After recent events, my thoughts have understandably turned towards the philosophical side of our hobby. Particularly, why we have rules in RPGs and what do they do?
Reductio Ad Absurdum
Imagine an RPG without any rules. Can you? Does the concept make sense?
Even the most basic idea of role-playing, that a person assumes the mantle of a non-real character is a rule. Without this rule, an RPG is just a group of people getting together to have a chat.
Observation #1 – The existence of rules is what separates role-playing from real life.
Where Do Rules Come From?
Outside of role-playing, rules come in two forms: Systematic and Social.
Systematic rules have an enforcement mechanism – the police who can arrest you; the boss who can fire you, the disgruntled customer who can sue you. Systematic rules are also codified and recorded so that they can be applied consistently across a number of people.
Social rules on the other hand are inconsistent. They are defined and enforced by the parties involved. For example, most people would accept that not farting on a first date is a pretty good rule of social etiquette. Yet, in some cases, for exactly the right people, farting might be the perfect ice-breaker on a first date and lead to a long and happy relationship.
So are the rules to a role-playing game systematic or social?
They appear systematic – the rules are codified in a book and, some people would say, they have a GM to enforce them. Yet every gaming group has its own house rules and there is no authority outside of the group coming to enforce the “official” rules. The game’s designer won’t breakdown your door if you ignore the encumbrance mechanic.
Observation #2 – Rules in role playing games are social in nature, defined and enforced only by the people playing the game.
What’s The Point of Rule Books?
Most of us have experienced playing a game where only one person knows the rules. Normally this happens when the GM has a new system they want everyone to play and they patiently talk everyone through character creation and the opening scenes of an adventure.
These game sessions can be slow and disjointed as the players keep asking the GM questions. Simpler rules-lite systems make this process faster but it is always there. These sessions can be fun but few people want to game like this all the time. Most of us want gaming sessions where questions about rules are rare and the focus is on the playing of the game.
Rule books reduce this problem. Players can learn a game without the GM’s presence which speeds up play. The job of ‘knowing the rules’ can be shared out around the table, people other than the GM can answer questions and everyone’s experience is improved.
This does not mean the rule book is gospel. They are a starting point, a shared idea of the game which the group can mould and shape as it sees fit.
Observation #3 – Rules books are a way of transmitting information to players, enabling the whole group to get more out of the game.
So What Is The Point of Rules?
Without them, there is no game, only life. Rules and the rule books they come form a linga-franca – a common tongue which ensures when we are talking about “the game”, we are all talking about the same game.
After that, the rules in the hands of the group to shape, use, ignore and and evolve as they see fit.
Photo Credit: Rae Allen;