Rules! What Are They Good For?

Stargazer‘s made some interesting points in a post on errata in RPGs and how we often are unaware of these mistakes when we play the game ( Driveby Nerfing! The recent Wizards of the Coast update to D&D 4th edition… ). This observation is a symptom of something that I have been pondering on a lot recently (and a driving force behind my Super-Secret Project).

The idea that every RPG session on every table is different.

No two groups play exactly the same set of rules either deliberately (house rules), by misunderstanding the rules or simply forgetting some rules. Even stable groups will have subtle variations between sessions.

This variance increases the more complex the game and also based on factors like age. As a 13 year old newbie, I only had a very weak grasp of the rules but it didn’t stop me having fun.
But if we all do are own thing anyway and have fun doing it, what does this tell us about the nature of rules?

Rules: The Lingua Franca of the Gaming Table

A key aspect of rules is that they are written down. When a question or dispute arises in a game, having the rules in writing gives everyone a common reference point from which to start the discussions. This greatly eases the resolution of disputes and questions but it is only the starting point. Though, depending on personality, people put a lot of importance on the rules just because they are written down.

What really happens when a rules question arises is a complex group negotiation where factors such as social standing, communication skills and personality come into play.

Defining a Shared Reality

The beauty of RPGs is not just that they stimulate our own imagination but that they create a shared vision of the in-game world.

Every question and dispute helps the group negotiate between themselves what this shared vision is. Arguments over rules are often about the physics of the world but when question relate to something like D&D’s alignments system, it is deciding the nature of good an evil.

It is in this process that the very best aspects of playing RPGs are to be found. The process helps us discover how our fellow gamers think, leading to new friends and, sometimes, enemies. It gives us a sandpit to question the universe and a training ground for dealing with real-world disputes.

Do We Need Rules?

Imagine the perfect RPG session where everyone knew all the rules off by heart and there were no questions or issues about how they worked. Would this really be a great game? How much of the social interaction around your table is driven by rules related discussions?

The failure of ruleless of RPGs to dominate the world of RPGs suggests that most of us need rules in our games. Commercial factors do play a part here as there is little financial incentive to develop and promote ruleless games. There is also a nerdish need in many of us for details and minutia to learn and memorise. This is in part why there are vast numbers of 3.5 & 4e splat books.

Rethinking Rules

We need rules but there is a tendency in game developers to seek the perfect rules that are understood the same way by everyone but this is impossible and possibly undesirable.

Maybe what we need is to step back and think less about the rules defining the game. Instead we should recognise the important part discussing the rules plays in our enjoyment of RPGs.

Rules are the grit that irritate the oyster into making a pearl. If a game designer was to embrace this idea, what would our rules be like?