Inevitability of Elision

I recently reread the excellent post by Jared Sinclair, Rules Elide, after it was linked in a discussion on Discord. The first time around, I had agreed with it in violent convulsions until it was over. I still, on the balance, agree with what Jared says here; when you roll a die to determine what happens, you are choosing not to play out the action. This is a narrower frame than Jared’s, a more cautious one (perhaps more cowardly). It is where I am left on reflection. And if I have a major concern with the framework, it is that to choose between a rule and a non-rule is a false choice. We choose between dictating a rule via text, and leaving the specifics of the rule to the table.

Let me explain. I have picked a couple of locks before, so when the first two examples come up, I can at least picture a lock in my head. There are a few basic ways that picking this lock can fail. Improper or inconsistent tension, too much or too little force on the pick itself, skipping or missing pins. Most of it is physical in the manner that combat is physical. You rely on an instinctive feel for the correct amount of tension on the lock, the force of moving the pick, and feeling for the click that represents a set pin. Failing to feel or execute these things will make you fail, or at least waste your time. I know this, because my practice locks have wasted plenty of my time, and opened for me relatively little.

Return to the example of the pure, verbal adjudication of lockpicking. The GM lets the player find the pins, then they go through them one at a time, waiting for the one that binds, and set it, before returning to the hunt for the binding pin. Finally, all pins are set and the lock opens.

I would refer to this example as a system, with rules. The GM knows the specific order in which the pins will bind. The GM then chooses to describe the action of each pin as the picking tools move it– whether it binds or not. After the binding pin is found, the GM says that it’s the right pin, and allows it to be set. All of the physical aspects of picking this lock are elided in favor of a loop: you try each pin, and succeed when a pin binds. Upon success you gain 1 pin point, when you reach (total pins) pin points, the lock opens. This is not a lack of rules1.

A player attempts a difficult three-pointer in a basketball RPG: she narrates herself making a jab step, waits for the GM to state that the defender appears to bite on it, says that she converts her dribble into a step-back before rotating her posture square to the basket, jumping off of both legs, and with textbook form– smooth, Diana Taurasi shooting form, she sends it toward the basket. A thought exercise left to the reader: should the ball go in the basket? Taurasi herself is a career 36% three-point shooter2, approximately a 14-or-above on a d20. It’s a difficult shot. Do you roll dice? If so, what do you elide?

Frames of Reference

The framing here puts the GM-player conversation on a plane separate from and above the rules, but the GM-player conversation itself is comprised of rules. Banal ones, like speaking in turn and collaborating to the game environment, but also meaningful and practical ones, such as choosing the frame in which a task is discussed, and confining the conversation to that frame. Are we discussing the door in terms of its lock? Or the lock in terms of its pins? Our fractal universe gives no hint as to which is truer: they all elide, they all oversimplify, they are all as much a waste of our time as the others– as much as playing any game is ever a waste’ of time.

Jared gets to this same place: the combat example discusses the subsystem’s frame of reference, the arbitrary choice between randomizing the battle and randomizing the strike. The post itself becomes a meditation upon frames of reference– a good one, an elucidating one. I hesitate to draw a chalk line between rules and conversations here, though. The same discussion of frames of reference can be pointed at conversation, too. The GM in the lockpicking example could, for all it matters, ask the player which muscles in their fingers they’d like to twitch, and how far (and when the GM does choose a frame of reference, they choose it by its utility as a game mechanic!).

But this is not to say that rules elide any longer. It is to say that the choice of frame of reference gives us the opportunity to elide. Much of this leads to the same destination: that elision comprises an editorial stroke on the part of the game designer, or the GM, whichever chose the frame. That editorial stroke determines the shape of the action being adjudicated, which parts are emphasized (the pins and their order) or elided (the tension on the lock core). It helps determine whether we seek violence or fear it. What Jared describes here is important.

Where I find a substantiative difference is that I don’t see a decision for the game designer to make regarding whether to elide, or even whether to rule. They only choose to set a frame of reference, or to leave that choice to others. It calls us to the broader question about lacunae and which things a game designer should hesitate to design, that the final say can be left to the table.

  1. Another perhaps fruitful counterexample here is that the GM in this example could easily just say, outright, the lock opens” or the lock doesn’t open, one pin seems to elude your understanding” for the first and second locks, respectively. To elide the picking process does not require rules, either.↩︎

  2. I do feel like this number undersells her, though. Her peak seasons were more like 40% from three, a 13+ on 20.↩︎

August 16, 2023