The Freedom of Limitations

In the early 70’s film, Magnum Force, loose cannon police detective/philosopher “Dirty” Harry Callahan growls the classic line, “A man’s got to know his limitations”. That works in the movies, but in real life we don’t want to be limited, especially when we play. Since childhood, we want to do anything we can imagine.  In reality though, having no limitations is the antithesis of reality. And it’s the antithesis of fun.

Back when I was an IT contractor in the 90’s, my company would host quarterly meetings that usually included a guest speaker. In one a professor from Carnegie Mellon University spoke on embracing your limits. His theory was that when you are limited, you will explore every option, even the unusual or unlikely ones. His most memorable example was that if you were tied to a chair, you would use muscles you never knew you had in order to work yourself free.

I distinctly remember a co-worker vehemently disagreeing with him.  She said that she never wanted to limit herself. She tried to live as if she had no limitations, and in doing so she could achieve more than she ever thought possible.

My co-worker didn’t realize that she and the professor were saying the same thing.

Considering that we’re mortal flightless primates driven by an often selfish and self-destructive nature, we humans have done pretty well for ourselves. We’ve achieved amazing things within the limits placed upon us.  The tragedy – and I believe the point to my co-worker’s comment – is that we often unnecessarily limit ourselves further by having a self-defeating attitude.  We shouldn’t add to our limitations, we have enough already.

Just as in life, games impress limits upon you. But even with these conditions, many games – my favorite games – still allow you to strategize, theorize, and experiment. You can say, “this may not work, but let’s try it anyway”.  If it works out, awesome. If it doesn’t, oh well.  At least now you know.  But those choices are within the rules which form the parameters of the game.

In the book The Kobold Guide to Board Game Design , James Earnest said that the game is not the rules.  I agree.  My definition of a game is something else that I’ll discuss in a future essay (hint, the “game” doesn’t come in a box).  So games are not the rules, but games must have them nevertheless.

A few years ago I participated in a Kickstarter campaign for a beautiful miniatures game which will remain nameless.  The components were detailed and of the highest quality.  The rulebook, however, was atrocious. My Tuesday night gaming group tried our best for three four-hour gaming sessions to tease a workable game out of that confusing mess. We eventually gave up and I sold my slightly used copy to a local gaming shop.

Games have rules. And games that don’t have a set of clear and complete rules – no matter how beautiful the components – are just play sets.

Please note, there’s nothing wrong with play sets. I have fond memories from my childhood of my Fisher Price parking garage play set with the single seat cars and the elevator whose bell would ding as it went up and down.  It was great fun, but it was an activity. It was never a game.

Back to the Kickstarter miniatures game. Not only was the rule book incoherent and incomplete, but it opened with the worst cop out in board gaming.  To paraphrase, if you can’t find a rule, or if one doesn’t make sense, feel free to make up your own.  Arrrgh. I’ve seen this caveat in more instruction manuals than I care to remember.  To be blunt, I don’t need a game company to give me permission to make a house rule. What I need are game designers to completely finish their design and clearly capture the process in a rulebook before they ship it.  I want to play your vision of the game, not mine.  Not to mention, if you’re relying on your players to fill in the blanks, how on earth could you effectively play test it?

Monopoly is the classic example for this. The Free Parking space is just a place where you can land and it won’t cost you any money or send you to jail.  It’s not the lottery. More importantly, it was never intended to be the lottery. But everyone I knew growing up used Free Parking as a chance for a financial windfall and it completely breaks the game. Those same people hate playing Monopoly today because it seems like the game never ends.  It never ends because you’ve removed the financial limitations from the game!  The goal of the game is to be the only player not bankrupt at the end.  Every time you put money into Free Parking, you’re preventing that from happening! No wonder a game intended to play in 60 to 90 minutes turns into a daylong slog.

The elimination of limits is so common in role playing games that there’s a term for it. Monty Haul (which is a reference to the great game show host Monty Hall of Let’s Make A Deal). Simply, the DM is so interested in having the players do well that they lavish gifts upon them.  Give a +5 sword here; find a quiver of plenty (so the archer is never out of arrows) there and suddenly you can’t create creatures or situations strong enough to challenge the players.  Wielding such power might be fun for a little while, but it quickly becomes boring.  No challenge, no fun.

When did I first hear of the term Monty Haul? When I was guilty of it. My heart was in the right place. I wanted to reward my players for a successful campaign. What I did was derail the future fun.

One more example before I completely belabor this point. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright holds a particular place of honor in the Pittsburgh area because his masterpiece, Fallingwater, was built nearby.  Late in his life, he was commissioned to design an apartment building which would overlook downtown Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, he passed away before the project commenced and it never was built.  The architectural plans remained dormant until a group of architecture students created a model apartment you could walk through during a home and garden show.  The most impressive aspect of this design was the effective use of compression and release. In the model apartment you walked down a narrow, dimly lit wood paneled hallway, turned a slight corner and suddenly boom! you found yourself in the great room complete with a huge glass wall overlooking the splendor of downtown Pittsburgh at night. Without the compression, without the limitation of your senses first, the impact when they are released wouldn’t be nearly as effective.

Side note: Frank Lloyd Wright was an amazing architect. I can only imagine what he would have come up with as a game designer.

I’ve heard it said that endings give things meaning.  True, but endings aren’t enough. You also need tension along the way to hold your attention, maintain the challenge, and keep you motivated.  Limits provide that tension. And the great game designers know how much of it to apply to keep the game perfectly in tune.

© 2016 Robert S. Moyer, All Rights Reserved