Law & Economics, or Players Respond to Incentives
I once had the pleasure of lunch with John Zuur Platten, the business partner of Flint Dille, Gary Gygax's old friend and collaborator. Through Flint, John had had the chance to learn much about Gary Gygax and the origins of D&D. John explained to me that "to understand D&D, you have to understand that Gary thought like an insurance actuary. D&D is fantasy fiction through actuarial science."
Re-reading the 1e Dungeon Master's Guide, the truth of this claim becomes obvious. Previously inexplicable rules - like the disease tables, or potion mixing - clicked. Gary wrote those rules because he wanted to account for the actuarial risk of living in a fantasy world. Gygaxian Naturalism exists in a like manner.
Unlike Gary, we've had the benefit of enormously powerful spreadsheets, computer modeling, and random generators at our desktop. Seeing how useful those tools have been has left me rather in awe of the men who could develop the engine for D&D without them. Reflecting on the actuarial science behind early D&D lead me to think about what fields lie behind ACKS.
The field of Law & Economics is a chief inspiration. As taught in law schools, Law & Economics is the application of economic principles to the analysis of legal rules. Whereas legal formalism will analyze law based on moral and cultural premises that serve as its axiomatic groundwork; and critical legal studies will analyze law based on its relationship to postmodern power structures; Law & Economics analyzes law to look at what it does to human economic behavior. L&E assumes that people are utility maximizing and respond rationally to incentives.
Law & Economics as applied to ACKS has been inordinately helpful in evaluating rules for their effect over the course of a presumed ACKS campaign. If players are treated as utility-maximing, rational, and incentive-reactive, many game rules which seem like good ideas are revealed as bad. A great example is 'Shields Must be Splintered', a current darling of the OSR.
Shields Must be Splintered allows a character to avoid a killing blow by sacrificing a shield. The idea is to add increased utility to shields, and to give low level characters an opportunity to survive despite their low hit points. It feels historically plausible, as shields did break in battle, and it has a "story game" like feel that gives the player some dramatic choice in play. Yet this rule has deliberately been excluded from ACKS.
Why? Consider a 7th level fighter with a bag of holding. A bag of holding can carry approximately 1,000 shields. Such a fighter becomes invincible if Shields Must be Splintered. He need only reach into his bag, and voila-he produces a one-charge item that prevents death. If a bag of holding isn't available, some 0th-level shieldbearers can carry quite enough shields. Shields Must be Splintered only works so long as the players don't rationally react to the fact that a cheap, widely available, 10-gp item is essentially a one-charge magic item that prevents death. As soon as players realize this, and have the resources that shields and shieldbearers are negligible expenses, it breaks the game.
Law & Economics also explains why so many post-D&D RPGs defaulted to "GM-is-storyteller" railroads, regardless of any other mechanics in play. Such RPGs eschewed the "silliness" of D&D's xp-for-gold model, and instead relied on subjective XP awards from the GM. Everything from the d6 Star Wars RPG to Shadowrun to 2nd Edition D&D to Vampire: The Masquerade went down this path. But if the XP award is a subjective award from the GM, that means that the rational utility-maximing player will seek to maximize the GM's subjective impression on his play. What does that lead to? It leads to the soft fascism of "What does the GM want us to do?" It leads to players who compete for the GM's attention and favor.
Ironically the generation of games after the post-D&D 90s kept the subjective XP, but then bent itself backwards to limit the GM's power in other ways - not understanding that the power to reward is the power to control. This is why ACKS has carefully chosen and strictly objective XP awards. ACKS is a game about rising from a nobody to a somebody, and the XP awards align with those goals - no GM intervention required.
A third example of the application of L&E thinking is in our domain rules. In ACKS, adventurers who establish a domain can make profits from the domain, and in doing so, they can earn XP to advance their character. Contrast this to the Mentzer Companion rules, which sharply limited the XP gain from domains, and, worse, made domains inherently unprofitable - this was purposeful, in order to force the characters to keep adventuring to support their domain. But players don't need incentives to keep adventuring - adventuring yields gold, magic items, and XP, which are the three main incentives of the game. What players need (if domains are desired by the game designer) are incentives to build and run domains. The lack of reward structure for domain management has been one of the main reasons that domains have been the province of retirement, not action, in past fantasy RPGs.
ACKs may not be to everyone's taste, but I am confident that ACKS is at least among the best-designed fantasy RPGs from the point of view of connecting the rules of the game (its laws) with the incentives of its players (its economics).
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