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...
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.
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.
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?