Design is Law

I am sharing my rules for my game.

  1. Because they are completely derivative of other things anyways. Who am I kidding; I’m not a genius game design guru. I am an overweight dad who plays too much Doom and listens to too much heavy metal. I live on a steady diet of endorphin generation. I only know what feels good, and that is the basis around which my game is designed.
  2. I need people to test it. People to play it. I need people in general.

For all intents and purposes I have no clout in this scene. No identity. I am another nobody, in a sea of nobodies. Because the bog standard approach to tabletop games is ass backwards today. First you need to be popular. Then, you need a game. To be popular, you need to produce “content”. What is “content”? Content is you having an opinion, and some ideas, and making videos and blogs about them. In short, it’s junk food meant to reinforce the idealism of others. It’s meant to build a support structure for misfits, so that they can cling to what you have to say. And then, it’s treated like gospel by fools who can’t construct their own opinion.

Today in the OSR scene, and in the fandom of creators like Hankerin Ferinale, and Professor Dungeon Master, you will just see the same crap regurgitated by people like they were doing it all along. Like it was always “the norm”. And yet, they refer to the same exact books these guys like. They latch onto the same ideas. They just keep repetitively spewing them verbatim as if there never was another way.

You can’t blame the creators for this happening. You can only blame the people lazy enough to follow them, and nothing else, while participating in a bizarre echo chamber of people who claim they have this thing ALL figured out. You only need a D20 and a target number. 5E is garbage. Player option is an “illusion”.

I call bullshit.

There is no “right way” to participate in this hobby. There is no “right way” to DM. This process is involved, and includes a base set of unpredictable variables that need to immediately be dealt with – other people. It is NEVER you, on an island, as a DM. It is ALWAYS you and your players. People will laugh at the fact that a dungeon came out with “wheelchair ramps” in it. That this fantasy world where anything is possible would require a device as shitty and grounded in unfortunate realism for people whose legs do not function normally. As if there would be no other solution for this that could be waved away magically. It’s absurd, maybe even insulting, that you’d want to give the guy in a wheelchair in your group a wheelchair miniature, and give him a smug smile and say, “here, I did this to include you.”

If it were me, I’d want to punch that bastard in the face.

“I am playing D&D so I don’t have to worry about my mobility, you dumb fucking asshole.”

But somewhere, there is a group where someone is in a wheelchair, and is proudly using that miniature. Because that resonates with them. Because everyone’s disposition is different – none of us think the same way. I once had a guy with no arms come into a store I was working at. He was insulted that I offered to help him find something. “I don’t need your help.” he said, stubbornly. Similarly, I have met people who let even the smallest physical deficiency get in their way for almost everything. You can just never tell with people what they are thinking.

Who is “wrong” here? Who is doing D&D the “wrong” way? The answer has nothing to do with wheelchair miniatures, or dungeons with ramps. It has EVERYTHING to do with the personalities at the table, and if people are emotionally satisfied with the game.

All-or-nothing attitudes are pervasive. I ask a question about the math of a specific mechanic I am working on, and I get three types of responses. Helpful responses, which are the rarest. Anecdotal bullshit responses, usually from the same lot of people – people who have absolutely fuck-all to say, but want to be included anyways because these groups are a “lonely hearts club”, and who invariably start blabbing about something completely unrelated to what I was asking. And the worst of all – the guy who says “You don’t NEED mechanics in your game, man! Just throw it out! Simplify!”

The third group is the one I’d most like to beat with a stick until they hit 0 HP and fall unconscious. They are an insidious type of dingleberry desperately clinging to the ass-fur of a community of increasingly ethereal, fluid “idealisms”, not “ideas”, who look at everything as a stone soup. They have “seen the Matrix.” They can’t “unsee” it. They understand now that the 20 sided die is just a set of 5% increments and nothing more.

Boy oh boy, what elevated geniuses.

Thank God they had YouTubers to show them “the way”.

They also completely dismiss the amazing talent and hard work that so many designers put into giving them this fundamental building block they are ready to shit all over before their game even gets out of the gate. I was arrogant like this, not so long ago. I had a pile of books I had given only a cursory read because “at the end of the day, who needs all this shit anyways?”

And I was wrong.

And stupid.

Maybe the reality is that these people are designers because they are talented at making interesting systems of calculation to determine random chance in their fantasy/sci-fi/whatever roleplaying simulation? Maybe you don’t like it because you are too undisciplined, or lazy, or even dumb to understand it?

I know what the takeaway will be here…

“You are saying that PDM and Hankerin are stupid, or undisciplined, or lazy.”

Error. WRONG.

The likelihood of that being true is minimal. Because here’s the thing – they ARE designers. If they are critical in a design, they have earned it. Because they understand the difference between criticism, or devotion to their own design ideas, a lot more than the people who are sort of blindly following their ideas like gospel. And because they are designers, their ideas are constantly evolving and changing. It’s like playing catch-up.

I just finished Masters of Doom, a book about the story of ID Software, and it’s proverbial “rise and decline.” In it, John Romero and John Carmack, the key figures of the story, start a gaming empire that revolutionizes the industry forever. As the story goes on Romero embraces his “rock star” persona, while Carmack focuses on technological advancement, and the two grow apart. Romero is ousted from ID, and goes on to found Ion Storm and work on his own magnum opus, Daikatana – a game, like Doom and Quake, heavily influenced by ID’s long D&D sessions.

When ID releases Quake 2, Carmack plays it for the first time and realizes how superior it is to the Quake engine, which Daikatana is being built on. He immediately decides to change to that engine instead, to the dismay of his employees, who tell him that chasing Carmack is going to be impossible. He is never going to keep up.

In the end, he cannot keep up. Daikatana is a failure. Ion Storm is eaten, and that is the end.

Romero went in with good intentions. “Design is Law” was the catchphrase for his company – the idea that the technology should uphold the design. It now comes off as arrogant in retrospect – Romero was ambitious, but perhaps undisciplined. The book reflects on how Romero and Carmack worked well as a team, because of how they played off one another. Without Romero, Carmack is little more than an engineer. People around him are casualties. Without Carmack, Romero is a loose cannon, and spends all of his time deathmatching.

The two form a symbiotic relationship earlier on. Romero is an idea guy. His enthusiasm for the worlds they are building, for fun at any cost, and for IDs own “rule of cool” is palpable, infectious. Carmack is the glue. When asked about employment insurance, Carmack once suggested he was the only employee who needed it, because “everyone else was expendable.” His lack of empathy for other people caused heavy dissension at ID after Romero’s departure. Because what they both perhaps, failed to realize – is that “design” needs the glue of rules and order as a bedrock. That the tech has to be there to support the design.

All these years later, Daikatana is still a poor, but clearly ambitious, game.

Quake 2 is still derivative of Quake, which was derivative of Doom.

And Doom remains the paragon of excellence even today, and a formula that, when replicated back in 2016 with the release of the Doom remake, was proven to still have a place at the gaming table.

Design not only means fun and quirky mechanics. It not only means well organized rules, or simplifications, or a good setting, or other “big” new ideas – it means building a solid foundation of rules.

In an episode of Kenny Vs. Spenny, a famous Canadian gross-out comedy about two best friends who engage in competitions with one another to see who will have to face a disgusting, degrading humiliation at the end, Spenny is reading a law book in the “Who can break more laws?” episode, and says, “Why does this have to be so complicated? We just need to know what the laws are so that we can break them.”

So when I hear players say they don’t need rules, and immediately start to “house rule” everything without testing it, without putting it under scrutiny, out of arrogance and hubris that they can do better than designers who have spent hundreds of hours creating their products, I now sit back and say “okay, let’s see it then.” When a nobody who has played DM once or twice says “5e is garbage. Pathfinder 2e is shit. All you need is a slip of paper and a dice and an imagination.”

I call bullshit.

Maybe that’s fine for you, the DM. But I guarantee you will run into players with expectations. You will run into players who want that so-called “illusion” of choice. (And no, it is NOT an illusion – the choices are there. The argument that players will always choose the path of least resistance is unfounded. You simply have no idea to predict that, so stop spouting horseshit like it’s reality.) You will need to find a way to accommodate them, or they’ll split.

The majority of people want structure, and direction, because its too vague a notion to just tell them, “look, there are rules, but none of it means anything, so just go ahead and roll a dice, and we figure it out, whatever.” People will, and have, and do, just ignore your loosey goosey “game” of make believe. It discredits the experience. It makes it feel less “official”. And they are not wrong for thinking that way – YOU are wrong, for being so arrogant in your presumption that your half-baked Frankenstein of a system is going to win them over. In the same way that Romero’s project management according to Masters boiled down to vague buzzwords and a lack of any concrete design document or direction, the players, like his staff, will become jaded and irritated. They will instead find someone who is disciplined enough to read the fucking book, and remember the fucking rules, so that they can move on one day and continue playing with a different group, and instinctively understand just what in the fuck is going on.

The only people interested in this hacky, punk OSR mentality are other people with design aspirations. Not people that are necessarily designers themselves, but who like to tweak, and who choose systems specifically catered towards that need to fuck around. And most of their players are likely going to be of the same mind set. It’s this beautiful, weird workshop of discovery and exploration – where very honestly, little if any substantially new ideas are actually going to emerge from in a meaningful way. Your game where you play as a bee in a bee colony? Pretty novel idea. Is it ever, EVER going to be well known to anyone, or played regularly, or revered even 1/100th of any mainstream RPG?

“Sword-dream” on, you crazy diamonds. Most people play D&D to hack shit up, to a bad English accent, and eat pizza and drink beer with their buddies. Emergent storytelling and all these “evolutionary” concepts mean nothing to the guy who just wants to chop a fucking orc in half with a great-ax.

That doesn’t make any of it a waste of time of course. Or remotely “bad” or worthless. Quite the contrary – but that’s its own thing, far outside the domain of knowledge of most players. Some DM’s might be aware of the weirdness being pumped out by these communities – most won’t. Even the basic D&D rules are too vague and erudite and seemingly “incomplete” for most. They need the elaboration of 5e, and Pathfinder. They need the familiarity of “powers” and “skills” that have become integrated in the culture, and that they have become accustomed to in the many videos games they enjoy. This is their comfort zone, because its what is familiar, and what makes sense to them. Some of these freaks and weirdos (and I say this in the most celebratory of ways, believe me – I’m right there with them) will go on to add to the design of games that, you know, people actually play. They will get absorbed into the Forgotten Realms, and be hard knuckled by Hasbro. Some might even make an entire game. Even fewer might actually be successful.

What is a waste of time, is incompleteness. Laziness. A bedrock of structural deficiency that cannot be read and repeated without great effort or embellishment, improvisation. My theory is, it’s easier to strip away a ruleset than to meaningfully add to an incomplete one. Most people in the OSR community would disagree. Thank God it’s okay to be wrong on the internet.

I justify this stance by saying that, as a player, my job is not necessarily to be a designer. I already have enough work on my plate creating worlds, interesting adventures, and obstacles for players to navigate. And you have the arrogance to toss a couple of sheets of paper at me and ask me to “fill in the blanks” where the “blanks” comprise ninety percent of your system? Miss me with that shit. You are a designer. Design. And let ME do the trimming. Make things simple and modular if you need, but give me the tools I need to just get down and dirty and run a fucking game.

For my own game I am adopting this same “design is law” moniker. Not from a place of arrogance or conceit. But from the same perspective Romero did when he was focused on games, and his passion for them. Where “design is law” does not mean “rules are garbage”, but where it instead means that the game is useable, and mostly complete when it gets into the hands of playtesters. That it isn’t a grab bag of messy half-finished ideas I am expecting others to fill in the blanks on. That it is consumable, easily accessible, and reproducible. And again, above all, designed. Complete. No handwaving. No half-assed GLOG mentality here with the justification of a sloppy ruleset being chalked up to “I know it’s bad, fix it for me, fill in the gaps”. Why don’t you do that yourself? Aren’t you the fucking designer?

I woke up realizing the tremendous work this will take. I woke up realizing that my game is not even OSR compatible at this point – where the definition of OSR is “a game resembling D&D with similar ability scores that will therefore be compatible with D&D content.” That it is something else, will probably fail because there are a million other games out there, but that I have to finish and release in a complete state even for alpha, because I have committed to completing this project. I expect if it finds any table time with people, it will be torn apart, scrutinized and reworked into something else. The temptation for DM’s is just too great, especially today when that attitude is being heavily encouraged. I expect and encourage this – but I want to give those people material so that it can inform their decisions on what to use and what to remove, rather than demand that they do so.

Design is law. And it requires a designer willing to obsessively dedicate time, pull up their bootstraps, and produce. And that is what I have resolved to do. Because I’ve realized that the “right way” is my way, and not someone elses. Just like you, dear reader, and your group, have their own “right way”. And that this is the true way, for all of us, and although we can never take it wholesale from another single designer, that we should keep our eyes open to what is out there, and stop shitting all over what we don’t like and decreeing it to be objectively “bad” because “someone says so.”

Fuck all that.

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