This post is a counterpoint to John Wick's Chess is not an RPG: the illusion of game balance.
Every since I became involved in tabletop roleplaying in 1978, there have been debates over story, game, roleplaying, and realism. As many of you know I am a long time fan of GURPS, yet in past years I been heavily involved in publishing and playing classic D&D. Now I am refereeing a D&D 5e campaign.
When I run fantasy, I use my Majestic Wilderlands setting. It started with the first edition of ADnD, moved on to Harnmaster, Fantasy Hero, ADnd 2nd, a lot of GURPS, DnD 3.X, DnD 4e, ODnD and now DnD 5e. Yet the despite the varying rules I was successful in maintaining the feel of the setting not by house ruling all of the above but by focusing on what I call the roleplaying. The fuzzy side of RPGs that many call fluff. In each system NPCs acted the same way they did in previous campaigns using different systems, the same with broader events.
All of this lead me to conclude that rules are not important in the way many think they are. If rules are not that important. What is? If rules are not important why tabletop roleplaying a game?
After I started blogging, I came more aware of the larger community of RPG hobbyists. Their likes, dislikes, and opinions. I learned a lot. As consequence of my own experience and reading a lot of other people's experience. My opinion shifted that there is a core rule behind all tabletop RPGs. One that is obscured in the What is Roleplaying? section most rulebooks have, or not written down at all.
This s a game where player act as individual characters interacting with a setting where their actions are adjudicated by a human referee.
It is my option this is the foundation on which every single RPG every made has been built on. The rest is details. Which details are used i.e. the rules most consider to be a RPG, depends on the needs of the campaign and preferences of the individual particpating
But my opinion on the fundemental rule of RPGs doesn't address why. It only talks about the how it played. You have a character, you interact with a setting, the referee tells you want happens.
What the point of it all?
Then a couple of months ago it hit me.
It about the experience. That the hook and the draw, the ability of RPGs to allow people to pretend to be in another time and place doing interesting things. RPGs make this exciting because the adjudication process makes the outcome uncertain. With uncertain outcomes events can spiral in random directions. And that interesting and fun to many.
Tabletop RPGs are games used to create experiences. It is only afterward that the stories come when you attempt to entertain or describe to other what you experienced.
The rules supply part of the details of the experience. The rest is in the setting and plans that the referee creates for his NPCs.
Accordingly the rules should focus on what the experience is to be about. Some type of experiences it doesn't matter there is a difference between a tin cup, a thumb 5.56 mm AR-15 assault rifle and a 9mm pistol. In others it matters a great deal.
The only hard and fast is understanding what you are trying to accomplish and know what your groups is interested in. The two will tell the referee what kind and amount of rules he will need for his campaign. Often there are several good options in which case the ones use should be the one that resonates the best with the referee and his group.
Last what is roleplaying? My opinion that ONLY requirement is you act as if you are really there as your character. You do not need to do funny voice (but by all means do the voices if you have fun with it). You don't have to adopt a different personality (but if that your thing go for it). You don't need an elaborate backstory (ditto). But you do need to imagine if you were standing right there in that situation and act accordingly. The rest will follow from that simple maxim.
I have players that could not act to save their life. But they still managed to enjoy the complexities of the Majestic Wilderlands because I focused on putting them in the moment. I told the most uncomfortable to imagine yourself there and act accordingly. And it works. The funny voice guy, the great actor, the combat fiend, and the guy just playing himself in plate armor can enjoy the same campaign.
Finally John Wick criticizes campaign that focus on combat. Saying (I am paraphrasing this) that they are little more than wargames focused on individual characters. Sorry to offend John's sensibilities but combat is roleplaying as well. The players are acting as they there as their characters using a detailed set of rules to resolve their actions. For those groups what they want to experience most often is a lot of beating things up and taking their stuff. Maybe it is not his type of roleplaying but it is roleplaying.
The genius of Dave Arneson's and Gary Gygax's work is that is so darn flexible. The basic structure of the game they created can encompasses the exploration of a monster filled dungeon maze, the high drama of Arthurian Britain, life in a medieval village, along with the blood and sand of the arenas of ancient Rome. It can encompass the barebones mechanics of Mircolite 20, to the complexity of GURPS with all the options on.
Focus on making the best experience possible. Pick the rules that suit that and people involved.