The Rookery

Madeline's thoughts on social deduction games, forum/community meta, and any other philosophical musings
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Syntax and Semantics

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Never argue with idiots; they'll drag you down to their level and then beat you on experience.
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(Preemptive disclaimer: the werewolf moderator who wrote the below rules turned out to be a pretty terrible person, don't be that guy, but the example is still illustrative.)

A few years ago I played in a game on this site that had some hidden-role elements, and (among others) the following rule disclaimer:
a jerk wrote:
There will not be any semantic-based posting restrictions. (In other words, nothing that restricts anyone's intent behind posting.) Syntactic restrictions are possible (e.g. "you cannot post the word 'martyr'" is syntactic, "you cannot claim to be the martyr" is semantic).
As a logician and part-time linguist, I've found this distinction useful in academia, and it turns out to also be interesting in a game context!

In this game, it turned out that there was a syntactic restriction; players "bitten" by the "Space Dracula" hadtopostlikethis. Itwasveryfunny. Italsoturnedouttobeafunwaytomesswiththeauxwhobecameoutedevil. Particularlybecausethedraculawasherboyfriend.

There was also a semi-hidden mechanic in which one of the good players ("Sarax") received information about the evils' roles, and the entire thread knew this. However, only Sarax (and the evils) knew that if he was identified as the knowledgeable good ("Merlin," if you're into Resistance), evil would win. So the uninformed goods were in a state of confusion, "someone knows something that will help us, why aren't they sharing??" In this case, the knowledge that there were not semantic restrictions in the game was a useful limitation on how weird the gamestate could be; it wasn't the case where "Sarax knows something but isn't allowed to tell us." Although there were some questions after the fact about the balance of the Merlin mechanic, I found that this roleset benefited both from the amusing syntactic restrictions, and the shared knowledge that there were no semantic ones.

Anyway, at the recent Rathcon I played several other games where this was an issue. My overarching thesis is "syntactic restrictions are (usually) good when they're used for humor; semantic restrictions are (usually) bad because they usually rely on subjectivity to enforce." Some examples!

Games like Werewolf and Resistance don't need many or any semantic restrictions, because the incentives to tell the truth or lie are built into the win conditions. If everyone goes around telling the truth about their role, the evils will be outed immediately. Similarly, if everyone tells the truth about whether they played a "pass" or a "fail" in Resistance, the spies will be outed. So instead the spies will falsely say "I played a pass" and the rebels will truthfully say "I played a pass."

There is a minor semantic restriction depending on the implementation, which is that you can't talk about your card art! Because if a good guy says "I'm the villager with the ponytail," evil has no way to counter that. The online equivalent is "no directly quoting modchat or fake-quoting." This doesn't seem to be a difficult restriction, however, because most people sort of understand that it's "outside the game."

Unfortunately, some versions of (mostly IRL) werewolf have a poor implementation of the mason role. Masons are good players who know each other's identity. There doesn't need to be any more nuance to it than that.

In some rolesets, however, the fact that two good players can confirm each others' identity and make it very difficult for evil to counter them (unless two wolves want to go head-to-head, but that's risky) is too powerful for good. The solution, of course, is to fix the roleset. But some moderators/designers get around this by saying "you can't claim to be a mason."

What kind of a restriction is that? If the fact is "anyone who utters the words 'mason' gets immediately modkilled," that's a syntactic restriction. But it's not a very effective one, because players will just start saying "please don't lynch A, he's my comrade in a fraternal brotherhood." So in order for the rule to be a threat, it has to be "don't claim to be a mason in any way shape or form," which is semantic.

But it's also bad, because it relies on a moderator's interpretation to draw the line. "Pleeeeeeeease don't lynch A?" "I'm voting to save A because I think she's good." "Rarwwrarwar all of you are stupid because I'm the only one who knows how to read A and I say she's good!" Rules should be strong enough to avoid these kinds of judgment calls.

The Menace Among Us is also a social deduction game, but compared to werewolf and Resistance, much more crunchy. (I believe along the lines of Battlestar Galactica, although I've never played that one.) In "Menace," various players put cards from their hands into a middle pool each round, possibly supplemented by random ones from a random deck if there aren't enough. The cards determine what happens to the spaceship, whether good and/or evil advance their win conditions. However, unlike Resistance, there are many more options than just "pass" or "fail," there's maybe a dozen different outcomes.

This means that, if there were no semantic restrictions, goods could truthfully claim the card they played, and evils who deliberately played bad cards would have to go head-to-head with one of the goods. And that would narrow down the pool of evils (informed minority) very quickly. So the rule is "you can't claim the specific card you put in, but only the 'category'--was it 'good,' 'neutral,' or 'bad' according to this sheet." One of the issues with that is that players might disagree with the categorizations--we found the "each player draws one card" card to not be very strong, and would not consider it a "good" play. Maybe a deeper issue is that it seems a lot easier to "derp-clear" yourself in this than Resistance--if someone's like "I put a good card in, oh wait" *looks at cheat sheet* "apparently it's a neutral" it feels hard to go after that as an evil? Whereas no rebel in Resistance would be like "I put in a fail. I mean...a pass."

3 Laws of Robotics starts out as a social-y deduction game; you can see everyone else's identity, but not your own, and everyone gets a chance to ask a yes-or-no question. Players score points by correctly giving their "keys" to players they believe to be on their team and having high-ranking numbers. So it's also iterative in the sense of the social deduction schema; maybe last round, all the Androids got one point, but this round we'll have newly randomized roles, and so there will only be one individual winner. Assuming, of course, that the distribution of points allows that.

There are four rounds. After each of the first three, a new "law" is placed on the table, and players must follow it. One example of a law is "players must say 'logging off' while away from the table or looking at their phones." Now, this doesn't at all affect the gameplay in the sense of "you only ask one yes-or-no question." So in that sense, it's syntactic, not semantic.

But! The rules as written say that you can score points by catching other people breaking the rules! So this isn't just pasted on, it's a way to distinguish scores in a game that's otherwise fairly brief and samey.

But! I've only played this twice; the first time, an otherwise usually calm and easygoing person got frustrated with the rule enforcement, and the second time, nobody even bothered with that. So the rules were no longer part of the game, just an unofficial thing to make it sillier. It's a short enough game that I didn't mind, but with a heavier game I would have asked "if it doesn't really count, then why bother."

But! The rulebook mentions the potential for laws such as "you cannot tell the truth to an AI." Now that's crossed over into the strategy domain--if you catch someone breaking that law, and try to score a point for it, now you've informed the questioner that they're an AI! So that seems to open the door to more interesting incentives and complexity.

But! The laws like that ("you cannot tell the truth to __") aren't in the base deck; they're in a separate envelope labeled "warning, may create dangerous paradoxes" or something. I can see why, but at the same time, if those are the cards that introduce the deep complexity rather than optional silliness, it seems a shame to hide them away.

Disclaimer: I have not actually played Mountains of Madness. I suspect given the horror theme and the real-time aspects, it might not be to my tastes. But some of my BGG friends hit on the idea of playing Resistance with some of the speaking restrictions. For instance, "anyone someone else says a number, you have to jump in and say the next higher number." So it turned into "I want to go on mission 3." "Mission 4?" (Everyone laughs at Madeline who's worried about mission 4 already.) This is purely syntactic--it's a house rule, so it doesn't affect the underlying game--but with the right cards, it can be hilarious.

And of course, Citadels. This game is 99% building districts and drafting roles. But if the Ball Room is one of the purple cards in the game, and if you build it, and if you become king...then everyone has to say "thanks, your excellency!" or lose a turn. Some people think this is silly because the game is not otherwise about this, and just never play with it--the newer edition doesn't even contain it. But I think it's hilarious.
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