Tuesday, September 23, 2014

How much rules are enough.

I am approaching my thirty-fifth year with the hobby of tabletop roleplaying, having started in the fall of 1978 with being killed by a bunch of skeletons in the Porttown dungeon found in the Holmes Blue Book of D&D. Interestingly enough I can't remember the first game I dungeon mastered.

+Peter V. Dell'Orto and +Douglas Cole  posted articles about role of mechanics in RPGs.

This quote from Peter's post bears looking at
It repeated something I hear a lot - in old school DnD, you can attempt anything.  
 This is true, but the way I see it, the sentence should be, "in tabletop RPGs, you can attempt anything." It's not a rule set benefit,
I very much agree with this statement. However it party of a larger truth about tabletop roleplaying games. They are not games, they are an experience.

Bear with me on this. Lets take SPI's Freedom in the Galaxy versus WEG's Star Wars the Roleplaying Game. They are both about the same thing, rebels liberating the galaxy from an evil empire. They both feature individual characters and mechanics to resolve their actions. They both feature a grand strategy level of fleets clashing.

So why is Freedom in the Galaxy a wargame and Star War the Roleplaying Game a tabletop roleplaying game?

Because you play Freedom in the Galaxy, and you experience Star Wars the Roleplaying Game.

When you read Jon Peterson's Playing at the World and Kent David Kelly's Hawk & Moor on thing that leaps out is how much of the Blackmoor mechanics were evolution of what wargamers in the upper Midwest were doing. Initially Blackmoor was a medieval themed version of what was being done with Wesely's Braustein and Diplomacy-Napoleanic mashups campaign that were being run at the time.

What set Blackmoor apart that campaign rapidly became about the experience of being in Blackmoor rather than playing Blackmoor as a game. Notably the Blackmoor dungeon. Even Dave didn't quite get at first as shown by the ancedotes about when the Blackmoor players were exiled to Lake Gloomy because they focused to much on the dungeon and not enough on defending the town from the players playing the bad guys.

But thankfully the Blackmoor players didn't learn their lesson and rapid development of the RPG continued unabated.

This focus on a experience is the dividing line between wargames and tabletop RPGs. Wargame mechanics are a tool to be used by tabletop referee to help them remain consistent and to make various aspects of tabletop campaign interesting notably combat and magic. But the wargame that lies at the heart of many RPGs is not the point.

For me the implication of this is that the only rule that matters is that tabletop roleplaying is about player interacting with a setting as individual characters with their actions adjudicated by a referee.

The rest is a matter of personal preference;

I use mechanics and other elements of the game because I like them or because helps make the above easier. And if none of my rules or tools cover exactly what a players wants to do, then the burden on me to come up with a ruling.

Because point of the game of the game is the experience. If the players wants his character to do something that would be able to occur if he was physically present in the setting then the attempt should be allowed.

The trick is of course is making a ruling that is accurate, fair, and consistent to how the rest of the campaign works. And sometimes that not easy.

I will close with that none of I said makes the choice of RPG mechanics any less important. You and your players need to use something that you all enjoy and will have fun with. Use rules that click for both a referee and for your players. It will be different for everybody. It will be different at different times in your life.

Remember if you are refereeing a campaign, the point is for your players to experience that campaign. Even if it means going beyond the book, if a players does something that logically would happen in that setting, find a way to make it happen that is accurate, fair, and consistent.


Holly Oats said...

I got into D&D around the tail end of the 2e era, after all the supplement bloat and just before 3e. I appreciated the all the codified rulings because they made clear the nature of the game and the role of the referee; they were examples

A few years back, I was preparing for a Kingdoms of Kalamar campaign and figured I'd put together my own PHB, mostly for the benefit of new players, so they didn't have to deal with several books and a list of house rules. Working on that got me real sick of all those codified rulings; "Any idiot could figure that out!", I'd scream

Now I have a guideline, but it's not so much about the number of rules as it is about what they contribute: give me enough that I could make a ruling I'll be happy with later, without having to make up a new mechanic or nick one from another game. 3e actually did this pretty well, but then they made rulings anyway, resulting in bloated books that are harder to use as a reference. Player choices regarding character customization often relied on these rulings as well, unfortunately


For me, the ability to attempt anything is a vital part of table top RPGs. I am not worried so much about how the hobby gets defined but that has always been the piece that sticks out in my experience and makes it so unique. In a video game, your limited to what the programming has thought of in advance (and sometimes that does a staggeringly good job of predicting behavior and adjusting to choices) but in an RPG I've always liked them because I feel like I am in someone's shoes, right there, able to do ANYTHING as if I were really there. I wouldn't go so far as to say that means this is the only way to conceive of RPGs but I would say without that it loses what pulls me into the hobby in the first place.