Reflection and Formation

There are many broad functions that rules can have. Here is one: representing the details of a broader fictional world. The fictional world might not work exactly like the world of day to day phenomenological experience that we inhabit and experience as the real world, but it nonetheless makes sense, loosely speaking. Sure, monsters might exist that we have never encountered and sorcerers might be able to, with long study, cast spells to open portals. But there remains the basic assumption that behind the scenes there is a living, breathing world that both shapes and constrains the shared imagination of play.

Call these reflective rules. Rules as the physics of the imagined world. That is, the rules reflect the imagined campaign. In reflective rules, the cause is (conceptually) outside the formal game elements. A rule is a good rule if it produces logical and realistic outcomes, relative to the shared understanding of the campaign setting. This is a common-sense vernacular approach, and it has had a wide currency, arguably undergirding most mainstream tabletop roleplaying games from varieties of TSR D&D to Rolemaster to D&D 5E. The assumption that rules should reflect the campaign world is something like the equivalent of Literary Realism for tabletop roleplaying games. It is the equivalent of what you get most of the time if you watch a serial drama on Neflix or pick up an airport novel.

Basic D&D (1981), p. B52

Here is another function rules can have: determining the situations and details of play. Call these formative rules. The results may or may not make sense fictionally, but they are the rules, so you execute them and then interpret the outcomes as best you can. The fireball might detonate in a square. The random encounter generates a dragon one hex outside of town, three times in a row. The rules form the situation of play. In formative rules, the cause is (conceptually) the rules themselves and interpretation happens (if at all) subsequently. When one stocks a dungeon using the B/X procedures presented on page B52, the outcome is not really intended to model any kind of naturalistic situation. It might, but the goal is not logic or naturalism. You need monsters and treasures and traps in some rough distribution for the game to work, so the rule does that. Consider traditional spell slots. Sure, there is some very loose Vancian inspiration, but really original style D&D spells need limits of some sort to support challenges. Fire and forget is a way to do that. If one adopts the approach of assuming D&D is always right, that is in the mode of formative rules.

The most effective formative rules are designed to generate the dynamics and situations necessary to a particular game. They create satisfying tension and result in outcomes where player decisions matter. They can provide oracles into the imagined world. They might facilitate complex tactical contests or generate genre-appropriate thematic outcomes. Formative rules can also provide practical support for simplifying or abstracting elements of an imagined world which might be impractical to model explicitly. Additionally, the interpretation and reconciliation required by occasionally illogical results can serve as an engine of creativity. What might explain three dragon encounters in a row, so near to civilization? However, thoughtlessly designed or applied formative rules can be a straitjacket or procrustean bed, trapping players in abstract or solipsistic formalism, rewarding optimization and homework.

Does this matter, or is it just semantics, another arbitrary taxonomy to create more specialist language? It seems to me that the potential of the form, what tabletop roleplaying can uniquely provide compared to other forms of entertainment, media, and art, involves a fusion of these two modes.

If one leans too heavily on formative rules, where players weave results into some shared narrative fabric unrelated to any ideal of living breathing world, one risks losing the richness of possibility inherent in the idea of a campaign with integrity. Pathologies of formative rules include repetitive outcomes and the peasant railgun. That idea of the campaign world as external, causal source, along with some degree of shared commonsense understanding of how things work, is what enables principled and flexible rulings at the table.

If one leans too heavily on reflective rules, where logic and verisimilitude dominate, one gets lost in minutiae unconnected to the experience of play. Pathologies of reflective rules include, in the D&D context, Shopkeepers & Spreadsheets and fixation on realistic fictional economies at a level of detail far exceeding relevance to play. The OSR etc aversion to extensive fictional histories and backstories is not just a practical norm, nor is it just a rejection of tabletop roleplaying as a thespian concern; this aversion is also a recognition that the most useful elements of setting are those that provide contact surfaces for play at the table.

Ideally, a campaign is both internally consistent and makes sense on its own terms, broadly speaking, but simultaneously provides a stage for play with all of the concerns that entails. The reflective and formative components can feed back into each other, providing mutual enrichment. Some idiosyncratic element of a campaign setting might emerge from a seemingly illogical random stocking result (formative) later interpreted and explained in the logic of the setting, informing later concrete details and rulings experienced by players in play (reflective).

I tried real hard to avoid bogging this post down with technical jargon. However, to give credit where credit is due I will note that these ideas are related to formative and reflective constructs in the philosophy of science. This article is a good on ramp:

Edwards, J. R., & Bagozzi, R. P. (2000). On the nature and direction of relationships between constructs and measures. Psychological Methods, 5(2), 155–174.

9 thoughts on “Reflection and Formation

  1. Paul Sims

    Is there any chance you could post a link to your hazard rules again? The old drop box links no longer work!

    1. Necropraxis Post author


      I updated the links recently. See the “Downloads” tab above for active links to various files, including the Hazard System handouts. I thought I had removed all the Dropbox links from individual posts a while back and replaced them with links to the main download page for ease of management, so if you come across a dead link within a post I would be appreciative if you could let me know where so that I can update it.

  2. Tom Van Winkle

    Interesting, as always! It seems to me that you are addressing a matter of *taste* more than optimal function. It is possible to do without spreadsheets of Real Stats and simultaneously avoid random tables, too.

    The procedures for formative “situations and events” are typically random or tabular, but it is game designers (of distributed products or of humble house rules) who make those procedures and populate those tables. One may question how much of an oracle a random table of the typical D&D wandering monsters really is, when it’s usually standard stuff. The same goes for bespoke tables, in fact, too. There are only so many cards in a deck. We can randomize events, but the finite contents still come from someone’s idea of what’s Fictionally Realistic.

    It’s curious to note one old preference. Gygax was asked about the random tables he put into his DMG. In August 1979, he said, “All of the tables and so forth went very easily, … much like monster or treasure placement, they just really shouldn’t be rolled up on a chart. I was loathe to prepare the charts to do all these things, but finally I did, and so, OK, if you don’t take the time or the care, or don’t have concern for your campaign to sit down and really look at your map, whether it’s a dungeon map or an outdoor map, and place these monsters for yourself, in some sort of a sensible order, and just want some sort of an off thing . . . OK ‘Disneyland’ campaigns can be fun — you never know what spook is going to pop out from around a comer — here are the tables to do it. It’s kind of like Disneyland, you know, and the old fun houses. … It doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s difficult for me to get too up-tight about making a lot of sense, because I don’t really see much sense in fire-breathing dragons and giants 20 feet tall, and things like that, … And we want to look at some sort of a reasonable ecology and a reason for something being there. So I approached that all with great trepidation…”

    I appreciate your take!

    1. Necropraxis Post author


      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. While taste could certainly be an issue, I think taste is a separate dimension. Note that I do not use a term like optimal function (which implies a commensurable ranking) but rather “potential of the form” (by which I mean something incommensurable to other artistic forms). The qualities of a symphony and a painting are not directly comparable or possible to be simply ranked, apart from some crude interaction opportunity cost utility metric. Similarly, a tabletop top roleplaying game can do things impossible in other forms (and is unable to do things possible in other forms).

      Note also that formation here does not necessarily involve randomness (though it could). The question is about causation; is the cause of the shared imagination some idea about the setting, or is it the rules of the game text? The former is reflective, the later is formative (as I am using those terms). While your point about the finite nature of a simple random table is worth taking, the “fictionally realistic” criteria is basically embracing something toward the reflective ethos end of the spectrum. In the end, all instantiations of these approaches will be imperfect approximations of the various ideal forms.

      The Gygax quote is interesting because it seems like he himself doesn’t quite recognize the potential of some of the tools he has included.

  3. John

    What you refer to as Reflective rules, I’ve heard referred to as simulationist rules, or simulation mechanics.

    I think one additional thing that matters is “what do the players care about?”. You will likely want more Reflective rules in areas of shared interest. For example, of medieval warfare is of particular interest to the group, then be more granular around things like differentiating weapon and armor types. If they don’t care about that at all, you might be happy making every weapon do 1d6 damage and focus the Reflective rules elsewhere (maybe on overland travel through the wildeness).

    Every RPG is simulating something, it’s just a question of at what resolution. High resolution requires more rules for processing results, and lower resolution requires fewer.

    My own preference is “as many [Reflective] rules as are needed to maximally satisfy player interest, but otherwise as few as possible”, since the fewer the rules, the smoother the game is to run and play.

    1. Necropraxis Post author

      My sense is that there is a lot of miscommunication around the word simulation when applied to tabletop roleplaying games. I tried to discuss that problem here:

      (Though I am not sure how successful I was.)

      In any case, I agree that some variation on Occam’s Razor applied to optimal rules complexity seems like a pragmatic approach, especially when considering a particular group’s preferences and specific player interests.

  4. Jonn

    I have no comments aside from mentioning that this taxonomy is way better than “simulation / story-game” taxonomy.

    I just wanted to say that your blog is one of the best, if not the best, TTRPG blogs. Keep it up!

  5. Tommi

    This makes me think of the issue of dramatic coordination and setting up scenarios, even in a wargamey sandbox game. A kind of trilemma:
    1. A campaign world is so dangerous and exciting that there is adventure everywhere. It will probably not last long, or at least civilization will not.
    2. The play group does dramatic coordination to ensure that the player characters get involved in adventuring. Of course they happen to hear about and be the first to enter the dungeon, or happen to catch the attention of the mysterious quest-giver, etc.
    3. The game is quite likely to be on the mundane side, with adventures happening very rarely. Change a character or take a long downtime for the next adventurous occasion.

    Formative rules are good for dramatic coordination. Random wilderness encounters are often it, since they are often more frequent and exciting than what locals experience in their everyday life. The case 1 above allows doing this even with more reflective rules; maybe some kind of apocalypse scenario or a state of war?

  6. Gus L

    I always enjoy these kinds of theory posts — when people who know about other subject areas besides games pull ideas in regarding the structure of knowledge to look at games. It creates often very elegant ways of looking at things that sometimes seem extremely obvious and useful (i.e. the formative and reflective rules distinction and even more the ways these types of rules can fail).

    One of the aspects here that I find interesting is how intent or goals play into the structure of rules – designer intent, referee intent and player intent. For example, I think many of the issues regarding excessive reflective rules, peasant railguns, or getting lost in the weeds of simulation tend (though I suppose each category can do each of these) to come from distinct places for each category of person involved.

    For players it’s often another sort of play – pettifoggery I’d say, but maybe “hacking” is better? The joy of finding the inconsistencies within the rules and line stepping them for advantage.

    For referees I suspect it tends towards a desire to include their personal interests – e.g. the “katana problem” I remember from playing in the 80’s where table had special bizarre rules that made katanas the most powerful weapon in the game based on playground a mythos. Not a problem as a sort of magic item, but the popular obsession with Japan at the time meant that these rules were often complex and every party had a katana wielding special class from level 1. One could also call this the “psionics” problem in early D&D and blame Campbell…

    For designers perhaps it’s a sort of “simulation rapture” or “totalizing” – attempting to perfect the game (or adventure, or room key) by including EVERYTHING.


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