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gaming the system

So last night I was playing Burning Wheel (which has been kickass fun so far except for my damn dice), and I had the opportunity to make a skill roll that would help me advance something. I puzzled over helping dice and challenge types needed to advance. At one point, Thor (GM) says to me, "if you really want to game the system..." and then pointed something out to me. And now today I'm not entirely sure if he meant that derisively or not.

I remember a time when that phrase, "gaming the system," was nothing but derision, a term for exploitation of loopholes and players ignoring story in favor of bonuses and strategies and so on.

But now a great many games depend on it for those games to be the most fun they can be. Imagine playing Nine Worlds or TSOY or AGON without gaming the system. Gaming the system is an essential part of play.

So what I'm wondering about now is the idea that when a game system becomes so complex it inevitably creates exploitable loopholes that become counterproductive to play. Can a game system develop the same problems as, say, a legal system, while still being an excellent, well-designed game system? I think so.

And I'm not really comparing BW with the legal system, for crying out loud. It was just the first thing that popped into my head when I thought of systems with loopholes. BW is undoubtedly less vulnerable to rich people.

But the game text does have warnings and admonishments. Are they indicative of those inevitable loopholes, or are they just the crazed ramblings of a poor game designer broken down by players with contrasting creative agendas?

I have a couple of questions.

Would you consider Burning Wheel to be a game system that was Gamist, Narrativist, or Simulationist?

Would you still consider them loopholes if your answer is Gamist vs Narrativist?

From my perspective, when a system is gameable, the only way for that system to remain useable is for everyone to agree to "game the system" or for everyone to agree to not "game the system".

I think that by "game the system" he may have meant "use the system to it's maximum potential". The analogy with the legal system breaks down here. I think that BW is designed to be worked for the player's benefit and rewards that kind of play.

First, I'd like to define what you're talking about with "gaming the system counterproductively" as methods by which one uses the rules to create situations in which the player can effectively do things the game did not intend. I realize this is very subjective in terms of judging the game's intent, but I think that's the only reasonable way to measure this because we're talking about being counterproductive to the intended play experience (regardless of what we think of that), hence the game intent. If a game intends players to be rules lawyers and find edges in the rules to "screw" each other, noobdy is "gaming the system counterproductively," they are doing just what the game suggests. Similarly, if a game deliberately allows players to hog the spotlight or otherwise do things we normally recognize as not fun for others, that may be a problem with the game, but the rules are being used as intended and how can we say that anyone is being "counterproductive" given the intended play experience is to, for example, hog the spotlight or use endless rules lawyering to prove one's rules-savvy above others. Is this fair? If not, whatever the definition, it should be clear up front.

I would agree that games can become increasingly (or be born) complex to the point where the rules have counterproductive loopholes/conflicts. I think that's one of the things that happened with traditional RPGs in general in the couple decades following their birth. That said, I realize an initial criticism of my point would be that trad. games often were muddled in direction/in mechanics reinforcing a central theme or themes (or not being "about something" at all). However, that really is a different question, as I think we can grant that an RPG can mechanically function even without deliberately being about something, at least in the way so many of us think abou tthat. Let's take the example of D&D; I think most can see it, at the very least in earliest forms, as "destroy (kill/take) to become powerful." As the ruleset grew, it is widely recognized as introducing dramatically more ways to exploit the system counterproductively, which, in D&D terms, means harming game balance as that is more or less the first underpinning of its play experience (again, whether we argue that game balance is achievable in this way is a separate subject, i.e., if the goal is unobtainable, that's still a separate issue).

With trad. games, I think a major reason has been the simulationist pursuit of, well, "simulation," the very thing that triggered so much criticism in the last, what is it, a decade (?) among so-called indie gamers. In order to codify "realism" to encourage that simulation, systems embraced increasing nuance, often with unintended consequences. The other big problem was the pursuit of "universality" in addressing any action-adventure situation, or at least pursuing broad use with no clear boundaries/scope/meaning to that broadening. I think we see to one extent or another this sort of problem with HERO in its evolution, with series of exceptions in the rulebook and an explicitly stated rule and ethos that GMs are there to monitor balance and make judgement calls accordingly in which rules to use (given its toolkit analogy).

Note in the above I didn't judge whether the games were or are "excellent, well-designed." That's another layer to the question, and on that point one can then say that these aren't - that can be a big debate. But I suppose the question is, can we say a game is fundamentally "excellent" when it can be broken using its own rules? No, I don't ihink so, I think that's clearly in opposition to "excellent" (and "well-designed." But it's a matter of degree, too. For example, with Dogs in the Vineyard we can easily game the system counterproductively by players insisting on petty ocnflicts with each other merely and solely to build up experience and then turn around and ensure they dominate against NPCs, never developing the storylines against each other that they develop. There's no long-term goal system in Dogs to keep this in check. Nor am I whatsoever saying there should be - the point here is that players are choosing to break the play experience in a fairly deliberate way, and while the system "allows" it, I think we have to take into account it's a matter of degree, and I chose this example as I think it fairly obviously speaks to that. No one (give or take...) would condemn Dogs for not controlling every conceivable player behavior in violation of its intent, and this example takes a fair amount of deliberation and planning on people's part to minimize the GM's effective role in stakes-setting (sure, a GM still has a mandate from the rules, but more on this below...) and in turn choose to violate narrative storyline - some of this goes to the heart of breaking roleplay gaming, really. at least to me.

Now, let's bring it back to just that comment on "But the game text does have warnings and admonishments." Well, my feeling is that warnings and admonitions are part of the game, they are rules, albeit "softer" ones as they don't rely on quantification or hard cause-effect or anything beyond judgement and interpretation. But the question is, are they clear and complete in and of themselves? Dogs in the Vineyard, to my earlier point, has text in it urging the GM towards care in stakes-setting and on how to amp up intra-player and/or internal-to-player as a campaign develops. On the trad. side, many HERO enthusiasts defend its loophole-rich environment with the warnings and admonishments clearly given in the book. I do not want to debate these situations individually, rather I am pointing out that such "warmings" are entirely fair, they tell you "if you do (X), you will break the system - so just don't do (X)," the only issue being that "(X)" might be something a bit vague or hard to judge. What does matter is just how good those warnings are.

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