Rules, Rules, Rules


photo courtesy Daniele Muscetta

Rules. Every game has them. Some games have a lot of them, others not so much. There has always been a lot of talk about how many rules a game needs. Some prefer a lot of rules guiding every decision, others want just the bare minimum for their game. With the announcement of D&D Next there has been a resurgence in talk about rules and just how many it should have. Several of the recent conversations that have drawn my interest were whether rules are insurance against a bad DM or how rules do not protect players from bad DMs.

I think most will acknowledge that rules are needed to at least provide a common framework for a game. This framework of rules can be relatively simple for one game and work its way up to a much more complex level from there.

For me rules are there to provide a tool set for the game in question. I do not need them cover every scenario a GM is likely to encounter when running a game. I do need them to provide some guidelines on how to resolve issues the players are apt to face. These issues could be resolving combat situations, bluffing someone, trying to climb a wall or fighting off a poison. If the rules provide me some form of resolution system for these things and gives me a rough guideline for difficulty levels or appropriate target numbers I am pretty comfortable.

I readily acknowledge that rules cannot possibly provide an answer for every situation that is going to come up when my friends and I sit down to game. The books for popular games would become even more unwieldy than they are already and would still have corner cases they failed to define. Due to not being able to explicitly define every single situation one is likely to encounter I much prefer just set of guidelines. With these guidelines I now have the tools I need to apply them to any situation my players are apt to encounter.

I do not even think this necessarily boils down to a rules complex versus rules simple discussion. I tend towards the 3.x/Pathfinder rule sets these days, both of which most would agree are on the heavy side. There are numerous rules in these systems and they are on the complex side. Their combat rules are pretty well defined and it is relatively clear what one can and cannot do. The skill systems in these rule sets are also fairly complex, though for the most part they boil down to a set of guidelines for the DM to use to adjudicate skill checks that come up during the course of the game. I do not find these systems overly rigid, though they are complex frameworks.

On the other side we have lighter systems, we’ll use Dragon Age as an example. A much smaller set of rules which defines some basic encounter resolution systems. Certainly not as complex as the 3.x/Pathfinder systems, but still providing a basic framework to give a GM what they need to run a game.

I think we start running into trouble when we start asking the rules to solve problems that they simply are not suited for. One of these is trying to use the rules to protect you from a bad or abusive DM. This is not possible with rules. Gaming sessions will soon turn into a game of who can support or defend a rule’s phrasing rather than a group of people getting together to have a good time. It is as if concrete, black or white rules will protect the player from a DM’s ruling.

A bad DM is not going to be stopped by rules to maintain their power or control over the players. They can easily work within the framework of the rules to provide a less than optimal play experience. There is simply not a good way to prevent bad DMing via the rules. If you feel you need protection from the DM it might be time to find a new group.

Roleplaying games are fairly unique in the amount of interaction and unpredictable situations the party is likely to find themselves in. The dynamic nature of roleplaying games really need some trust at the table in my opinion. I want the DM to be able to make judgment calls on the fly when my character wants to try something off the wall. I do not want them to feel bound to the rules to a degree that my character can’t pull off something cool that might be flirting with the edge of the rules. Let’s work more on building trust at the table and less on trying to build a rule each and every situation one might encounter.

What do you think? Should rules provide a set of guidelines to establish a common framework at the table to play the game by or should they try to define to the letter of the law every situation?

3 thoughts on “Rules, Rules, Rules

Add yours

  1. Very well said. I think you got to the point even better than I did. And thank you for the link — always appreciated.

    I think one of the things I failed to point out in my post and you only touch on here is that this discussion is not about a DM/GM making a mistake at the table, or the occasional bad ruling. It is also not about whether or not rules are necessary at some level and whether they support a “new” DM/GM. Making mistakes at the table is part of the learning process for a GM and players are part of the good-game-equation.

    I think the point is that a willfully bad GM is going to be a willfully bad GM no matter what rule set they are using. And I really think the only way to be a bad GM for any length of time is to be willfully bad. That Bad GM might not see themselves as a bad GM and may hide behind the rules themselves, but not respecting your players, and being on the wrong side of the Wheaton rule is pretty much my definition of being a bad GM.


    1. I certainly agree with you that mistakes will happen at the gaming table or even bad rulings. It happens, we are all human. Even DMs I have full respect for sometimes make a bad call.

      We’ve talked a lot about GMs being able to work within the rulesets and still be an abusive DM, but this also exists for problem players too. Players that want to force a DMs decision by using the letter of the rules to do so. I think in the end I think the rules exist to provide us a framework to work with. These rules can easily be abused by both player and DM alike, but that isn’t the rules fault for such actions.

      Thanks for the comment!


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