RPG Design – What Rules Are For

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Role-playing games don’t actually need to have rules. “Lets Pretend!” has been around for a very long time indeed. All you need to do is to imagine that you’re a person different from yourself, occupying a different environment, and interacting with people who aren’t there – and then try to react as that person would. The more you get into that role – giving it depth, and motivations and concerns other than yours, and make it a person rather than a playing piece, the better your’re doing at role-playing.

Try not to lose track of reality while you’re at it though. We call that “going crazy” and you can have a lot of fun without immersing yourself that far.

In a role-playing game the characters may be, or try to do, anything whatsoever. A crippled, dying, old man who’s trying to make peace between his quarreling grandchildren while passing on some cultural traditions and life lessons can be a wonderful role to play. A giant computerized tank is likely to be a lousy one; it may have far more power than the old man, but it’s boring, emotionless, has no depth, and has very few options besides “Destroy!”.

As an example from play, an elderly fisherman – a throwaway role who got handed out when the players took on the roles of various normal people in a prequel to a session with their usual superhero characters – turned out to be more memorable, and in many ways more truly heroic in the face of disaster, than the players main characters – who reached the scene a few hours later. In fact, several players were rather reluctant to give up their normal-person roles, and expanded on their writeups for occasional use later on.

Sadly, the non-rules of “Lets Pretend” often run into the “I shot you!” “No you didn’t!” “Yes I did!” “No you didn’t!” problem. Resolving that calls for either a judge or some rules, or – if the setting and game is very complex – both.

What do those rules need to cover?

  • You don’t need rules telling you that people don’t generally phase through walls when they lean on them, or that water runs downhill, that dead animals don’t move around by themselves, that mashing your thumb with a hammer hurts, or that swallowing a porcupine whole is probably a bad idea. The judge and players don’t need rules to help them out anywhere that the outcome is obvious.
  • You need rules where the outcome of an occurrence in a setting is likely to be different from what the people running and playing the game would expect based on ther personal knowledge and experience – or where they’re not going to be pretty much sure of what the outcome of a given occurrence would be.

Thus a World War II game is likely to be filled with rules about the tanks of the period, and military weapon ranges, and the effects of grenades – topics that most of the players will have no firsthand experience with and have no way of judging. It will probably need a fairly detailed combat system, since those are hard to judge the outcome of without rules and some form of randomizer. It doesn’t really matter if those rules are at all accurate (and they usually aren’t), as long as they’re reasonably self-consistent, plausible, and provide outcomes which are consistent with the setting.

A game about spacefaring diplomats or merchants may get along without much information about weapons or serious combat – but it will probably have rules on freefall maneuvering, negotiation with aliens with very different instincts and motives, translation errors, currency exchanges, space travel, and translation.

You won’t see detailed rules about the short-range blast effects of nuclear weapons on unprotected characters in either game; the people playing won’t have personally experienced that, but they can almost certainly be counted on to have a fair idea of what the results will be.

Now, if it’s a superhero game, there may well be rules telling you how to build a character who can swallow porcupines whole without injury, and there may well be rules about close exposure to nuclear weapons, because superheroes can sometimes survive that sort of thing – an outcome which clearly goes against most of the players knowledge and experience.

What does that tell us?

It tells us that the only reason to have rules in a pure role-playing game is to establish where the setting differs from reality – and thus to help figure out the result of occurrences in that setting when the results are not already obvious. Naturally enough, that includes combat. Do you need extensive combat rules for the Terminator versus a Normal Human Child in a Playpen? (If you think that the answer is “Yes! With lots of gory description!” then I recommend seeing a psychiatrist). On the other hand, if it’s the Terminator versus a very young Hercules, that may be a different matter – because now the outcome is seriously in doubt.

That means that if the rules for a role-playing game…

  • Don’t support the world background and the fluff text – as in “but how could that happen when the local clerics/mages/gadgeteers/warriors/hackers/artists/spirits could just (whatever)? – they’re badly written.
  • Don’t describe how things actually work IN THE SETTING so as to help the game master figure out situations that they don’t cover (there are ALWAYS situations that they don’t cover, see Godel’s Theorem) – they’re badly written.
  • Provide out-of-setting or “metagame” mechanics, rather than figuring out how to make the rules support the desired setting, they’re badly written. Anything that’s out-of-character goes directly against the core of a role-playing game – playing a character. (And yes, Narrative Mechanics can be fitted into the way a setting works. For examples, look over HERE).
  • Rely on listing things you can or can’t do, as opposed to discussing the consequences and odds of success for any action a character could attempt, they’re badly written.
  • Require lots of errata, corrections, or editions, they were (self-evidently) badly written – at least to start with.

Now those guidelines only apply to role-playing games. Most wargames, tactical board games, card games, lawn games, and other games are NOT roleplaying games; they’re abstracted from the setting – and it’s only the mechanics and the challenge of winning under those rules that is important. They also don’t apply to setting-free systems, where you’re simply handed a game engine and use it to build the mechanics to represent a world and the characters in it. Those aren’t, and are not intended to be, complete games in themselves; they require a game master with a setting in mind to make them work.

Like it or not, out-of-character narrative mechanics, rules which provide tactical (or any other) mechanics without in-setting explanation, rules which don’t support the setting, “exception-based design” – in fact, anything but an unobtrusive simulationist system to help sort out “what happens if I do this” – undermines role-playing. Of course, it may, at the same time, enhance other aspects of the game as a whole. That’s why most “role playing games” are actually hybrid systems with role-playing aspects. They’re designed to present interesting gamist or narrative challenges, or to tell great stories, or to provide puzzles, or to do many other things, as well as to provide opprotunities for role-playing.

Now “realism” has nothing to do with “simulationist”. I can write simulationist rules for the world of Wily E. Coyote that will reproduce the cartoons nicely; I’ll just be simulating a world that has nothing much to do with the way that the “real” world works – which is fine. Similarly, “a good game” has nothing to do with “realism”, “simulationist”, “narrativist”, “gamist”, or “role-playing”. Chess is a good game too, so are many video games, and so is croquet.

But if I happen to be looking for a “role-playing game”, I may be looking for a pure roleplaying game – one where that dying old man talking to his grandchildren is a far more important and vital role than that combat tank – or I may actually be looking for one of the many hybrid systems, which supplement the role-playing with tactical, narrative, and out-of-character challenges. I may even just be looking for wonderful fluff, and mechanics be damned.

Knowing what you’re actually after makes it a LOT easier to find or design a game, and is always worth a little thought – if only because it helps avoid the perpetual internet quarrels between people who are actually looking for different sorts of hybrid games and yet believe – thanks to them all being called “role playing games” – that they’re all the same sort of game.


2 Responses

  1. The closing paragraph was, I felt, beautifully stated. Thank you for sharing.

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