Rules and the Game

Why do we use rules to play games? What are rules?

I'm an inquisitive engineer, with a background in sciences, and a love of games. I've been finding that when I talk to people about game rules, there's quite a different reaction even among those who love to play the same games as me. What's that all about?

The Game / Narrative / Simulation theory suggests players can be split into three camps - those who play the game as a challenge, those who play to create stories, and those who play to simulate an alternate reality - and that real gamers can be placed on a three axis graph that reflect their love of each.

[dons pretentious beret and roll-neck]
But like Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I've found there seems to be a split among gamers between what he called Classical thinking (dissect in-game situations to create simulation rules) and Romantic thinking (just do whatever feels right for the enjoyment of the game).

And like Pirsig, I think there's a way to create harmony between these two camps.
[stashes pretentious garb - for now]

I'm going to start with two questions, and see where those lead me: What are rules (in RPGs)? and What are rules for (in RPGs)?

What are rules?

In the context of RPGs, what do we mean by rules? Is everything in the AD&D Players' Handbook (for example) a rule? I think possibly not.

RPG books tend to present a few different types of material, so let's look at each in turn.

Character rules
Character abilities - how strong and smart the character is, skills and so on: these are obviously rules. Without these, the character you play isn't defined.

Mechanics of a game - what dice to roll, numbers to add, targets to beat, etc - especially where these are the mechanics for conflict resolution (can you hit the monster with your sword? can you climb over the wall and escape? can you argue your way past the palace guard?): clearly these are rules.

Species (human, vampire, elf, vulcan, etc) - the playable species (specieses?) of the game also forms part of the rules. Some games may present rules for creating new species, so that playable species are all of a similar power.
Similarly monsters and other adversaries - examples and / or rules for creation form part of the rules.

Are spells, equipment and gadgets rules? Probably, yes - they establish the power of players' characters and their tools. Again, like species, maybe the underlying systems should be put forward along with the spells, equipment etc, to explicitly show the system from which the examples are derived.

Tools, species, and adversaries are benchmarks for the power of the games elements. While most games will give examples, some will also provide rules for creation - what bonuses are appropriate for tools to provide, what are appropriate damages for weapons to deal, how tough adversaries should be, and so on.

Tables of options - like settlement population, random encounters, treasure and the like - are these rules? Maybe not...
Is it a rule of the game that settlements have certain population sizes and demographics, or is this a guide on setting, rather than a game play rule? Would you bother to ask the question about a list of random character or pub names?

Although lots of elements may appear in the rule book to help with play, not all of them are really rules - there's a lot of guidance and flavour in RPG books.

What are rules for?

As well as having my own opinions, I asked around on some RPG forums to get a sense of what other people think. It's always worth it - some people confirmed what I was thinking, but there were some gems of insight I'd never have thought of for myself.

So, in no special order, here's what rules do for us:

Fair play - rules make the game fair.

They create a system for fair interaction, including by randomisation (by Jenga tower, dice, cards or whatever) - rather than the players directly deciding the outcome of their characters' actions (GM included), there is a random element. This avoids bias, or the suspicion of bias.

Fair play also includes fair and equal access to an enjoyable experience. The player's abilities should not hold them back from having fun playing the role they want - the game rules should allow everyone to play equally.

A superspy yesterday
Just as the game rules allow weak students and office workers to play strapping tough warriors and action heroes, I think that the same attitude needs to be applied to social skills. So I may want to play a suave and seductive superspy, but I have the flirting skills of a celebate monk - and the game rules can allow me to do just that. As a player, I should be free to spout cheesy flirting and pick up lines, but my inept skill with them shouldn't override the character's skill.

Gaming the rules - we can play with the mechanics to achive our goals.

The combat rules of the d20 systems have various manoeuvres that can knock down or reposition your opponent, steal or destroy their equipment, and so on. Using these rules imaginatively can be very satisfying.
Rules must serve the style of the game, and enable players (see Fair play, above). Rules should focus attention on the important bits of the game (arguably, d20 games aim to make combat a focus of game play) - they certainly shouldn't get in the way.

Challenges - without rules, what limits you?

If we don't have any rules, can't we just declare the actions of our characters? What stops us being invincible? Can't we claim to have special armour and ignore the attacks of enemies? Can't we call on powers at will and without precedent?

Where do I stand?

Yes, I like rules - but if you come to my game, will you find me invoking the rule book? No, not really.
I prefer to run games by eyeballing the situation - using freeform instincts, within a rules set that I'm largely familiar with.

In my day job, I have a bunch of several-hundred-page safety standards that I have to refer to to test products for safety - but each of these boils down to a set of prescribed tests, built around a small set of safety principles.
Now, I know those principles very well. When I'm testing, I only need to look up the specifics of the test standard when the result is hard to call - most of the time, it's obvious whether the product meets the principles or not.

Of course, knowing the core rule concepts is vital.
Years ago, a gang of us used to do Live Action Role-Playing at the weekends, and we'd sometimes co-opt our non-RPing mates to come and make up the numbers too. One of these non-RPing guys - Jon - clouted a player character - Mike - across the legs with his sponge axe during a fight. Mike asked how much damage the axe dealt - and Jon said "Dunno - ten?"
Now 10 points of damage was a vast amount. Mike's character had 2 hit points on his legs - so Jon's hit had supposedly chopped them off completely. Basically, if the game's Ref had briefed Jon properly, he'd have known not to say "10" - Jon needed to know the ball-park area in which to make an educated guess.

So the rules are important, if only to act as a frame on which to improvise sensibly.
Like jazz [puts on the beret and roll-neck again] - an incompetent random honking on a bunch of trumpets sounds terrible, but a skilled player with an understanding of the rules can break those rules in an entertaining and exciting way.

The rules I've been palying around with inventing recently have been largely about the game setting. You see, I feel like I need to understand what is normal - long before I go deviating from it.
In storytelling, normality must be established / understood before the fantastic events take place - this creates base from which to operate, and avoids players' awkward questions.

I personally really don't like those questions - you know: "Why is XYZ not like ABC, as is normal?"

"Why is there such a long distance between towns? In Medieval Europe, there was generally less than a day's walk between villages - so why is it different here?"

"How can the Dark Lord muster an army of a million, when that'd require a support staff of double that amount? There surely aren't that many people on the continent."

"Why would anyone build a castle here? That makes no sense."

I hate being caught out like that - so I like to explore what is normal first, so I can make sure my games reflect something like reality - or so that when I chose to step away from the normal, I know that I've done so!

Then I can say: "Yes, that is odd, isn't it?"

Playing with rules

Last word from me on this topic - and the pretentiousness really piles up with this bit, I'm afraid.

Listening to Radio 4's The Infinite Monkey Cage, when presenters Brian Cox and Robin Ince were talking with maths author Alex Bellos and number theorist Vicky Neale, the love of discovering new mathematics was brought up - and it rang a big lovely bell with me. Let me paraphrase...

Making up rules is to play with quantifying the world in tables.
I'm finding the patterns, which I then use to provide a simulation.
Rules aren't made, they're waiting to be discovered and expressed.

[adjusts beret, strokes goatee]

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