Fences at the Top, Ambulances at the Bottom

The title here comes from a story we tell in public health. You can probably guess the shape of it, but it has a bigger backstory.

Imagine there’s a cliff. A dangerous one, and people fall off all the time. So the bottom becomes known as a dangerous place where accidents happen. Ambulances rush their all the time. In fact, they build a new hospital right near the bottom so the ambulances can get their faster. Then they build a special part of that hospital just for dealing with cliff fall injuries. Pretty soon it becomes the best place on the earth to have cliff-injury treating experience. People come from around the world to treat injuries there. They establish a school next to the hospital, which quickly becomes the leading school in the world on cliff-fall injuries. New scientific advances on treating cliff-fall injuries are made every day in this powerhouse of discovery. So many jobs are provided by the school and the hospital that a whole town develops around the site. People’s lives are rooted into this amazing world of cliff-fall injury treatment. The head of the new Cliff-Fall Institute declares that through their work, someday soon someone will fall off a cliff and be guaranteed a full return to health. Not just because of the cures but because of the mattress technology they’ve built and the rock-softening science. Giants of industry fund world-wide empires on new mattress technology and rock softeners.

And nobody ever builds a five dollar fence.

There’s two separate lessons in this story. The first is that most things in health have at least two ways of looking at them, and sometimes we completely forget one of them. The second is that once you build a system to focus on one of them, the other solution is easier and easier to forget, because systems are inherently self-sustaining. Systems want to keep existing, and they fight hard against being shut down. The bigger your ambulance town the less anyone even wants to think about fences. The health industry is full of money and this effect can be extremely powerful. There are issues with law as well, because it can be harder for laws to prevent things in a way that doesn’t make things worse in other ways.

But it’s an important metaphor for lots of other things as well, and thus it should be more widely known. It’s certainly something important in game design. Because all the time we see people building more and more ambulances instead of a fence.

A classic example is D&D stat generation. Original D&D had people rolling 3d6 in order. The problem was that meant the stats were often too low and unappealingly so. Ambulances came by the dozens: roll 4d6 take the highest. Roll 5d6 take the highest. Assign them where you want them. Other complex formulas. It took a long time before an actual fence was built with things like point buy, or just starting stats off at a higher point. Or, the WFRP solution where low stats don’t actually matter. Good fences mean you don’t have to send hundreds of ambulances.

To be fair, the ambulance gives more choice in some situations; the idea being to ameliorate for those that don’t like it without taking it away from those that do. Sometimes though, one interferes with the other. And the classic example there is point-buy balance.

Theoretically, point-buy and it’s friend class-balance exist to be the ambulance solution to the problem of unbalanced characters. We assume that you’re going to spend your points to be both different from the other characters but we also assume you’re going to choose the most powerful things you see, and we want most of those choices to not cause one player to overrule the others. So game designers develop enormous ambulance skills to balance every choice. We do this so much it is intuitive.  We naturally build in negative consequences to every good thing so every choice comes with consequences, and deliberately build in limitations into characteristics to protect niches. And there’s nothing wrong with this, in theory. Ambulances can be a good way to solve this.

What’s interesting is when we bring in the fence solution, like say in the Cortex Marvel RPG where, on the whole, everyone basically has the same stats but with different flavours to them. Or the D&D 4e solution where everyone was basically a spell-caster so there was no need to balance once-per-day abilities with all-the-time abilities. But people complained because it felt too samey, and it also took away a lot of the fun of min-maxing (more on that later).

A far worse solution though is the idea that you can have it both ways. White Wolf had the infamous Rule Zero, which at heart was a good idea: RPGs are poor tools to deal with the rampant imagination of storybuilders so favour a better game experience over a fundamentalist reading of the rules (a good rule of thumb for ALL games). The problem is that people took this to mean that the fence to stop min-maxing was “don’t play with jerks who want to take your fun away” – which again, is a fine fence. But then White Wolf still went ahead and tried to point-buy balance everything. Why the ambulances? There’s a similar thing in Stolze’s Godlike rules, where he points out that his build-your-powers section is not particularly restrictive and it is trivially easy to build a massively powerful ability at the same cost of a much lesser-powered one. The fence offered is a kind of “well, who cares?” shrug. Which left me wondering: then why all the ambulances?

The answer that the game of building things with limited resources is fun in and of itself even if you never do an atom of roleplaying is necessary and important but not sufficient. I often deliberately buy rules-heavy games for this purpose knowing I will only use them for chargen the same way people play Minecraft, just to see what I can build. But it’s an insufficient answer because I don’t think we’re aware of it enough. The cosmic shrug of “be better players so you don’t abuse it” is lazy, insulting and terrible and a general failure of understanding what game design is for, and that it’s not being a bad player to take obvious advantages of the system. But on the other hand, experience shows that at certain levels of complexity, no amount of ambulance solutions can stop some amount of abuse. And playing only with people you trust is always a good idea – but you should still expect the system to not lead you astray.

To be clear, I’m not saying I can solve this problem. Nor is the fence always better than the ambulance (and you can reframe things so you can swap them around, of course.) What I am saying is discussing these problems becomes a lot easier when you have the fence and ambulance metaphor to work with. And there are clear examples of this thinking making things better. There was often a problem where players would take disadvantages and then they would never come up in games. The fence solution there was “play with people who ROLE-play, not roll-play!”, but the ambulance solution was to give people XP when their flaws came up, and even give them the power to trigger them themselves. A fence approach might also just decide that how players portray their character shouldn’t really connect to the game mechanics at all. Wiring them in entirely is good, wiring them out entirely is bad, trying to wire them in and then ambulance out the problems that happen with traditional mechanics is where the problem appears. That’s when you step back and go, well, the fence is still there as an option. Instead of just copying GURPS’ ads and disads all over again, with all their problems.

To move to board games, there’s a classic fence/ambulance situation going on there. Conventional wisdom is that cooperative games suffer from the “alpha game” problem. This is the situation where if the game has full open information, certain types of players are able to see the best moves everyone should take to maximize the odds of success, and watching other players fail to make those moves is frustrating, but making every move for everyone else is not much fun either. The ambulance solution here has been to create a rash of cooperative games with hidden information, where there are traitors or hidden agendas or more and more ways not to be able to access everything so nobody can truly be sure what is the best move for everyone. Some amazing games have come about trying to “fix” this problem, but in the process a lot of people have declared that the ambulance is the only solution, and the problem must be fixed. When in fact the fence solution, “don’t play with alpha players” is perfectly acceptable as well, as long as you don’t think every game on earth should be fun for every person on earth.

And as you can see, it can apply to what games you play as well. Somebody recently said recently that Secret Hitler is a great game for people who hate Werewolf, but what they meant was it fixes some of the smaller problems of Werewolf (like the player knock-out), but is still a “deceit” game of lying and deduction. I don’t like those kinds of games and I never will, and god help us if anyone ever tries to make a Werewolf that appeals to me it either won’t work, or it’ll be so far from being a deceit game that it won’t be fun for Werewolf fans. The fence and the ambulance metaphor can help us understand our own tastes. No amount of ambulances can make deceit games fun for me and designers shouldn’t really try and I shouldn’t go around playing them, it’s never really going to work. Yes, we can get too hung up on categories and being prejudiced. But we can also end up damning ourselves to no fun if we throw ourselves off cliffs hoping the ambulances will help. Sometimes it is better to hammer in the fence and go “don’t go beyond here if this isn’t your thing”. Let your freak flag fly by being proud of what you don’t like, and leaving it for others (without hating on it) – and be aware that not everyone wants to join your thing too. That’s the way we all get to have fun: by realizing we don’t all like the same things.


2 thoughts on “Fences at the Top, Ambulances at the Bottom

  1. brilliant piece of advice on design, Steve! 🙂
    Indeed, some games should come with a label “not suitable for kids”, not because of adult content or censorship or whatever, but because the kids tend to like monster-bashing and simple plots.

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