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I've been toying around with some prototypes for game systems, and I'm wondering if "mutable" RPGs (games where the rules of the game are represented and can be interacted with/changed in game) are viable. Has the concept been tried, with any success?

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Also, see: Fluxx. Fantastic game. For the closest RPG I can think of, see: Donjon. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Oct 28 '11 at 5:47
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OK all, I've cleaned up the comments, scoped this to RPGs (because if it's not an RPG it's not on topic for this site) and corrected the terminology, because "recursive" is technically incorrect here. Let's try to rescue this one from la-la land. I also deleted my Calvin & Hobbes and @Iszi's xkcd answers to that end. –  mxyzplk Nov 1 '11 at 0:26
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6 Answers

up vote 19 down vote accepted

Rules = Objects in Setting

Let's imagine a roleplaying game where the rules are represented by some physical objects in the gameworld.

So let's say you don't like the rule that dwarves can't learn magic? This rule is a stone pillar a hundred feet tall, standing in the Valley of Orblag. Topple it, and the rule will no longer exist. The pillar of No Dwarven Magic is the rule.

Some rules are more entrenched in the game, like the idea that weapons cause damage. That's the Great Ocean of Damage. Getting rid of the ocean is probably beyond the reach of the party.

This could also make for interesting games, like the one where the party accidentally burns down the Inn of Cows Don't Breathe Fire.

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This is exactly the type of game I've been thinking about. The reverse would also be true, aka "The Mountain of Dwarven Inability To Tolerate Alcohol" –  blueberryfields Oct 28 '11 at 19:46
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@blueberryfields, and now you know what the dwarves have really been mining away at all these years... –  Joe Oct 28 '11 at 19:51
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Not that I know of, but I had to start experimenting with this I would have a look at Mage (WOD) first.

It had rules to modify the reality the PCs were acting in, and the consequences (Paradox).

I never played it and from what I read in reviews I think I would have had problems being a GM for it, but I suppose it could give you some ideas, at least.

Amber RPG could be of some interest, too.

In a sense the more recent games which introduce Narrative Control mechanics for the players are a step towards that, but I am not sure that a completely "recursive" game would work in practice.

You should start with a very simple ruleset (so that you don't get boggled in minutiae) ... then you have to introduce a mechanic that - in case of success - allow the acting player to change some part of the rule... will the change stay in place for a fixed length of game time? say... 1d6 rounds?

Also, your rule system should be very clearly specified, and maybe the player who want to bend the rules may only change a single word at a time (Magic had something similar, at least in the very first editions).

In my opinion this would make for contested interpretations and rule-mongering till the wee hours in the morning, and actual Role Playing will probably disappear quite soon, but maybe I am wrong...

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There are a few games where the player characters can take actions in game to change the rules by which the setting operates. I'm thinking here of:

  • Deadlands, where adventurous deeds and tale-tellin' can lower the Fear Rating of an area and make it easier to resist supernatural attack.
  • Ray Winninger's Underground, a dystopian superhero game where characters can literally fight poverty, crime and oppression through their actions, rather than just costumed villains.
  • TORG, which has various World Axioms that determine the rules by which the varied colliding cultures operate, and Storm Knights can — with their abilities — change them.

The previously cited Mage games have a similar scope, but don't actually have rules for paradigm changing, putting that sort of thing at Storyteller discretion.

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I was going to mention Torg; while it doesn't give you freedom to write the rules, it gives players a lot of ability to choose which set of rules they're working under at any given time. –  Tynam Dec 17 '11 at 16:45
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I think it is possible if the rules are laid out in a way that makes them easy to turn on and off. Rather than creating new rules, the game could offer a large list of possible rules and then in game actions could switch them on and off. Each rule could have a default state, which it returns to at the end of each session.

For example, a fantasy setting rules could be:

  • Magic requires mana to cast (on by default)
  • Fire does 10 damage per turn (on by default)
  • Standing behind a tree gives you a defensive bonus (on by default)
  • You have to be stationary to cast magic (off by default)
  • Water is toxic if drunk (off by default)
  • You can only carry half your strength in weight (off by default)

Have a big enough list of rules and the combination of changes could make for an interesting game each night. Having rules in this way also makes it quite easy to design a mechanic to turn them on and off.

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Universalis allows you to spend the game's narrative currency on adding to and modifying the rules, which is part of the reason for its name (the other part is because it's a genre-neutral system). It allows unlimited scope for self-modification – especially if everyone cooperates on the modifications – but it's freeform modding, without a strict, structured interface through which modifications are done. It's a good working example of a rules structure that gives self-modification for "free" just by the way its regular rules work, though.

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Nomic

Nomic is a game in which changing the rules is a move. In that respect it differs from almost every other game. The primary activity of Nomic is proposing changes in the rules, debating the wisdom of changing them in that way, voting on the changes, deciding what can and cannot be done afterwards, and doing it. Even this core of the game, of course, can be changed.

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Nomic isn't an RPG, but if the rules change all the time I guess it could turn into one. –  mxyzplk Nov 1 '11 at 19:41
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It would not be a stretch to call it a diplomacy game, at least starting out. –  okeefe Nov 2 '11 at 1:55
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