Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Purpose of Rules

Before I go further, I’m using the term “rules” here in reference to the systems of a game. Rules of etiquette and rules of the house exist in even freeform games even if they are not outright stated. For the rest of this rant, when I talk about rules, I’m going to be using it reference to things like character creation, task resolution, conflict resolution, health maintenance and the like.


Robert Hanz recently posted a commentary that the essential bit of roleplaying is wrapped up in the following exchange:

GM: This is the situation. What do you do?
Player: I do this.
GM: This is the new situation. What do you do?

That is the most basic way to explain what you do when you roleplay. The GM sets up the scene and asks for your actions. You state your actions and the GM responds by telling you how your actions change the situation and what the other characters do in response. Then you give your new actions. This goes around and around and around until it is time to go home.

So, if that is the essential nature of roleplaying then why do we need rules? It sounds like we could just do a question and answer set of hypothetical situations ad infinitum without any need for going to the rules at all. There are some games that play that way. I’ve been part of more than one freeform game in my time, and they are essentially exactly what Mr. Hanz describes without any sort of mechanics. They can be very successful and very fun to play and the longest such game I was involved in ran for around three years. Which brings us again to the question of “why do we need rules?”

That is actually the wrong question. We quite clearly don’t need rules to have a successful and entertaining roleplaying experience. The questions we really should be asking are more along these lines: “Why do we want rules?”, “What do rules give us?” and “What do we want from rules?” Those questions are generally denotatively closer to our actual implied meaning when we ask “Why do we need rules?” in reference to these sorts of games.

The answer is not going to be universal. Different people will want rules to do different things. This is part of why some systems work better for some people than others. However, there are some common functions I’ve either been told by other people or observed over my years of playing games. Not every player uses all these expectations, and I'm sure there are other functions/expectations in existence that I'm not aware of.
  • Rules give us structure.
  • Rules give us a safety net.
  • Rules give us a scapegoat.
  • Rules settle OOC conflict.
  • Rules give us benchmarks.
  • Rules create tension.
  • Rules allow for the element of chance.
  • Rules add to the mood or theme.
  • Rules give a sense of fairness.
The first one is probably the most common. Rules often lay down such things as how to determine turn order in any given situation. They give us a framework around which we can more effectively plan our actions. If we want to argue a point in a court, set a bomb under a bridge or fight a death knight, then we have rules in existence which we can turn to in order to see how we can go about doing such a thing. Some people want a very firm set of rules that define as many circumstances as possible. This doesn’t necessarily mean an overly complex set of rules with a different system for each circumstance. For example, the d20 system is very simple: roll a d20, add bonuses, check to see if you matched or surpassed a target number. That simple mechanic is stretched out over a myriad of circumstances many of which are coupled with their own unique results for success or failure. Likewise, the various Storyteller systems by White Wolf are easy enough to follow on their own. Regardless, the systems in place give us a familiar set of boundaries that allow us some comforting level of structure that can be used to predict the possible results of actions and thus make it easier to come to a decision.

Closely related to the above situation is the fact that rules give us something to fall back on. Any system can be run with minimal adherence to the rules if desired, but if there comes a point where the GM is not sure what the end results would be then the rules give something to turn to. If the players are facing a handful of enemies well below their capabilities and it is obvious that they will win with little to no effort, then it is fair to simply forgo combat and allow the characters to describe how they defeat the “obstacle”. If some circumstance or another adds a complication to the battle that gives the low-powered enemies a better chance, then a combat might be in order. On the other hand, if the players dive into a situation that they realistically shouldn’t be able to win, then following the rules might actually give them a chance to win out even though the logic of the situation says no. And in the likely situation where they do lose, then that’s when the next point comes in.

The scapegoat comment is probably less obvious. When the rules result in one player or another failing at a particular task, it is the fault of the rules rather than that of the game-master. People are less likely to get upset when a set of arbitrary systems determine their efforts to be a failure than if the GM does it. This is not a particularly common thing to want from rules, at least not consciously, but I choose to put a bit higher up because I’ve seen this function in play more than once in my years. I’ve had characters die, go insane or otherwise get removed from play due to the way one set of rules works or another without ever getting upset at the GMs involved. My general attitude in such cases was a sort of sad “damn it, but what can you do?”

The fourth point is related to the scapegoat point. There might come a time when two or more people disagree on the probable end result of a specific situation. To bring out my normal exaggerated situation, imagine the playground game of Cops and Robbers and something like this stereotypical exchange:

Child 1: Bang-bang! You’re dead.
Child 2: No I’m not.
Child 1: Yes you are, I shot you.
Child 2: Nu-uh, I’m wearing armor.
Child 1: Well, they were armor piercing bullets.
Child 2: No they weren’t!
Child 1: Yes they were!
Continue ad infinitum.

Even in a game where the rules are often ignored and not used, when the rules come out as a way of determining results, you’re less likely to have OOC arguments over the results of a particular event interrupting gameplay. The chance is never completely eliminated, but at the very least many people feel less inclined to provide argument when you can point to them a place in the book where it is written that X is true and Y is false.

The next point is that rules give us benchmarks. By this I mean it tells us what is difficult and what is easy. A difficulty 5 is really is easy in D&D but very hard in most Fate games. Trying to roll 17 or less is almost a guaranteed success in HERO but a very slim chance in Call of Cthulhu or other BSRP games. Scores of 10 are average human for most stats in D&D, HERO, Palladium, Call of Cthulhu and some other games but it is noted as being “Best in the Country” for BESM and usually impossible to achieve in Fate. Without the rules, a character is a set of numbers next to words where the only context is the character itself. We might be able to reason that a character has one high stat and several mediocre stats, but it might actually be that the character has one mediocre stat and several weak stats or even one amazing stat with several good stats. If someone says “I got a 20” we have no particular clue as to whether that is a good or terrible result unless we also know the game that they are playing. It might be a critical success in D&D, a jaw-dropping result of a player spending multiple rounds dropping Maneuvers/Aspects in preparation for making one amazing roll in Fate, or it might be barely a failure for someone trying to roll under their Cthulhu Mythos skill of 19. The rules give us the benchmarks we need to determine whether to celebrate or mourn.

Similarly, the rules create tension. Once we have the benchmarks set and we know what is an easy result or high skill, we have some context in place to identify the likelihood of success in a particular endeavor. If I’m running D&D and I something has a difficulty of 5, I usually will just let the player do it without a roll since most of the time, logic says it would be easy and the only thing failure would accomplish is bogging down the gameplay into dealing with something mundane while I’m waiting for them to get to one or more juicy story points. If I say something has a difficulty of 5 in a standard Fate game, however, suddenly it is a matter of concern and likely something that the players have to prepare for by performing maneuvers (or creating advantages depending on your preferred version of Fate). Something with high difficulty, as determined by the game’s benchmarks, is an interesting bit of story that takes some time and creativity to get around. At this point the die roll becomes something that people pay attention to rather than just a pro forma thing that is done to get the current situation over and done with.

When there is the roll of a die, there is an element of chance involved in the resolution of things. This might be a small element, especially in a game with a small range of random results and the capability of having high bonuses, but the element remains. Sometimes, the resolution is a simple manner of pass or failure. Sometimes, there is an added element of things like critical successes or critical failures. In other games, there might be the option to spend some resource to affect the success of the roll. Another thing might be the option to accept a partial success instead of a total failure. Dice can result in random events occurring that neither the GM nor the players originally thought of. This can have profound impact on the direction of the story you are taking. For example, if a character as one of his first acts in a game decides he’s going to research the enemies and rolls a failure that gives the bad guys information, well, suddenly the first combat is occurring on the airport because that character decided to file the flight plan of their top secret mission.

Rules also can be used to enhance the theme or mood desired in a game. For example, Wizards of the Coast recently released the aarakocra as a playable race for the 5th edition game and there was some outcry about the fact that it was able to fly from level one as an innate racial ability. Some people considered that an unbalanced ability. Realistically, balancing the existence of a flying PC is actually very easy. There are plenty of ways to make things as difficult for the flyer as for the other players. So why the outcry? It was because Fly is a 5th level spell in most editions of D&D and requires concentration in the current edition, meaning that it limits what spells can be cast while flying. The developers of the game were envisioning a game of sword and sorcery where most of the action takes place on the ground. Flight being common did not fit in with their idea of the theme of a D&D setting and, as such, flight is made moderately difficult to gain for most players and requires some consideration of strategy since you can’t use fly and some other long duration spells at the same time. Similarly, in Divine Blood, I wanted powerful, instant healing powers to be rare so I increased the basic cost of the power over what the default cost of Heal in Strands of Fate was and made lesser versions that come with some sort of price (transferring wounds or creating intense hunger) as they healed. In both cases, a power that is desired to be rare is given a mechanical gateway that causes players to have to consider carefully just how much they want to have X ability.

Finally, rules give us a sense of fair play. Actual, real balance between players is impossible. When you have a very good player in the same game as an exceedingly mediocre player, the better player will more consistently perform well than the mediocre player even if the mediocre player has what is considered a mechanically superior build. Likewise, a particularly build might be incredibly effective in one GM’s game but very weak or useless in a different game. However, a sort of mechanical balance can be achieved. In D&D everybody starts at 1st level and everybody gets either the same array or the same chances to roll dice for stats. In HERO and BESM everybody has the same number of points. In Fate everybody has the same number of skills, stunts, aspects and refresh to start. There is an appearance of starting from the same starting line with the same resources. It really is an illusion, as I stated at the beginning, the balance of a game system assumes that all players have equal abilities when we know they do not. On the other hand, it is not entirely an illusion. In game systems that disregard any sort of balance, then the discrepancies between a good player and a mediocre player are magnified in actual play.

There is one thing for sure that rules are not: inviolate. The golden rule of roleplaying is to use what’s fun and ignore what’s not. In any game system, if you run across a rule that you don’t agree with or don’t like for whatever reason then it is fine to disregard that rule. Now, disregarding a rule may have an impact that you did not expect so you have to think it through before doing it, but it’s certainly possible. You can also change rules and add your own rules. These are not laws and regardless of what any rules lawyer says, you always have the choice to ignore them. As long as everybody is having fun and the rules you do use make it easier to have fun, then you’re doing good. If the rules get in the way or even can be twisted to outright break the feel of the game for most of the players, then modify or outright discard them.

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