Whence rules?

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.

I’ve never liked this example. It implies that the main purpose of the rules is to protect you from Ms. Frost, yet most games give the GM absolute authority, anyway.2

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?

  1. I don’t assert that that was his only point, but it’s the one that got me thinking.
  2. 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.”
  3. I agree, they are conversations.

One thought on “Whence rules?

  1. For me, rules are about risk.

    It’s the difference between improvised storytelling and role-playing games. (I’ve tried blending the two on stage.) A lot of improvisation is characterised as a game to be played, but there’s only the illusion of failure. It doesn’t matter if your character achieves their goal in the scene, or even whether you break the “rules” and get buzzed off stage – as long as the audience is laughing (or rapt in attention for the rare serious impro show), you can’t “fail”. You can only fail if you’re a bad performer, and even then, your fellow performers are there to catch you if you fall – even if they seem to be pitted against you. (It’s no coincidence that long-form or serial impro storytelling rarely, if ever, uses the game rules favoured by short-form TheatreSports style impro.)

    In roleplaying we shift some of the burden of “being good”, of success or failure, from the player to the character. It’s not just about whether you succeed or fail, but whether your character succeeds or fails – this does depend on your decisions, of course, and those of the GM. But the dice or cards or whatever introduce a real chance of failure, an impartial force that means you might not be caught by your fellow players. Assuming you only use these rules when failure might be interesting – the principle behind many modern systems like Gumshoe – then that risk leads to real excitement, and to a feeling of achievement. Note that “risk” and “failure” here don’t need to mean a single dice roll, but can mean an entire scene or combat; failing an individual attack roll is rarely that exciting unless the entire fight hinges on it.

    Interestingly, though, recent experience with more narrative games like Smallville and Hero’s Banner has shown me that those games need arbitration more than any D&D I’ve ever played; they emphasize inter-player conflict, so it really is about whether Timmy shoots me, or whether the Sheriff agrees to help me stop the runaway train. (And just as well, since my own comedy show about RPGs uses the playground explanation for rules too.)

    …I don’t think I’m saying anything new. Rules are the difference between having a friend – the GM – to catch me or damn me, or jumping the chasm knowing that I might fall and die, without an guarantee of success. Storytelling systems that don’t have rules involving chance are still fun, but they don’t carry that same element of risk.

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