Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Do You Prefer Rules or Guidelines in Your RPG?

It's a valid question, and the two may be similar, but their goals are not the same.

Rules are rigid. Professional sports have rules. Infield fly rule in MLB is just that, it's a rule that isn't open to interpretation. Nor is a foul ball. The strike zone, however, seems more like a guideline, as different umpires call different balls and strikes. Some seem more generous to the pitcher, others are more generous to the batter.

Instant replay is an attempt to remove interpretation away from making a rule decision in the heat of the moment - if it was called wrong, it can go to the replay booth, where it will be viewed from multiple angles before the call is either verified or overturned.

I prefer my RPGs to be rules-light, where rulings, not rules, set the precedent. Even the few rules present are more like guidelines, waiting for a better house rule or new interpretation to change the ruling and creating a new precident. 

For me, a game like Pathfinder, or even Dungeons &Dragons 5e, has simply too many rules getting in the way of the gameplay. In my experience, too many rules smother the roleplay and turn every action into yet another roll of the dice.

This is why I find it interesting that the Basic D&D rules from the BECMI Era, had a Dungeon Master's Rulebook, but Advanced Dungeons & Dragons had a Dungeon Master's Guide. Rules are, by definition, rigid. Guides are less so. Yet Advanced Dungeons &Dragons was supposedly the system that was going to be the ruleset of organized play at conventions so that everyone was to play with the same set of rules at each table.

My personal experience with AD&D is that the gameplay was not consistent between groups, let alone different DMs within the same group. Heck, my one and only Gen Con experience in '92, I played in an AD&D 2e Tournament, and in the two rounds I played in, initiative and surprise were ruled differently both the two DM's in question. So even at Gen Con, AD&D 2e didn't have the consistency of rules, let alone rulings.

This is why I thoroughly enjoy Swords & Wizardry in all of its incarnations. There is no attempt made to have a rule for everything, and I can expect and even embrace that the gameplay will vary from one gamemaster to the next, maybe even between campaigns from the same GM. 

Teach someone the rules, and you may create a GM. Guide someone and allow them to make the game their own, and you may create a GM that is invested in the game they run.


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  1. I'm fine with rules. I'll just change them anyway; and I haven't met a publisher yet who could actually enforce their rules in any real sense. Tailoring is inevitable...

  2. My ideal set of rules is: (a) a simple mechanic to quickly determine success or failure that is easily understood by the players and does not require much in the way of overt manipulation to interpret; and, (b) a character generation system that immediately involves the character into the setting (and more particularly sparks ideas in the players for characters they might want to play in that game) and which informs the player what the things they wrote down on the character sheet actually mean in terms of their character's expected capability.

    The rest of the rulebook should really be worked examples demonstrating to the gamemaster how to apply these ideas to the game they are running (and in doing so also suggest things that the gamemaster could do in the game/setting). Examples, not rules, and primarily directed at the gamemaster to get them into the feel of what the designer intended for the game.

  3. "They're more like Guidelines anyway." Popped straight into my head. The fact is only the uncivil need to be limited by rules. If you care to undertake some experiment where you role play without any rules, we would look forward to seeing the results of the experiment.

  4. I am an old Grognard and I see 5E as simple as B/X. If fact 5E only actually has 3-4 pages of actual rules. Now the death rate is not as high and it's definitely not as thrilling as 0 hit points you're dead and save or die every B/X combat thrilling. I second your S&W call. Especially the White box versions. It was mostly what I based my own Back to the Dungeon RPG on back a few years ago and what reinspired me to actually finish the damn thing.

  5. Fun.

    Did a rule get in the way?

    Are we going to talk about the left-handed dwarf again?

  6. Wasn't AD&D created to create a set of consistent rules for convention games because OD&D was so overly flexible. At least that's the excuse I remember, the real reason was probably to remove Dave Arneson.

  7. It helps that older editions had more modular rules, and OSR versions tend to compartmentalize as much as possible while using consolidated mechanics. This makes it easier to adjudicate to taste. For some, though, tinkering with a complex system is just as fun, and does not obscure the role play elements (and indeed, contemporary systems often provide more tools for players to work with in creating their unique and weird PCs than classic editions do).

  8. Many are starting to get back to the Free Kriegsspiel freeform style of rules like Dave Arneson and MAR Barker did in their games. Absolutely incredible stuff if you look on their Discord page!
    Come and take a look!

  9. It doesn’t really matter whether the game books have rules or guidelines... what matters is that the GM handles things consistently.

    Consistent rulings are what make up the “reality” of the game world. They give the player an idea what’s possible, and what the likelihood of an outcome is. Nothing is more frustrating as a player than being punished by a GMs lack of consistency. For example:

    Player: I want to jump that 10 foot pit.
    DM: No problem. With a running start you can keep that easily. No roll.

    1 week later...

    Player: These goblins are chasing us! I’m running back down the hallway and want to jump that 10 foot pit, stranding them on the other side!
    DM: okay, give me a dex check at half or you fall in.
    Player: ...


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