Article of the Week




Mark Berch

From Diplomacy World #20

(Transcribed by Marvelous Melinda Holley)



Let me begin with a few basics:


1.      My perspective is that of a player, not a gamesmaster.


2.      The purpose of playing is to have fun, to enjoy a good game.


3.      The purpose of the Rulebook is to facilitate #2, rather than just provide traps for the unwary.


4.      The same should apply to any adaptation of the Rulebook to postal play.



There is a sentence is the Rulebook which, if gamesmasters would only use it, would promote the above goals and produce a superior game.  “A badly written order, which nevertheless can only have one meaning, must be followed.”  Note the verb:  “must”.  Let’s look at how this can be applied to four of the most common types of badly-written orders.

No. 1.  PLAYER FAILS TO STATE NATIONALITY OF FOREIGN UNIT HE IS SUPPORTING.  This, S’01: A Ven S A Mun-Tyo.  Most gamesmasters would disallow this.  However, contrary to popular belief, there is no requirement in the Rulebook that this nationality be stated; its requirement is the creation of postal GMs.  The Rulebook is extremely specific on what is required for a valid support:  “To order a support, it is necessary to write the location of the supporting piece, the word ‘supports’ or its equivalent, and both the location and destination of the piece receiving support.”  (Rule IX, 1)  Note that it does not state, “location, destination, and ownership if foreign.”  IT is true that Italy does not have Army Munich , in the above example, but the order does not state that he does.  Further, the “badly written” rule covers this nicely; it can only have one meaning, because there is only one army Munich.

No. 2.  PLAYER FAILS TO STATE COAST UNIT IS LEAVING FROM.  Thus, F Stp-Bot.  There is again no requirement that this cannot be stated.  Rule XII, 7 begins:  “In each set of orders, the space each unit is in is written first, followed by its order.”  Note that it says “space,” which his defined (VI, 1) as “province or body of water.”  That definition was included to foil the Coastal Crawl, by indicating that “space” includes the entire provide.  Further, the Rulebook carefully sets forth two circumstances where the coast must be specified (where a fleet enters a two-coasted provide and either is possible, and when building fleets in StP) but this circumstance isn’t one of them.  Finally, the “badly written” rule can be applies, as there is only one fleet in StP.

No. 3.  PLAYER MISSTATES THE COAST UNIT IS LEAVING FROM.  Thus, F Spa(sc)-Mid where the player has F Spa(nc).  This situation is more complex, as a portion of the order is incorrect.  However, disappowling the  move seems an extremely serious penalty for giving some wrong (coastal) information that wasn’t required, but is provided as  a favor to the gamesmaster, the other players, and the general quality of the game.  An analogous situation would be disallowing “F Hollind-Nth”.  (GM: Sorry, but you don’t have any fleet Hollind.  PLAYER: I only added the extra letters at the end to help you avoid confusion with my F Hel.  They weren’t required by the Rulebook.   Your action serves as a disincentive to my being more fully explicit in the future.)

Again, the “badly written” rule can be invoked, as there is only one units in Spain, and it “occupies the entire province.”  (VII, 2b)

No. 4.  PLAYER MISLABELS AN ARMY FOR A FLEET, OR VICE VERSA.  This is probably the most common error in writing orders; e.g. A Tri-Alb.  The entire situation closely resembles #3, in that the labeling of a unit F or A is not required.  “Tri-Alb” complies with the Rulebook, which requires only that the list the space each unit is in.”  Further, there is nothing sacred about those particular abbreviations.  You could have A for ‘Armada’ and F for ‘Footsoldier’.  Or you could use just U for all units.  True, these are not the Rulebook abbreviations.  But then again, the Rulebook’s sample game has ‘Norw.’ For Norway and ‘Norw. Sea’ for the Norwegian Sea.  When was the last time you saw those in a Diplomacy magazine?

In dealing with this type of error in Game 1970BB, John Boardman, postal Diplomacy’s most experienced GM, wrote the following is GRAUSTARK 256:  “The Rulebook si designed for over-the-board play, and minor fluffs as a result of haste are accepted in accordance with the badly written order rule.  While speed is a factor in postal play too, it is the result of time to negotiate, not the  minutes it takes to write orders.  Consequently, it is my policy to virtually ignore the badly written order rule in postal game, especially when an experience player commits the error.”  I was confess that the logic of this position is lost on me.  Boardman’s theory that the rule exists just to cover errors of haste strikes me as pure speculation.  If it’s a ‘minor fluff’ in over-bhe-board lay, then it’s a ‘minor fluff’ in postal play, because it’s the same error.  Boardman does state that “if the quoted rule is interpreted liberally” then the move succeeds.  There is some precedent for this.  In DIPLOPHOBIA 60, Don Miller, another very experienced GM, allowed F Ven-Tri in Spring 1901.

Several points need to be emphasized strongly here.  First, GMs unquestionably have the right to disallow all of the above moves.  This has been firmly established in hobby tradition and will not be overturned simply by the likes of me writing an article.  I am questioning the wisdom of the rulings, not their legality.  Second, players should give all that superfluous information (coats, etc.) even if not required by the GM, as it makes for less work and fewer errors.  Third, some might argue that these additional requirements will introduce another small item of skill into the game, giving the edge to the more careful players.  I this logic were accepted, GMs could throw in deliberate misadjudications, to give small advantage to those spilled at spotting them.  To me, success at Diplomacy should be a test of diplomatic, strategic and tactical skills; other considerations, like penmanship, should be minimized.  The best game as no inadvertent errors, no missed moves, no misadjudications.  Fourth, the use of these “unwritten” rules must surely function as a barrier to face-to-face players who are just entering the postal hobby.  They are likely to be bewildered or discouraged when they are suddenly harshly penalized for not providing information they had no way of knowing was required.  Finally, some errors are deliberate, as with players who wish a move to fail but don’t want to reveal their intentions.  The imaginative player will be able to think of options, such as “F Tri-Gre” or “F Alb-Gre”.

Fine, fine, you say, but what can I, a lowly player, do?  First off, always triple-check your orders.  Next, write your GM (but not after the fact of error; that’s too late).  Suggest to him changes in GMing policy, outlining your reasons.  Most GMs like to receive mail, and if they are interested in pursuing the subject, will print your letter to stimulate further discussion.  Last, there is actually a ’zine whose house rules would allow the players’ moves in the preceding four cases to proceed:  FOL SI FIE (Randolph Smyth, 249 First Ave., Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1S 2G5 – subs $10/$3.).  Indeed, Smyth’s house rules are designed to allow the maximum in player freedom to maneuver.   Thus, he allows code words, join orders, temporary substitutes, etc.  In player votes, your vote will be kept secret – unless you ask for it to be revealed.  Randolph has recently had a long series of sample rulings so that readers will have a solid feel for how the GM runs his games.  The ‘zine has recently passed its 100th issue, a real testatment to likeability.  But you didn’t think this article would end with a plug, did you?

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