Simple question, long answer:
What situations do you need rules for, and why?
Zak over at D&D with Porn Stars recently presented a discussion on whether D&D has enough rules, and whether those rules are necessary for fun.1 He makes the argument that D&D’s lack of rules for certain things help the game go in unexpected directions according to the desires of those at the table and, presumably, chance.
Obviously, most game designers think you need rules for combat. This is enshrined in countless “what is roleplaying” blurbs, where the rules are presented as a way of answering the question “did I get shot” in a game of “Cops and Robbers.” In that example, the rules are there for arbitration. They’re there so that one player can’t arbitrarily declare that another must leave play.
Still, I think some rules do serve to arbitrate or disambiguate. The purest example I can think of is Greg Stolze’s …in Spaaace!, where the core mechanic (a bidding system) is all about whether you, as a player, get your desired outcome.
Rules do other things, too. One you’ll certainly recognize if you read D&D with Porn Stars is to introduce chance. Roleplaying games, particularly older or newer ones, make use of a lot of devices to create unpredictability. The most iconic is the random encounter table. Rules also usually make the winners of a conflict unpredictable.
This is the main thing I use rules for, myself. A number of my own systems include a sentence like “If the players agree that more than one of the possible outcomes is interesting, use these rules to decide which happens.”
In any of these cases, the point isn’t primarily to arbitrate a dispute over whether you meet an angry bear, it’s to introduce the angry bear in the first place. In conflict resolution, the point isn’t that I say the bear is willing to give up his salmon and you say he isn’t, but that we mutually admit that we don’t know and would like to ask the dice.
In Apocalypse World, Vincent Baker proposes another purpose for rules. He asserts that roleplaying games are conversations3 and that the purpose of rules is to modify those conversations, to make sure that people say things that they otherwise wouldn’t. So, normally, I might not suggest that my character takes a nasty fall, but when the dice tell me so, I do. Or I wouldn’t agree to taking that fall, except that there’s a tasty drama point on offer.
So, what do you need rules for, and why?
- I don’t assert that that was his only point, but it’s the one that got me thinking. ↩
- Sometimes, this authority is represented as ownership, as in “it’s the GM’s game.” Other times, it’s represented as public service, as in “it’s the GM’s responsibility to make sure everyone has fun” or “it’s the GM’s responsibility to serve the story.” No matter the case, most roleplaying games seem to be pretty sure that one player can declare “rocks fall, everyone dies.” ↩
- I agree, they are conversations. ↩