When Abilities Guide Rules

“Sir, if any of my circuits or gears will help, I’ll gladly donate them.”
— C-3PO

When we as players work to understand the rules structure of any game the primary goal is to understand how to play the game.  We want to play right, and we want the rules to create a consistent play environment.  In a CCG-like ability structure, such as X-wing’s, the biggest part of that is understanding how all those crazy abilities work and interact with each other.  There are times, though, when a particular ability can help inform us about how the larger rules operate.

This week we have a good example of this in action with the full reveal of Ten Numb.

The Issue
During the speculation period when we were all trying to guess what the covered words in Ten’s ability were, my money was on the ability saying cannot be canceled by the defender.  Why?  Because dice don’t cancel results.  Here are the relevant rules, all from page 12:

  • Spending an Evade Token: …he may return it to the action token supply to add one additional {Evade} result to his defense roll
  • Compare Results: For each {Evade} result, cancel (remove) one {Hit} or {Critical Hit} result from the attack roll.

Results seem to be the only thing that matter when you’re checking for a hit – dice aren’t mentioned in there at all, so the only thing the ability could affect is the results.  Since there’s no way in the rules to differentiate a dice result from a token result, the ability couldn’t be based on that, right?  Well, not so much.  Ten throws a spanner in the gears of that interpretation, so to speak.  How can his ability differentiate between identical game elements?

When Abilities Clarify Rules
This effectively runs to intent, but I think it’s a safe one that everyone can agree on: The developers intend for Ten’s ability to work, and would not have intentionally written an ability that could never trigger.  If we accept this foundation, we can use it to inform our interpretation of the base rules structure.  There doesn’t seem to be any way to tell one result from another, but Ten obviously expects that there is…  so we must be missing something.

If we take a closer look at the rulebook, we can find elements that point to results knowing where they come from, or at least being linked to them still:

  • Page 14, Example Step 8: This step of the example shows dice and evade results all lined up and cancelling hits.  I’d previously assumed this was mostly just for visual convenience, but in light of Ten’s ability it seems more meaningful.
  • Page 12, Canceling Dice: Each time a die result is canceled, a player takes one die displaying the canceled result and physically removes the die from the common area.  This relates to attack dice, not defense, but it tells us that there is still a connection between the dice and the results they display.

Do the rules tell us explicitly that results remember where they came from?  Sadly, no…  but there’s at least a vague outline of that in the rules, and we can leverage an expectation that Ten’s ability will work to give it more shape.

When (not) To Use This Approach
Ten’s ability provides one of the cleanest examples I’ve seen of this principle in a long time.  I had read the rules as not distinguishing the source of an {Evade} result, but if that’s true then his ability just doesn’t work, so I was clearly wrong.  But like all intent-based analysis, we do have to be cautious when applying it.  Let’s consider why this works in Ten’s case by looking at things that would stop this approach from working.

  • It doesn’t contradict the rules: Ten’s ability increases our understanding of the rules without actually contradicting anything that’s written.  Especially when considering the example and Canceling Dice section, we can see the potential for results to know where the came from.
  • It doesn’t contradict other abilities: If there were other abilities which relied on our old interpretation, that would be a problem.  In this case, there’s not – nothing functions based on the idea of agnostic results.
  • We aren’t applying Rules As Iwantthemtobeplayed: The foundation for this is the simple expectation that Ten’s ability does something.  We’re not trying to reinterpret rules to make his ability work better against Soontir Fel, or worse against ships with shields.  This is probably the biggest roadblock to using this method more often.  The ability we’re using as a basis must have a perfectly clear, rock-solid interpretation of its function so that we aren’t trying to change rules to affect its power level.  In Ten’s case, I think we do, because there aren’t any alternative interpretations of his ability that make sense.

A Counterexample
Let’s briefly consider a counterexample.  There’s an ongoing gray area surrounding what exactly is an “attack” and which steps it includes.  Can we use any existing abilities to tell us what an “attack” is?  Sadly, I don’t think so, but here are some possibilities with the reasons why I don’t think they work:

  • Ion Cannon Turret: If “attack” is Steps 2-7, then the turret does not function.  Unfortunately, we have rules on page 11 which point to weapon selection being during Step 2.  Since making the turret work would contradict those, we can’t use it.
  • Gunner: Whether or not the Gunner’s attack includes Step 1 (Declare Target) has a pretty big impact on its usefulness and power level.  I’m not sure there’s anything there that would help us define an attack either way, but we need to stay far away from it regardless.

This is is a method of rules interpretation that we have to do cautiously and with properly analytical care.  It also carries a bit of risk with it – after all, it is entirely possible that the developers simply wrote a rule which doesn’t work within the framework of the rules, and we run the risk of drawing incorrect interpretations of the rules from it.  Generally, though, I think it’s a beneficial to work from a baseline assumption that the rules have an underlying functional structure that we sometimes simply can’t see through the haze of the natural language.  Abilities like Ten’s can plant a flag that pokes above that fog and show us what’s actually there.