was just one mechanic and instead of “different rules” there were merely a number of suggestions of different ways this same mechanic could be used in different situations. And finally, I think I put in too many little niggling rule-lets, little obsessive-compulsive details that are too tiny for players to remember but not important enough to look up, e.g. the fact that a Seismic Analyzer can transmit it’s data (unencrypted) within 200 ft.
Although I’m not prepared to do a major “fix” (I still want to keep new books compatible with older books) I am trying to make a cleaner, simpler, more aesthetically pleasing implementation of ORC in newer books. I hope that players will find each book has a better implementation of ORC than the last.

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