Game Mastery

The function of the game rules

by on Sep.15, 2008, under game theory

At the most basic level, RPGs are like playing make believe as a little kid, but with rules such that conflicts can be resolved without cries of “I hit you,” “no, you didn’t,” “did so,” and “my dad can beat up your dad!” This is pretty much agreed upon by most roleplayers.

What I did not realize was that the place of the rules is something that varies from player to player. I’ve always been of the opinion that the characters I play are characters that can be transported from one story to another and are playable in any system. Granted some characters are more effective in certain settings. But by and large, I play a personality and choose to represent him in whatever system is available. This means that I choose whatever actions I want, and then apply the rules at hand to resolve those actions.

What’s been coming up more and more in some forums I read is the idea that the rules exist as an exhaustive list of what actions you can perform with your character. Some players even go so far as to say that their characters are aware of the list of available actions and the mechanics behind them. If a game system doesn’t include rules for pinning a grappled opponent, then you can’t pin (at least until a new splatbook comes out explaining the new pinning rules).

For once I’m not interested in looking at this one from both sides. Yeah, they’re both valid. Okay. Fine. Whatever. Any tabletop game I run, and hopefully any tabletop game I play in, will function such that I determine my actions and then we find rules to govern them. I just wanted to throw this out there so people know where I’m coming from when reading my opinions.

But I also wanted people to be aware that the other side exists too. In the past I’ve gotten very frustrated with players who did act based on what was available in the book. I almost shut down one of my games over it. It wasn’t the player’s fault – she’d probably played that way under a different type of GM prior to my game. Just another case where you have to be aware of everyone’s playstyle because even though D&D is the name of the game, we don’t always play the same game.

(On a sidenote, I think it’s really interesting to compare the notion of treating the rules as your options to the Sapir Whorf hypothesis of linguistic determinism.)

7 comments for this entry:
  1. Nat Budin

    Really?! The idea that your character’s actions are actually limited by the system really surprises me. Having heard it, though, I can imagine all too easily that some roleplayers might buy it.

    I guess it’s my bias coming from the TS LARP world, but this seems to go against everything I think roleplaying is about.

  2. sagotsky

    Maybe that’s why some people have trouble playing in a totally open ended game like a LARP?

    I can also understand the appeal if you want a simplified world that is easier to process than a full one. Though when I want that kind of game I go for a computer RPG instead of a tabletop one.

  3. Maliseraph

    It’s an idea that I find an abomination on good storytelling, but a boon for good “gaming”, in the sense of a pursuit with set ground rules. If I’m trying to tell a story, I am absolutely ruthless with the rules. On the rare occasion I’m more concerned with the “game-ness”, well, that’s what the rules are there for.

    But as you both know, I’m more than willing to throw out rules that are an impediment to having fun, and invent them where the rules fail to cover a fun situation that I want to let a player do.

    (On a side note, the linguistics article is interesting. I had some thoughts along these lines while taking German and Japanese, but this really puts it perfectly.)

  4. sagotsky

    I’m not totally against that type of gaming, I’m just against calling it roleplaying. Descent (not the computer game) is a perfectly fun game that uses mechanics as your characters options for worldly interaction. It’s cute. But it’s not roleplay.

  5. batsofchaos

    I think that a lot of players, particularly ones who were introduced to roleplaying as a “live-action video game” or such, feel it necessary to plan their actions from within the rules. It’s a common sort of phenomena; not everyone immediately gets “roleplaying” and play these games as if it WERE a live-action video game. I’m not sure how to necessarily break this notion, as it’s something that perhaps may be understood cerebrally but not fully understood. I know that personally it took the exploration of a different system for me to “get” that part of the game. I mean, I had known for years that the rules serve as a framework for how to adjudicate the game but I didn’t understand the full implications of it; I didn’t understand that it meant that your character can take any imaginable action. Well, I mean I did understand that before, I just…It’s complicated, and I hope I’ve made at least some sense.

    I think there’s another aspect of this as well that you did not touch on, though. There is, tactically speaking, a gulf between “taking any action” and “taking a tactically viable action.” This comes up most often in combat, which in DnD usually means most of the game. An immersion roleplayer could come up with a plan that contextually makes sense, but is not supported by the rules, or worse yet IS supported by the rules but is a tactically poor choice. It might be an awesome idea thematically, but the actual adjudication is lackluster at best. In terms of damage output, battlefield manipulation, etc. they were better off just sticking to actions within the rules. This seems to be the case far too often, and can lead to a metagaming mentality of picking out combat options strictly within the rules.

    I’m not sure what is best to combat this notion, I think utilizing rule 0 is unwieldly at best. You run the risk of accidentally making the inspired out-of-the-box maneuver more tactically viable than entire classes, or if it comes up too often turning the game into “I shot you,” “no you didn’t,” “yeah huh,” “my dad can beat up your dad.”

  6. sagotsky

    The danger in making out of the box maneuvers more tactically viable that standard maneuvers is that the game will later standardize itself on out of the box maneuvers and then you’re just playing in a different box.

    I like to give out ingenuity bonuses. If someone does something I haven’t seen before it’ll work just because I’m impressed (within reason anyway). Sometimes I’ll explain that some weird attack works because the enemy didn’t see it coming. Sometimes I’ll resolve it but give the player a “fate chip” for later (more on those in a future article. Basically it’s a “fudge the dice in favor of my character” coupon.)

  7. batsofchaos

    It’s true that the game may level out again, but my point had more to do with accidental game breakage through spontaneous adjudication than with purposely making out-of-the-box maneuvers more powerful. The goal isn’t to create a new status quo with more powerful, more differenter tactics, but to include the more differenter tactics and have them be a viable choice for the players to use. Without the differenterness being viable, players will make the choice to act explicitly within the rules to avoid being lackluster.

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