Thoughts on what rules are and what they're for, part 1
Lately, in the discords, people have been talking about what rules are and what they're for, and I recently came back from Big Bad Con where I played some games with some very different approaches to rules than I usually do, so I had some thoughts on the matter. I've vaguely heard that there might be some drama about this on some social media sites that I'm not on, so if you have opinions on what I have to say, you can reach me on Mastodon and Mastodon only.
What are rules?
Rules, in an RPG, have the following properties
- They are statements about an imaginary world, which everyone participating in the game agrees to treat as true (or deliberately rejects).
- They are reusable, often because they are written down, but they may also simply be remembered or conveyed verbally.
- The purpose of rules is to help the imagination, generally either by adding constraints, or by introducing new ideas, or both.
This purpose is not unique to rules: other players, including the GM, also do this. In fact, a key element of what makes something a TTRPG is that other people, and often a source of randomness, are used to help come up with new and unexpected ideas. Some of that material typically comes from rules. In the case of solo games, that is the main contribution from other people, and is what makes it a TTRPG and not writing a novel (I wrote more on solo games here.
This is, deliberately, a broader definition of a "rule" than what people usually use, because I think there are some distinctions made in the way that people use the word "rule" which are not actually helpful for thinking about TTRPGs.
I'm going to go through some examples of rules, starting from the simplest to most complex, and explain what I think they do.
- Paladins are lawful good.
- What is unique and unusual about this diner?
- First, select a name.
All of these invite you to respond, and create constraints that help creativity. All of these are also things that could be just a part of regular gameplay: what makes them rules is that I found them written down somewhere.
In prompt #1, this prompt tells you that you're playing a game about heroic knights in shining armor, probably fighting the forces of good. But you could also take this in other directions. If paladins are lawful good, what happens if you aren't lawful good any more? Are law and good absolute, and who decides them? What happens if you have a different idea of what law and good are? Who decides? Can that be changed? One sentence can spark all sorts of different ideas. Maybe you hate this so much that it inspires you to play a completely different style of game.
Prompt 2 I took, with a bit of changing, from the solo journaling game Waffles for Esther. I haven't played this yet. It's a leading question, which is great in solo journaling games. It's pretty straightforward: it's encouraging you to think of one unique and unusual thing. It's asking you a bit more, creatively speaking - solo journaling games tend to assume a bit more comfort with a blank page - but it makes it a bit easier by prompting you to focus your creativity in a specific direction.
People might disagree with me that this is a rule. However, it functionally has the same purpose as #1, it's just phrased as a question, and also it's in a game which doesn't have a lot of numbers in it.
Likewise, you might not think of Prompt 3 as a rule, but it is probably the instruction in the game you are most likely to follow.
Statements with choices
- When you create a wizard, pick one of the following spells: Set On Fire, Pull Animal Out Of Hat, Mesmerize, Levitate, See Through Walls.
- Pick a hat for your character: fedora, wizard's hat, birthday hat, jester's cap, straw hat, top hat, one of your choice.
You might have disagreed with the statements in the previous section being rules, and start agreeing with me more here. This, I think, is because the purpose of rules is to help the imagination, and these more complicated rules provide more guidance for your creativity. It's hard to start writing with a blank page, and these types of rules fill in the page a bit more.
Picking from a list suggests things that don't come into play directly and immediately, but suggests at larger possibilities. Maybe your wizard picks Set On Fire. Later you meet another wizard, and they're levitating. This is satisfying for the players when they remember the original list, and also it makes it easier for the GM to make up what spells a wizard has on the spot.
Likewise, you could come up with a list of hats on your own (I literally just did), but this list reminds you of some hats that exist. It might help you think of others, and especially for newer or less confident players, gives you permission to be a bit silly with the hats, more than "let's pick a hat, it can be literally any hat" might. Other lists might set different tones - for instance, a list of hats from the 1920s might help set a 1920s type of tone and save you from having to go on wikipedia.
- Roll a six sided die. On a 6, you succeed. On a 4 or 5, you succeed, but with a complication. On a 1-3, you fail.
- Close your eyes and open a technical to a random page. Pick the first word you see. Do this three times, and use these words to describe a space station.
- The trap deals 1d10 fire damage.
These allow everyone at the table to be surprised, including the GM, if there is one, which makes this type of rule very popular. For this reason, a lot of games have a mechanic that allows you to randomly decide more or less arbitrary outcomes, whether it's rolling a dice and comparing to a number, rolling several dice and looking at what's on the die, or various other mechanisms.
More open ended prompts nudge your mind in various directions, and I've seen prompt generation methods in everything from solo journaling games to OSR games. Random prompts around a theme can make it easier for your imagination to start going in the right direction. For instance, I tried #2 with a rice cooker manual and got "clogged, steam, adjust", all words that are easy to use when imagining a space station. I also tried with a book of poetry, and got "worth, water, body", which is still usable and quite interesting, but might take a bit more thinking to work with.
The trap that does 1d10 fire damage also allows for surprise. In one type of game, the GM could simply decide that running through fire hurts, but your character has a lot of experience being nimble from the previous job, so it's not serious. In another type of game, the players might decide that the story is most dramatic if everyone makes it through fine except for the last person. If you roll for damage, though, there's suspense for everyone. Will you nimbly dodge through and take 1 damage, or get fully blasted and take 10? All these three options can be fun, but a lot of people find the third one easier to play.
At this point it's probably less controversial that these are rules, but actually I've used random prompts as a writing exercise outside the context of TTRPGs. It's probably because rolling dice is closely associated with rules in board games and gambling games. "Things that resemble playing a board game" is a possible way to use the word "rule" in ttrpgs, but that isn't a definition that I personally find useful.
Adding more words to your rules
- If the players go carefully down the hallway, they will spot and avoid the traps. Otherwise, they will take 1d10 damage.
- Look at your Strength score. Roll 1d20. If you roll under your Strength score, you succeed.
- Roll all your remaining dice. If no die turns up a six, extinguish a candle and refer to the next section.
Sometimes, people consider #1 fundamentally different from #2 and #3, maybe because you are expected to apply rule #2 and #3 repeatedly and rule #1 once per table, or because everyone at the table is expected to know about #2 and #3, but #1 is for the GM's eyes only. Or maybe it's because #2 and #3 more often come in standalone books, but #1 sometimes comes in a book where you also refer to other books to understand how to use it.
This might be a useful distinction to make, or it might not, but I think this distinction is taken for granted more often than it needs to be. I don't think making games and making adventures are that fundamentally different. There are some practical differences. For instance, game systems might need more rounds of playtesting. But if you start thinking about other types of games, like solo journaling games, games meant to be played once, games you end up playing just once in a one-shot, etc then the distinction gets blurrier.
There's a sort of a game people play where they argue about what is and is not a sandwich. It annoys me sometimes, because obviously there is no objective truth: "sandwich" is just a useful word that makes it easier to make food or buy lunch and know roughly waht you're getting. A sandwich is what everyone agrees a sandwich to be.
Similarly, a RPG is something where you can go to a game store, or an Internet forum, or search for online, or talk about with your friends, and you all kind of agree that you're talking about the same thing, and that word is useful to find what you're looking for.
In that case, why am I being so particular abut the definition of a "rule"? My point isn't that other people's definitions are wrong. I'm asking instead if your definitions are helpful. Are you using them as a wall to separate things you like from things you don't like? Or is it the other way around - to demarcate things that intimidate you, where you feel like you need to ask for help? These aren't wrong answers, but it's worth thinking about.