Combinatorics

Ontology and Rule Zero

2021-04-26

In my paper “From Governance to Planning,”1 I draw on Jean Baudrillard’s description of hyperreality as “produced from a radiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere” in order to attempt an articulation of a post-representational real, the real without double.2 This articulation leads to a model of “combinatorial planetarity” that is, in Baudrillard’s words, “programmatic, metastable, [and] perfectly descriptive.”3 There is no longer a need for a syntax of the real, a philosophical representation of what is, but only for a “science of appearances,” an “intimate combinatorics” that performs the “labour of analyzing, designing, enumerating, graphing, grouping, and ordering” without reference to an outside.4

This “intimate combinatorial science” I also present as a “ludology.”5 I take up this ludological science of the real once again in my Fear of Play,6 in which I invoke Jean Baudrillard’s Seduction7—specifically the chapter “The Passion for Rules”—wherein he presents the following dichotomy:

The Rule plays on an immanent sequence of arbitrary signs, while the Law is based on a transcendent sequence of necessary signs. The one concerns cycles, the recurrence of conventional procedures, while the other is an instance based in an irreversible continuity. The one involves obligations, the other constraints and prohibitions. Because the Law establishes a line, it can and must be transgressed. By contrast, it makes no sense to “transgress” a game’s rules; within a cycle’s recurrence, there is no line one can jump (instead, one simply leaves the game). Because the Law—whether that of the signifier, castration, or a social interdiction—claims to be the discursive sign of a legal instance and hidden truth, it results in repression and prohibitions, and thus the division into a manifest and a latent discourse. Given that the rule is conventional and arbitrary, and has no hidden truth, it knows neither repression nor the distinction between the manifest and the latent. It does not carry any meaning, it does not lead anywhere; by contrast, the Law has a determinate finality. The endless, reversible cycle of the Rule is opposed to the linear, finalized progression of the Law.8

It is the seduction of rules that Baudrillard proposes at the end of his Simulacra and Simulation as the next step beyond the nihilistic acceptance and analysis of our hyperreal existence. And it is the seduction of rules that drives me to continue in my imbrication of philosophy and play—not as the elaboration of a new syntax on the basis of yet another transcendental signifier (capital p Play), but as the performance of the “purest of pure expressions,” the expression of the “nothingness of original contingency.”9 Play is a combinatorics of nothingness.10

In tabletop roleplaying, this expression of nothingness is known as “Rule Zero,” the “idea that a gamemaster has the discretion to alter or discard published rules.”11 Jon Peterson traces this rule back at least as far as the free kriegsspiel wargames used by the Prussian military to train their officers in the 1800s, and cites its explicit codification as the “Gamer’s First Law” in the tabletop rpg scene by Ed Simbalist in 1978.12 Peterson attributes the rise of Rule Zero as the term of choice (over the Gamer’s First Law) to discussion around Carl Henderson’s SPYCHASER: Fantasy in 1994.13 But, regardless of origin, Rule Zero is simply the localized expression of the ontological contingency that the rule signifies.

When representation collapses, so too does the Law. All that remains is the operational immanence of the rule, the combinatorics of play.14


Notes

  1. Eric Stein, “From Governance to Planning,” April 10, 2021, https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.4685024

  2. Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, 1981, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1994), 2. 

  3. Stein, “From Governance to Planning,” 7, and Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, 2. 

  4. Stein, “From Governance to Planning,” 9. 

  5. Stein, “From Governance to Planning,” 9. 

  6. Eric Stein, Fear of Play, Tech Jam, itch.io, April 22, 2021, https://vagrantludology.itch.io/fear-of-play

  7. Jean Baudrillard, Seduction, 1979, trans. Brian Singer (Montréal, QC: CTheory Books, 2001). 

  8. Baudrillard, Seduction, 131-132. 

  9. Stein, Fear of Play, 6 and 5. 

  10. Indeed, play, we might say, is the passage from Ø, the name of pure indetermination, to {Ø}, the small one. This is the mediation that produces something out of nothing, a process with neither ground nor guarantee. 

  11. Jon Peterson, “The Origins of Rule Zero,” Playing at the World, January 16, 2021, https://playingattheworld.blogspot.com/2021/01/the-origins-of-rule-zero.html

  12. Peterson, “The Origins of Rule Zero,” n.p. 

  13. Peterson, “The Origins of Rule Zero,” n.p. 

  14. Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, 34. Baudrillard specifically writes of the controlling response to the collapse of the regime of representation: “Programmed microcosm, where nothing can be left to chance. Trajectory, energy, calculation, physiology, psychology, environment—nothing can be left to contingencies, this is the total universe of the norm—the Law no longer exists, it is the operational immanence of every detail that is law.” And yet, the operational immanence of the society of control is only the game of sovereignty as it is now played, and not the final possibility of our post-representational hyperreality. This closure is what I work to get around in both “From Governance to Planning” and Fear of Play