Productive Voids, or The Unfathomable Agony of Rule Holes

In his brilliant essay (which I absolutely implore anyone remotely interested in RPG theory to read) “‘Rulings Not Rules’ Is Insufficient”, Arnold K. explains the strength of what he calls ‘incomplete systems’. While originally written with OSR-style games in mind, there is a deeper wisdom in A.K.’s essay applicable across much of the TTRPG landscape. Roleplaying games thrive on the alchemical interactions between the game system and the input of its actual, specific participants. Game systems tend to mutate as they are played, whether informally (through tacit procedures, personal inflections, and organic gaming group dynamics) or formally (through codified house rules, homebrew system expansions, and the like). This is a good thing. It is an elemental qualities of roleplaying games that separate it from, say, traditional board games and most video games.

Consider the following: B/X D&D has no sophisticated mass combat system. Apocalypse World has no custom move for what happens if you imbibe the Grog Juice of Nockadock before a duel. The core Traveller rules has no in-depth system for generating the heirloom assets of a character of noble birth. Yet all of these system have room in their incompleteness to expand the game in that direction in ways that feels congruent with the established rules engine. In one of these examples (Traveller), official rule supplements have indeed provided optional and modular add-ons to deepen certain aspects of the system.

Strictly speaking, any of the above examples could be resolved by an on-the-spot ruling or (given the inclination) a more detailed write-up or homebrew rules expansion. The prevalence of mass combat add-ons for OSR games tells us that two things: that people want a deeper system for what could be handled by a quick ruling, and that people have vastly differing ideas about how deep that system should be. The underlying skeleton of B/X or B/X-derived D&D can allow either, just as it can allow some ad-hoc dice rolling or GM ruling to resolve the same situation. An incomplete system can empower the players and GM’s to ‘complete’ it at their pleasure. It is a void, yet a productive one.

Best resolved by an evening’s worth of sub-system play or by two quick opposed d20 rolls? You decide! Artwork © Firat Solhan

The implementation of a productive void in an incomplete system requires trust: trust in our own design abilities and judgment, but also trust in the extant ruleset. Designer’s commentary and gamemaster advice sections are, in my experience, the unsung heroes of building this type of trust.

One of the strengths of Kevin Crawford’s rulesets (like Stars Without Number, Worlds Without Number, and Wolves of God) is that he is more willing than most designers to engage with honestly incomplete systems. Running Stars Without Number is not just a matter of reading the hard rules, but also of understanding the underlying ethos and thought processes that allow you to make rulings and additions of your own. Burning Wheel is another game that powerfully telegraphs and explains its underlying mechanisms through commentary. These types of text are valuable, not because we ‘need’ the designer’s permission to tinker with their creation, but because it greases our palms and readies us to explore and fill the productive void. To return to some previous examples: Traveller and OSR D&D have over the decades accumulated treasure troves of good advice and mechanisms for filling the void, while Apocalypse World was designed very deliberately as a hackable, incomplete system with a deeper engine that you could trust at the end of the day. This kind of guidance constitute a kind of ‘meta-move’, providing procedures and insights into the actual running of the system beyond its hard and formal crunch. And, crucially, it shows that the designers have trust in you.

Conversely, it becomes something of an obstacle a system lacks meaningful signposting of how to make rulings and fill its voids. What could be a productive void becomes a hole in the rules. This often happens if either:

a) The rules are structured as specific, situational, discrete pieces without discernible patterns rather than as a cohesive engine

b) No fruitful ways of proceeding into the system’s incomplete sections are presented

I recently picked up the gorgeous Dune: Adventures in the Imperium hardcover from Modiphius, and in the section on creating your House, it bluntly states that the actual mechanisms and rules for running Houses will appear in “later supplements” (an ominous phrase). A little disappointed that the RPG system for Dune, a property famously big on space feudal intrigue, contained no rules for noble Houses, I figured that at least there must be some vectors of interacting with that void in the rules – or at least some meaningful advice on how to integrate House affairs.

But, sadly, the GM section on creating adventures and running the game contained next to nothing about how to meaningfully integrate the characters’ House into the game. It is entirely unclear from the text whether the players are expected to make big decisions for their House, how to handle the loss or acquisition of House assets and domains, and even what role the House is supposed to play in an actual game aside from a convenient glue to create party cohesion. It is unclear if I could start a game now and tack on the House management rules when they are published, or whether that would be entirely unfeasible. The book contains no meta-moves, and thus, no vectors of building trust. What could have been a productive void is left as nothing but a frustrating, gaping hole.

It made me reflect on my experiences with Burning Wheel. Every game of Burning Wheel I’ve played created situations that weren’t strictly covered by the book and that required some negotiation, some rulings, and some massaging the system. Not because the game held our hands the entire way, but because it equipped us with the right tools to go new places.

I salute you, o productive voids.

P.S. No rules for House management in a freakin’ Dune RPG? Seriously??

3 thoughts on “Productive Voids, or The Unfathomable Agony of Rule Holes

  1. Fate is a good example of a system that handles this in an entirely different manner. For the most part, it doesn’t rely on structured rolls, rather, the rules provide mechanics that the GM is expected to implement to facilitate the narrative. I’m of the opinion that a system needs to be “thin” enough to support the fruitful void or “thick” enough that it’s unnecessary. Dune sounds like a thick RPG that’s not quite there, unfortunately, in contrast to Burning Wheel (a very thick game that has better support for rolls not explicitly covered by the text).

    Liked by 1 person

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