The Fallacy Of "The Rules".

In thinking about this post in deep in the game, it becomes painfully clear to me that there's a huge division between The Rules, The World, and The Game in "traditional" RPGs. Bear with me here...

The Rules
In traditional RPG parlance, The Rules codify physics and fate in terms of dice and detailing how to resolve conflicts in an impartial way. When you pick up a typical RPG rule book, you'll find out how to create/describe a character in terms of capabilities within The Rules - i.e. "At first level my character can cast N spells from list X," or, "I have a strength score of S so my character can carry Y weight before collapsing." You'll also get a combat system and a task resolution system.

If you're lucky, they'll include the briefest of overviews about how to role-play and maybe some ideas on The World. The Rules don't make The Game, they're simply a set of physical (magical, technological, or whatever) laws to impose on yourself and your players.

The World
Traditionally, the GM controls The World. Elements include the setting, the overall story (if any), the plots and goals for each play session, and the set dressing (NPCs, historical info, etc.). From a traditional standpoint, the majority of the creative process happens when creating The World. Ideas congeal and sit, crouching cat-like in the shadows of "just offstage" until the light of the characters' perception falls on them.

As a GM, making The World gives the rush of pure creation. Unfortunately, it's on a par with writing or any other solitary creative process - it only carries you with it and not any of your players. Under The Rules, players who get to play directly with The World are uppity GM wannabes or powermongers who should be shot on sight.

The Game
Here's where the rubber hits the road. The Game happens during those limited times when The World and The Rules come together and everybody involved focuses on what's happening. The GM preps all the background info, enemies, challenges, treasure, story, and goals. The players prep their characters and come to the table intent on unraveling the GM's design. The Game is the GM's one and only opportunity to wow the players. The GM almost always loses control since there's so much to keep track of in The World and he's outgunned several minds to one. And the game is fun, but vaguely unsatisfying.

Why unsatisfying? Since the players can only change The World during The Game through the vehicle of their characters' actions, some players get frustrated at the utter lack of control over what's happening. Unless, of course, your GM kicks ass and can give you the sense of your input making a difference.

And since very few games provide guidelines for letting players mold The World, the responsibility falls to the GM. The Rules typically don't even think in this regard, and in fact will hamper the telling of a good story by players and GMs. RPGs are all about telling stories through the characters interacting with The World - if they aren't, what's the difference between an RPG and a game of Advanced Squad Leader or Halo? Board games and computer games offer different missions, different settings, different goals, hoopier gear that lets you do tasks more effectively, but the same experience over and over. Start with conditions X and assets Y, then accomplish objective Z with minimum losses. That's it. I belive that RPGs can be much more than a vehicle for people to share humdrum, episodic, formulaic experiences.

What's the point of interactive games when the only interaction occurs when the players bicker with the GM about The Rules? Where's the back-and-forth magic that lets gaming transport the players and GM beyond The Game and actually start experiencing The World?

So when I hear talk about The Rules, I tend to tune it out. LARP philosophy kicks in - The Rules exist to handle conflicts that can't be resolved through pure role-playing. The Rules are the smallest portion of the typical RPG experience, and the part that chokes creativity the most. Personally, I find I've been spending so much time working within The Rules to create challenges in my own game that I've neglected the story that I'm trying to tell.

I'm learning to temper my anti-Rules reaction. Especially since I've recently learned about rulesets that allow players and GMs to both directly change The World without interacting through The Rules. I'm still learning, but at least I grok the Dogs in the Vineyard mechanic of everyone involved defining the outcome of a conflict and then bidding resources (in this case, dice pips) to make it happen - I'm not done reading the rulebook yet, though. So I owe a public apology to bankuei for reacting based on my definition of "The Rules" before figuring out what he was talking about when using those same words.

I'll be spinning off a few rants off of some of the ideas in here, but in the meanwhile I'm interested to hear your reactions. Is this traditional division frustrating to you or do have an easier time following The Rules? How do you make your players happy when The Rules impartially decide that someone dies from an otherwise impossible shot? Do you even use The Rules when playing The Game or does everything become negotiable? How do you get past this divide to focus directly on The Game itself?


  1. Here's the other exception to the rules/world/game schism (I'm completely with you on that btw): Amber Diceless. Here's a game where the players are REQUIRED to build worlds. They can change any aspect of the world around them. The stroyteller has only 2 'solid' locations to keep track of and a host of NPCs so amorphous that it's up to the players to figure out why they're acting weird. This allows the GM almost perfect reverse editing without any of it having to be visible or jarring to the PCs.
    To take full advantage of the system, though it's truly necessary to use the Amber 'universe' in some aspect.

    Overall, though both the players and the GM are shackled by a rule system. It becomes more a matter of telling you what you CAN'T do, and being reminded of limitation is not why you want to play an escapist game in the first place. A big problem can be when frustration at the system's constraints out strips the enjoyment of the story.
    A good GM with good players wil seldom have that problem, but how often do we get a perfect mix of GM, players and enough time to prep, etc. to make the perfect game?
    Ideally a system should free the game, not shackle it.

  2. Kev,

    I liked playing Amber. You can still see the little men behind the curtains making things happen, but Amber hides it a little better than other systems. It's still a hit-or-miss approach to the actual play. Sure, characters have power enough to change The World, but that's tougher for the GM to contend with rather than easier.

    I think that's why so many GMs are afraid of the players and/or the characters getting too much power. It's harder to control The Game as a whole since The Rules can't provide a system that handles all situations, and all the GM's plans and ideas fall apart after first contact with a player who says, "Well, I'll just Trump Oberon through and call in a favor so he can deal with this situation..."



    Dogs does one hell of a job describing what an RPG is in 3 paragraphs. And I really like the conflict resolution system.

    I have an issue with even addressing Point Of Play as a concept - In any game I've seen or played or GMed, the point of play is dealing with conflict. Conflict comes in many sizes and flavors, from "I want to hit you in the face with my fist", to "We've got to kill these orcs", to "Let's take over the kingdom", to "I want to face down my deepest fear".

    Conflict fits into one of the molds that I learned in 6th grade:
    Man vs. Self, Man vs. Peer, Man vs. Society, or Man vs. Nature.

    Anyone can write rules to handle and resolve conflicts - Rock Paper Scissors or drawing straws if nothing else. It's the tone and setting of that particular game (or even that particular game session) that gives Point Of Play any meaning.

    So compare a CoC game (typically PCs dealing with insane people who know more than they do and who summon abominations to do their dirty work) against D&D (PCs vs. the monster/trap/puzzle/social situation du jour) against DitV (PCs vs. proud people who have strayed into the arms of sin and demons). The conflict resolution system in DitV (for example) can fit into any of the other settings and work well.

    If we take a good solid system and genericize it, the only difference in Point Of Play that makes sense to me is the overall feeling that the game wants to evoke, which is best expressed through the tone and setting. Why not just call it Tone and be done with it?

    I'm going to think about this some more and spin it into its own post so we can pick at it directly. But please feel free to chime in with other thoughts before then...

  3. Still brewing on Point Of Play debate, but wanted to address one point now...

    What the hell kind of dungeon crawl would it be if you went through making friends with all the monsters and casting rainbows and summoning kittens?

    An unqualified success, if that's what the players and GM decide what happens in the pursuit of fun. How great of a coup would it be if you waltzed in and actually took over the dungeon without a single combat, turning those brutish monsters into productive members of society?

    DitV nails it on that score - DO NOT have a solution in mind.

  4. OK, back up to the amber point . . .who says the trumps work? Who says Oberon actually IS Oberon? IF you don't REALLY know who the enemy is can you trust OBeron enough to open your bare little pink fleshy brain to him hob-nailed boots?
    To the way I play and GM, and this may just be me, the system seems the closest to the ease of Rock, Paper, Scissors combined with the savvy needed for more sophisticated interactions (creating a magic system, etc.)
    It is the antithesis of the perfect game for those who can't 'wing it.' BUT, and it's a big one, it is the ultimate 'give 'em enough rope' system.
    I've found that the more power I give players the more paranoid they become of their opposition. Usually from the point of view of: 'If 6 kids with 6 months experience in world walking can do all this, what can centuries old relatives with a genetic penchant for scheming do?' All the Powers in the game are characters as well, allowing you to give and take away access to power at that Power's whim. Characters who rely on a particular power soon become ensnared in it's plots and plans.
    Machiavellian doesn't begin to define it. And it's LOT of work. There's 2 games (or more) going on. What the players are doing and what the NPCs are doing. Sometimes they coincide, creating conflict. But the players are more than capable of creating internal conflict. (Ask me about Gnomes that became ubiquitous throughout Shadow, simply to appear at the edge of one character's vision and annoy them. And the PCs created that.

    More serious topic: Point of Play:
    How to define? To have fun? To kill a couple hours? Something to do while drinking beer and eating pretzles? (Hellooo Car Wars, I'm looking at you!) To resolve conflict?
    It's almost too big. There are as many answers as there are gamers. We all game for a different reason, so it has to narrow down to what is the Point of Play for a PARTICULAR game, or more importantly for a particular gaming group.
    So, can we design one game that meets all needs? Nope. Doesn't pay to try. But we can create one that meets an awful lot of them.

    Having fun: this varies wildly and will be determined more by how the GM presents the material and how the players respond, can't be dictated by a system. However a system developer would be well advised to look at the various major styles of game play and test their game against them, probably providing a section on how to modify the base product to meet the needs of those styles.
    Conflict resolution: this is the one, and only reason we need rules. Otherwise the game devolves into cowboys and indians with no one knowing who really shot who.
    Elegent and simple are words to live by here. But don't get lost in an elegent system and forget to test it against hard stuff. Combat is easy. Opposed skills are easy (picking locks, etc.), social interaction is hard, as it steps on roleplaying and can represent areas where characters are significantly different from the people playing them (I, for instance am not an Elf Bard with a 20 Chr and perfect pitch). Magic/High Tech can also get too caught up in systematics very quickly (Look at ICE and the RoleMaster system). Make it at least World Logical, I highly suggest reviewing the magic rules (in fact all the rules) for Ars Magica. Jonathan Tweet did some of his best work on that system. (I know his name can be a swear word to some folks, but he does good work.)
    I despise the game system for White Wolf's Storyteller Games (Mostly because the range from Abysmal to God-like is so small, kind of like Space 1889.), but they do good things with internal conflicts.
    Anyway a game designer needs to stress test a system. Try to keep it simple and consistant. If you use dice, use the same kind of dice (Cahmpions, hiddeously math intensive, but you KNOW you only need 6 siders! God, I miss playing Champs!) Find the things that the game is weak at addressing and ask why. Don't just ask yourself, get others to look at it, prob it with a stick and add advice. Now ignore the advice and look where they prodded. Did you look there before. Now that you see the soft underbelly how whould you address it using your existing system. Need to change the system to make it work? How do these changes affect the rest of the system?
    Now look at the advice. Discard most of it, then look for comments that resonate with your vision for the game.

    End of the day, you have your vision (ie: I want to play a Dragon struggling to survive and thrive in mountains full of dragonivores, harsh weather and older dragons. I want to use my native strength, abilities and wits to survive.) and a game system to try and make that come alive. Does it do the job. Just for you, or are others able to lose themselves into the storytelling? Is there room for different versions of your vision? (comic dragons trying to escape zoo keepers, dragons in love, ancient dragons lording over the world/multiverse, etc., etc.) IF not it may be too narrow to go beyond a local circle. Maybe the vision is too narrow. (ie reimagined: Fable- a game allowing players to become creatures of myth and legend.)
    This is rambling, but do you see what I mean?

  5. I always inspired by you, your thoughts and way of thinking, again, thanks for this nice post.

    - Joe